Before the close of college basketball's regular season, Sporting News began a weekly series of columns listing the teams that appeared to contain most or all of the essential qualities to win the NCAA Tournament.
We started with 10 teams, an unusually high number for an unusual season in which there was abundant talent spread across the nation but no one team that had so much as to be a singularly dominant force against elite competition. The list actually grew a smidge as the season neared its conclusion.
Now that we are down to theFinal Four, we have three of the original teams remaining.
Yes, as wild as this NCAA Tournament as seemed, as wild as it has been, the presence of Gonzaga, Oregon and North Carolina is not at all shocking. Though Oregon struggled in November because of injuries, these three have been among the nation’s best teams since the season’s first month. South Carolina is another story altogether. After a nice early surge in non-conference games, they’ve been one of the nation’s best for four games.
Thus it seems likely that 75 percent of the Final Four teams have a legit shot at the NCAA title. That seems fitting for the season we’ve had.
Here is how they rank, in order of potential to be lifting the trophy Monday night in Glendale, Ariz.:
1. North Carolina
Why they’ll win it: The Tar Heels’ late comebacks in NCAA Tournament games against Arkansas and Kentucky have sealed what appeared to be the one severe crack in the team’s construction. Senior guard Nate Britt said coach Roy Williams told the team in a timeout with fiveminutes left against UK and the Heels down 64-59, “This is just like Arkansas; you’ve got to get stops and you’ve got to make plays. And you’re tough enough to do it.”
And they were. And they are. The Heels’ physical toughness has never been a major issue; this is among the best offensive rebounding teams. But they have advanced beyond their ugly losses at Miami and Virginia and the second-half collapse in the ACC semifinals against Duke. There are few games more pressurized than the one that pits two teams on the verge of the Final Four, and Carolina performed in in those final minutes against Kentucky with great confidence.
The escalation of forward Justin Jackson’s game to include defensive excellence was a bit of a revelation Sunday. Williams wanted defensive stopper Theo Pinson to cope with UK point guard De’Aaron Fox and offered plenty of help from big defenders. Jackson was mostly on his own against Malik Monk, who’d stung the Heels for 47 points in their first meeting. Jackson was a one-man swarm and held Monk to just sixpoints in the first 39 minutes. That will help against Oregon, probably on “Mr. March” Tyler Dorsey in the semifinals. Jackson also might be the most difficult player to defend of all those at the Final Four because of his ability to shoot over defenders whether from 22 feet or six.
Why they might not: Following Sunday’s game point guard Joel Berry acknowledged he had played with severe pain in his ankle after twisting it in the first half. He’d previously hurt his ankle in the team’s NCAA opener.
“I feel a lot worse than I did against Texas Southern, but we’ve got a whole week off this time,” Berry said. It was his absence against Duke because of foul issues that led to Carolina blowing a double-digit lead. That’s how important he is.
There also is the matter of how this team’s preferred two-big lineup with match up with Oregon’s breathtaking athleticism and mobility. Will the Heels be forced to match down, playing one big man with 6-8 Jackson, 6-6 Pinson and two guards?
Why they might win it: Massive center Przemek Karnowski didn’t even score double figures against Xavier in the regional final and still managed to dominate the game. His ability to control space in the lane gives Gonzaga an edge over nearly every opponent. The Bulldogs have become an impressive defensive team, starting with guard Nigel Williams-Goss’ ability to control the point of attack and moving on to the determination of wings Silas Melson and Josh Perkins and ultimately to the length and mobility of forward Jonathan Williams.
On offense the Zags feature a variety of players who are top-notch shot-makers (Williams-Goss, Perkins, Jordan Matthews) as well as Williams, who can stretch a defense with his ability to perform on the perimeter. This might be the deepest team at the Final Four, with bigs Zach Collins and Killian Tillie providing cover for both the big-man spots.
Why they won’t: This might be the least dynamic team at the Final Four. That’s not meant as an insult; someone has to be. But only Williams is a high-end run-jump athlete relative to the position he plays. That could become problematic against either of the potential title-game opponents.
It helps a bit for Gonzaga to have operated against a zone defense in the regional final against Xavier, but South Carolina plays its matchup zone with far greater activity and aggression. The Gamecocks are more physical and aggressive and are quicker to the ball. The Bulldogs will have a challenge to survive to Monday night.
Why they might win it:Jordan Bell has become the ultimate luxury for the Ducks in the wake of losing center Chris Boucher to a knee injury during the Pac-12 Tournament. He is a massive physical presence who moves like a small forward. It’s extremely difficult for opposing bigs to keep up with him, even though he’s not a great threat to score from the perimeter. Michigan had to remove center Mo Wagner from its Sweet 16 game against the Ducks, and Kansas center Landen Lucas was lost for that reason in the Elite Eight.
North Carolina plays the vast majority of the time with two true baseline players on the floor; the only exception has been the introduction of shooter Luke Maye to greater prominence in the rotation. The Heels have relied plenty on their ability to offensive rebound and either score immediately or spend the extra possessions on shots by Jackson or Berry. The Ducks very well could take away one of UNC’s primary strengths within the first few minutes.
They also have become an excellent perimeter scoring team, with Dorsey’s development into a 20-point man the most important element of that strength.
Why they won’t: A week of watching tape will give the Heels plenty of time to prepare for the differences in Oregon’s new approach. Kansas had only a short turnaround to devise a plan to cope with the Ducks’ dynamism. Dorsey may struggle to find shooting room against Jackson’s reach. Oregon isn’t getting much lately from its point guard position, with freshman Payton Pritchard losing his influence and veteran Casey Benson lacking the talent to make a real difference at this level.
4. South Carolina
Why they might win it: There’ve been few defenses in recent NCAA Tournament history as responsible for a Final Four trip as this one. The Gamecocks will arrive in Phoenix carrying the weight of the 105th-ranked offense in college basketball —but it’s the No. 2 defense that’s flying them there. The Gamecocks’ zone is physical, active and disruptive. No team in the tournament solved it entirely, even Florida, which had dealt with it before.
It’s obvious the offense isn’t the trainwreck it once was. In the four NCAA games, USC scored fewer than 77 points just once. Two of those were against suspect defensive teams, but Vanderbilt was no steamroller and USC got only 62 against the Commodores.
South Carolina also has an uncommon will, becoming one of the few teams to reach the Final Four after recovering from halftime deficits in three games along the way. There seems little doubt the Gamecocks are among the best-conditioned teams in the tournament given their ability to continue pushing to the final buzzer.
Why they won’t: This isn’t the first surprise Final Four team we’ve ever seen, and this one might face less imposing opposition than some in past years. Not Gonzaga, specifically, but the entire flawed field. So it’s possible for the Gamecocks to manufacture two more unexpected efforts and leave Phoenix with a trophy that seemed unimaginable just three weeks ago, after they lost their first SEC Tournament game to Alabama. By 11 points. While scoring only 53.
No team in the KenPom era has won with an offense that ranked worse in efficiency than 37th (Connecticut, 2014). Most champions have been top-10. South Carolina would be by far the worst offensive team of the 64-team era to win it all. It just seems like a stretch.