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Where to Watch: #2 Houston vs. #1 Baylor - Saturday, 5:14 p.m. EST on CBS (@ Lucas Oil Stadium)
The Game Odds (DraftKings Sportsbook): Houston +5; +185 ML; O/U 134
Futures Market: Houston +750 to win the national title
Did you know? On Saturday history will be made as two Texas colleges will face off in the Final Four. This will be Houston’s first trip back to the Final Four in 37 years since the Phi Slama Jama days when Hakeem Olajuwon’s Coogs fell to Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas in the final back in 1984. The Baylor Bears, on the other hand, will be returning to the Final Four for the first time in 71 years after having reached the Elite Eight in both 2010 and 2012. A lot has been made of the path that the University of Houston has had to this point, and the challenge that the Cougars now face in the offense juggernaut that is Baylor. Let’s dive in and break down what exactly we should expect come Saturday in this Final Four showdown:
Making the case for Houston: In a word, the Cougars are a “dogged” bunch. Everything Houston does is gritty, tenacious and aggressive. The Cougars are the fifth best rebounding team in the nation, too. They held Oregon State to under 35% shooting in the first half of the Elite 8 and Beavers guard Ethan Thompson to just 11 points on 3-of-12 shooting when he came in averaging over 20 points per game. The Cougars also shut down Syracuse sensation Buddy Boeheim, allowing just 12 points on 3-of-13 shooting when he came in averaging more than 28 points a game in the NCAA Tournament. Houston holds the nation’s best opponent shooting defense as well, allowing 43.3% goals from the field and the eighth best adjusted defensive efficiency. Every shot has a hand in the opposing shooter’s face, and with every opposing dribble a white and red jersey seems to be hovering. This team does not let its opponents seemingly do anything uncontested. On the rebounding side, the Cougars also stay in games with their second chance shots.
Houston has averaged 40 rebounds per game over its last three games in the tournament and 10 more boards per game than Baylor. The Cougars also have 62 offensive rebounds in four games compared to Baylor's 45, and this is going to be absolutely vital in attempting to slow the backcourt offense generated by the Bears' Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell. Baylor also boasts the best three-point sharp shooters in the country, and the Cougars will have to continue their trend of shutting down playmakers in crunch time to keep pace with the third most efficient offense in college basketball. Tempo will also play a key factor in this matchup, because while Baylor plays slow (186th), Houston plays even slower (328th). This is crucial for the Cougars to hang around, as the more possessions in the game, the more opportunities there are for the Bears to build a lead. A suffocating halfcourt defense, slowing down the tempo and second-chance points will all help the Cougars keep things within single digits here.
Making the case against Houston: How about some more history? U of H is the first school in NCAA Tournament history to face four double-digit seeds en route to making the Final Four. Obviously you have to play who is in front of you, but the fact of the matter is that Houston had the easiest road by far of the other three teams in the national semifinals. Speaking of lower-level competition, no one is going to confuse the level of play in the American Athletic Conference with that of the Big 12 Conference. Baylor has played twelve Top 30 teams (net) to Houston’s two, with the Bears' losses coming to Kansas and Oregon State (both tournament teams). Houston’s losses, on the other hand, were to Eastern Carolina, Wichita State and Tulsa. Houston has not seen anything this season close to the offense and athletes that Baylor carries in its backcourt, especially with First Team All-American Jared Butler. Houston’s DeJon Jurreau was the AAC Defensive Player of the Year, sure, but Butler isn’t Boeheim or Thompson.
How Houston matches up with Baylor: The plain fact here is that Houston does not have enough elite defenders to cover the number of elite, interchangeable shooters Baylor has on the court (six of them shoot at least 38% from three. The Cougars also suffer from cold streaks themselves, going 30% from two versus Oregon State and 34.4% from the three-point line. Against Syracuse they also shot 26.9% from three, then 36.4% from three and 37.8% from two versus Rutgers before that. Baylor in this tournament is shooting 10 points better from the field and five points better from three than Houston, which translates to a +9 point differential. The bench is also a major advantage for Baylor, as Adam Flagler, Mathew Mayer and Jonathon Tchatchoua have combined for at least 25 points in each tournament game. Each one of those guys might be a starter for Houston. Baylor blew away Wisconsin (#9 seed), Villanova (#5) and Arkansas (#2) with little doubt, while Houston "should've lost" to #10 Rutgers and allowed #12 Oregon State to come back after being down 17 points. A lack of competition in the regular season and inability to cover Baylor’s playmakers could be a recipe for the Bears to win this one convincingly come Saturday.
Best Value Bet: First Half Under 62.5 Points
While I believe Baylor will come out guns blazing with a high tempo on offense, I do not expect the Bears to be necessarily all that accurate (remember their first half dud against Villanova?). Nerves are to be considered when the lights are brightest, and neither of these squads and their respectively players up and down on the roster have made it anywhere near this level in the past. The Cougars, on the other side, will be surely aggressive on defense, but possibly "too aggressive." Although Houston already averages 18 fouls per game (the fifth worst offenders in all of college basketball), Baylor actually doesn’t get to the line all that much and is a slightly below-average free throw shooting team when it does (70.1%). I expect both teams to settle down in the second half, however, and that's where I'll be looking at the over. For now though, I lean under 62.5 points in the first half due, to the many reasons mentioned above. With the one constant here being Houston’s tenacity on defense, I also look for Baylor to want to shoot over the Cougars' heads from the outside and make points in transition. But as long as the Bears aren't shooting 53% from three-point land (like they did in the Elite 8 vs. Arkansas) and Houston limits the game to around 70-80 possessions (with at least 40 boards), then Kelvin Sampon's bunch should be able keep it close.