2017 Final Four Preview
We all knew it was coming. Every single year, the NCAA Tournament never quite unfolds the way we anticipated. If that were the case, there would be a higher frequency of perfect bracket predictions, and it wouldn’t be called “March Madness”. Regardless, on Saturday night at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, 60,000-plus fans from coast to coast will pack the house for the most intriguing pair of college basketball national semifinals in recent memory.
Who would have ever thought that three of the four teams in this year’s Final Four would consist of an SEC school not named the Kentucky Wildcats, a nationally relevant program that plays in a subpar mid-major conference, and a school traditionally known for its Nike pipeline and football program.
Those three schools, South Carolina, Gonzaga, and Oregon, are all making their first-ever Final Four appearances in 64-team tournament era. Oregon won the national title in 1939 over Ohio State, but at the time the NCAA Tournament included only eight teams. Oh, and then there’s North Carolina, the fourth member of this year’s Final Four, which will be making its Division I-leading 20th Final Four appearance. Each team has had its own unique road to Phoenix, but only one will cut down the nets on Monday night.
The first semifinal will tip off at 6:09 p.m. between the Cinderella team of the tournament in No. 7 South Carolina and a team that is still largely disputed over in No. 1 Gonzaga. If South Carolina is going to knock the ‘Zags off, it will have to do so with defense, as it has all season. They are the No. 2-ranked defensive team in the country according to the Pomeroy ratings, and they particularly excel at forcing turnovers. They may have more difficulty replicating this recipe for success against the Bulldogs, however, which is one of the best teams in the country at taking care of the ball.
South Carolina may be the least experienced team left in the field, but coach Frank Martin does not believe that will be a huge factor on Saturday: “I have always felt that experience helps to get back. Experience doesn’t help the game you’re playing…Experience helps you manage your emotions as you prepare for something, but when the game goes up everyone is nervous. I don’t care how many Final Fours you’ve played in…You’re always nervous for the next game on the schedule.”
The Gamecocks also came into the tournament as one of the worst offensive teams in the country, but they have have shown they can score against great competition in March. It all starts with the backcourt of SEC Player of the Year, Sindarius Thornwell, and PJ Dozier, who are excellent in transition. The explosive duo also generates much of their offense in the half court with their ability to make plays off the dribble. Combined with forward Chris Silva, the Gamecocks’ top offensive trio used more than 80 percent of the team’s possessions while on the court this season. If those three have big games, and if the defense continues to be stifling, South Carolina might have a little more magic in them.
Gonzaga will provide them with a new challenge that they have not faced to date. “They’re real good,” said Martin. “I’ve gotten to know [Mark Few] off the court, and he is as competitive as anyone I’ve been around…They play every play the same way. They don’t make mistakes; there’s no bad body language…we got our hands full.”
Despite the fact that Gonzaga has played poorly on offense in the tournament, they have depth at every position and are tremendously versatile on offense. Their lone quality game offensively was against Xavier in the Elite Eight, where they made twelve threes as a team, but they still struggled to score inside. Nonetheless, Nigel Williams-Goss, a second team All-American selection, is a tremendous pick and roll point guard who is their primary scorer and facilitator. Their plethora of talented frontcourt players in Jonathan Williams, Przemek Karnowski, and Zach Collins will be the most difficult unit that South Carolina will have faced in the tournament.
Gonzaga also is the top team in the nation in defensive efficiency according to the Pomeroy ratings. It allows the lowest two-point field goal percentage in the country and the fourth-lowest three-point field goal percentage. Gonzaga will definitely have the edge on paper, but Mark Few knows that South Carolina has thrived in the underdog role all tournament long, and he knows they will be a difficult matchup.
“Obviously everybody knows how good their defense is, but also offensively they’ve been very good in the tournament…Thornwell is a really hot player right now…The intensity, the physicality, the athleticism that they bring on the glass is a real concern.”
This one will likely be low scoring, as expected in a matchup between two of the best defensive teams in the country and with Gonzaga struggling offensively as of late. However, the difference in the game will be Gonzaga’s front court depth and ability to take care of the ball offensively. They will limit South Carolina’s ability to score in transition off turnovers and give the Gamecoks trouble in the half court. Despite their difficulties offensively, they have too many weapons on that end of the court and will score just enough for an opportunity to claim their first national title in program history on Monday night.
Prediction: Gonzaga 65, South Carolina 61
No. 1 North Carolina will enter Saturday night with just a 52 percent chance to beat No. 3 Oregon. The Tar Heels got all they could handle from Kentucky in the Elite Eight, until an unexpected hero in Luke Maye came to the rescue with a game-winning jumper from the wing to extend their redemption tour. Oregon, on the other hand, took down top-seeded Kansas by 14 with a combination of outstanding perimeter defense and efficient offense.
The two clubs play contrasting styles, particularly on the offensive end. When Carolina has the ball, they look to run often, as they are one of the best transition offenses in the country this season as usual. This area will be an interesting matchup to watch, as the Ducks are one of the best transition defensive teams in the country.
This game may very well be decided by how effective Joel Berry can be with his lingering ankle injuries. Regardless, it is imperative that Oregon keeps Berry and Theo Pinson out of the paint. They are terrific scoring at the rim, but their ability to get into lane and make plays for others is where they really shine.
Justin Jackson has been outstanding this season for the Tar Heels and even better in the tournament. The ACC Player of the Year and First-Team All-American selection will need to continue to make shots from the outside and be a pivotal contributor on the defensive end with his size and length. The Tar Heels have not shot the ball well from the perimeter in the tournament at 32 percent, down from 37 percent during the regular season.
This area has arguably been Oregon’s greatest strength in the tourney so far, but if Carolina can reclaim its touch from outside against the Ducks, they will be a tough out. One big area where North Carolina has a sizeable advantage over Oregon is on the glass. The Heels are the best rebounding team in the nation, while the Ducks check in among the bottom half of tournament teams on the defensive boards. Carolina’s size advantage comes in handy here. Oregon does not have much depth outside of center Jordan Bell, as a result of the season-ending knee injury to Chris Boucher, and he will have his hands full against the talented trio of Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley on the interior.
“North Carolina presents a big challenge as the number one rebounding team,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “The rebounding battle will probably be the one that decides the game. With Chris Boucher out we are undersized, so it will have to be a priority for everyone on the floor.”
Oregon relies much more on their half court offense to score through pick-and-roll sets, isolations or spot-up jump shots, and sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey has initiated much of that action. Dorsey has been the best player in the tournament so far, and he’ll have to be on his game again on Saturday. Especially when Dorsey is on, Roy Williams knows that Oregon is an extremely difficult team to defend.
“What scares me is how everybody can score. With Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, and Jordan Bell. They are so athletic and they present a lot of problems.”
Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks has taken a bit of a backseat to a torrid Dorsey during the Ducks’ tournament run, but if he can return to his regular season form on Saturday night, watch out. He could be a matchup problem on the perimeter for the Heels, who will start two bigs, one of which will have to guard Brooks on the perimeter.
As tough to guard as Oregon is offensively, their chances of knocking off their second one-seed in a row will be decided by the glass and by their transition defense. If they control these two areas of the game, they will have a really good chance. Jordan Bell will have to have another monster game down low, and Brooks and Dorsey will have to make shots from the perimeter.
This second contest will be a bit higher scoring with an abundance of offensive firepower on both sides. Oregon will be a matchup problem for Carolina on the perimeter, but the frontcourt matchup is where this one be decided, which is where the Heels have a distinct advantage. Jordan Bell will not be able to contain the talent and depth of Carolina’s frontcourt for an entire game. The Tar Heels will win the battle on the boards and rediscover their perimeter offense on their way back to the title game.
Prediction: North Carolina 75, Oregon 72
This will lead to a North Carolina-Gonzaga championship game on Monday night. These two clubs have been arguably the two best teams in college basketball all year. Both frontcourts have size, skill, and depth. The point guard matchup between Joel Berry and Nigel Williams-Goss is as good as it gets. At the end of the day though, Carolina’s Justin Jackson is the best player on the court, Gonzaga does not have anyone who will be able to match up with him. Gonzaga will slow the game down and make things difficult for the Heels in the half court, but Carolina will win the battle on the glass and make just enough shots from the outside to complete the redemption tour. North Carolina wins in a close one to secure Roy Williams his third championship and remind college basketball fans around the country that he is one of the elite coaches in college basketball.
Will Desautelle is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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Junior / Broadcast Journalism and Political Science