The Final Four tips off Saturday night in Phoenix. Which team will be cutting down the nets two nights later? Could it be the upstart Gamecocks of South Carolina? The anti-mid-major, Gonzaga? Oregon? Blue-blooded North Carolina? We preview college basketball's greatest weekend:
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No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 7 South Carolina, Saturday, 6:09 p.m. ET
Whatever you want to call South Carolina - Cinderella, underdogs, the guys who play for that garishly dressed, Pitbull-loving softie-at-heart coach named Frank - they're a legit threat to make the final. Gonzaga, probably the most complete team in the country right now, entered the tournament with questions about how it would fare in a tough battle that came down to the final seconds (a la Kentucky in 2014) but ended all speculation with gutsy wins over Northwestern and West Virginia.
This could be an ugly one. Hide-the-children ugly. The Zags and Gamecocks are Nos. 1 and 2 in KenPom defensive efficiency rankings. Both defend the three exceptionally well. Both are ineffective at shooting the three. Throw in the usual early jitters that plague Final Four games and whatever the debated stadium shooting effect has on things, and this one could struggle to get into the 60s.
As South Carolina goes so does Sindarius Thornwell, at least in the tournament. The senior is only the third player from a team seeded No. 6 or higher to lead his team to the Final Four while averaging 25.0 points per game and is carrying the team's offensive load on his back. But prolific scoring nights didn't always help SC's bottom line in the regular season. Of Thornwell's five highest-scoring games this year, the team lost three. Might Gonzaga's best bet might be to let Thornwell get his and rely on someone else to pick up the slack?
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Offensively, Mark Few's strategy seems clear. Pound it in to the bigs, take advantage of the size difference and get the foul-happy South Carolina front court into early trouble, all while Nigel Williams-Goss facilitates at the point with his do-it-all mix of dribble drives, jump shooting and assists.
Gonzaga isn't the betting favorite to win it all (that would be North Carolina), but KenPom has the Zags at 79% to win this game, compared to 57% for UNC against Oregon. In that case, Gonzaga should be the betting favorite based solely on the fact that it's more likely to play in the final, and the more likely you are to play in the final, the more likely you are to win the final. The madness tends to wane as the calendar flips from March to April, so this is usually the point where we see the basketball turn back into a pumpkin for the little guy as the big boys go play in the championship. I don't know, though; Gonzaga has no experience at this level, and something tells me South Carolina's run isn't quite over yet.
Pick: South Carolina, 65-59
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No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Oregon, Saturday, 8:49 p.m. ET
Before we get to the big game of the night, remember when the ACC got one team into the Sweet 16 while the Big Ten (whose teams went 5-2 in the first round), SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12 all got three and this was supposed to be a sign that the consensus best conference in the country was somehow overrated?
2017 Final Four bids, by conference
ACC - 1
Pac-12 - 1
SEC - 1
WCC - 1
What does it all mean? What kind of conclusions can you draw from these results? The same as you could from those of the first weekend: Zippy. The only thing the ACC's early struggles proved was that the ACC had early struggles. It was for a mix of reasons, including bad play, bad matchups and the fact that narratives are fun to construct.
(It's far more enjoyable to say Coach K's teams are flaming out of the tournament earlier and earlier rather than to say one-and-done events are unpredictable and it's amazing that losses, like the one to South Carolina, didn't start happening until about five years ago.)
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Carolina is a five-point favorite over the triple-headed threat of Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey and rebound-machine Jordan Bell in another game pitting teams with similar strengths: Both Carolina and Oregon are good near the boards, with the Heels excelling at offensive rebounding and the Ducks at blocking shots. (They rank No. 1 in those respective categories in all of Division I.) Of course, Oregon is in the Final Four mostly on the strength of both those skills, using Bell's inside power to defeat Kansas in the Elite Eight.
The most important items on the floor will be the right and left ankles of Joel Berry. If the Heels' star guard, who injured one ankle on the first weekend and the other ankle last weekend, is spry and painless enough to play like he did against Butler (8-for-13 shooting, 26 points) rather than Arkansas (2-for-13, 10 points), then Carolina will be tough to beat. And if Luke Maye, the one-time walk-on who reached double digits three times during the regular season but has already hit that total in three of the four tournament games, can keep doing his thing, then watch out, Eugene.
Experience matters in the Final Four and every sort of stat, though without a large sample size, supports this. (Debut teams don't do well, debut coaches do worse, etc.) When you hear talk about "past Final Four experience," it's completely irrelevant when a specific team or coach is new to the stage. Yeah, Oregon played in 1939, but were Dana Altman, Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey around for that? Carolina was one shot from winning last year's national championship. That's the only experience that matters and it'll help the Tar Heels in a tight one on Saturday night.
Pick: North Carolina 78, Oregon 75
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NCAA championship: North Carolina vs. South Carolina, Monday, 9 p.m. ET