As the NCAA men’s tournament shifts to Phoenix for the Final Four, hoops fans’ attention has shifted to the quartet of teams vying for the national championship. To help you get prepped for the next round of games, here’s a rundown of what to look for in each matchup:
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 7 South Carolina
Where to watch: CBS, 6:09 PM EDT
- According to the FiveThirtyEight model, this is a relative mismatch: With nearly a 70 percent probability of winning, Gonzaga has roughly the same odds as the average 5-seed had over a 12-seed in the first round of the tournament. Even after accounting for how much South Carolina has improved during the tourney, this isn’t the kind of matchup we’re used to seeing in the Final Four. (Then again, 12s do beat 5s with some regularity…)
Why Gonzaga can win:
- Gonzaga’s offense is versatile: The Bulldogs have pushed the ball for the tournament’s 19th-highest rate of transition plays — so they’re capable of playing an up-tempo style — but they also thrive on getting high-percentage looks in the half court, whether by posting up with mammoth center Przemek Karnowski or finding open shooters like Jordan Mathews on the perimeter. Although South Carolina is good at closing out on spot-up jumpers, the Gamecocks haven’t had to contend with a post presence like Karnowski very much during the tourney.
- South Carolina’s offense isn’t as well-rounded as Gonzaga’s. (There’s a reason college hoops stat guru Ken Pomeroy still ranks the Gamecock attack No. 104 in the nation, even after SC’s great tournament run.) The team shoots poorly from both inside the arc and out, and they don’t even try 3s very often: South Carolina takes the 22nd-fewest 3-pointers per field goal of any tournament team. Thus far, the Gamecocks have outrun those deficiencies, but it’s fair to ask whether that streak can last.
- According to Pomeroy, Gonzaga’s defense grades out as the most efficient in the country. It allows the lowest 2-point percentage in the country and the fourth-lowest 3-point percentage. It forces teams to take a lot of inefficient shots. It chokes off all opposing attempts at ball movement. It has played the most efficient half-court defense of any team in the NCAA tournament and put together the 16th-best transition D. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss might be the best two-way player in the country. I could go on, but you get the idea: The Zags defend the living hell out of the basketball.
Why South Carolina can win:
- If South Carolina is going knock off Gonzaga, it’s going to have to rely on defense. The Gamecocks own the nation’s No. 2 D (according to Pomeroy’s power ratings), and they’re particularly great at forcing turnovers. But that brand of defense might not be the most effective recipe against the steady ballhandling touch of Williams-Goss, whose 13.2 percent turnover rate was one of the lowest in the country among players who took on a comparable offensive workload.
- It��s not clear that the Zags will be able to get anything going on the pick-and-roll against the Gamecocks. As great as Williams-Goss is, he has struggled in those sets during the tournament, and South Carolina will do him no favors — led by senior guard Duane Notice, who hasn’t been burned for a single point all tournament on pick-and-roll plays he defended, the Gamecocks have had the tourney’s 11th-most-efficient defense against the play. That means the Bulldog offense will probably have to find other ways to score.
- The Gamecocks have shown they can score against good teams even with a limited offensive repertoire, thanks to their top-end talent. It begins with guards Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier pushing for quick baskets in transition; that pair also drives a lot of South Carolina’s attack in the halfcourt, with their ability to make plays off the dribble. Combined with forward Chris Silva, the Gamecocks’ top offensive trio used more than 80 percent of the team’s possessions while on the court this season. If those three have big games, and if the defense holds up, SC might just pull the upset.
FiveThirtyEight: Does Oregon or South Carolina have a chance against the favorites?
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Oregon
Where to watch: CBS, 8:49 PM EDT
- The FiveThirtyEight model gives North Carolina an ever-so-slight edge over Oregon, with a 52 percent probability of winning. But let’s be honest, this game is just about as close to a coin flip as you can get.
Why North Carolina can win:
- When Carolina has the ball, it likes to push quickly down the court: Among NCAA tournament teams, UNC has the fifth-shortest average possession length and ranks ninth in the percentage of its plays that come in transition. So keep an eye on Tar Heels PG Joel Berry II as he tries to direct the UNC break against Oregon. It’s also worth noting that, in the regional final, Kansas’s guards were frequently able to punish the Ducks’ D for collapsing on their transition drives by passing out to open shooters on the wing and behind the play. Don’t be surprised if Justin Jackson and Luke Maye get outside shots as Oregon’s defense focuses on bottling up Berry on the break.
- For a talented shooting team, UNC hasn’t quite found its stroke from downtown in the tournament so far. In four postseason games, the Tar Heels have gone 25-for-78 from deep (32 percent, down from 37 percent during the regular season) and they’ve made just 31 percent of their spot-up jumpers, with Berry and guard Nate Britt clanging home a combined 25 percent on those tries. North Carolina is too good for this to persist forever; going into the tournament, UNC had knocked down 40 percent of its spot-up Js. Oregon has defended jump shooters well in the tourney so far, but if Carolina can reclaim its touch from outside against the Ducks, watch out.
- One big area where North Carolina has a demonstrable edge over Oregon is on the offensive glass. The Tar Heels have the top offensive rebounding percentage in the nation this season, while the Ducks check in among the bottom half of tournament teams on the defensive boards. Carolina’s size advantage comes in handy here; the game could in part be decided by how well 6-foot-9 Oregon center Jordan Bell can fend off UNC’s 6-foot-9 Isaiah Hicks and 6-foot-10 Kennedy Meeks on the interior.
Why Oregon can win:
- Although Berry didn’t play his best game against Kentucky in the regional finals, he was able to get to the rim. But he might have more difficulty attacking the basket on the break against Oregon’s defense, which did a good job of stepping up to stop transition ballhandlers during the Ducks’ Elite Eight game against Kansas. Oregon is one of the nation’s best teams at taking away opponents’ opportunities in transition, holding opponents to the 14th-longest average possession time among tournament teams and the 20th-fewest transition chances per play. (Berry is also playing on a bum ankle, though he says he’s “close to 100 percent” now.)
- In contrast with UNC’s fast break, Oregon’s offense will be more focused on execution in the half court. More than half of the Ducks’ plays in the NCAA tournament thus far have come from pick-and-roll sets, isolations or spot-up jump shots, and much of that action has been initiated by sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey. Between his shooting, passing and ballhandling, Dorsey was Oregon’s most efficient perimeter player during the season, and the Ducks’ offense hinges on the interplay between his playmaking and the scoring threat posed by forward Dillon Brooks all over the court.
- Speaking of which: Although Brooks has taken a bit of a backseat to the hot-shooting Dorsey during the Ducks’ tournament run, he was still Oregon’s top offensive option over the entire season. Among D-I players who averaged 15 or more points per game, he was one of only 15 who made at least 54 percent of his two-pointers and 41 percent of his 3s. Although he might be best known for perpetrating the Worst Flop Ever, his offensive skills make the Oregon offense run, and the Ducks will probably need him to be a little more aggressive than he’s been during the tournament so far if they hope to upset UNC.