The 2017 Final Four will feature three programs that have, for all practical purposes, never been on college basketball's biggest stage. While North Carolina is set to play in its record 20th Final Four, the other three teams had combined for just one appearance (Oregon, 1939) until now. This leaves us with a matchup of two teams – South Carolina vs. Gonzaga – that have never made it to this point of the NCAA Tournament to tip off Saturday’s Final Four action at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Gonzaga had a tough road as the No. 1 seed in West Region, winning close games against No. 8 Northwestern and No. 4 West Virginia to get to the Elite Eight. But the Bulldogs dominated No. 11 Xavier 83-59 last Saturday in San Jose to advance to the program’s first-ever Final Four.
South Carolina is the team few, if any, expected to be playing at this point. The No. 7 seed in a loaded East Region that featured defending national champion Villanova, the Gamecocks beat No. 10 Marquette (93-73) and then upset No. 2 Duke 88-81 to make it to their first-ever Sweet 16. But South Carolina didn’t stop there, handily defeating No. 3 Baylor (70-50) and then knocking off No. 4 and fellow SEC East rival Florida 77-70 in Madison Square Garden to continue its historic run.
Two teams that have never been on the Final Four stage before are set to meet with the winner earning a shot at a national title.
Final Four: No. 7 South Carolina Gamecocks (26-10) vs. No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (36-1)
When: 6:09 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, Arizona)
Line: Gonzaga -6.5
Keys for Gonzaga
Gonzaga enters this game shooting 37.8 percent as a team from the three-point line, good 52nd in the nation. South Carolina’s defense, which has been on full display this NCAA Tournament, could make things tough for the Bulldogs’ long-distance shooters.
The Gamecocks are holding opponents to the seventh-lowest success rate from behind the arc in the country, just 29.8 percent. In the Elite Eight, Florida made just seven of its 26 attempts (26.9 percent) against South Carolina, while Baylor fared even worse (3-f0r-13, 23.1 percent) from that range in the Sweet 16. Compare that to Gonzaga, which went a combined 16-for-34 (47.1 percent) from that distance in the wins over West Virginia and Xavier.
Gonzaga has a size advantage over South Carolina in the paint, so expect the Bulldogs to use that matchup to their benefit. Center Przemek Karnowski and forward Zach Collins give Gonzaga a pair of seven-footers with forward Johnathan Williams checking in at 6-foot-9. All three shoot better than 59 percent from the field and average at least 5.7 rebounds per game.
Keys for South Carolina
The success of the Gamecocks on Saturday will likely hinge on the shoulders of Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier. Thornwell and Dozier are South Carolina’s leading scorers, but complementary options Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar also will need to do their part.
Silva recorded 13 points and nine rebounds against Florida Elite Eight with Kotsar adding 12. Between their contributions, Thornwell’s game-high 26 points and Dozier’s 17 that represented 68 of the Gamecocks’ 77 points in the win over the Gators.
While South Carolina has been getting more recognition, Gonzaga’s defense has been equally impressive during the Tournament. On the season, the Bulldogs are fourth in the country in point allowed per game (60.9). They’ve held three of their four Tournament victims to fewer than that, as neither West Virginia nor Xavier scored more than 59 last week.
Gonzaga also gets the job done on the glass, ranking eighth nationally in rebounding at 40.5 per game while opponents are averaging 33.2. The Gamecocks’ rebounding margin is much smaller (+1.2 rpg on the season), but they have done a better job during the Tournament (combined +17 in four games). Thornwell (7.2 rpg) is South Carolina’s leading rebounder, but he’s a guard, so forwards Silva (5.9) and Kotsar (4.8) will have to do their part against the bigger Bulldogs.
Saturday’s game will pit the country’s top most efficient teams on defense against one another. South Carolina’s defense is largely responsible for getting the Gamecocks to this point, but the Gamecocks will have to find a way to score if they want to beat a team as talented and balanced as Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs are no slouches on defense in their own right, using their size, strength and ability to control the boards to limit teams’ second-chance scoring opportunities. Gonzaga will no doubt focus its defensive attention on South Carolina leading scorer Sindarius Thornwell and try to force him into tough shots or give the ball up to a teammate.
On offense, Gonzaga doesn’t lack for scoring options. Nigel Williams-Gross leads the team at 16.7 points per game, but he’s not the only one that can get the ball in the basket. Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins and Johnathan Williams bring plenty of size and high-percentage shooting to the table and look for the Bulldogs to take advantage of their inside presence to lead the way to their first national title game appearance in program history.
Prediction: Gonzaga 76, South Carolina 69
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Top photo courtesy of www.gamecocksonline.com)