The time has arrived for the Final Four of America's greatest sporting spectacle, the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Our hoops contributors Amaar Abdul-Nasir, Maurice Merrell and Martin Sumners break down this upcoming phase of March Madness as we take our next steps toward crowning the 2017 national champion.
What Just Happened?
Amaar Abdul-Nasir: Oregon!
South Carolina is the one Final Four team that nobody outside of The Palmetto State thought would make it this far.
But the way the East Region played out, after Duke and Villanova were eliminated earlier than expected, nothing was too surprising coming from that portion of the bracket.
Once we knew the Elite Eight matchups, the team I didn’t believe would survive last weekend and advance was Oregon.
Not only did the Ducks sink No. 1 seed Kansas, but they did it decisively in a 14-point win. They did it without two-time Pac-12 All-Defensive Team selection Chris Boucher, their best all-around big man. They did it with the No. 1 player on their team, Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks, playing a No. 2 role while sophomore Tyler Dorsey has apparently morphed into Kobe Bryant for this tournament run.
Oregon was a popular Final Four pick in the preseason, after returning almost all the key players from a 2016 Elite Eight squad. But to do it like this? I didn’t see that happening.
Martin Sumners: Semi Ojeleye’s Dunk!
Even within the unpredictable realm of sports, there are the rare moments when glee and a gut reaction run amok. Semi Ojeleye, the 6-foot-8 SMU junior forward’s follow-up dunk in the first round against USC was utter ridiculous. His approach, like a 747, began beyond the three-point line.
His launching point, where he decided to break Newton’s Law of Gravity, was the block-charge restricting area arc. His body, while floating, contorted to form a sharp 45 degree angle with the hardwood floor way below. Then, he finished the dunk with Jules Winnfield-type vengeance.
Maurice Merrell: The ending of Kentucky vs UNC
There were tons of incredible Elite 8 moments, but none greater than the last 15 seconds of the Kentucky vs North Carolina game.
Last year, I watched then-UNC guard Marcus Paige lose the ball, save it from a defender, gather it on the way up, slightly bobble it, double-pump on the shot to avoid being blocked and nail a 3-pointer from two-to-three feet behind the line, only to lose after Nova’s Kris Jenkins hit a far less stressful shot off a Ryan Arcidiacono dish to seal the deal in the national championship game.
After watching Kentucky’s Malik Monk tie the game with seven seconds left, only to have Luke Maye hit a nearly wide-open jumper with 0.3 on the clock, it felt good for the Tar Heels to be on the right side of history, this year.
Amaar: Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina.
There are more talented players in this Final Four. There are better athletes and hotter NBA prospects. But if there’s one player who has carried the heaviest load for his team so far, and one player who cannot afford to slip up and have even a mediocre game from this point forward, it’s Thornwell.
In the final minutes of South Carolina’s Elite Eight win over Florida, Thornwell showed just how valuable he is. He scored eight straight points, including the go-ahead free throws, and had an assist and a steal during that stretch to help the Gamecocks secure the win.
Oregon can get by if Dorsey or Brooks doesn’t play great for a game. UNC can win if Joel Berry II or Justin Jackson have an average game. Gonzaga doesn’t necessarily need Nigel Williams-Goss or Przemek Karnowski to dominate every time out.
South Carolina, however, has zero chance of completing this Cinderella championship run if Thornwell doesn’t strap on the backpack and bring it for two more games.
Martin: Tyler Dorsey, Oregon
Boy, it would be Maxwellian sumthin’ sumthin’ smooth from Love Jones for my previous Boy In His Bag pick, Sindarius Thornwell, to meet-up with Tyler Dorsey. It would require two more upsets; but maybe not.
Many thought Kansas was the best team in the tourney entering the Sweet 16. But Oregon, led by Dorsey, disproved that. The Ducks didn’t upset the Jayhawks. They simply were the better team and smacked them. The Ducks and Dorsey, with his 20 points on 5-7 shooting from the three-point line, held off Michigan 69-68. Dorsey also decimated Kansas in the Elite Eight game dropping 27 points with 6-10 from the arc in the 74-60 victory.
Maurice: Tyler Dorsey, Oregon
Kendrick Lamar dropped a new song entitled Humble on Thursday, but Oregon Ducks guard Tyler Dorsey is the SoCal native that’s been making his peers have several seats. Dorsey’s string of seven 20-plus point games in a row, including two separate 27-point performances in the NCAA tournament, has propelled him to the spotlight.
His run has been highlighted by clutch season-saving shots against Rhode Island, Michigan and a big game against Kansas. After his Elite Eight win over the latter, he said that people were sleeping on the West Coast. Well congrats Cali kid: you’ve woken everybody up.
May be the Next Maye
Amaar: The many comparisons made between North Carolina’s Luke Maye and Duke legend Christian Laettner had to include one major difference: while Laettner was The Man at Duke and the one everybody knew was taking that final shot against Kentucky 25 years ago, Maye is a random role player whose Elite Eight game-winner against Kentucky last weekend was a surprise to even his own mother.
Who will be the next out-of-nowhere overnight sensation to produce a Final Four miracle moment? I’m leaning toward Oregon senior guard Dylan Ennis.
The oldest player in the tournament at 25 years old, Ennis is actually a big brother to NBA point guard Tyler Ennis. Dylan is playing for his third college, landing at Oregon after previous stops at Rice and Villanova.
Ennis has quietly improved with each tournament game. He had five points and three steals in the Ducks’ first-round win over Iona; seven points and four assists against Rhode Island; 10 points and five rebounds against Michigan; and then 12 points and two steals against Kansas. What will he do to one-up himself against North Carolina in the national semifinal?
Martin: Jordan Mathews
Luke Maye received a hero's welcome upon attending class on UNC’s campus the day after his buzzer-beating jumper placed the Tar Heels in the Final Four. Maye is just a sophomore, but I am going to predict that on Saturday, Gonzaga’s senior transfer from Cal, Jordan Mathews, will be the toast of Spokane, Washington by hitting a big shot in the semifinal.
Mathews’ point production has diminished each game since round 2, where he finished with 16 points. However, the Los Angeles native seems to play with composure consistent with such an experienced player.
Maurice: Sindarius Thornwell
First off, what a shot by Luke Maye. To go from (essentially) averaging five points and four rebounds per game during the regular season to 12 points and seven rebounds during the NCAA tournament is impressive. But to hit the game- winning shot in the biggest game of your life on a floor with potentially seven or more NBA players is something out of a Disney movie. But he did and won MOP of the region behind it.
The player most likely to hit a game-winning shot is the one who’ll most likely have the ball at the end of the game. And that’s Sindarius Thornwell of South Carolina. Sure there are clutch players like Tyler Dorsey, Joel Berry and Nigel Williams-Goss floating around, but Thornwell’s the Game Cocks greatest offense threat and best finisher around the rim. Other teams have multiple guys who can beat you. South Carolina has one closer and one closer only. And he’s he’s hella capable of ruining an opponents season.
He’s Already Won
Amaar: Frank Martin.
Again, nobody outside of South Carolina believes South Carolina is going to win the whole thing. While the Gamecocks are the SEC squad facing a mid-major (Gonzaga) in the national semifinal, South Carolina is getting the mid-major treatment we’ve seen granted to Butler, VCU and George Mason.
As a result, just getting to the Final Four has been enough to elevate Martin onto the list of the nation’s elite college basketball coaches. Quite Frankly, it's a list he should have been on already. Win or lose this weekend, this has been Martin’s breakout season.
Martin: Frank Martin
South Carolina’s Francisco “Frank” Jose Martin has had a far climb to reach the mountaintop of college basketball. He is an American-born son of Cuban exiles with humble basketball beginnings as a JV and varsity high school coach in Miami. Yet, his journey had been obscured by being known as the screaming, scowling coach at Kansas State.
Although he took K-State to the Elite Eight, he was viewed more like a crazy eight. But people are now beginning to see his his human side. The success of USC should signal to the highly regarded in-state recruit Zion Williamson that the Gamecocks are serious.
Maurice: Jordan Bell
Becoming a meme is usually the last thing you want to do during this time of year, but it was kind of endearing for Oregon’s Jordan Bell. Pictures of things Jordan Bell could block started popping up on the timeline, ranging in Bell blocking a meteor, a bullet meant for Bambi’s mom, the Death Star from Star Wars and more.
After a defensive effort that resulted in eight blocks against Kansas, the attention towards Bell is well deserved. Every year a kid plays himself into a different level of perception. This year, Bell’s stock climbed high enough that even he would have trouble swatting it now.
Final Four Predictions
Amaar: Gonzaga beats South Carolina. While the Gamecocks have a deep and talented backcourt led by Thornwell, P.J. Dozier and Duane Notice, the Zags boast All-American point guard Nigel Williams-Goss and standout wing Jordan Mathews. The difference in this game will be in the frontcourt, where South Carolina is thin like the FLOTUS and Gonzaga is full-of-it like the POTUS.
North Carolina beats Oregon. I can see a scenario in which the Ducks upset the Tar Heels. In it, Oregon big man Jordan Bell channels Ben Wallace and denies UNC’s front line. Dorsey and Brooks take turns lighting it up. Ennis makes a big play or two. Oregon takes decades of that West Coast bitterness toward East Coast bias and unleashes it all on UNC. That could happen. Or… the bigger, better, more athletic and more experienced Tar Heels take care of business on their road to avenging last year’s national title game loss.
Martin: Gonzaga over USC , UNC over Oregon
In Saturday’s first game, No. 1 seed Gonzaga reaffirms it’s hard for a No. 7 seed to matriculate this far in March Madness. Playing above your head is easier in the first two weekends, but as the pressure mounts and stakes are raised, generally lower seeds max out at this point.
Gonzaga’s earlier round games were closer than many expected, but the easy Elite Eight game win over Xavier should provide the Zags more confidence. Although South Carolina with Martin at the helm and Thornwell on the floor will not concede one possession, especially with its length on defense, Gonzaga’s patchwork team assembled through several quality transfers in Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Jonathan Williams (Missouri) and the aforementioned Mathews (Cal) will eke out a close win.
The nightcap features probably the most consistent program since the mid-1970's with gobs of Final Four appearances and other accolades in UNC. The Tar Heels are facing an Oregon program that hasn’t reached a Final Four since 1939.
Oregon’s head coach Dana Altman has built a solid program, winning no less than 20 games in all of his seven years in Eugene including last year’s Elite Eight finish. Nonetheless, the Tar Heels will be able to put bigger defenders like Justin Jackson on Dorsey and Dillon, perhaps forcing them into some bad shots. UNC big man Kennedy Meeks can also put a body on the Ducks’ Jordan Bell, who has run roughshod and jumped over the competition so far. Oregon will try to run with UNC early but will falter in the second-half.
Tyler Dorsey and co. have been fun to watch and you can’t hate on the extra efforts coming from the kids from the Pac-12. However, the Tar Heels are back in familiar territory and they’re out to avenge their historic loss from last season. This group remembered that feeling and now they’re out to deliver bad memories to someone else this go around.
Just to keep things Carolina, the South Carolina Gamecocks take down Zags on Saturday. At this point, Gonzaga’s proven to be the number one seed the committee thought they were. But Frank Martin is going to throw various defenses at them, confusing Gonzaga’s players just enough to get the edge.
Some of the youngsters may not understand how strange it sounds for us ‘80s and ‘90s babies to wrap our heads around Gonzaga and North Carolina being evenly matched. This is Michael Jordan, Jerry Stackhouse and Vince Carter versus … Dan Dickau? Matt Santangelo? What?
Believe it. Mark Few’s squad has the size, athleticism, shooting, defense and – this is the hard part to believe – the star power to match up with Roy Williams’ team.
That said, North Carolina’s core group is on a mission. Justin Jackson (ACC Player of the Year), Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry II, Isaiah Hicks, Theo Pinson and Nate Britt all played in last year’s national title game loss to Villanova. They’re not going to experience that feeling a second time.
The Tarheels capture the third national championship for Roy Williams, putting him rare company. Joel Barry II, Jackson and Meeks remember last season, failing in the title game versus Villanova. They will push the tempo all night long. Berry will lead the way despite some bad ankles that will have benefited from the week off before the Final Four.
Lucky for Frank Martin, no one expected him to be here. Therefore, no one will be mad at him when South Carolina loses to UNC in the national title game. An unprecedented battle for the Carolinas will decide the country’s champion. However, expect to see more gifs of Roy Williams bustin’ out the dance moves than any crying MJ faces on Tar Heel heads.
Amaar: Joel Berry II, North Carolina.
I sense a Mateen Cleaves moment coming. It was 17 years ago when Tom Izzo won his first national title at Michigan State with Cleaves and the rest of the “Flintstones” – like UNC’s core, a close-knight veteran group with multiple future NBA'ers and something to prove.
Cleaves, the senior point guard, won MOP after spraining his ankle in the second half of the national title game against Florida and gutting through it to lead the Spartans to the W.
Berry, UNC’s junior point guard, is going into the Final Four with two brittle ankles, having sprained the right one against Texas Southern in the first round and the left against Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
I’m sensing a moment in the national title game when Berry, who had 20 points in last year’s title game, steps up to lift UNC to redemption and a national championship.
Martin: Joel Berry II, North Carolina
UNC has faced similar injury issues with point guards in previous championship runs. The most recent was in 2012 when Kendall Marshall’s wrist injury forced him out of the tournament that ended in an Elite Eight loss. But Berry, the junior point guard, using his quickness and guile, will outplay his counterparts for Oregon in the semifinal, as well as the bigger Zag point guard Williams-Goss in the championship game.
Maurice: Justin Jackson, North Carolina
The country has Luke Maye fever and yes, it’s well deserved. But each round it has been someone else to lead the way. From the expected in Kennedy Meeks and Joel Berry, to the aforementioned Maye in the Elite Eight. Team leader Justin Jackson has been up and down all tournament, with his best game coming in the Sweet 16 versus Butler (24 points, 9-for-18 shooting, five rebounds and five assists).
The point is, he remembers that losing feeling from last year. Being on the wrong end of someone else’s one shining moment. He came back for a chance to raise a banner back in Chapel Hill. And come Monday night, he’ll be the Tar Heel credited with leading the way.
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