The NCAA Tournament has an interesting way of defying expectations. Take the Oregon Ducks, playing in their first Final Four since its inaugural installment in 1939.
Playing without center Chris Boucher, Oregon trailed for significant stretches of its Round of 32 matchup with Rhode Island. The Ducks needed some late-game heroics from Tyler Dorsey to sink the No. 11 Rams. Arriving into the Sweet 16 by the skin of its teeth, Oregon felt like something of an afterthought in the same bracket as two of the hottest teams in college basketball.
Michigan rolled through one of the more remarkable recent Marches up to its Sweet 16 matchup with the Ducks. Kansas destroyed quality opponents Michigan State and Purdue en route to the Elite Eight. Some very foolish people picked Oregon to lose not once but twice in the Midwest Regional. Instead, the Ducks beat the Wolverines on a Tyler Dorsey game-winner, and then dominated the previously dominant Jayhawks in what was ostensibly a road game in Kansas City, Missouri.
While Saturday's semifinal marks Oregon's return to the Final Four after a 78-year layoff, North Carolina returns some 362 days after participating in arguably the greatest game ever played in college basketball's championship round. The Tar Heels lost on a buzzer-beater to Villanova last April, which denied UNC head coach Roy Williams a third national championship in just 11 years.
Luke Maye's game-winner to sink Kentucky in the Elite Eight bore a striking resemblance to Kris Jenkins' title-clinching 3-pointer. Both were set up when the opponent hit a game-tying 3-pointer, but in this case, it was Carolina getting the ensuing possession.
Final Four: No. 3 Oregon Ducks (33-5) vs. No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels (31-7)
When: 8:49 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, Ariz.)
Line: North Carolina -5
Keys for Oregon
"North Carolina is probably the best rebounding team that we faced all year," Oregon head coach Dana Altman said. "And their offensive rebounding gives them an opportunity to score. They score pretty good on the first shot, but offensively their offensive rebounding numbers are off the charts."
Altman isn't kidding. Per KenPom.com, North Carolina is the No. 1 team in college basketball for offensive rebounding percentage, cleaning its own misses a whopping 41.9 percent of the time. The Tar Heels enjoyed a plus-10 rebounding advantage over Kentucky in its South Region Elite Eight win, which – as head coach Roy Williams noted – translated to nine more possessions than the Wildcats.
To give more scoring opportunities to a team rated sixth in offensive efficiency, which North Carolina is, can only translate to bad things. The Ducks have been solid when it comes to keeping opponents off the offensive glass this season, but Altman challenged them to rise up with Chris Boucher out of the lineup.
"All the guys have picked it up a little bit, just knowing that Chris isn't there," Altman said. "We've relied so much on Chris and Jordan [Bell] to block shots and rebound."
Bell's stepped up his already-impressive rebounding, hauling in at least 12 boards every game of this NCAA Tournament. He'll counter North Carolina's own rebounding machine, Kennedy Meeks. But in addition to the paint presence of Bell, Altman credited the efforts of guards Dylan Ennis and Tyler Dorsey. It will be an all-hands-on-deck effort to keep the Heels from winning the rebounding battle, which is critical to Carolina's game plan.
Keys for North Carolina
In seven losses this season, North Carolina allowed at least 75 points six times. Stretches of defensive inefficiency can sometimes vex the Heels, particularly with their up-tempo style of play. While Oregon's a team more reliant on its outstanding defense than it is explosive offense, the Ducks have the weapons to score quickly – and from multiple positions.
Dorsey's shooting the 3-pointer at a historic clip this postseason, draining 65 percent of his 26 attempts. He's been able to get free as a result of Dillon Brooks' aggressive slashing to the basket, and Bell's presence in the paint. Williams has a decision to make in handling that. Justin Jackson bodied up Kentucky jump-shooter Malik Monk in the Elite Eight, and Monk finished with 12 points, 35 fewer than when the Wildcats and Tar Heels met in December in Las Vegas.
Carolina could do the same with Jackson denying Dorsey looks, but Brooks' rim attacking becomes a bigger threat. There's also the issue of North Carolina's perimeter lineup, which must still account for Ennis and Payton Pritchard.
Theo Pinson and Stilman White were both thrust into high-profile spots against Kentucky, the result of point guard Joel Berry's ankle injury. Williams said Monday Berry was easing back into practice duties this week, but the guard's tenuous forecast puts the onus of captaining the Carolina offense on Pinson, a natural 2-guard; and White, a veteran backup with limited experience.
Oregon's an underdog for the third consecutive game, but the role has suited the Ducks just fine. Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey have performed at levels sure to be remembered for many Marches to come. They have taken some pressure off Dillon Brooks, an All-America-caliber player yet to have his signature performance in this NCAA Tournament. He's due, and it could come against a North Carolina defense with some weaknesses.
Still, the Tar Heels' depth flexed its muscle in the Elite Eight in a way that has to be concerning for Oregon faithful. Luke Maye stepping up and scoring some critical baskets proved just how far on the bench Roy Williams can go for a key performance. Justin Jackson's defensive efforts took away from his normally prolific offense, but Carolina had others ready to step up. That gives the Heels a clear advantage on paper.
Picking against the Ducks based on paper hasn't gone well so far, though.
Prediction: Oregon 76, North Carolina 74
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)