We are down to just 4 teams and likely many brackets have been busted with at least 2 of the teams we still have remaining. It’s always fun to have a Cinderella-type team make a run and we have that in the South Carolina Gamecocks. Their defense has been nothing short of spectacular and will be a tough out Saturday and perhaps beyond. Head Coach Mark Few has finally gotten over the hump and made it to the Final Four with his Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Oregon has been solid in the tough Pac-12 and has rode that momentum right into the Final Four. Finally, the one team with true Final Four experience is the UNC Tar Heels and they return to the final weekend again this year with unfinished business to attend to after losing to Villanova in the final last season. This is your last chance to make some dough in the NCAA so let’s get to it.
The Gonzaga program and Mark Few have been looking towards this game for a decade and they have finally made it. They dropped their last game of the regular season in the WCC and it’s been their only loss of the year. They are well rounded and deep on both sides of the ball and ready to make history as a Mid-Major. While this is the first Final Four for the Gamecocks and they too are ready to make history. They have one of the most prolific scorers in Sindarius Thornwell and have had shut down defense this entire tournament.
The Bulldogs are always the underdog when they head to the NCAA Tournament. The reason is they don’t have much competition in the WCC that they can use to prove they are a legit contender. This season they played a tough out-of-conference schedule including wins over tournament teams Arizona, Florida and Iowa State. They spent time at as the number 1 team in the country and if it wasn’t for a loss against BYU in their regular season finale they would have finished the season there. They didn’t start the tournament looking like the number 1 team they were billed as. They did dumb number 16 San Diego State by 20 but that score didn’t reflect the true closeness of the game. Then came a blown lead against Northwestern in the second half late before the pulled away 79-73. They struggled again, this time against the press defense of West Virginia sneaking out a 3-point victory. However, they looked great against Xavier in the Elite 8. They solid on both sides of the ball led by Nigel Williams-Goss’ 23 points and held the Musketeers under 36% shooting. That’s the performance they will look to repeat against South Carolina.
The Gamecocks came flying out of the gate and started SEC play on a tear. However, they limped to the regular season finish line losing 6 of their last 9 and dropping out of the AP Top-25. Something clicked however when they arrived at the NCAA tournament. Their defense has been most impressive especially in their last two games. Against the Baylor Bears they held their opponent to an amazing 30.4% shooting from the floor and just 50 points. Then they held the Gators to 41.7% shooting in the Elite 8. This isn’t a complete surprise as they had a 31st ranked defense in the regular season holding opponents under 65 points a night. What is more surprising is their offense. They dropped 93 against Marquette in the opening round and then 88 against number 2 Duke for the big 88-81 upset that included 65 second half points. Considering they averaged just 73.2 points per night this has certainly been a nice uptick for South Carolina. If they get this sort of production in the Final Four and keep their defense clicking they are a force to be reckoned with.
The advantage here falls with the Bulldogs. They have a lot more threats on offense and have the ability to put up big numbers on any defense. Having said that in their 4 tournament games they have yet to surpass the 83.2 points per game they averaged in the regular season. The focus will be junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss. He is the engine that runs the Bulldogs offense and when he penetrates and distributes is as good as they come. Hard to fault the South Carolina offense in the tourney but they don’t have a lot of depth. Sindarius Thornwell has had 24 or more points in all 4 games and will be the key to the Gamecocks offense. However, it’s been that way all season and he has proven he’s up to the task.
Both of these teams are solid on the defensive side of the ball. Gonzaga had given up just 60.9 points a night good for 5th in the country in the regular season and have been just as good in the tourney. Opponents have scored just 46, 73, 58 and 59 in their first 4 games as they have controlled the paint very well. The defensive performance by South Carolina against Baylor may have been the best of the tourney. They swarmed the Bears on every possession and forced them into difficult situations and bad shots. That was obvious by Baylor’s poultry shooting percentage.
South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell vs. Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski
The performance Thornwell has put up this tournament has been nothing short of spectacular. He’s averaged an amazing 25.8 points per game and has definitely been one of the top performers at the tournament. He’s also a force on the glass averaging 7.5 per game in the tournament. Karnowski will be by far the biggest player on the court. Listed a t 7-1 300 lbs his job will be to control the paint and keep Thornwell from easy buckets at the basket. He also can add some offense and Williams-Goss will look to get him the ball for quick hitters down-low.
There’s a lot to like about the Gonzaga Bulldogs. They have been one of the best teams all season and they are so well coached. Even the argument that they haven’t been challenged enough in close games can be thrown away as they have got it done here in the tournament when pressed late. However, it’s always tough to give away 7 points in a Final Four regardless of how low a seed makes it. The run the Gamecocks are on is spectacular and they have disposed of quality opponents right from the first round. I think it’s low-scoring and close.
With all of the “one and dones” and changing of power in the NCAA it isn’t often you can find yourself in back-to-back Final Fours. That is however, exactly where the Tar Heels find themselves in 2017. UNC fell short in one of the wildest finishes in recent NCAA history last season but will get a chance to avenge that loss starting against Oregon Saturday. They are big and long and dominate on the boards and have certainly looked solid through their first four games in the tournament. Meanwhile, the Ducks are in the Final Four for the first time since winning the inaugural tournament way back in 1939. They have been game all season long playing in a solid Pac-12 conference and boast tons of experience in their lineup.
North Carolina has been a powerhouse all season long. They won the ACC regular season title which was the best conference this year. They did fall in the ACC tournament but that was to a solid Duke squad that they had beaten earlier in the year. What’s scariest about this team has to be their experience. They have one of the best coaches in the game in Roy Williams. He leads a team littered with Senior’s and Junior’s all who know what it takes to make it to an NCAA final. They ran through their first 3 games, first putting up 103 points on Texas Southern then beating Arkansas but just 7 points but were never really in any danger. Same went for Butler when they dropped 92 points and won by 12. Their most impressive game however, was their win over a young Kentucky team. Obviously, we remember Luke Maye’s game winner with 0.3 seconds to go but it was Kennedy Meeks who was most impressive. The big-man had just 7 points but a massive 17 rebounds in the Elite 8. UNC has been number one all year in rebounds per game with 43.7 per night. They also average a +13 over their opponents throughout the year. If they continue to have that many second chance opportunities then there is a great chance they will take one more step in 2017.
Like UNC Oregon is also an experienced team. They made it to the Elite 8 last season and also have lots of seniors to depend on Saturday. The Ducks have been consistent all season dropping just 5 games and that was after dropping 2 of their first 4 games. They had a pair of close wins against #7 Michigan and comeback win over #11 Rhode Island. However, their performance against Kansas in the Elite 8 was nothing short of dominant. They held Wooden Award winner Frank Mason III to 21 points and more impressively 8-20 shooting. Kansas as a whole shot just 35% from the field. That went with a super-efficient night on offense shooting 50.9% from the field and 44% from beyond the arc. They’ll need a similar performance on both sides of the ball if they plan on upsetting the Tar Heels. What’s most surprising is they have done this all without 6-10 senior Chris Boucher who was a dominant rim-protector in the Pac-12. They have lost him to injury for the rest on the season. I would imagine playing UCLA and Arizona this season has prepared the Ducks for the test in front of them Saturday but it is the farthest this group has gone in the tournament and the pressure will be ratcheted up in Phoenix.
From an offensive perspective, this should be a fun night. Both teams have effective offenses and big-game players that can pile up points on any night. The advantage goes to UNC and its 9th ranked offense who put up 85 points a game in the regular season. That is buoyed by the rebounding that gives them so many extra possessions. The Ducks average just under 79 points a night and other than their 93 against #14 Iona they haven’t had more than 75 in a tournament game in 2017. They do have an intimidating duo of Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey that can give any team fits.
Oregon is by far the better team on this side of the ball. Allowing just 65.5 points a game was good enough for 36th in the country and that was in the high scoring Pac-12. As mentioned they did a tremendous job shutting down Mason III last time out and will have a solid game plan for the likes of Jackson and Meeks. Don’t sleep on UNC either though. They were able to shutdown freshmen De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk in the Elite 8. The two possible lottery picks had 13 and 12 points respectively. If the Tar Heels can do the same against Brooks and Dorsey they may run away with this one.
Oregon’s Dillon Brooks vs. North Carolina’s Justin Jackson
These two have tons of tournament experience, Brooks a senior and Jackson a junior and both have played like they have had unfinished business to take care of all season. Add that the fact they were both Player of the Years in their conferences and you can see why the balance of this game may lie in their hands. In the Elite 8 they had 17 and 19 respectively and are solid contributors each night.
If Boucher as in this game it may have been a pick em’ in my books. Even still Oregon is deep enough to run with UNC and they have the experience to get it done. If the rebounding differential is in the double digits for the Tar Heels I think the win by double digits. However, Oregon are no slouches on the board and I think they hang tough and maybe even win it outright.
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