Seven of the 15 players on the final ballot for the 2021 John R. Wooden Award will be in NCAA tournament action this weekend, with three Gonzaga Bulldogs stars (Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme) joining Baylor’s Jared Butler, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, Villanova’s Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and USC’s Evan Mobley trying to power their teams the Final Four next week in Indianapolis. With that in mind, we asked our panel of ESPN college basketball experts to weigh in on the player with the most interesting matchup — or potential matchup — in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.
Which Wooden Award finalist’s second-weekend NCAA tournament matchup or potential matchup do you find the most intriguing?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think the potential Elite Eight matchup between USC and Gonzaga would present a rare opportunity to see a pair of projected top-five draft picks matched up against each other with a trip to the Final Four on the line. It’s also an incredible showcase for both players.
Some folks were asleep as USC’s Evan Mobley earned Pac-12 Player of the Year honors and Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs put together a freshman season to earn a slot on the Associated Press All-America second team. But the potential Tuesday meeting in the Elite Eight between the two players is a pivotal pairing and a preview for what an NBA team with a high pick might get this summer when it selects one of the talents. Plus, it could be a good game, perhaps the first time Gonzaga gets pushed. You would think that a team would have to possess the ability to protect the rim and get second-chance opportunities, and USC has held opponents to a 41.4% clip inside the arc, the No. 1 mark in America, per KenPom. It’s top-15 in offensive rebounding percentage. Mobley vs. Suggs is a gigantic potential matchup.
Jalen Suggs floats and switches hands midair for the bucket to extend Gonzaga’s lead.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I think the best potential head-to-head matchup would be Mobley vs. Drew Timme in the regional final. Mobley is arguably the best defensive player in the country, and Timme is one of the best post players in college basketball on the offensive end. Timme has elite footwork and finds angles and spaces on the block, enabling him to outmaneuver his opponent in the paint and get a basket. He’s skilled, he can make face-up shots, he can pass effectively. But Mobley is unlikely anyone he’s faced all season. Mobley is long, can guard inside and out, is an elite shot-blocker and, as one coach told me, can contest two shots back-to-back better than anyone he’s seen. Gonzaga relies heavily on its ability to score in the paint and finish at the rim, but USC will really put that to the test.
In terms of Sweet 16 matchups, I’m intrigued by Hunter Dickinson going against Florida State’s slew of big men. The Seminoles are the biggest team in the country, and Leonard Hamilton will throw four or five guys at Dickinson during the course of the game. Can they wear him down?
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: I’ll take a cue from the one regional semifinal in which Wooden finalists will be meeting head-to-head and state that I’m genuinely eager to watch Jared Butler and Baylor take on Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Villanova. Butler has connected on just four of his past 19 tries from beyond the arc, but he’s been typically brilliant at just about everything else on both offense and defense. He and the Bears will likely receive their first 40-minute test from the Wildcats, who are now very much running the offense through Robinson-Earl. The sophomore totaled 40 points in his team’s two wins thus far, and his 22-11 double-double against Winthrop also included six assists and three blocks. Those who gave up on Villanova when Collin Gillespie was lost for the season were very much mistaken, because Robinson-Earl has picked up that slack. The winner of this game will be a clear threat to capture the national title.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl takes the pass from Jermaine Samuels and dunks it down as Villanova beats Winthrop.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: For me, this weekend is all about Gonzaga assuming its rightful place in the Final Four. And with T-H-R-E-E of the Wooden Award finalists on the roster, anything less would have to be considered an enormous letdown for an otherwise historic team. I’m not saying the trio of Kispert, Timme and Suggs has to complete the undefeated title tale to be remembered as all-time greats, but falling short of the last weekend — especially in a bracket devoid of its No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 seeds — would diminish the legacy of one of the very best teams of the modern era. Lose in the Final Four to excellent Michigan, Alabama or Baylor teams? It happens. Lose to merely “very good” Creighton, USC or Oregon in the regionals? Not so much. Epic first weekend drama notwithstanding, the 2020-21 season will be remembered for two things: the pandemic and how far Gonzaga got.