It’s a bittersweet time of the year for the diehard college basketball fans. We have patiently waited through the regular season for the glorious month-long flood that is March Madness. Don’t get me wrong, I love the NCAA basketball regular season because the games still have meaning unlike the professional counterpart. But only the UNC-Duke rivalry games can make me go from six to midnight like March Madness does. Alas, all good things must come to an end. By Monday April 2nd the college basketball season will come to an end and of the 68 teams that started this journey, only one will remain standing to be crowned champion. Below is my rundown of this year’s Final Four teams.
South Carolina – This year’s blue collar Cinderella
I heard a stat earlier that of the 18.9 million some brackets that were filled out on ESPN’s bracket challenge only 652 had the correct Final Four. That is .003% of the brackets and honestly that still seems high. Because if you were going to tell me at the beginning of the tournament that an SEC team not named Kentucky would make the Final Four, I would have laughed in your face and said bullshit. If you then had the audacity to look me in the eye and tell me South Carolina was going to make it to the Final Four, well I would have done two things. First, I would have asked you to name your stakes and gladly would have taken that bet. Next I would have tried to figure out if you thought this was a football bracket or were just navigationally challenged and the terms north/south confused you. Luckily for me and my savings account, I did not run across any of the 652 mad geniuses/directionally impaired idiots who predicted the Gamecocks would make it to their first Final Four ever.
So this year’s Cinderella isn’t your typical mid-major dancer like George Mason, VCU or Butler. For one thing this Cinderella is a Cinderfella with a big ole GameCock. They aren’t looking for the media to slide a glass slipper on their foot but instead kick you in the teeth with a steel-toed boot. And by steel-toed boot I mean their tenacious defense. Frank Martin’s club ranks in the top 10 in turnover margin and forced turnovers, while also only allowing 65 points per game. Now for casual basketball fans, the general consensus is that high scoring basketball games are typically more entertaining than a defensive slugfest. But this USC team makes defense fun to watch. Frank Martin has this team believing that the ball belongs to USC and that the other team shouldn’t even be allowed to look at their ball. South Carolina is averaging over 16 forced turnovers per game in the tournament. Turnovers lead to easy transition buckets, and the guards for South Carolina have the physicality and speed to dominate in the open court. I believed this team could pull off an upset in the 2nd round over Duke (I have the bracket and the time stamped rough draft to prove it). But I never predicted a Final Four run. However, this team didn’t get here by accident. I mentioned the defense, but they wouldn’t have made it this far without the SEC Player of the Year, Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell is averaging 25 points a game in the tourney and is doing his best Kemba Walker impersonation. But can it last against Gonzaga?
Gonzaga – Do you believe in them yet?
For the past 19 years Gonzaga has made the NCAA tournament. But this year, Mark Few finally can toss his Final Four v-card in the trash. Because, just like the awkward freshman at the college basement party, if you dance with enough girls you are bound to get lucky once. Unlike your freshman roommate, who was lucky enough to be the beer-goggle-induced mistake some poor girl will always regret, this year’s Bulldog squad is no one night stand. While I can’t disagree that their conference is weak, they did what they were supposed to and dominated said weak conference. Gonzaga lost one game all year long. ONE DAMN GAME. It came against BYU- who were clearly aided by the ghost of Jimmer Fredette, who a week before scored 73 points in China. So yes, they play in a weaker conference, but they handled their business all season long. They hold the top-ranked margin of victory at 22.5 points better than their opponents. The next closest in margin of victory from a power five conference was West Virginia at 14.5, who ironically had their season ended by Gonzaga. I am sorry, but I don’t care what conference you are in. These are still Division I athletes the Zags are competing against, and they wiped the floor all season long with them.
Nigel Williams Goss gives size and athleticism in a point guard that Gonzaga typically lacks. Plus, good luck moving Shrek out of the post. I mean Gonzaga has had some great post players in recent memory- a-la Kelly Olynk and Damonta Sabonis- but Przemek Karnowski is college basketball’s version of Hodor (tell me Mark Few doesn’t look like Bran as he gets carried away). Except this 7’1” 304 lbs behemoth has a mind of his own, and it’s set on a trophy, not a door. South Carolina is going to have their hands full trying to deal with his girth in the post. What makes this team a championship contender is their quality depth. It’s rare for one player to continue a hot shooting streak all the way through 3 weekends and 6 games. Kemba Walker and Carmelo Anthony certainly come to mind, but those are exceptions. Come March give me depth and experience over star power and freshman phenomes every time.
USC plays physical defense, and it works for them. However, it can also get them into foul trouble. South Carolina only has 7 players who have consistently been seeing double-digit minutes throughout the tournament. Gonzaga, on the other hand, is very deep and gets to the free throw line a lot. Their lowest amount of free throws attempted in the tourney was 18 in their opener against SDSU. Against Northwestern and West Virginia, they combined for 68 free throws! I think Mark Few attacks Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier early and often in this game to try to get them into foul trouble. Sindarius has carried this team offensively, as he has scored 31% of the team’s points in the tourney. Gonzaga is no slouch on defense though, and if they can get one of those two into foul trouble I foresee USC’s offense becoming stagnant in a hurry.
Oregon – The Ducks
There is an east coast sports bias in media that just can’t be denied. And like Tony Kornheiser, I just cannot stay up until 1am to watch PAC-12 basketball because unfortunately Outta Bounds isn’t paying the bills (yet). So while I am sure my contemporaries in the sports journalism world haven’t said it, I would like to start… I am sorry Oregon. I didn’t watch one of your regular season games all year. I knew very little about your team other than what little I read and remembered from last year, which is: Dillon Brooks is clutch. Well, news flash to the rest of the East Coast: Oregon is for real and Dillon Brooks, while still clutch, is the third best player on this team. And that is terrifying to me as a UNC fan.
Dana Altman is a great coach who can adapt his defensive scheme not just game to game, but mid-game. Oregon will run man-to-man, zone defense, and then a switching man-to-man, a defense that essentially looks like a zone defense. Most college coaches will run man-to-man defense with the occasional zone defense when they are getting beat inside and want to force outside jumpers. One of the reasons Oregon can pull this off is because of Jordan Bell and his ability to lock down the paint. Bell has been compared to Draymond Green, and his play in the tournament has backed it up. The 6-9 forward has had at least 12 rebounds in every game of the tournament so far and is blocking everything that comes down low. He almost had a triple double against Kansas with 8 blocks in the game. Yes, the very same Kansas everybody was ready to hand the championship to after watching them annihilate Purdue in the Sweet 16. But as good as Dillon and Bell are, the hottest player for the Ducks is Tyler Dorsey. Since we are making Golden State analogies… if Jordan Bell is the college version of Draymond Green, then Tyler Dorsey is this tournament’s college version of Steph Curry. Now before the readers roast me or tell me I am about as sane as Lavar Ball check the numbers. 50%, 81%, 70%, and 60%. That is what Tyler Dorsey has shot from beyond the arc throughout the tournament. He is shooting an absurd 17 of 26 from 3-point land and went 6-10 from 3 against Kansas last game. I know we are only looking at a 4 game sampling here, but his season average is 42% from 3 so I think it’s safe to say he is a great shooter who has been given the green light in March. With a coach who is well-versed in defense and with what they have going offensively, Oregon is the complete package. I believe the winner of this game goes on to win the Championship- and that is not just me hedging my bets as a UNC fan.
UNC – The Final Blue Blood Left Standing
Luke Maye hits a game winning 19-footer to send UNC to the Final Four. Those are words I never thought I would be writing when the season started. When I saw the notification on my phone two years ago that the Tar Heels signed Luke Maye, I was stunned because I had no idea who he was. So naturally I went to check out his high school highlight reel… this was what I found:
I can honestly say before Luke, I had never watched a highlight reel where the first minute was strictly a player pulling down… scratch that because “pulling down” sounds athletic– grabbing rebounds. And I certainly didn’t expect to see that on a UNC commit’s highlight reel. Hell, Roy didn’t even think he was going to be good and told the reporters “I wanted him to walk on.”
Well Luke Maye didn’t just hit the game winner, he also won MVP of the region after he put up 33 points and 15 rebounds against Butler and Kentucky this weekend. And to top it all off, the kid showed up to his 8am Monday class which honestly might be the most impressive part of it all.
But enough fanboy gushing about Luke.
UNC returns to the Final Four for its second straight year and extends its NCAA record lead of most Final Four appearances to 20. They have top-level talent, depth, experience, and a head coach who has won it all before…twice. The Tar Heels have unfinished business after last year’s heart breaking loss. They lost two crucial players in Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, but they might have actually gotten better thanks in large part to Justin Jackson’s improved 3-point shooting. Justin spent all summer working on his jumper, and it shows. At 6-8 small he creates mismatches on both ends of the court for the guards who get matched up against him. Justin’s offensive growth and consistency this year earned him his All-American title. But the only way this team can win is if Joel Berry is playing well. Roy Williams’ run and gun offense works best when he has a fast point guard pushing the ball up the court, regardless of whether it is off a miss or a made basket. Roy’s two national championships have certainly featured dominant big men with Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough, but it was Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson who made those offenses hum. Joel Berry rolled his ankle in the opening round of the tournament and almost lost to Arkansas the next game because he wasn’t finishing off slashing drives like he normally does (2 of 13 from the field). The formula for UNC to win is simple. UNC is bigger, faster, and deeper than most teams in this tournament, so they force you to play at their speed. Joel Berry has to be healthy and playing well to get them there.
The winner of this game is the team that can establish the tempo of the game. Oregon wants to set up their offense and their defensive schemes, while the Heels want to run the whole time. I believe Berry’s ankle will be healthy and that he will push the ball to get easy looks for the Heels in transition. Additionally, the Heels present size that Oregon hasn’t faced so far in the tournament. Jordan Bell has played like a stud in the post, but he is one man going against the number 1 ranked team in offensive rebounding and a very talented 4 man front court rotation. The Heels are on a war path for redemption. When you have a rebound highlight reel/walk-on hitting game winners against NBA lottery picks, you really start to believe that the ceiling is the roof for this team. Heels over Ducks.