1. Joel Berry's ankles
Berry was on the court for North Carolina’s open practice Friday afternoon and moving without any obvious discomfort. He said to reporters during media sessions at University of Phoenix Stadium he was not feeling entirely healthy but thought he could get there by tip-off.
The ankles have been problematic since the start of the tournament, when he was injured in the first round against Texas Southern. He hurt himself again in the first half against Kentucky, left the game for a short period and wound up finishing with 11 points in 33 minutes.
For a player supposedly diminished by injury, he did a nice job finishing right-hand drives in the regional final against Kentucky. Oregon might believe it can get by with one of its lesser defenders against him because of those injury problems, but if he avoids turning his ankle again Berry could excel.
If he were limited, UNC would have to depend more on senior Nate Britt, who does not exert the same control over the offense and provide the same long-distance shooting threat.
Berry acknowledged following Sunday’s UK game he was in significant discomfort, but now he says, “It feels better than what it was.”
2. Gonzaga's defensive excellence
It is difficult to believe that Gonzaga stands today with the No. 1 defense in Division I basketball, given the program’s history. For years that was the part of the game the Zags struggled to master. Over the past five years, they’ve gradually made progress at that end, but defensive issues frequently cost them at crucial junctures.
For instance, the 2006 team that featured Adam Morrison and went 29-4 – that team ranked 170thin defense.South Carolina has gotten a ton of attention for its defense during the course of the tournament, in part because the Gamecocks almost certainly would not be playing here without playing back-breaking D.
Gonzaga has used multiple looks in its defense depending on the opposition and what was right for the moment. One essential component of the Zags’ D is the massive presence of center Przemek Karnowski, who will be challenged by the sort of athleticism that caused some problems for the Zags in the Sweet 16 against West Virginia.
“The rim protection that we have this year is different than anything we’ve been able to put out there,” coach Mark Few said. “We’ve got the bulk, the strength, size of Karnowski which allows us to not have to double-team. So then we’re not forced into rotations.
“And I’m telling you, the guy that probably makes the biggest difference for us is Johnathan Williams III. He can guard one through five … Just to have somebody that versatile and you’re so comfortable with, you can switch ball screens and things like that, it makes a heck of a difference.”
Gonzaga needs to be firm early on defense against South Carolina and work to convince the Gamecocks their past two sizzling weekends were a fluke.
3. Oregon's shotmaking
Entering the NCAA Tournament, Oregon was shooting 37.7 percent from 3-point range. That’s a top-60 number in that category. Not bad, not great.In the four games that delivered the Ducks to the Final Four, they are at 43.2 percent, raising their season conversion rate to 38.3 percent. That places them 40th. They’ve improved by 20 spots in four games.
That’s how good Oregon has been.
Or should we say, that’s how good Mr. March has been. That’s what Tyler Dorsey’s teammates call him, and with good reason. In the tournament, he is shooting 65.4 percent. That’s ridiculous. He was shooting 38.8 percent on Selection Sunday, which would rank 52ndin the nation if he had enough made threes to qualify. Just four games later he is up to 43.2 percent, which would rank 15th.
“His entire game has picked up,” coach Dana Altman said. “I think it goes back to the Arizona State game, our first game in the conference tournament, he got nine rebounds. And really defensively he was great in the Cal game.“His teammates are finding him. Our ball movement’s been pretty good. And he’s on the receiving end of some good passes … But I think the biggest thing is he’s just got involved in the entire game, and it’s kept him focused.”
4. South Carolina's first line of defense
How can you not notice Notice? It seems odd, but for all the attention that’s gone to wings Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier, guard Duane Notice has been sensational in the tournament and gotten almost no attention.He did not have his most productive game in the regional final, scoring only 6 points against Florida, but Notice has three double-figure scoring games in the NCAAs and delivered 12 assists to only 5 turnovers.
Thornwell has been terrific all year, but when South Carolina busted out of the SEC Tournament in its first game, against Alabama, Notice was scoreless in 31 minutes. There might be some connection between his improvement and the Gamecocks’?
He’ll have to face All-American Nigel Williams-Goss, but Williams-Goss will have to deal with Notice’s uncommon power defending the ball. South Carolina plays zone, but rarely allows offenses to contemplate their passes and movements. Williams-Goss will not have a comfortable night.
“Just as your point guard initiates your offense, your on-ball defender initiates your defense,” coach Frank Martin said. “Even though he doesn’t play the point on offense, he’s our point on defense. And he’s relentless … that’s the hardest thing in basketball, is guarding the guy with the ball. And he’s just relentless at it.”