It's a historic Final Four for the Pacific Northwest as two teams, Oregon and Gonzaga, will take the hardwood in Arizona to keep their national title hopes alive.
Here's everything you need to know about the two matchups:
Oregon vs. North Carolina
WHEN: Saturday, April 1, 5:49 p.m.
BETTING LINE: North Carolina (-5)
Three key matchups
1. Does North Carolina make Oregon go big or will Oregon force UNC to play small? Without Chris Boucher available, Oregon has gone full-time to a small-ball look, playing Dillon Brooks at the four. North Carolina is never, ever going to play small-ball, as Roy Williams is one of the last remaining coaches that still plays two big men almost regardless of the situation. It’s part of the reason that the Tar Heels are the nation’s best offensive rebounding team.
Something is going to have to give. Maybe it’s Isaiah Hicks, the guy that will likely be tasked with chasing around Brooks for UNC and who has developed quite the habit of getting into foul trouble. Maybe Dana Altman will be forced to play Kavell Bigby-Williams and Jordan Bell together to keep the Tar Heels for controlling the paint. Hell, Bell could very well end up looking like Ben Wallace once again and control the paint all on his own.
However it plays out, I can see this matchup being what changes things one way or the other.
2. How do the Tar Heels deal with Oregon’s switching defenses? The Ducks used a number of different looks against Kansas to take the Jayhawks out of a rhythm offensively. They played some man and they played some matchup zone, and it helped keep Josh Jackson and Devonte’ Graham from finding any kind of a rhythm on the perimeter. I don’t think it’s a hot take to say that more than anything, it was Kansas missing shots they normally make that cost them in the second half, and Oregon’s ability to change defenses and keep them off balance played a major role in that.
So how does North Carolina deal with those different looks? They’re fall less reliant on the three ball than Kansas is, and their size might be able to nullify Bell’s presence on the interior. It will also be interesting to see how the Ducks deal with Justin Jackson on that end, as they don’t really have a player on the roster than can handle his height (6-foot-8), ability to put the ball on the floor and shooting touch.
3. Is Joel Berry II or Tyler Dorsey better? Justin Jackson is North Carolina’s best player and was deservedly named an All-American for the Tar Heels this season, but North Carolina goes as Joel Berry II goes. He rolled his ankle in UNC’s first round win over Texas Southern and shot 3-for-21 in two games during the first weekend, one of which was a near-upset at the hands of Arkansas. When he was back near 100 percent, he had 26 points on 8-for-13 shooting in a beatdown of No. 4 seed Butler in the Sweet 16.
Berry has a favorable matchup in the back court on Saturday, likely drawing freshman point guard Payton Pritchard when Oregon goes man-to-man, and if he’s healthy, he should be able to take advantage of that. The problem? Berry rolled his other ankle against Kentucky on Sunday. He’ll have six days to get back to being himself, because the Tar Heels are going to need him.
Along those same lines, Brooks has been Oregon’s best player for two years, but Tyler Dorsey is playing as well as anyone in the country right now. When he’s putting up 24 points a night, Oregon is a different — a better — team. I expect that he’ll have to deal with Theo Pinson, who is UNC’s best perimeter defender and, at 6-foot-6, will have a size advantage on Dorsey.
Odds are pretty good at this point that one of those two is going to have a big game.
Related: Why we need a Ducks-Zags final
The best story line
Everything about this North Carolina run is fascinating, so take your pick here:
- The Tar Heels, just a year removed from a brutal, heart-breaking, soul-crushing loss at the buzzer to Villanova are back in the Final Four as the favorite to win the national title.
- For the second straight year, the Tar Heels are in the Final Four with the weight of an NCAA investigation looming over them. The NCAA’s ruling on the academic scandal involving the athletic department keeps getting pushed back, which means that we’ll be hearing from plenty of people that UNC shouldn’t even be allowed to be eligible for this tournament. Trust me. It’ll be a thing.
- If North Carolina does win, where does Roy Williams rank among the greatest coaches of all-time? He’ll be one of just six with three national titles.
PREDICTION: North Carolina (-5)
Gonzaga vs. South Carolina
WHEN: Saturday, April 1, 3:09 p.m.
BETTING LINE: Gonzaga (-6.5)
Three key matchups
1. Who checks Sindarius Thornwell? Thornwell has been the best player in the NCAA tournament to date, and it’s really not all that close. He’s not only the leading scorer in the NCAA tournament to date at 25.7 points, but he’s also been a lockdown defender for the Gamecocks.
But the reason Thornwell is going to be such a problem for Gonzaga is ability on the offensive end of the floor. At 6-foot-5 with long arms and the physicality of a nose tackle, Thornwell can bully guards in the paint. But you can’t guard him with a bigger defender because he is, after all, a guard. He’ll blow by them or shoot a three over them when given space.
Gonzaga doesn’t really have an answer for a guy like that. None of their guards are taller than 6-foot-4. Few put Johnathan Williams III on Trevon Bluiett in the Elite 8 and he slowed down the Xavier star, but Xavier trots out a small-ball line with Bluiett at the four. Thornwell will, at times, play the four for South Carolina, but the Gamecocks start two bigs. The easy answer is to double Thornwell on the catch, as South Carolina’s bigs, Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar, are non-shooters, which is why I expect South Carolina will eventually be forced to play small.
2. Can Gonzaga’s guards do anything against that South Carolina defense? South Carolina and West Virginia play different defenses — WVU presses 94 feet while South Carolina plays half-court man-to-man or a 2-3 zone — but the point or their defenses are essentially the same: They want to force you out of the sets you want to run and make your playmakers try to beat their defenders one-on-one.
And the Mountaineers were totally successful. Nigel Williams-Goss was awful — 2-for-10 shooting five turnovers — and Josh Perkins was invisible, and the game became a rugby match, which is exactly how WVU and SC want to play. Offensively, Gonzaga is a similar team to Baylor in the sense that their guards aren’t great at creating off the dribble against players that are more physical and more athletic than them and they are at their best when they run offense through the post.
Baylor’s guards couldn’t do anything against South Carolina, and they lost by 20. Gonzaga’s guards are significantly better — Williams-Goss is an All-American — but if they struggle the way they did against West Virginia, Gonzaga might be in trouble.
3. Who wins the battle of the front courts? Like I said earlier, Gonzaga’s offense is at its best when they are getting the rock to Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams III in the post. As tough as South Carolina’s front court is, they are going to be at a serious size disadvantage against Mount Poland and JW3, and that’s to say nothing of Zach Collins, a McDonald’s All-American and a potential one-and-done prospect. If Gonzaga can force South Carolina to play big — with Thornwell at the three instead of at the four — they’ll have a much better shot at winning this game.
The best story line
Both of these teams are programs that probably shouldn’t be in the Final Four.
And I don’t mean that as an insult.
Gonzaga, 25 years ago, was one of the worst programs in the WCC, but they’ve managed to hold on to a potential Hall of Famer in Mark Few for 18 years, and it’s paid off. They’re now a top 15 college basketball program in the Final Four. And South Carolina is a place with almost no basketball history to speak of. This is their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance since 1974. Prior to their upset of Duke in the second round of the tournament, South Carolina had never won back-to-back NCAA tournament games.
It doesn’t matter who wins.
It’s incredible that one of these two teams will be playing for a national title on Monday night.
PREDICTION: I like South Carolina (+6.5). I don’t know if the Gamecocks can win this game, but I do think that they will be able to keep it close in a low-scoring game as Sindarius Thornwell has another big game and their defense keeps them in the mix.
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