By Jason Keidel
The Final Four is upon us. And there’s a nice, eclectic mix of teams pining for the title. Let’s tackle each team based on when they play.
South Carolina vs. Gonzaga
Saturday, April 1, 6:09 p.m. ET
The Gamecocks can fit at least its toes inside the slipper as a No. 7 seed from a football school. If it felt like the Gamecocks were really good at every sport but basketball, that’s because it’s true. South Carolina had zero tournament wins between 1939 and 1972, then none between 1974 and 2016, two droughts that would make California blush.
And even this year, the signs were hardly there for a biblical run to Phoenix. South Carolina scored just 1.00 points per possession in SEC play, which ranks 11th in the conference (according to Yahoo!). Not to mention it ended the regular season with a brutal loss in the SEC Tournament, scoring a woeful 53 points against Alabama.
While the Gamecocks don’t have the best players or pedigree, they have the hottest player left, in Sindarius Thornwell, who’s averaging 25.8 points and 7.5 rebounds during his uncanny ride to the Final Four. Topping off this glorious week, Thornwell was also just named first-team All-American. Thornwell is just one of three players since 1985 to score 100 tournament points while leading a 7-seed or lower to the Final Four, joining Danny Manning and Billy Donovan.
Maybe the Gamecocks were long-shots to get here, especially when you consider they were 2-5 to end the regular season. But they are 23-7 when Mr. Thornwell is on the hardwood.
Hard to be a sleeper or Cinderella when you’re 36-1, even if you play in those dreaded “mid-major” conferences. Even if the last team the West Coast Conference sent to the Final Four is unknown to most college hoops fans. Even if that team is the 1958 San Francisco Dons, led by Bill Russell.
Still, the Bulldogs are looking for respect, and may finally find some in their first Final Four after 20 trips to March Madness. And if you don’t see them as a threat to bag their first title, you haven’t been watching. Not since the 2000 Duke behemoth has a team entered the Final Four with Gonzaga’s scoring margin of at least 22 points per game.
And considering the dearth of decent centers, swingmen trying to fill the paint, it’s refreshing to see a true big man in Polish import Przemek Karnowski. The 7-foot-1 center has been vital in making Gonzaga the only team ranked in the top-five in offensive and defensive efficiency.
Gonzaga is a hardwood band of gypsies, a gaggle of college transfers, like guard Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), guard Jordan Mathews (California) and forward Johnathan Williams (Missouri). Williams was named the region’s most outstanding player.
They’re all led by Mark Few, who’s not only getting his unofficial recognition as a top-tier coach, but also just won AP Coach of the Year. No doubt Few is equally tired of any narrative that includes a Cinderalla or bridesmaid. Maybe they don’t have the players or pedigree of a team like North Carolina. But with two more wins they can add a similar sobriquet to their school — champions.
Oregon vs. North Carolina
Saturday, April 1, 8:49 p.m. ET
The football program that’s doubled-down on basketball. Dana Altman has the Ducks on the quick curve since taking over in 2010. Part of Oregon’s charm is that the last time they went to a Final Four, there were only eight teams in the entire tournament.
Indeed, 1939 was perhaps the best year in the history of American cinema — with classics like The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington raking in an Oscar or two. It was also the first, official NCAA men’s basketball tournament. And not only did the Ducks go, they won it all. Not only did the Ducks win it all, they weren’t even the Ducks back then, but rather the Webfoots.
Oregon is a No.3 seed, so it’s hardly mind-bending to see them here. But the way they handled Kansas was stunning, particularly considering the Jayhawks were not only the top seed, but also playing a de facto home game, in Kansas City, just 45 minutes from their campus.
The Ducks are quacking on all cylinders (sorry!), with the inside presence of Jordan Bell and the scalding shooting of Tyler Dorsey. Bell is leading the tournament with 12.5 rebounds per game, and is the only player with three double-doubles. Dorsey averaged a pedestrian 12.4 PPG in the regular season, but some symbolic switch flipped since the start of the Pac-12 tournament, with the Oregon guard virtually doubling his production (23.6 PPG), including 57.8 from three-point range.
North Carolina is the official juggernaut of the Final Four. Seeing the Tar Heels here is about as surprising as seeing the Patriots in the AFC title game. Not only is North Carolina loaded, as always, but they were also here 12 months ago, and were a miracle Villanova 3-pointer away from entering this weekend as defending champs.
Most pundits will tell you that North Carolina is not only the best team left, but was likely the team with the highest ceiling entering March Madness. And they can beat you with their best, like AP All-American (and ACC Player of the Year) guard Justin Jackson, who became the first Tar Heel to hit 100 three-pointers in a season, or a clutch three from walk-on Luke Maye, whose game-winner against Kentucky in the Elite 8 is the stuff of tournament lore. If team leader Joel Berry II can fight off his ankle injuries, then UNC will be even harder to knock off.
They are (fittingly) coached by the most decorated coach in the Final Four, by far, Roy Williams. Williams is now in his ninth Final Four, and is 80 clutch minutes from bagging his third national title. That would nudge him into a high historical orbit, joining just Jim Calhoun, Bob Knight, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski, and John Wooden as the only men in history with at least three.
North Carolina has played in 160 NCAA Tournament games. South Carolina, on the other side of this bracket, had played in two before this year. Two. To call Carolina chalk is the Captain Obvious moment of the week.
South Carolina over Gonzaga
North Carolina over Oregon
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.
[graphiq id=”fZgXKsAMr65″ title=”Most Final Four Appearances in NCAA Basketball History” width=”600″ height=”703″ url=”https://w.graphiq.com/w/fZgXKsAMr65″%5D