UCLA, USC Underdogs As They Seek Final Four Berths

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - UCLA and USC will both seek berths in the NCAA men's basketball tournament's Final Four today, the first time that has happened.

The 11th-seeded Bruins (21-9) will face top-seeded Michigan (23-4) in the East Regional final at 6:57 p.m. PDT. The sixth-seeded Trojans (25-7) will face top-seeded Gonzaga (29-0) in the West Regional final at 4:15 p.m. Both games will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis but on different courts and be televised by TBS.

“We believe we can beat anybody,'' USC senior guard Isaiah White said after scoring a team-high 22 points in an 82-68 victory over seventh-seeded Oregon in a West Region semifinal Sunday, advancing the Trojans to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2001.

This is the fourth time USC has reached the Elite Eight, including in 1940, when the tournament consisted of eight teams. The Trojans reached the Final Four in 1940 and 1954.

Oddsmakers have made the Trojans an 8 1/2-point underdog. The ABC News-owned data prediction website FiveThirtyEight gives USC a 25% chance of winning.

The Bruins are 6 1/2-point underdogs. FiveThirtyEight gives UCLA a 38% chance of winning.

UCLA upset second-seeded Alabama, 88-78, in overtime in a East Regional semifinal Sunday to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008 and 22nd time in school history. The Bruins have reached the Final Four 18 times, most recently in 2008.

“It feels amazing to advance to the Elite Eight, but ... we've still got a lot of work to do,'' UCLA guard-forward Jamie Jaquez Jr. said. “What we can improve on every day, just our defense, talking more on switches because sometimes we get confused and making sure our rebounding is on point.''

This is the first time and the Trojans and Bruins have both advanced to the Elite Eight in the same season. They have both played in the NCAA Tournament 12 times. Before 1975, only one team per conference could play in the NCAA Tournament.

UCLA is seeded 44th in the 68-team field, Michigan fourth, USC 21st and Gonzaga first.

The Bruins are seeking to join Virginia Commonwealth as the only teams to go from the First Four to the Final Four. The Rams accomplished the feat in 2011 when the First Four was first held in connection with the tournament's expanded from 65 teams to 68.

Each of the lowest four seeded at-large teams are required to play in the First Four as are the four lowest automatic qualifiers.

The Wolverines are in the Elite Eight for the 15th time and first since 2018 when they reached the Final Four for the eighth time.

On Jan. 23, Michigan Athletics followed a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recommendation to pause athletic activities in all sports, due to a positive test for a COVID-19 variant. The 14-day stoppage caused the cancellation of three games and the postponement of two others. The team went 22 days without playing a game, then won its first five games after the pause.

Michigan is coached by Juwan Howard, part of the famed Fab Five, who led the Wolverines to the 1992 and 1933 Final Fours, losing in the championship game both times.

Howard played 19 seasons in the NBA and was an assistant coach with the Miami Heat for six seasons before becoming Michigan's coach in 2019.

Howard runs his program by six values -- discipline, family, all-in, accountability, trust and sacrifice. He allows players freedom to express opinions in huddles and on the floor during games and especially in practice.

The Wolverines look to play at a fast-paced, “read-and-react'' offense with several ball screen actions as the primary mainstay in their offensive sets, but they also constantly adjust to their personnel with more cutting, downhill attacks and taking the open shot at a much higher level.

Michigan primarily runs a man-to-man defense but have some zone packages.

The USC-Gonzaga game is a matchup between the nation's best shooting team -- the Bulldogs make 55.1% of their shots -- while the Trojans are fourth in field-goal percentage defense, with their opponents making 38.63% of their shots.

Gonzaga is also first in scoring, averaging 91.8 points per game, and scoring margin, 23.3 points. Only one team -- West Virginia -- has come within 10 points of the Bulldogs, losing 87-82 Dec. 2. Gonzaga's 26 consecutive victories by double digits is an NCAA Division I record.

The Bulldogs enter Tuesday's game with a school-record 33-game winning streak. They are seeking to become the eighth team to win a national championship with an undefeated record and the first since Indiana went 32-0 in the 1975-76 season.

Gonzaga is playing in the Elite Eight for the fifth time and the second consecutive tournament. Its only Final Four appearance was in 2017, when it lost to North Carolina, 71-65, in the championship game.

Photo: Getty Images

Copyright 2021, City News Service, Inc.

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