At the start of the college basketball season, teams like Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas were projected to be three of the four teams to make it to the Final Four. Due to their strong freshmen classes, those teams were seen as head and shoulders above the rest.
However, what have have now are three unlikely teams in South Carolina, Oregon, and Gonzaga and one traditional powerhouse in North Carolina still standing in the tournament. We will look at the two Final Four match ups and discuss the keys for each team to advance to the NCAA Championship.
(7) South Carolina vs. (1) Gonzaga
Keys for South Carolina to make it the Championship: Fun fact. Before the season started, South Carolina was not even ranked in the top 65 AP pre-season poll. Thanks to their unmatched toughness and stifling defense, they find themselves a game away from a trip to the school’s first National Championship.
Being the smallest and statistically the worst offensive team remaining in the tourney, USC will need to rely heavily on defense as they have done this whole March. Head Coach Frank Martin has had his squad performing on a high level every game, but that play will need to go up a notch. Yes, USC did defeat the Eastern regional favorites Duke (and Villanova was knocked as well), but Gonzaga will be a whole other monster.
Seeing as Sindarius Thornwell is their first, second, third, fourth, and fifth option on offense he will need to outplay the Zags guards. USC will need to win (or keep it close) the rebounding margin and limit the second chance points.
USC has retired all of their opponents thus far, however this one may be it’s greatest test.
Keys for Gonzaga to make the Championship: Gonzaga has had the easiest road to the Final Four out of all the teams remaining. South Dakota St. was a 16 seed, Northwestern was in their first ever March Madness (and was undersized), both West Virginia and Xavier are great defensive teams, but are less than great on offense. Even with the easier road, the Zags have still had their struggles. It took a miss from Northwestern, a clutch three against West Virginia, and two blowouts against lackluster teams to make it this far.
One aspect of the Zags that is unmatched is their size at every position. Against the Gamecocks, Gonzaga is going to have to impose their will on both ends of the floor and try to wear out USC. We could look at big men Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins as being the key factors to this game, however it is guard Nigel Williams-Goss who holds that crown. Not only has his defense been seemingly perfect at times, he has provided much needed scoring for his team in the last three games. With USC’s guards being undersized, William-Goss will need to get in the paint (and to the foul line) as much as possible.
Gonzaga should, on paper, win this game easily, but as we all know, crazy things seem to happen in March!
Prediction: Gonzaga over South Carolina 88-71
(3) Oregon vs. (1) North Carolina
Keys for Oregon to make the Championship: Nobody has been hotter in March than Tyler “Mr. March” Dorsey. Clutch shot after clutch shot, Dorsey has been everything Oregon has needed and more. Thanks to his 6’4 frame and long arms, Dorsey has been able to feast on smaller guards. He leads the tourney in three point percentage and is one of the main reasons the Ducks are still quacking.
Along with their offense, Oregon has been solid on the defensive side of the ball as well. They have a high octane motor, flying all over the floor altering shots and getting their opponents uncomfortable. After losing their NBA bound big man Chris Boucher for the season to a ACL injury, many felt the Ducks were simple to small to make a deep run in the tourney. Behind the play of their unsized big Jordan Bell (6’9), Oregon has looked down right scary.
Out battling Michigan was huge, but beating championship favorites Kansas was different story. Oregon abused the smaller guards of Kansas and exploited the Jayhawk’s weakness (which was their defensively challenged bigs). Oregon has proven themselves to be more than just a Cinderella story or a lucky team. However, they will need a Herculean efforts from Dorsey, Bell, and Dillion Brooks if they want to make it past the red hot Tarheels.
Keys for North Carolina to make the Championship: The Southern Region has done no favors for the Tarheels. Outside of Texas Southern, North Carolina has to face both Arkansas and Butler (both top 10 ranked defenses), then had to face the power house that is Kentucky (who hold three potential NBA lottery pick players). Thanks to the shot of the tourney by Luke Maye (after the “almost” shot of the game by Malik Monk), the Heels were able to squeak out the Elite Eight with a two point win.
North Carolina is not only the best rebounding team left in the tourney, they have been the number one offensive rebounding team the entire season. Behind bigs Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Luke Maye, and Tony Bradley, Carolina is loaded with front court players. They have been able to use their size and depth to flat out wear down teams in the paint this whole season.
The depth does not just stop at the front court. Theo Pinson has been a defensive stopper at the two and three spot, and ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson has not disappointed either. Guard Joel Berry II has been playing on two bad ankles, but his play and leadership has not wavered.
The Key to UNC advancing is simple, do what they do best. Continue to dominate the paint and control the tempo of the game. Hicks will need to stay out of foul trouble (which he has struggled with at times this season) and Berry will need to be close to 100 percent health wise. Jackson will need to, well, be the ACC Player of the year and let it fly.
While Oregon is a high octane, crafty team, UNC will need to stick to what has got them here if they want to play in back-to-back National Championships.
Prediction: North Carolina Over Oregon 89-84