Heading into the NCAA Tournament, not many people could’ve predicted the Final Four cast that will be on display this coming Saturday in Glendale, Arizona. Two schools arrive from the extreme east coast, both from the Carolinas no less. It had been since UCLA made it to their third straight Final Four in 2008 that the west coast had representation. This year the college basketball world was graced with two left coast participants. Each of the teams in the Final Four has at least one distinct attribute which provides an advantage over their semifinal opponent; and perhaps which will carry over into the title game. It’s going to be a true coastal war on Saturday evening.
North Carolina crushes opponents on the boards. The Tar Heels lead the nation in rebounding margin, and that will serve as a major factor against Oregon. Jordan Bell was a one man wrecking crew against Kansas in the Elite Eight. How will he be able to handle UNC’s huge front line of 6-10 Kennedy Meeks, 6-9 Isaiah Hicks, and 6-10 Tony Bradley? The ability to crash the boards, particularly on the offense end allows Justin Jackson to unleash his quick-release jumper freely, and give the Tar Heels multiple possessions. If the Ducks can’t neutralize this quickly, it will make for a long night.
Oblivious to the Danger
Right now, Oregon is playing with absolutely no fear. Tyler Dorsey is flat-out killing it. Jordan Bell single-handedly terrorized Kansas around the rim, and Dillon Brooks is a willing go-to guy who is unconscious about unleashing some offense. The Ducks have a pretty light rotation, but what they do have are multiple stars that can rise to the occasion, leaving multiple outlets if a big shot is necessary. Oregon can play with pace to get out in transition; and have the individual offensive skills to find shots when the game bogs down in the half court. If anyone can run with UNC, it’ll be the Ducks.
Mark Few’s team is the most balance team remaining. Gonzaga can put pressure on opponents from the perimeter, slashing to the paint, or attacking the rim with size in the post. There’s also a nice blend of veterans and young players; and more than any of the other teams remaining, the Bulldogs are likely playing with the biggest chip on their collective shoulders. Nigel Williams-Goss is still the key cog in the machine, and he has the chops to carry the Zags for the final two games. Gonzaga’ capacity to be multi-faceted will be crucial against South Carolina.
Up in Your Grill
Much like their coach Frank Martin, the Gamecocks have been right up in their opponent’s kitchen every single game. South Carolina has proven to be the most physical team remaining in the field, and that will be their ace-in-the-hole. Gonzaga struggled with West Virginia’s pressure and physicality in the Sweet 16. While Martin’s team won’t press heavily, the constant harassment and bumping in the half court is more than sufficient to rattle cages. Although the Gamecocks don’t have a ton of size on the front line, the guards are powerfully built, and that drives their physicality. If South Carolina is given the freedom to play as physically as they have all tournament, Gonzaga will be battered, bruised, and possibly go bye-bye.
New Blood vs. Blue Blood
Aside from the east coast/west coast rift, the 2017 Final Four also gives us some upstart programs trying to make a name, versus one legendary program, and coach who is trying to cement his legacy. Although Dana Altman, Mark Few, and Frank Martin have been around for quite some time, this is the breakthrough opportunity each has been waiting for. Altman did a nice job at Creighton for many years, but never really gets mentioned among the great college basketball coaches. Martin gave Kansas State some of its best years in the college basketball landscape, but winning a title at a football-crazed school could propel South Carolina to sustained success in hoops. Mark Few is Gonzaga basketball. Whether Gonzaga ascends to the upper echelon of college basketball’s elite programs, hinges upon what Few’s team does this coming weekend.
In the first semifinal, I see Gonzaga’s depth and versatility being the deciding factor versus South Carolina. The whistles will probably be a bit tighter especially early-on in the semifinal games, and that won’t make it easy for the Gamecocks to apply the physicality that Frank Martin’s team is accustomed to. With a bit more free reign, Mark Few’s team will outlast South Carolina to reach Monday’s final.
As much fun as it would be to see an all west coast National Title game, I think the Tar Heels are going to simply be too much on the boards for Oregon’s slim frontline to handle. It was one thing to punch Kansas in the mouth, as the Jayhawks only real threat in the paint was Landen Lucas. North Carolina will pound the paint and the glass until the Ducks are beaten into submission. Normally the pace that Oregon can play at would be a distinguished advantage, but the Tar Heels love to get out in transition, especially after giving up a basket. North Carolina will meet Gonzaga for the championship.
Despite a topsy-turvy last few weeks, which provided a less than predictable Final Four, we’ll be left with two #1 seeds squaring off for the National Championship trophy. Roy Williams, an all-time great, with an opportunity to carve his legendary status into stone. And Mark Few, a great coach who has stayed the course at a school long considered a mid-major. Winning a national title will validate not only his status as an all-time great coach, but will permanently remove the mid-major label from Gonzaga University.
Prior to the tournament, I didn’t like Gonzaga to advance past the Sweet 16. However, the Bulldogs have gotten better as the tournament has progressed, and have the versatility and firepower to go toe-to-toe with North Carolina. Without a doubt, Roy Williams’ team has the experience and the pedigree. A year ago most of these same players ended the season with heartbreak against Villanova. This year the Zags rip the Tar Heels hearts out once again. Gonzaga 86 North Carolina 82. The Gonzaga Bulldogs will be College Basketball’s 2017 National Champion.
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