After controversy among fans about the seeding and a few wild finishes, we have found ourselves ready for the Final Four with an unexpected quartet of teams ready to compete for the title in Phoenix. Two of the four teams are making the first appearance and one of the remaining two is making their first appearance since the very first tournament. While we didn’t expect these games, I don’t think any fan can complain about the match ups we are going to see in the Final Four as they are shaping up to be a couple of great games.
(7) South Carolina Gamecocks vs (1) Gonzaga Bulldogs
As we’ve seen thus far, this Gamecocks team has a lot of fight in them. They’ve flown under the radar for most of the year and weren’t considered a potential contender, especially following five losses in their last seven games before the NCAA Tournament. Leading South Carolina is SEC Co-Player Of The Year Sindarius Thornwell who is having a phenomenal senior season, with career highs and team bests in points per game (21.6) and rebounds per game (7.2 ). The Gamecocks also have a great defensive unit, especially outside the arc, where they are only allowing opponents to shoot at 29.79 percent (5th in the NCAA).
The previously mentioned Thornwell missed practice earlier this week with an illness, but is likely to play Saturday against Gonzaga. The only problem is that you have to wonder if he will be at 100 percent going into the game after being inactive throughout the week. As much as everyone wants to praise South Carolina’s defense, they will be matched up with what might be an even better defensive team in the Final Four as Gonzaga has allowed the 5th fewest points per game this season (60.92) along with the lowest opposing field goal percentage (36.46 percent).
Gonzaga flipped the script as they usually come into the tournament as an underdog and usually end up with relative success, but this year they’ve secured a number one seed and will take on a “Cinderella” team in the Final Four. They earned a number one seed by dominating opponents with their defense as well as dominating the boards with 30.84 defensive rebounds per game (2nd in the NCAA) and 40.5 total (5th in the NCAA). They’re heading into the game against South Carolina as seven point favorites and as we’ve seen this season, beating Gonzaga isn’t an easy task as the “Zags” sit at an impressive 36-1, with the one loss coming to BYU by just eight points. While a loss to BYU doesn’t look great, the Bulldogs did also beat Iowa State and Arizona on the road. Gonzaga isn’t a team that you can sleep on going into the Final Four, as they have good enough defense to at least slow Sindarius Thornwell down, but South Carolina’s defense might be enough to stop Gonzaga’s weaker offense. Don’t expect a shootout between these two teams tomorrow night as we should see a battle on the defensive end.
Prediction: Gonzaga shuts down Sindarius Thornwell and the rest of the South Carolina offense in a close defensive battle and come out with a close win.
(3) Oregon Ducks vs (1) North Carolina Tar Heels
Oregon comes in as slightly less of an underdog than South Carolina does but an underdog nonetheless. North Carolina is favored by 4.5 points over the Ducks going into Saturday night’s match-up. Dillon Brooks leads the Ducks into Phoenix as the team’s leading scorer averaging 16.3 points per game and shooting nearly 50 percent from the field. Oregon comes into this game without senior forward Chris Boucher, who was a key part of Oregon’s low post throughout the regular season. However, Oregon has proven they have what it takes to win even without this key piece as they’ve made this run to the Final Four. UNC isn’t without their share of injuries as they will be playing without role player Kenny Williams. Joel Berry II has said he plans to play even if he isn’t at 100 percent, but you have to wonder how much of an impact the Tar Heel point guard can have with two sprained ankles.
The dominance in the post by North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks could be the biggest difference maker in the match-up. He has dominated the paint, averaging 11 rebounds and 2.5 blocks through the NCAA Tournament so far, while still averaging greater than 10 points per contest over that stretch. North Carolina also holds an experience edge as this is a team that’s been here before, as recently as last year in fact. The Tar Heels have been to the Final Four 20 times, three more times than any other school when compared to Oregon who is only competing in their second Final Four and their first since the very first NCAA Tournament when they won it all.
Prediction: I expect this to be the better of the two games as we will get to see a couple of good offenses and sound defenses matching up in what should be a classic battle, but I foresee Oregon pulling off the upset and going to compete for the National Championship.