GLENDALE, Ariz. — Have you had enough of my NCAA Tournament picks yet?
After I went .500 in the Sweet 16, I could understand. But I rallied in the Elite Eight, going 3-1 including the South Carolina upset of Florida. For extra credit, I even told you how Oregon would beat Kansas. I just didn’t have the guts to pick it.
So maybe I’m on a roll. Maybe I just got lucky.
We'llsee Saturday in the 2017 Final Four at University of Phoenix Stadium. Actually, it’ll be afternoon here — don’t think that’ll make a difference.
South Carolina vs. Gonzaga (6:09 p.m. ET, on CBS)
This is one of the strangest games we’ve encountered in recent Final Four history. The Gamecocks have played brilliantly during the course of the tournament. What’s odd about that is that “brilliant” almost never came up during the team’s regular season, and certainly not for any extended period of time. So do we just assume this is the new normal for the Gamecocks?
They are averaging 82 points in the NCAA Tournament, 10 more per game than during the regular season. That’s five more baskets with the level of competition significantly increased. Remember, that 72-point regular season average included 90 in a game against Lander. (No, I am not making that up. There is a Lander University, and South Carolina played them).
Gonzaga has been a much more consistent squad since the start of the season. For one, the Zags have won nearly every game they played, andmosthaven’t been particularly close. Their defense has improved dramatically over previous seasons, and is ranked as the most effective in Division I basketball. Three of their four NCAA opponents scored fewer than 70 points; their three high-major opponents shot 24 percent on 3s.
Is it likely for South Carolina to produce another offensive outburst against that unit? It is not. Is it possible Gonzaga struggles enough against South Carolina’s defense to help the Gamecocks forceturnovers,thus limiting USC’s exposure to that defense? Absolutely. Florida turned it over 16 times in the East Region final. Aside from the basics — no foul trouble, no injuries — that’s the most important element of Gonzaga’s game plan.
Gonzaga, against West Virginia’s end-to-end pressure D, committed 16 turnovers. That was too many, and it nearly cost them. If not for Jordan Matthews’ heroic 3-pointer just inside the final minute, there might be a different squad opposing South Carolina. The Zags are playing two point guards, Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins. They need to stand up to the Gamecocks’ physicality, but they won’t have much of an excuse if turnovers become an issue.
The pick: The Zags make their first-ever championship game after winningtheir first-ever Final Four game.
North Carolina vs. Oregon (8:49 p.m. ET, on CBS)
North Carolina’s primary concern is obvious: The Heels must make this game about power, not speed. That’s not always easy in basketball these days. Look at the NBA, where big men once ruled before getting usurped by smaller guys who can shoot.
Since the Ducks lost center Chris Boucher to a knee injury in the Pac-12 Tournament, they’ve been so dynamic as to chase Michigan’s Mo Wagner off the floor (24 total minutes, 3-of-10 shooting) and render Kansas’ Landen Lucas irrelevant (4-of-9 shooting). Can they do it again to North Carolina’s wide-bodied Kennedy Meeks?
Oregon’s dynamic Jordan Bell has been the principal agent of destruction for the Ducks in this tournament. He had a combined 12 blocks in the past three games and averaged 12.5 points and 66.7 percent shooting.
This game should come down to whether Meeks can attack Bell inside and use his years of low-post experience to get him off balance, perhaps even into foul trouble. Meeks cannot try to beat Bell with quick motion. That’s exactly what hewants, because Bell knows he’s quicker than pretty much everyone he faces. If Meeks can get the ball into the goal, great.But even just getting it on the rim could be enough, sinceUNC is the best offensive rebounding team in Division I.
At the other end, there is the massive question of whether Carolina can defend effectively without having to “match down” to the Ducks. The Heels have been able to play their three bigs (Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and freshman Tony Bradley) against most opponents. But this is the most dynamic team they will face all season.
Hicks can move, but can he keep up with Dillon Brooks, who is an NBA-caliber wing player now operating at power forward? Can Bell’s speed unsettle Meeks to the point that he struggles at both ends?
As good as Oregon was in the Kansas game, let’s not forget how thin the Jayhawks were this season; they had some great answers (Josh Jackson, Frank Mason) but not many beyond that. When Carolina looks on its bench, it finds a guy in Luke Maye who could have been a walk-on — and instead took his scholarship and delivered consecutive career highs in two South Region games. Carolina has other options.
The pick: If it takes using every last one of those options, the Tar Heels will move forward.