If you had this Final Four in your bracket office pool, hats off to you as you were one of 657 out of 18.9 million people entered in ESPN’s bracket challenge to do so.
Many had North Carolina penciled in as heavy favorites before the tournament began. A large number of people also had Gonzaga reaching the Final Four for the first time ever. Some probably took a chance on Oregon reaching the Final Four. Few likely had South Carolina as one of the last four teams left standing.
In the National Title game, we could get either a battle of the Carolinas or a West Coast showdown, which both would make for tremendous stories.
The Tar Heels will be in the Final Four for the 20th time in program history, the most of any school in the country. The Ducks will be making their first trip to the Final Four since 1939 when they knocked off Ohio State in the inaugural tournament. The Bulldogs and Gamecocks will be making trips to the Final Four for the first time in history.
Roy Williams has the coaching advantage of the four remaining coaches left in terms of experience. This will be his ninth trip to the Final Four, third most of any coach, while Dana Altman (Oregon), Mark Few (Gonzaga) and Frank Martin (South Carolina) will be making their first trips to the Final Four.
(1) Gonzaga vs (7) South Carolina
Gonzaga has been one of the best mid-major teams over the last two decades, making the NCAA Tournament in 19 straight seasons, winning at least one game in nine straight tournaments. Mark Few finally was able to get his team over the proverbial hump and reach the Final Four. Nigel Williams-Goss, a Washington transfer, All-American, and Wooden Award Finalist is the Bullldogs best player and he will look to put a stamp on his Player of the Year resume.
South Carolina is a team many did not believe could win a game, let alone four. Some questioned the seeding the Gamecocks got, but nonetheless, they have made the most of it by relying on their tenacious defense. They are led by SEC Player of the Year, Sindarius Thornwell, who will be a matchup problem for the Zags. He leads the tournament in scoring at 25.7 points per game. He is joined in the back court by PJ Dozier, who are a handful for any team to contain.
As good as Williams-Goss is, South Carolina presents a defense similar to West Virginia’s that gave him all sorts of problems. Gonzaga is real similar to Baylor in terms of having guards that aren’t great at creating off the dribble. South Carolina handled Baylor with ease, so that isn’t favorable for the Bulldogs.
Where Gonzaga will have the advantage is in the paint. Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams III thrive when the offense goes through them.
The biggest key to this game is the play of Thornwell. If he gets hot and Frank Martin can unleash his tenacious half-court/2-3 defense, Gonzaga could be in trouble.
Prediction: South Carolina 64 Gonzaga 56 – The Gamecocks defense combined with Thornwelll will prove to be too much for the Bulldogs.
(1) North Carolina vs (3) Oregon
North Carolina is looking to avenge last year’s heart-breaking, buzzer-beating loss to Villanova in the National Title game and have all the talent to do so. The Tar Heels will definitely have the size advantage, especially after Oregon lost defensive anchor Chris Boucher in the PAC-12 Tournament to a torn ACL.
Oregon will look to make the Tar Heels go small, something that likely won’t happen, especially when Roy Williams rarely goes to the small-ball lineups. The Ducks will have to try and get the UNC big men in foul trouble, especially Kennedy Meeks, who is a standout player down low.
The Tar Heels will look to do what they do best, that’s pushing the tempo to the max and crash the glass. Carolina is the best rebounding team in the country and boast the nation’s highest offensive rebound percentage. The Ducks will look to control the tempo and switch up their defense, much like they did to Kansas in the Elite 8.
Jordan Bell has stepped up in a big way after the loss of Boucher. Bell was named Midwest Regional MVP for his stellar play against the Jayhawks, finishing two blocks shy of a triple-double. He has four double-doubles in the Ducks previous five games and is the only player in the tournament with three.
They biggest key in this game will be the play of Joel Berry II for UNC and Tyler Dorsey for Oregon. Justin Jackson is the best offensive player for Williams, but the heart and soul of the team is Berry II. He rolled his left ankle in the first round and then his right against Kentucky in Elite 8, but if he is anywhere near 100 percent, he could give the Ducks fits.
Much like Jackson, Dillon Brooks is the best offensive player Dana Altman has at his disposal. However, Dorsey has been the man as of late. He has scored 20 or more points in all four NCAA Tournament games and all three games of the PAC-12 Tournament. He will be harassed by Theo Pinson, a 6’6” wingman who is the Tar Heels best perimeter defender.
Don’t count out Luke Maye in this matchup, the hero of the Elite 8 for the Tar Heels. He buried the game-winning jumper with 0.3 left on the clock to knock off the Wildcats. He is a versatile big man who can play in the post and knock down mid-range jumpers. What’s even more impressive about his heroics is he made it to his 8 AM class the following day and even got a round of applause.
Prediction: North Carolina 88 Oregon 78 – The size advantage will be the key for the Tar Heels to emerge victorious and go back and try and finish the job they couldn’t last year.
National Title Game Prediction: North Carolina over South Carolina.