The Runner Sports

2017 NCAA Tournament: Final Four

In the eyes of college basketball aficionados, the 2017 NCAA Tournament Final Four is an intriguing pair of matchups featuring a quartet of unique teams. A pair of teams who’ve never been to the Final Four in South Carolina and Gonzaga, an Oregon Ducks team that hasn’t been here since 1939, and a perennial powerhouse in college basketball looking to enact some revenge from a season ago. In the eyes of the NCAA, this is likely a matchup nightmare.

Geographically, the tournament final could boast a duo of matchups locked into a very small regional bubble. If Oregon and Gonzaga go head to head, despite some admiring storylines, casual viewers likely tune out. Even for a team as pop culturally well-known as Oregon, the billing just doesn’t hold its weight. Equally, the NCAA has likely rooted for a very Carolina-friendly final for some time… this just not being the one they were looking for. Even if it was locked to a Duke/UNC final, a pair of schools separated by just 20 miles, and features a pair of counties in North Carolina that are made up of just 428,485 people according to a 2013 census report, the matchup would break headlines and potentially shatter viewerships numbers. Meanwhile, despite much buzz around the Columbia, SC campus, I’m sure if you were to ask Gamecocks supporters whether they’d have thought their basketball team might win a championship prior to their football team, you’d likely get a resounding number of people asking you if they even had a basketball team. Jokes aside, the best possible outcome is for things not to get region locked, hoping for a Gonzaga/UNC, Oregon/UNC, South Carolina/Gonzaga, or Oregon/South Carolina final in the eyes of the business.

In the eyes of the actual games, it’s going to be tough to beat what we had on our platters a year ago for the final regardless of who gets there. However, there’s certainly high hopes that the pair of Final Four showdowns are much more lively than the combined 61-point stinkers viewers were graced with in 2016.

 

#1 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs #7 South Carolina Gamecocks

A duo of firsts will lead into another pair of firsts; one will head to their first NCAA Tournament Final while the other tasting bittersweet Final Four defeat. Often overlooked, as I’ve regularly done so over the last five years since I’ve stepped into sports writer, and well before that as an avid watcher of college basketball, Gonzaga has cracked their most elusive achievement. The Zags are an absurd 502-112 in the 18-year career of coach Mark Few. And while their schedule is often light on lethal competition, there’s no denying the greatness accomplished in a vacuum. Their run here might have been the easiest, toppling a cumulative 39 seeds en route to this point, the second most of a Final Four team since 2011. Meaning they regularly faced high seeds in what was already billed as a light West region. To put that into perspective, South Carolina toppled an accumulative 19 seeds in a treacherous East region. But in the eyes of the Bulldogs, it’s all hearsay, they’ve officially bought into the no longer care what you say mentality. Mark Few even calling out the committee prior to the tournament and how it wouldn’t factor into their approach, “[The NCAA tournament selection committee] can seed us fifth or whatever the hell they want to do. These guys are going to show up and they’re going to fight.” And fight they have. The fight’s not over just yet, and with a big weight lifted off shoulders, the Zags need to keep the pedal to the metal and not slow things down, it’s a false summit, and there’s a tough climb ahead yet.

Meanwhile, South Carolina is the closest thing to a Cinderella team we’ve got on hand here, and must let that fuel them. Just as Gonzaga is proving they can indeed shake off the naysayers, the Gamecocks need to mentally separate themselves from all the chatter, a drumming whisper that turns into a thunderous roar when playing in the Final Four. It’s a stage that’s eaten up some talented players, and the mental preparation is almost more important at this stage in the season. Can they hold the fort down? Considering they haven’t been expected to win any of their last three games, and all four in the eyes of many, it’s not so much a we’re proving the haters wrong situation here.

Gonzaga boasts a significant size advantage over the Gamecocks, and with passing big man Przemek Karnowski –who can also stretch you out and burn you from deep– at the center of it all, it’s a well-oiled offensive machine that’s tough to slow down. Inject point guard Nigel Williams-Goss into the picture, and it’s even tougher to crack.

It’ll be a new look for the Zags approaching South Carolina’s defensive press; a halfcourt thunderdome of sorts that should feel inspired by the performance from the West Virginia game. The Mountaineers effectively shut down the Bulldogs, but just didn’t have the offensive output of their own to make the leap. Gonzaga made 16 turnovers against WVU, and South Carolina just needs to do more to take advantage of those chances.

South Carolina is by no means one-dimensional as they’ve had four double-digit scorers in each matchup of the NCAA Tournament so far. Still, offensive flow is heavily dictated by Sindarius Thornwell’s presence on the court. Gonzaga’s likely to throw a double team his way here and there, and South Carolina needs to milk each chance they get from that. Eliminating him from the flow on offense could spell doom for the players around him; they’ve played out of their minds so far, and can’t have a disappearing act now.

Both defensive units are quite solid by any metric you wanna use, but going back to their paths here, South Carolina remains the better-tested side having gone through Duke and Baylor. Still, Gonzaga is allowing just 85.8 points per 100 possessions this season, and even adjusted via KenPom for opponent, still feature the better unit on paper.

It’ll be elation for one side and unfelt heartbreak for the other.

Prediction: South Carolina

#1 North Carolina Tar Heels vs #3 Oregon Ducks

This will certainly be a juicy matchup and one that could be one of the better Final Four games we’ve seen in the last couple years if both sides continue to play at their current level, not an easy task to accomplish. For some time now it’s felt like it was North Carolina’s title to lose; even after disappointingly dropping the ACC semi-final to Duke. Crushed a year ago by the most astounding finishes in modern NCAA Tournament history, the Tar Heels have always been on the warpath to redeem themselves. Experience plays a big hand in games like this, and the Tar Heels are teeming with just that.

Oregon toppled what many thought looked to be the most talented Jayhawks team… perhaps ever. The Ducks have been living and dying on their prosperous three-point shooting; the team is shooting 35-of-81 from deep with just their opener against Iona coming under the 40% mark. The Ducks need to continue to fly, and that’ll be the first point of attack for this UNC defense, shutting down shooters.

Jordan Bell has been so good for Oregon the country has forgotten about Chris Boucher. Bell has just four fouls through the entire tournament despite 11 blocks, eight of which came against Kansas. North Carolina’s got a plethora of tall bodies to throw in the paint, while Oregon remains very shallow as a result from Boucher’s injury. Bell’s logged taxing minutes over the last three contests, so fatigue might be a factor. With a near full week off, that’s unlikely, though.

It’ll be a gruesome battle in the trenches for rebounds in this. North Carolina’s been the best rebounding team in the country by some margin, and are very aggressive on the offensive glass. Oregon needs to bite down and be relevant in this fight. Bell has been phenomenal, but going back to being outnumbered, how much will Roy Williams risk to rebound by committee and just overwhelm the Jolly Green Giant in the paint? If UNC goes all in a fair deal, it could lead to some transition scoring chances for the Ducks.

Oregon would be wise to beg the Tar Heels to shoot over them, North Carolina’s shot just 32.1% from behind the arc so far this tournament. While you can’t leave men entirely open, you can certainly pick your moments, embedding a little zone into the mix that really clogs things up in the paint.

It might be a specially designated Duck season in North Carolina, but UNC’s the one with some potential concerns at the heel of the lineup. Joel Berry’s now seen a pair of ankle injuries in this tournament, and may very likely not be at 100% for this game. He adds 14.6 PPG to this offense, and while UNC has plenty of depth, it looks a lot different without him running at full speed.

Prediction: North Carolina

And so there were four. It’s been a wild ride to this point as the madness of March rolls into the foolery of April, I’m sure there are a few more treats left in store. What are your predictions on Saturday’s games?

Tyler Arnold

Tyler Arnold

I am the founder and editor-in-chief of The Runner Sports. I've been an avid sports fan since I was a child and have turned that love into a profession. I will watch, comment, and break down anything I can get my hands on, from football to white water rafting in the Olympics. Your visit means a lot to me, so thank you for your readership.
Tyler Arnold

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