GLENDALE, Ariz. — When it comes to college basketball royalty, North Carolina is about as blue as a blueblood can get. It’s a school where excellence seems to seep from the rafters, a place which has made 20 Final Fours and won five national championships in its illustrious history.
It’s a much different story for everyone else in this 2017 Final Four. South Carolina and Gonzaga have never been to one, and Oregon hasn’t been this far since 1939 — in essence, they’re playing in their first as well.
So with all three teams on a stage they’ve never been before, FOX Sports spent time at Friday afternoon’s open practices talking to fans of each school about their journey and their completely different paths to get here.
Of the four teams in Glendale, South Carolina’s presence is the most shocking. Prior to this year’s NCAA tournament the Gamecocks had never even won back-to-back tourney games, let alone make a run this deep. Forget “recent history” at South Carolina. They have no history at all.
At least none of the good kind.
“I probably have enough fingers and toes [to count all the positive South Carolina basketball memories] of my 45 years,” Tony Dominic, a lifelong Gamecocks’ fan and native of Columbia, said.
He’s quickly running out of appendages however, as the Gamecocks have made a run for the ages this March. Both Dominic and friend Britton Lee admitted that — like most folks who follow college basketball — they had little hope once they saw a second round matchup with Duke in their draw. They said that at best the goal was “don’t get embarrassed,” with only the tiny, furthest recesses of their minds willing to consider a scenario where they actually beat the Blue Devils.
Even after they pulled off the upset of Duke — at the time, unquestionably the biggest win in Gamecocks history — they didn’t dare think that there were more tournament wins to come.
“We’re both poker players,” Dominic said. “We were playing with house money from then on.”
It may have been house money, but once South Carolina beat Duke, Lee and Dominic couldn’t help but notice the draw open up. A dominant Sweet 16 win over Baylor led to an Elite Eight matchup with Florida, a team they beat in Columbia back on Jan. 18.
And once the Gamecocks beat the Gators, it was a race to Glendale. Lee took care of the tickets, while Dominic handled the flights and hotels for a trip that could be one-of-a-kind.
“We were actually talking about doing something, taking the tickets and putting them in a scrapbook or something,” Dominic said, “because this is something that’s never gotten done and might not get done again.”
“I’m getting the sense my wife will be taking a girl’s trip after we do this,” he added with a laugh.
Gonzaga’s trip to the Final Four was nearly two decades in the making. The Zags’ first great run was to the Elite Eight in 1999, and though they’ve made the tournament every year since, it has always ended in heartbreak.
Andrew Sorenson, who went from fan to Gonzaga player from 2004 to 2008 has literally lived through it all. He was also on the bench, when the Bulldogs had the most devastating loss in program history.
“My first travel game was the famous Adam Morrison game,” Sorenson said, referencing a 2006 Sweet 16 loss to UCLA which ended in tears.
But in the slow build of the Zags from 1999 until now, this year has felt different from the beginning. Gonzaga started the season ranked in the Top 15, and that ranking proved justified once the season started. It wasn’t just that they beat teams like Arizona, Florida and Iowa State either, but also the depth, experience and versatility they showed with players like Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins on the roster.
Also, a program that has seemingly never been able to catch a break caught quite a few during this tournament. None were bigger than a Jordan Mathews three-pointer with just 50 seconds left against West Virginia. In a topsy-turvy game where Gonzaga could never get the edge, Mathews’ shot game the Zags a 60-58 lead they’d never relinquish.
“That was a shot that used to never go in for Gonzaga,” said Kyle Huus, who actually played golf at the school from 2007 to 2011. “This year it went in.”
And when it did go in, it set up an Elite Eight game with an ending that no Zags fan could ever imagine. The program which has had so many narrow, late tournament losses, won in an 83-59 blowout.
“All of a sudden there was a moment, there was like 2:12 left, and it was like, ‘We can’t lose,’” Huus said. “’We’re going. We’re booking tickets.’”
Sorenson, who was on the floor the night that Morrison shed tears, did the same at his apartment while watching the game go final.
“As the clock wound down I found myself standing,” Sorenson said. “And just the memories flood back, thinking about how hard we worked, how much it hurt not to get there and realized, ‘Wow, this is special.’
“Water was coming out, I caught something in my eye for sure.”
Oregon is in the middle here — not historically inept like South Carolina, not with the lengthy recent history of good-but-not-good-enough like Gonzaga.
Instead, the Ducks hit a hot stretch over the last 24 months, with an Elite Eight appearance in 2016 and a Top 10 preseason ranking last fall. The Ducks appeared to be cruising towards another No. 1 seed this March and a potential Final Four berth, until forward Chris Boucher went down with injury.
All of a sudden, a season with national championship dreams had a gloomy reality.
“Full disclosure, Boucher went down and when we lost to Arizona [in the Pac-12 title game], I knew we weren’t going to get a No. 1 seed,” A.J. Niebergall, a lifelong Ducks fan, said. “Sure enough, we’re on the same side of the bracket as Louisville and Kansas in the Midwest. I knew it was going to be tough.”
And for the Ducks, it was. First, there was a narrow second-round win over Rhode Island, and then a Sweet 16 game against Michigan, where — as Dana Altman admitted on the podium Friday — Oregon wouldn’t have won if a Derrick Walton three-pointer didn’t rim out in the final seconds. That win, however, set up an Elite Eight result that no one could have seen coming. Despite entering the game as a heavy underdog against the top-seeded Jayhawks, the Ducks took control of the game and never let up.
Even as the game wound down, and Kansas never could mount a comeback, it left fans like Niebergall on the edge of his seat.
“I had people calling me and texting me with two minutes left in the game, we were up nine,” Niebergall said. “I didn’t answer my phone, didn’t text anybody, I wouldn’t even talk to my wife until the buzzer. I’m still paying for that, man.”
Once the buzzer sounded, Niebergall called his best friend Mike Timpani and the adventure to Glendale was on. Niebergall is in Glendale — yes, with his wife — hoping to see the Ducks take home their first title since long before he was born.
“Just being here is once-in-a-lifetime,” Niebergall said, before catching himself. “Well, I hope not.”