The 2017 Final Four Preview
A View From The Perch
March 30th, 2017
After two weekends of intense tournament action, the Final Four matchups are set for Saturday in Phoenix. This piece aims to prepare you for the battles that will take place on the court. Read this and you will be armed with the knowledge to impress your buddies and steal their women.
South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina: How They Got Here
To the surprise of just about everyone, the Cinderella of this year's tournament ended up being Frank Martin's 7-seeded Gamecocks. They had impressive early season wins against Michigan and Syracuse (and Florida in January), but their 22-9 regular season certainly didn't feel like anything special brewing. They seemed even less threatening after losing to Alabama in their opening game of the SEC Tournament - the team they lost to in a 4 OT thriller in early February.
A metaphorical switch got turned on from there. After beating Marquette by 20 in the First Round, South Carolina stunned Duke two nights later with a 60-point second half in one of the first real jaw-droppers of the tournament. They continued their march to Phoenix the following weekend with a thrashing of Baylor and a takedown of Florida (again). In all, their four wins have been by a combined 54 points (20, 7, 20, 7). Watch out Gonzaga. There looks to be a pattern developing with this tough as nails defensive juggernaut.
South Carolina: What They Do Well
Aggressive, Menacing Defense
The Gamecocks are 4th nationally in Defensive Rating (90.8) and 1st among Power 5 conference teams. Only West Virginia forces a greater turnover rate among P5 teams than South Carolina (21.1%). Frank Martin preaches defensive effort and intensity and his players have delivered in spades. They challenge everything. Opponents have managed to make only 29.8% from three point range (7th nationally - 2nd P5). Senior star Sindarius Thornwell is 3rd among all P5 players with 2.2 steals per game.
South Carolina will crash the glass on offense, as they grab 33.5% of their own misses (42nd out of 351 D1 teams). The 6'5" Thornwell snags a very impressive 2.6 offensive boards per game. 6'9" sophomore Chris Silva gets 2.2 per game. 6'10" freshman Maik Kotsar (from Estonia) corrals just under 2 per game, as well.
South Carolina: Where They Struggle
As tenacious as South Carolina is on the offensive glass, they do give up a lot of second and third chances on the other side of the court. Their 69% defensive rebounding rate is 286th nationally. Sometimes playing aggressively on defense leaves your players in more vulnerable position once a missed shot is forced. Whatever the case, Gonzaga will no doubt be looking to capitalize in this area. Should the basketball gods give us an all Carolina championship, The North will also look to attack this weakness - as they are the best in the country at adding offensive possessions.
The Gamecocks have had problems hitting shots at an efficient rate this season. Their 47.8 effective field goal percentage (which takes into account the 50% added value of a three point shot) ranks a mere 301st in the nation. No player in the rotation has been able to manage 55% eFG on the year. Thornwell and freshman guard Rakym Felder are consistent three point threats, but the rest of the team isn't as reliable to stretch the defense. At the free throw line, it's dicey after Thornwell and Silva.
South Carolina: Why You Should Root For Them
If you're looking for the underdog, this is them. It's hard not to root for this team at this point (assuming your school isn't one of the other three teams). Nobody saw this coming. They are led by an underdog in no-nonsense coach Frank Martin. He is the son of Cuban immigrants who has persevered through an incredible life to make it to such a monumental stage in his profession. It would be awesome to see him finish this run.
The best player is a senior. That's rare these days. Sindarius Thornwell not only has the best name in the Final Four, he has the best individual stats to go with it (21.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 39.7% 3-Pt, 83% FT).
If you love Hootie & The Blowfish, lead-singer Darius Rucker is their celebrity fan in the stands. My first CD (Compact Disc - for you young ones) was "Cracked Rear View" (and Jock Jams) so count me in for this party.
Gonzaga: How They Got Here
Gonzaga won their first 29 games of the season, including early season wins over Florida (77-72), Iowa State (73-71) and Arizona (69-62). The Zags rolled through the conference slate with two convincing wins over WCC rival Saint Mary's - who were ranked in both contests. It wasn't until the final game of the regular season at home against BYU that the Bulldogs finally tasted defeat. They rebounded to take care of business in the WCC Tournament and beat Saint Mary's again in the final, 74-56.
It wasn't easy for Gonzaga getting to the Final Four. A resilient Northwestern squad gave them a run for their money in the 2nd round before ultra-aggressive West Virginia gave the Zags a huge scare in the Sweet 16. Jordan Mathews hit a go-ahead three with under a minute to play to save Gonzaga's season. They made it look much easier against Xavier in the Elite 8 to advance to the first Final Four in school history.
Gonzaga: What They Do Well
While South Carolina and Gonzaga are both extremely effective defensive teams, the way they get it done are very different. The Bulldogs only force a below-average 15.4% turnovers from opponents, but their 85.3 defensive rating is the best mark in the country. Also unlike the Gamecocks, Gonzaga cleans up an above-average 74.9% of opponent misses. They don't give up many good looks from deep. The 29.3% of threes made by opponents is 4th best nationally.
Of the 8 players in the Gonzaga rotation, 7 of them are above average three point shooters - including 3 out of their 4 bigs. The lone exception being 7'1" 300-pound Polish center Przemek Karnowski. Every player sports an efficient, above-average eFG%. As a team, their 57.1 eFG% is 7th in the nation.
Gonzaga: Where They Struggle
Gonzaga is about as complete a team as there is in the country. It's difficult to really find an area to pick on. As mentioned above, as incredibly strong as their defense is, they don't force many turnovers from their opponents. This limits the amount of easy buckets they can create in transition. They do generate a healthy number of steals and blocks to jump start opportunities going their direction, though.
Frontcourt Free Throw Shooting
As a team, Gonzaga shoots a respectable 71.8% from the charity stripe. However, it gets a little dicier when you look at their starting bigs. Karnowski shoots just 58.2% from the line. Fellow frontcourt mate Johnathan Williams struggles even more at 55.7%. If the game is close late, South Carolina and potentially their championship opponent (if they get there) will probably prefer making them earn points at the line than allowing clean releases on shots in the paint.
Gonzaga: Why You Should Root For Them
The baby underdog from an improbable 1999 Elite 8 run has grown into an annual national power. Even though it's the first Final Four in school history, they are almost expected to get there each year now. This team has fallen short on many a March run, but a championship this year would put any suggestion they are an overrated program to rest.
The team has an interesting composition. The rotation includes 3 transfers - point guard Nigel Williams-Goss from Washington, Jordan Mathews from Cal and Johnathan Williams from Missouri. It also includes 2 international bigs - Przemek Karnowski from Poland and Killian Tillie from France. The diverse blend has come together to play excellent basketball on both ends of the court.
For anyone that grew up rooting for Gonzaga to find a way and wouldn't mind seeing them finally do it, this team has as good a chance as any from here.
Oregon: How They Got Here
Dana Altman's Ducks came into the season with high expectations and a top-5 preseason ranking. They started slow as junior star Dillon Brooks worked his way into the lineup coming off a foot injury, losing to Baylor without Brooks in the second game of the year and to Georgetown in the fourth game of the season - their first with Brooks (who only played 13 minutes off the bench). From there they won 17 in a row, including an 89-87 thriller over #2 UCLA on December 28th. Brooks drained a pull-up three with 0.8 seconds left to give the Ducks a huge win in their Pac-12 opener.
Oregon added an 85-58 beatdown of #5 Arizona in early February to their resume on their way to winning the Pac-12 regular season. The Ducks suffered a brutal loss when versatile shot blocking big Chris Boucher tore his ACL in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals against Cal. Oregon lost to Arizona in the final 83-80 and many were unsure if they would be able to put together a deep run in the big dance without such an important player. After close calls against Rhode Island (75-72) and Michigan (69-68), it all came together for the Ducks in a 74-60 win over Kansas in the Elite 8 to reach Phoenix.
Oregon: What They Do Well
Dominate the 3-Point Line
Oregon does so many things well. What may jump out to viewers is how consistently their shots from three go in the basket (38.3%) and how infrequently their opponents' shots from there do (31.1%). The Ducks have three players in their rotation shooting better than 40% from deep - Tyler Dorsey (42.3%), Dillon Brooks (41.0%) and Casey Benson (40.3%). Oregon is great defensively and not allowing teams to get comfortable at the three point line is a big reason why.
Of course, the other reason the Ducks get it done on the defensive end is because only Minnesota blocks more shots than them. Oregon lost their top shot swatter, the above-mentioned Boucher (2.5 BPG), to injury in the Pac-12 Tournament. As Elite 8 foe Kansas can now testify to, it is still terrifying as ever going into the paint against this team. That's because Jordan Bell is a one man wrecking crew down there. He blocked 8 shots against the Jayhawks. That's insane. No Pac-12 player has ever disrespected that many opponent shots in an NCAA Tournament game. Bell averages an impressive 2.2 blocks per contest. After that performance against Kansas, UNC will be thinking about him every time they look to attack the basket.
Oregon: Where They Struggle
Jordan Bell is an incredibly valuable piece for Oregon up front. But with the loss of Boucher, they don't have any other bigs they can rely on. Junior Kavell Bigby-Williams, from England, is the only other true big in the rotation. He doesn't bring much to the table offensively. If Bell gets in foul trouble the Ducks could be in trouble against Carolina's stacked frontcourt.
Oregon: Why You Should Root For Them
Jordan Bell attacks shots like Russell Westbrook attacks rims. If you can't find joy in seeing the Oregon paint protector wreak havoc on offenses like he did against Kansas I'm not sure if basketball is the sport for you. It really seemed like he was just going to deny every shot attempt Kansas took inside the free throw line. And it's not like he's 7'4". He does it standing 6'9".
Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey can be a lot of fun to watch when they get it going. Chris Boucher was in this category too before his injury. It's impressive that these Ducks stepped it after he went down. Lesser teams can lean on a built-in excuse like that to get away with less than maximum effort and focus. Credit to Dana Altman for not letting that happen to his team.
North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina: How They Got Here
Carolina traditionally fields a title contender and this year was no exception. The early season slate saw the Tar Heels win convincingly against Oklahoma State (107-75) and Wisconsin (71-56). They also fell to Indiana (76-67) and a game of the year worthy thriller to Kentucky 103-100 - in which the Wildcats' Malik Monk dropped 47 and the game-winning three with 16.7 seconds left. UNC went on to win the ACC regular season, but fell to arch-rival Duke in the ACC Tournament final.
In the NCAA Tournament, the Heels found a surprise waiting in the 2nd round from Arkansas. The Razorbacks held a 65-60 lead with three minutes left, but Carolina closed the game on a 12-0 run to advance. A rematch against Kentucky in the Elite 8 was everything basketball lovers hoped it would be and then some. Kentucky's Monk hit two late threes, including the last with 7.2 seconds left to tie the game at 73. UNC quickly inbounded the ball and pushed it up the court. Sophomore walk-on Luke Maye proceeded to make what will go down as one of the most famous shots in school history from just inside the three point line with 0.3 seconds left to give Carolina the 75-73 win.
North Carolina: What They Do Well
Offensive Rebounding Prowess
The Tar Heels rebound 41.2% of their own misses (14.5 total offensive rebounds per game). No team in the country (351 teams) creates more extra possessions than does North Carolina. 6'10" 260-pound senior Kennedy Meeks is a terror to box out. He grabs 3.7 offensive boards himself per game. Off the bench, freshman Tony Bradley has a 19.3% offensive rebound percentage. That's the best rate in the nation.
Play Fast, But Under Control
North Carolina plays at one of the fastest paces in the country. They love to get out and run. Even at this tempo, the Heels prioritize taking care of the basketball. They turn the ball over on only 13.6% of their possessions - a top-20 mark nationally. With the type of work they produce on the offensive glass, they understand that as long as they don't turn the ball over it is almost as likely that they will come up with a missed shot as their opponent. That is an unbelievable advantage.
North Carolina: Where They Struggle
The Health of Point Guard Joel Berry
Carolina is a team that can do it all. However, the status of point guard Joel Berry is definitely a huge storyline to keep an eye on. Berry has suffered multiple ankle sprains this season, including his right ankle in the first round against Texas Southern and his left ankle in the first half against Kentucky their last game. He also injured the right ankle against Radford in early December. He was able to return to the game versus Kentucky, but coach Roy Williams said if the Final Four game were to be played on Tuesday he didn't think Berry would be able to go. It would be very hard to see a scenario that Berry didn't at least try to give it a go on Saturday, but the effectiveness he is able to display on the court is a legitimate concern. Berry is North Carolina's second-leading scorer (14.6 PPG) and an important 3-point threat (39.4%). None of UNC's other point guard options (Nate Britt, Seventh Woods and the versatile Theo Pinson) are particularly good shooters.
North Carolina: Why You Should Root For Them
UNC is the clear basketball royalty of this Final Four group. If you root for the Cowboys and Yankees, you're probably telling everyone how your Heels got this. They are the favorites to take this thing home by most. They are the school that gave us Jordan, Worthy and a very impressive athlete academic scandal. Carolina is a basketball business.
If you don't genuinely bleed Carolina Blue or prefer rooting for brand names, you're likely pulling for the team they're playing at this point. Unless...
You just love you some Luke Maye! If the former walk-on continues to be a factor in Phoenix, he could spark an underdog movement for the mighty Heels. Plus, if South Carolina gets it done against Gonzaga in the first game Saturday, there would be a fun element to rooting for an underdog South Carolina vs. big brother North Carolina title game matchup. Even Maye wouldn't be able able to hold off the national support for Frank Martin's squad in that scenario. We'll see what happens. It's gonna be fun.