Damn this tournament is a humbling experience. One second you think you’re moving on, then one floater from three point land later, you’re heading home. One day, your picks are going great, then you go 1-5 against the spread on Friday and Saturday. But unlike those poor kids from Wisconsin and Kentucky, I at least get another chance to redeem myself.
It won’t be easy though, as our Final Four has a few unexpected entrants: one of these teams hasn’t made it this far since World War II (Oregon), and two others are breaking the ice altogether (South Carolina and Gonzaga).
All these wrinkles just make for a (potentially) more interesting finals match-up though. Could it be a border war in the Pacific Northwest, or one that decides which Carolina is superior? Let’s pick apart Saturday’s games to find out.
Final Four Picks
South Carolina Gamecocks vs Gonzaga Bulldogs (-6.5, 138.5 o/u)
For the second game in a row, either Gonzaga or their opponent will reach brand new heights in the program’s history. And once again, the Bulldogs will be looking to break the glass slipper of the tournament’s biggest Cinderella story. After dispatching Xavier by a dominant 83-59 mark, the Zags will look to make their first title game by beating the surprise of the tournament, South Carolina.
The Gamecocks hadn’t won a tournament game since 1973, but they won more this year than Duke, Villanova, and Louisville combined. Their latest triumph, a 77-70 win over SEC rivals Florida, was yet another reel for NBA scouts to get excited over Sindarius Thornwell. The senior guard had 26 points and seven boards, leading South Carolina to another upset win, and giving the possible second-round pick an even larger stage to boost his draft stock.
A big way he can demonstrate his value at the next level is by showing off his skills as a perimeter defender on Zags guard Nigel Williams-Goss. The Bulldogs leading scorer has had a rough tourney from the field, shooting just 31.1-percent. While he’s been able to influence games with ball movement, he also had trouble with an aggressive West Virginia D, coughing the ball up five times. Thornwell could be another obvious-joke in his side.
But even if the Gamecocks’ lockdown D is able to do what it does best, it still has to find a way to score on Gonzaga. And the Bulldogs are the very best in the nation at stymieing opponents. Mark Few’s squad is first in adjusted defensive efficiency, while Frank Martin’s offense drags way behind (105th in adjusted offensive efficiency). South Carolina is going to have trouble filling the net.
Gonzaga may not have played the toughest opponents to get here, but they are the deepest, most well-rounded team left in the tourney. That’s something you can trust in more than an amazing underdog run. This is finally the Bulldogs year, so take them to advance in convincing fashion.
Pick: Gonzaga (-6.5).
Oregon Ducks vs North Carolina Tarheels (-5, 151 o/u)
A three-seed making a Final Four run shouldn’t be all that surprising, but the Ducks run somehow fits that bill. The absence of Chris Boucher was supposed to hinder this team. Why I believe some idiot touted that “Boucher was an anchor on the defensive end.”
Well, clearly I forgot that all the best ships have more than one anchor, because Jordan Bell absolutely cemented the Oregon boat to the seabed, sinking Kansas’ high-powered offense in the process. His eight blocks were a tournament record for a Pac-12 player, while his seven offensive rebounds gave the Ducks plenty of second-chance opportunities. Overall, Oregon had another masterful performance, shooting over 50-percent from the field and 44-percent from three, while holding the Jayhawks to 35-percent shooting.
North Carolina needed a little more magic to win their region, with Luke Maye — a former walk-on who averaged five points a game this season — hitting the decisive shot to lift the Tar Heels over Kentucky after UNC nearly blew a seven-point lead in the final 50 seconds.
It wasn’t all good news for Roy Williams though; starting point guard Joel Berry played through two bad ankles in the win and is in rough shape heading into next weekend. If he’s not at full strength, it will make for a very interesting game against Oregon.
Questioning the Ducks’ production down-low is starting to get old, but it wouldn’t matter if Boucher, Bell or Bismack Biyombo was dressing for Oregon: that Tarheels frontcourt is unstoppable. Kennedy Meeks and company dominate the rebound margin by +13 per game, and scored 34 points in the paint against Kentucky. But if Berry is hobbling around again, it should give Oregon guards Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis more space to create offense, while simultaneously hindering UNC’s ability to work the ball down low.
The Tar Heels have a significant experience advantage over every other Final Four team. Not only is this coach Roy Williams’ ninth appearance, but almost all of this team suffered that crushing loss to Villanova in the championship game last season. Yet even with that “been there, done that” mentality, it’s hard to love the Tar Heels if Berry’s ankles are shot since there’s such little depth behind him.
Oregon hasn’t been a dog much this season, but they are 3-1 ATS in that situation. They certainly have enough offensive talent to keep this one close against the hobbled Heels. However, if you see Berry doing a perfect riverdance before Saturday, you may want to rethink this strategy.
Pick: Oregon (+5).