The 6 key matchups that will decide the Final Four games
The Final Four features two schools that are making their first appearance in the national semifinals, a third that hasn’t been to college basketball’s premier event since 1939 and a fourth that averages a Final Four once every three years, give or take. What are the key matchups to Gonzaga-South Carolina and North Carolina-Oregon? Below are three for each game.
NO. 1 SEED GONZAGA VS. NO. 7 SEED SOUTH CARROLINA
1. Backcourts vs. perimeter defenses
Gonzaga and South Carolina have ridden their Final Four runs to the top two spots in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. The Bulldogs allow 86 points per 100 possessions, while the Gamecocks surrender 87.9 points in the same measure. That’s going to put a lot of pressure on the backcourt stars for both teams. Nigel Williams-Goss and Sindarius Thornwell rightly receive the most attention on their respective teams, but it isn’t just them. Josh Perkins and Jordan Matthews will be key for the Bulldogs, while Duane Notice and P.J. Dozier need to give Thornwell plenty of scoring help, with Raykm Felder a necessary steady hand at the point.
It starts with Williams-Goss and Thornwell. The former is ranked fifth in kenpom.com’s player of the year standings, while the latter is sixth. As good as these defenses are, it stands to reason Williams-Goss and Thornwell will get theirs, especially since both are great free throw shooters who get fouled a lot. If we look back on Saturday night and say, “Wow [fill in player here] put his team on his back,” chances are strong we’ll be filling in that blank with either Williams-Goss or Thornwell. But with the strength of both of these defenses on the perimeter, the secondary backcourt scorers for both teams will be crucial.
The Bulldogs are not an elite offensive team from distance. They’re effective when they shoot the three, connecting on 37.8% of their attempts, which is good for 52nd in the country. As a team, though, they don’t put up a ton of threes. The Bulldogs have scored 26.2% of their total points from behind the arc, which ranks 275th in the country. Still, their four primary perimeter players have all made at least 40 threes this season while hitting at least 36.7% of their attempts, led by Perkins (60-for-150, 40%) and Matthews (79-for-204, 38.7%).
South Carolina’s defense could make life tough for those shooters. The Gamecocks have held their opponents to the eighth-lowest three-point percentage in the country at 30.1%. In their second-round win over Duke, Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen combined to go 4-for-14 from behind the arc. Marquette, which made 43% of its threes this year, the highest percentage in the country, was 11-for-28 in its first-round loss to South Carolina. Michigan, another top-tier offense and three-point team, made just two of its 26 attempts from distance while scoring 46 points in a Thanksgiving-week loss to South Carolina. If the Gamecocks bring the full force of that perimeter defense to bear, it will make the following matchup all the more important.
Few people outside of Columbia, S.C., would argue with Gonzaga’s status as clear favorites in this national semifinal. If there’s one spot where the Bulldogs’ advantage is most obvious, it’s in the paint. Put simply, South Carolina may not have an answer for Karnowski and, to a much lesser extent, Collins.
Karnowski is as efficient as possible on a large volume of shots. He has converted better than 60% of his 317 two-point attempts, making him a scoring machine whenever he touches the ball in the paint. Collins, meanwhile, has attempted about half as many shots, but has made nearly 68% of them. That’s the sort of ruthless efficiency that can keep an offense humming, even if the shots from distance aren’t falling.
Kotsar and Silva get the majority of the frontcourt minutes for South Carolina, but they just don’t measure up to Karnowski and Collins. If one of them gets in foul trouble, the Gamecocks will be in serious trouble. The 6’6” Dozier and 6’5” Thornwell have combined for 45% of South Carolina’s minutes at power forward over their last five games. The Gamecocks are already at a size disadvantage with Kotsar and Silva. If that turns into one of them and one of Dozier or Thornwell, they won’t have much chance of slowing down the Bulldogs’ two-headed interior monster.
NO. 1 SEED NORTH CAROLINA VS. NO. 3 SEED OREGON
1. North Carolina’s offensive rebounding vs. Oregon’s defensive rebounding
This has to be the starting point for every game that includes North Carolina. It’s not often that you see a team clean up 41.9% of its misses, but that’s exactly what the Tar Heels do. They grabbed 13 offensive rebounds on 31 missed shots in the Elite Eight win over Kentucky, leading to 17 second-chance points. Those are the sort of numbers that can offset a three-point percentage that ranks 115th in the country.
North Carolina’s rebounding efforts start with Kennedy Meeks. The senior had five offensive rebounds against Kentucky, and ranks ninth in the country with an offensive-rebounding rate of 16.2%. No team is going to keep him completely off the glass, but Oregon must find ways to limit the second chances he creates. For what it’s worth, the Ducks are not a great rebounding team, ranking 180th in the country in defensive-rebounding rate. It hasn’t been an issue in the tournament, with the best rebounding team they took down in the Midwest Region being No. 1 seed Kansas. The Jayhawks, however, are just inside the top 40 in offensive rebounding rate. Compare that with the Tar Heels, for which their best offense sometimes is a missed shot.
Few teams all season have had a good plan for slowing down Justin Jackson. After all, nobody wins ACC Player of the Year by accident. Oregon, however, will be in an interesting position, given its personnel.
Oregon’s starting five includes just two players, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell, who are taller than 6’4”. North Carolina, meanwhile, rolls out Theo Pinson (6’6”), Jackson (6’8”), Isaiah Hicks (6’9”) and Meeks (6’10”) in its starting lineup. That means the Ducks likely have no choice but to start the game with the 6’4” Tyler Dorsey on Jackson.
This is where the Ducks really miss Chris Boucher. A big lineup that would have included Boucher at center and Bell at power forward would have allowed them to put the 6’7” Brooks on Jackson. Without Boucher, however, Oregon just doesn’t have the size to match up with North Carolina across the board. To be fair, the Ducks did a great job on Josh Jackson in the Elite Eight, limiting him to 10 points on 3-for-8 from the floor. At this stage of his college career, however, North Carolina’s Jackson is a more well-rounded and consistent scorer. He’ll understand exactly how to exploit the natural advantages he will have for most of the game on Saturday night. That’s a problem for Oregon.
The adage that says whichever team is able to establish the pace it wants will have a huge advantage is a tired cliché in basketball. It should go without saying that if one team is able to force the game to its strong suit, that team will be in a much better position. Still, when the differences are as stark as they are between North Carolina and Oregon, the tired cliché still has value.
North Carolina plays at the 50th-fastest pace in the country, according to kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo metric. To give you an idea of how fast that is for a high-major team, the top three teams in adjusted tempo this season are Savannah State, The Citadel and Marshall. The Tar Heels are just one of 11 teams among the top 50 in adjusted tempo that play in a conference that sent multiple teams to the NCAA tournament.
Oregon, on the other hand, keeps things slow. The Ducks play at an adjusted tempo that ranks 241st in the country. In their last two games, they forced Michigan and Kansas, two elite offensive teams, into shooting nights that rank among their worst of the season. Kansas, which, like North Carolina, gets up and down the floor, scored just 60 points, thanks in large part to the Ducks controlling the pace of the game. Nearly every other element of this matchup tilts in North Carolina’s favor. That was true for Kansas, too, but the Ducks flipped the script by owning the tempo. If they can do that on Saturday, they can pull off the upset.