GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Final Four is finally here.
Here are the four most underrated stories heading into the games between Gonzaga-South Carolinaand North Carolina-Oregon:
1. Oregon’s transformation
In the final eight games he played before being lost for the season with a knee injury, center Chris Boucher averaged 21 minutes, 10.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2 blocks. He also made at least one 3-pointer in each of those games. This was not an insignificant player. Without him, the Ducks were almost certain to become a fundamentally different team.
And coach Dana Altman had almost no time to figure out how that team should play.
The Boucher injury occurred late in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinal against California, with the final scheduled for the following day. The Ducks had to play the final roughly 24 hours later. Altman at first tried to keep a similar rotation, using 6-11 Kavell Bigby-Williams for 14 minutes against Arizona, 15 against Iona in the NCAA first round and 13 in a tough second-round battle with Rhode Island. Bigby-Williams didn’t play badly, but it wasn’t working.
In the time between escaping Rhody and challenging Michigan in the Sweet 16, Altman and his coaches decided to play 6-9 Jordan Bell as a fulltime center, 6-6 Dillon Brooks at power forward and just go.
That lineup created miserable days for Kansas center Landen Lucas and Michigan center Mo Wagner, and it could be a problem for North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks if he’s not patient enough to use his body and his footwork.
Altman hasn’t gotten much credit for what he accomplished in such a short time. John Calipari mentioned it on his “Cal Cast” podcast: “I thought the kid getting hurt was going to set them back big-time. How about this? They’re in the Final Four. And that’s with the kid being injured late. That is ridiculously hard because it changes your team.”
But part of the reason Altman is being overlooked is because he pretty much prefers it that way. Over two days at the Final Four he had plenty of occasions to remind everyone of how hard it is —how rare it is —to do accomplish this. He didn’t. Altman doesn’t care if you think he’s a genius.
2. Justin Jackson’s defense
Lost in the instant stardom conveyed upon sophomore forward Luke Maye for his game-winning jumpshot against Kentucky —all of it deserved of course —was the incredible game played by North Carolina All-American forward against UK top scorer Malik Monk.
Monk scored only 12 points against Carolina, and half those came on two 3-pointers in the final minute at the Wildcats rallied to tie the game. Some criticized Monk for poor play—without considering Jackson had made Monk disappear.
With his length and mobility, Jackson —who stands 6-8 00 is the kind of player every wing scorer hopes will defend the other guy on his team.
If the pattern continues against Oregon for Jackson to take on the opponent’s most dangerous perimeter scorer, it could be a challenging evening for guard Tyler Dorsey. He is not as dynamic as Monk, though he is willing to back up to 24 or 25 feet to fire a jumpshot.
Jackson was a first-team All-American for Sporting News, which was chosen following the regular season. His play this month at both ends of the floor underscored that he was the proper choice to join Frank Mason of Kansas, Josh Hart of Villanova, Caleb Swanigan of Purdue and Lonzo Ball of UCLA.
3. A recruiting base is invaluable
Some who follow college basketball have come to believe that a program doesn’t need a rich regional talent base to thrive in Division I, that all recruiting can be national. And those people are right, so long as your program is Kentucky or Louisville or your coach is a Hall of Famer like Jim Boeheim.
But South Carolina is here because Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier grew up in the state and coach Frank Martin and his staff did a magnificent job of convincing them to stay home to play hoops —when they were well aware their sport is not the primary obsession of Gamecocks fans.
“They’re from here. So they kind of saw that there was apathy in place, that there wasn’t a lot of success. Not too many fans were coming to games,” Martin said. “It was hard to get them to no see what they’ve seen and put my goggles on and see what I’m trying to see.”
They maybe knew too much, but if they weren’t from South Carolina then Martin would have had little chance. What reason would such high-level prospects have had to come?
4. Does size still matter?
North Carolina is the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in college basketball. That is the principal reason the Tar Heels are the sixth-best offense in college basketball. But can that make the same difference in this game that is has in so many before?
The Heels are among the few teams that still employ, at most times, two true big men inside. Center Kennedy Meeks and power forward Isaiah Hicks start, and freshman Tony Bradley spells both of them. Some of Luke Maye’s minutes will come out of this pool, as well; he’s not as tall and shoots extremely well but is not as dynamic as some stretch-4 types.
Oregon’s greatest success in this tournament has come from emphasizing speed and movement. Meeks will have a challenge defending Ducks center Jordan Bell, and though Hicks has excellent feet for a power player he might find keeping up with Brooks to be even more difficult.
You’ll know things are going badly for Carolina if suddenly you see Justin Jackson out there with Hicks or Meeks and a set of smaller backcourt players. That doesn’t mean such an arrangement can’t work for the Heels, but they’d prefer to stick with what got them here.