As we mentioned yesterday, the 2017 Final Four is about the contrast between one team (North Carolina) that’s in the blue blood club and among the most accomplished in college basketball history, and the three other teams; Oregon, Gonzaga and South Carolina.
Why the contrast? Well, while North Carolina became the first team to reach the Final Four 20 times, Oregon are in it for just the second time, ending a 78 year drought. For both Gonzaga and South Carolina this is a first Final Four, and one of them will be in the national championship game no less. This could be a story of redemption for the Tar Heels after losing so heartbreakingly last year to Villanova, or this could be a story of taking first steps into a much higher level of recognition.
The interesting thing about Gonzaga is that this has been in the making for almost 20 years, as they enter the tournament for the 20th time. They usually get knocked out in the first two rounds, with this Elite Eight being only the third in program history. However, after taking over the WCC, they’ve been putting together some impressive recruiting classes over the last few years, not letting the facts of being a small school in Spokane stop them competing for some bigger talent. At some point, so much success has to bring them out of the limiting “mid-major” label.
Their win over Xavier in the Elite Eight was that kind of breakout win. I personally think that their team from the previous two years was more talented, but it’s often not about the talent (look at Kentucky, Duke and UCLA), but more about the team and playing the right kind of basketball in March and April. Nigel Williams-Goss has been inconsistent in this tournament, but he’s coming up big when necessary, and it’ll probably be him and Przemek Karnowski who make or break the Bulldogs chances in the semifinal agaisnt the Gamecocks.
North Carolina Tar Heels
After a few years of struggling to cope with the one-and-done wave washing over college basketball, it seems that UNC’s knack for grabbing slightly less heralded recruits but keeping them around for two or three years is paying off. Their 20th Final Four, their second in a row, something the program hasn’t experiences since 2008 and 2009, when they ended up winning their 5th and last (to date) national championship. The win over Kentucky showcased the kind of team built for this occasion. If it wasn’t for some poor decision making on transition offense and a terrible shooting night, the game wouldn’t have needed that late drama.
But it did, creating NCAA Tournament magic. Luke Maye, a sophomore averaging less than 6 points per game this season, helped UNC on their 12-0 run to wake up from their second half shellshock, finish with 17 points in 20 minutes and end up hitting the game winning jumper with 0.3 seconds left. Justin Jackson and Joel Berry are this team’s stars, there’s no arguing. But Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson came up huge last night with 8 combined blocks, and overcoming what might have been the most individually talented team in the field.
Oregon’s Final Four hasn’t been in the making for 20 years like Gonzaga, but they have been doing all the right things over the last five or six years to position themselves at the upper echelon of the Pac-12 and eventually, college basketball. The Ducks have what might be the scariest lineup in the Final Four, considering they simply destroyed a stacked Kansas team in the Elite Eight.
Dillon Brooks is having a good tournament. Tyler Dorsey is having an incredible one, averaging 24.5 points per game, scoring 20 or more in each of the four games. The Ducks don’t have depth, but they have the best 1-2 tandem left in the tournament, which just might be enough, even with their draw taking them through North Carolina next weekend.
South Carolina Gamecocks
The real cinderella. South Carolina, be it the Gamecocks or Clemson, is football country. This program had a nice, short run in the 1970s, but since then nothing. Until now. Frank Martin has been slowly putting the pieces together. A big lineup, committed to playing defense for 40 minutes. They almost didn’t make it into the tournament, but once they did, they’ve been the kind of team that no one wants to meet in the tournament, as higher seeds like Duke and Florida witnessed first hand.
The Gamecocks don’t shoot that well, but they can run and grind it out. Above everyone is Sindarius Thornwell, averaging 25.75 points per game in this tournament, finishing with 27 points in the win over Florida. Just like South Carolina broke out this season, the same goes for Thornwell, who is averaging 21.6 points in his senior year, having not just the kind of year he’ll always remember, but putting South Carolina basketball on the map for the first time in history.