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This Year’s Final Four Is Built On Defense

After a thrilling Elite-Eight capper on Sunday, the Final Four is finally set. Here’s a rundown of four big storylines that jumped out at me, along with the numbers behind them:

Blue-blood battle

The matchup between North Carolina and Kentucky lived up to its billing — and then some. The two teams traded the lead several times in the game’s final 10 minutes, and Kentucky tied it at 73 with 10 seconds to play before UNC’s Luke Maye hit a game-winning jumper right before the buzzer to secure the Tar Heels a spot in the Final Four.

Though the Wildcats had a hard time stopping the Heels in the final 30 seconds — even before letting Maye score the winning basket, UK allowed a full-court bucket to Justin Jackson — Kentucky’s defense did its part against Carolina. The Wildcats limited UNC, the sixth-most-efficient offense in the country, to just 1.03 points per possession — its eighth-worst offensive showing of the season. The Heels committed 16 turnovers and knocked down only three shots from beyond the arc. Defensive numbers like those are usually enough to win, even against a great team like Carolina.

But Carolina’s defense managed to short-circuit Kentucky, too. In part because they picked up a handful of fouls early in the game, UK’s star freshmen — De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Edrice Adebayo — were unusually inefficient on Sunday. The trio typically controls 54 percent of Kentucky’s possessions between them, generating an outstanding 1.15 points per possession; against UNC, though, they handled 50 percent of Wildcat possessions, averaging a weak 0.99 points per possession. (If we put aside the complicated dynamic between usage and efficiency, that’s the equivalent of dropping from the nation’s 36th-best offense to 276th.) And although Kentucky’s offense found a brief rhythm in the middle of the second half, it went 3-for-8 from the floor (with 3 turnovers) in the game’s final 5 minutes, as UNC’s defense helped power a 16-9 Tar Heel run.

For this North Carolina team, the Elite Eight matchup became a showcase of one more way it could win big games. The Tar Heels can dominate with offense, like they did when they scorched Butler in the Sweet 16, but it’s clear now that they can lock down an elite scoring team on defense, too. It’s a combination that’s sure to keep Oregon’s Dana Altman — and the rest of the Final Four coaches — up at night as they prepare to face UNC in Phoenix.

Defense wins (regional) championships

Some big games are pure shootouts, where defensive stops are as rare as a LaVar Ball interview without hyperbole. Think of last year’s national championship game, for example, in which Villanova and UNC lit up the scoreboard for 151 total points in only 64 possessions apiece. But this year’s Elite Eight matchups were ruled more by suffocating defense than scorching offense.

Together, the four teams that survived to play next weekend allowed 0.95 points per possession during their Elite Eight games, in which they faced a group of teams that averaged 1.12 during the season, a gap of 18 points per 100 possessions. In those same Elite Eight games, the winners averaged 1.12 offensive points per possession against opponents who usually yielded just 0.98, so on that side of the ball they only beat expectations by 13 points per 100 possessions.1

There’s a good reason for all of this: None of the remaining teams rank outside the top 20 in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rankings this season,2 and Gonzaga and South Carolina come in at Nos. 1 and 2.

It’s fair to expect that points will still be at a premium in Phoenix.

Carolina out of the blue

With its 77-70 triumph over Florida in the East regional final, South Carolina became the 13th team seeded seventh or lower to make a Final Four — and the eighth in the last seven tournaments.

REGIONAL FINAL WINNER REGIONAL FINAL LOSER
SEASON REGION SEED TEAM PTS SEED TEAM PTS
2017 East 7 South Carolina 77 4 Florida 70
2016 Midwest 10 Syracuse 68 1 Virginia 62
2015 East 7 Michigan State 76 4 Louisville 70
2014 Midwest 8 Kentucky 75 2 Michigan 72
2014 East 7 Connecticut 60 4 Michigan St. 54
2013 West 9 Wichita State 70 2 Ohio State 66
2011 Southeast 8 Butler 74 2 Florida 71
2011 Southwest 11 Va. Commonwealth 71 1 Kansas 61
2006 Washington 11 George Mason 86 1 Connecticut 84
2000 West 8 Wisconsin 64 6 Purdue 60
2000 South 8 North Carolina 59 7 Tulsa 55
1986 Southeast 11 Louisiana State 59 1 Kentucky 57
1985 Southeast 8 Villanova 56 2 North Carolina 44
All teams seeded 7th or lower who made the Final Four, 1985-2017

Source: Sports-Reference.com, ESPN

Considering that no team seeded that low made it this far between 1986 (LSU) and 2000 (Wisconsin and UNC), the recent explosion of low seeds could be seen as yet another sign of increasing parity in men’s college basketball. Of course, that argument holds less water when you consider that each of the past five low-seeded Final Four teams — UConn and Kentucky (2014), Michigan State (2015), Syracuse (2016) and now South Carolina — have also hailed from power conferences.

But the Gamecocks aren’t a perfect fit with that group, either. They haven’t exactly been a Final Four mainstay. Before 2017, it had been 44 years since they’d last made it to the Sweet 16, much less the Final Four. And SC’s KenPom power rating this season (+20.6) is lower than any of the last four years’ other surprise low-seeded Final Four teams except the 2016 Syracuse squad. To find an apt comparison — a low-seeded, major-conference Final Four team with no recent tourney success — you’d probably have to go back to Wisconsin in 2000. (Pretty nice company for South Carolina, given how successful the Badgers have been since.)


VIDEO: How South Carolina and Oregon made the Final Four


A mismatched Final Four

North Carolina, Gonzaga, Oregon and … South Carolina? As you’ll hear about ad nauseam this week, the Tar Heels will be making their record-padding 20th Final Four appearance, while the Ducks are making their second (and first since 1939). And, of course, the Bulldogs and Gamecocks have never been here before. It’s an eclectic Final Four, to say the least.

But on the court, the brackets are aligned to generate a mismatched pair of games in the national semifinals (on paper, at least). According to the FiveThirtyEight model, UNC-Oregon should be a gem; we’ve got the Heels ever-so-slightly favored with a 52 percent probability of advancing to the title game. But on the other side, Gonzaga is a heavy favorite over SC, coming in with a 69 percent probability of beating the Gamecocks. That’s why the Zags are dominating our championship probability table, with odds nearly double those of any other team (42 percent to win the title).

Vegas has slightly more measured odds, giving the Bulldogs a 37 percent probability of winning the title. (UNC is next at 35 percent.) Apparently the skepticism over Gonzaga as a real contender persists even now.

Regardless of how strong a favorite Gonzaga is, though, the regions funneled down into one relatively even matchup and one more lopsided one. Schedule your Saturday accordingly.

Footnotes

  1. Numbers may not add up due to rounding.
  2. Including conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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