Doesn’t it seem like only 15 minutes has gone by since the Selection Show? This is how it is every year in what many deem as the best month in sports. What we’re left with are 4 teams with 4 unique stories.
For the Tar Heels it’s been about redemption. After last year’s devastating loss to Villanova, a group text among the returning players was named “Redemption”. From day one this team wanted to get to Phoenix to have another chance at getting Ol’ Roy his 3rd title. Lost in last year’s Kris Jenkins heroics was the guts and determination the Tar Heels showed in coming back from down 6 with 1:52 left.
This year’s team showed the same guts and determination on Saturday. After blowing a lead down the stretch, Luke Maye put himself into Chapel Hill lore with a game winning jump shot with .3 seconds left.
Despite loss of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, the Tar Heels still won the ACC regular season even though Duke was a heavy favorite to not only win the ACC but win the National Championship. Joel Berry II ankles will be the big story coming into Phoenix. He has injuries to both and he is the most irreplaceable player on the team. For the core group that came back this season, redemption won’t be easy as the Ducks come to Phoenix quacking loud.
After hearing about UCLA and Arizona all season, the Ducks are the Pac-12 reps in the Final Four. Before the season started, Oregon was thought of as an Elite Eight type of team so it isn’t incredibly shocking that they’re here. It’s how they got here.
They had to overcome a Chris Boucher torn ACL and a Kansas team playing in Kansas City. The Boucher injury was supposed to be a kiss a death. The 6’10” Boucher has range on his jumper. He cleans up mistakes at the rim. Gone was 12 points, 6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game.
How can a team survive the loss of someone this critical? These Ducks don’t waddle when they walk, they swag.
After struggling on defense prior to the Elite 8, they held the Jayhawks to 35% shooting. Offensively, they haven’t missed a beat. All world player, Dillon Brooks leads the Ducks in scoring with Tyler Dorsey right behind him. But, the Kansas game, it was Dorsey who went off and shut the door on Kansas. He went for 27 points including six 3’s in the 12 point victory. Brooks chipped in with 17 and not did Jordan Bell go for 11 and 13 but he played the ‘Boucher Rim Protector’ role to the tune of 8 blocks.
Who said college basketball still doesn’t need big men? Certainly not Oregon or Gonzaga.
The Zags had lost their “darling underdog” tag long ago as it was replaced with the “come up short in March” badge of shame. As millions started filling out their practice most had the “what game will the favored Zags blow” mentality. Well, here we are on the final weekend of the tournament and guess who is still around?
This isn’t the best Zags team of all time but time and circumstances are everything. The most glaring difference between this team and the previous ones is Nigel Williams-Goss. The Washington transfer gives the Bulldogs a top notch offensive threat from the point. The most underrated part of his game might be his rebounding. He’s averaging over 7 rebounds a game in the tournament.
After struggling against West Virginia, Williams-Goss came back with a virtuoso performance against Xavier. He poured in 23 points, 8 rebounds and more importantly, no turnovers in the 24 point victory.
The Zags also have presence in the lane with 7-1 Przemek Karnowski and Mizzou transfer, Johnathan Williams.
Gonzaga is yesterday’s “little engine that could” but never did. But, that plucky group from South Carolina, they’re a different story.
When your coach used to be a bouncer in Miami, your team is going to be physically tough. That’s what the Gamecocks have and they head into Phoenix. A physically and mentally tough team that plays an aggressive style of defense.
After their stunning upset of Duke, Coach K said “It’s the toughest defense we’ve played against all year”. Very physical, actually the most physical game we’ve been in all year…”. It was like the physical defense not only wore down the Blue Devil players but also their coach.
Their run is like a similar run made by an SEC school back in 1986. That school would be LSU who, as an 11 seed, made it to the Final Four before bowing out to the eventual National Champion Louisville Cardinals.
Sindarius Thornwell has been their unquestioned stud. The 6-5 senior leads them with 21 points and 7 rebounds a night. He tops on the team in both categories.
As much as the Duke victory will be the signature moment, we learned who the Gamecocks were the two games after that one. It would’ve been easy for South Carolina to be fat and happy after sending Duke back to Durham. But, they followed that up with a 20 point victory over Baylor and a hard fought win over Florida.
In the win over Baylor, the Bears shot a woeful 30% from the floor. Florida shot slightly better, 41.5% but most of that damage was done in the first half. The Gators were 0-14 from the 3 point line in the second half and turned the ball over 16 times for the game.
Final Four Predictions
Gonzaga vs South Carolina
Both teams are studs on defense but in different ways. The Gamecocks are very “in your face” while the Zags use great defensive principles that is more team based. It will come down to which team plays better on offense. For the South Carolina, they will have to make it a very ‘ugly’ game. They will need for their physical defense not only to cause turnovers but to cause live ball turnovers that directly lead to easy baskets.
The problem is, Gonzaga has already played that type of game in the tournament and won (vs West Virginia). Look for the Zags to explode on offense in the second half of this one. The minute South Carolina struggles on offense the Bulldogs will explode offensively with their three point shooting and transition offense. South Carolina wasn’t a good offensive team during the regular season and it will rear its head in this one.
North Carolina vs Oregon
A lot of what the Tar Heels do depends on Joel Berry II and at the time of this article, the status of his ankle is still up in the air. No doubt he plays but UNC will need him to be on point if they want to beat the Ducks. There is talk that Oregon hasn’t played against a team that has the skill and length of UNC but there’s a flip side. The Tar Heels haven’t played against a rim protecting team as good as Oregon.
Both teams want the quick pace. North Carolina will try to use their depth in the first half, similar to the way they used it against Kentucky. But, unlike it that game, the Tar Heels cannot afford to have Pinson in foul trouble and Britt playing heavy minutes. The Tar Heels have also suffered long offensive droughts during the tournament. The type of drought that killed Kansas in their game versus Oregon.
Keep an eye on rebounds and turnovers and North Carolina’s three point shooting. In the end the fans will get what they are looking for. A high pace, high level game.
North Carolina 79-78
Marcus “Mook” Washington is the host of Making The Cut. Follow Mook on Twitter: @mtcwithmook and IG: MTCWithMook