What a fresh-faced Final Four field we have! Not only are Gonzaga and South Carolina making their first ever Final Four appearances, but Oregon has snapped a drought that dates back to the start of World War II (1939). Oh right, there’s also the grizzled mug of North Carolina, which will be making its NCAA-leading 20th Final Four appearance.
The actual faces on the court won’t be all that youthful. None of the freshman phenoms remain, as Payton Pritchard (Oregon) and Maik Kotsar (South Carolina) are the only two freshman scheduled to start for their respective teams this weekend. So we can hold off on the one-and-done discussion for now. Which of these veteran-laden rosters will be advancing to the National Championship? Here are my picks against the spread for Saturday’s Final Four matchups (April 1).
Final Four Picks
South Carolina vs. Gonzaga (-6.5, 138 o/u)
The Gamecocks magical run as a no. 7 has been sparked by two things: Sindarius Thornwell and gritty defense. The SEC Player of the Year has averaged 25.75 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game in the tournament. More importantly, Thornwell has always been there, at both ends of the floor, when the Gamecocks need him most.
During regular season play, South Carolina ranked 31st in the country in points allowed, only surrendering 64.9 per game. That defense has not let up at all in the tournament, holding three of four opponents to at least seven points fewer than their regular season averages. (Duke scored 0.2 points more than their average.) South Carolina is only giving up 68.5 points per game in the big dance, but will have to deal with the most efficient offense they’ve seen yet in Gonzaga.
Led by Nigel Williams-Goss, the Bulldog offense ranked fifth in offensive efficiency in the regular season. The unit rediscovered its groove against Xavier in the West Regional Final, routing the Musketeers 83-59. But this isn’t just an offensive-minded squad. Gonzaga possesses the nation’s fourth-ranked defense and has only surrendered 60-plus points once in the tournament (79-73 vs Northwestern). Mark Few’s Bulldogs are an efficient and balanced team.
West Virginia was able to prove Gonzaga does have a few blemishes, though. Consistent pressure on Williams-Goss led to five turnovers, and an offense that could never get in sync. Zach Collins didn’t record a single shot against the Mountaineers, and he and fellow big Przemek Karnowski combined to commit five turnovers of their own.
It will be crucial for the Gamecocks to pressure the Bulldogs every trip down the floor.
For Gonzaga, the key will be preventing another huge second half from South Carolina. Frank Martin’s squad has outscored its opponents in every second half this tournament, combining for a +54 point-differential after the break.
Though I believe the Bulldogs will advance, I’m expecting South Carolina to give Gonzaga some of the same issues as West Virginia thanks to an active defense. My money is on the Gamecocks to keep it within 6.5.
Pick: South Carolina (+6.5)
Oregon vs. North Carolina (-5, 151.5 o/u)
I have spent the entire tournament betting against Oregon, and you’d think I would have learned my lesson. (Keep reading to find out.) The Ducks have looked just fine without Chris Boucher, largely thanks to the defensive dominance of Jordan Bell. The junior forward recorded an astounding eight blocks against Kansas in the Midwest Region Final, and has totaled 12 in the tournament. Bell has also averaged 12.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, while shooting an impressive 73.3-percent from the field.
Bell’s efficiency on the offensive end has been paired with a breakout performance from Tyler Dorsey (24.5 PPG). It seems we can start setting our watches to Dorsey showing up in the month of March. Not only is Mr. March 17 of 26 from behind the arc (65.4-percent), but he has hit many of these shots in extremely high-pressure situations, providing Oregon with game-winning buckets against URI and Michigan.
The truly scary part about Oregon right now is that leading scorer Dillon Brooks has been just average (16.5 PPG). Another clutch shooter, Brooks has 25-point potential on any given night.
It’s difficult to find a more talented starting-five than what UNC trots out on the court. The quintet of Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks possesses a ton of talent on the offensive end, plus the length to disrupt anyone on the defensive end.
Roy Williams’ squad can beat you in a variety of ways offensively (ninth in scoring) and, outside of when Jackson starts “feeling it,” play a selfless game (third in assists per game). But what opponents fear the most is their relentless pursuit of missed shots. UNC averages the most rebounds per game in the nation, and rebound a ridiculous 40.9-percent of their own misses.
If there’s one thing the Tar Heels don’t do so well, it’s shoot the three. Jackson is very streaky, and Joel Berry will be playing on sprained ankles, if he does suit-up. Oregon’s length and matchup-zone defense have forced teams into settling for outside jumpers. This is something UNC cannot allow itself to fall into; they need to get the ball inside to Meeks and Hicks, and put Jordan Bell into foul trouble early.
The biggest factor in the game will be Berry’s health. If the quarterback of UNC’s offense is hobbled by his ankle injuries, the offense won’t be nearly as effective. Though I expect Berry to play, I have learned my lesson betting against the Ducks. Give me the points.
Pick: Oregon (+5)
Photo Credit: Ian McCormick (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.