A preview of the teams heading into the big dance
BY DREW DAVISON
FORT WORTH STAR-
March Madness didn’t disappoint yet again.
An upset-filled tournament is always a welcome sight, and there were plenty this time around.
Top overall seed Villanova didn’t make it to the second weekend. Neither did 2-seeds Duke and Louisville.
Villanova (13 percent) and Duke (12 percent) were among a group of only four schools that had double-digit percentages to win the championship in brackets filled out by fans on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge.
Another one of those schools, Kansas (11.1 percent), saw its dreams end short of the Final Four on March 25. North Carolina (15.2 percent) is the only program to survive and advance to the Final Four.
So it’ll be a year of firsts in Phoenix.
Gonzaga and South Carolina are making their first trips to the Final Four, and Oregon is going for the first time since 1939.
All three schools’ coaches can finally drop the dubious “never been to a Final Four” title too.
Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Oregon’s Dana Altman and South Carolina’s Frank Martin are among the most respected coaches in the game and certainly had been near the top of any “best coach to never reach Final Four” lists.
With that, we’ll look ahead to the Final Four.
Midwest Region 3 seed
The Path: Defeated Iona 93-77, defeated Rhode Island 75-72, defeated Michigan 69-68, defeated Kansas 74-60.
Why they’ll win: They’re a well-coached, talented team that just knocked off a team, Kansas, in a road-like atmosphere in Kansas City, Mo. Oregon reached the Elite Eight a season ago, and weren’t going to be satisfied by simply making it back.
Now they’re two wins away from their first championship since the 1930s. They have a solid backcourt with Tyler Dorsey and freshman sensation Payton Pritchard, Dillon Brooks can score at will, and Jordan Bell is a dominant presence in the paint. Bell has recorded at least 12 rebounds in the tournament, making people forget about Chris Boucher’s injury that was supposed to “doom” the Ducks.
Why they’ll lose: Well, maybe people will remember the Boucher injury in the Final Four if Bell gets into foul trouble, or the Ducks struggle to establish an inside presence.
This is a team that also could be “just happy” to reach the Final Four, much like Oklahoma a season ago. The fan base, after all, has been waiting 78 years just to get back to this point. And, even though he’s played terrific all season, you never know how this stage will affect a freshman such as Pritchard.
Prediction: The Ducks are a determined bunch who aren’t “just happy” to be there, even if the fan base is. Expect the Ducks to knock off North Carolina with another strong performance by Bell on the inside and Dorsey on the outside before falling in a close battle in the championship game against Gonzaga.
South Region 1 seed
The Path: Defeated Texas Southern 103-64, defeated Arkansas 72-65, defeated Butler 92-80, defeated Kentucky 75-73.
Why they’ll win: There may not be a more confident team than the Tar Heels, last year’s runner-up. They are coming off a thrilling victory over Kentucky, and have the talent to do what they fell just short of a year ago. Junior guard Joel Berry II gives UNC a veteran presence in the backcourt, forward Justin Jackson is playing well and is an NBA talent, and sophomore Luke Maye showed the clutch gene with the game-winner in the Elite Eight.
Why they’ll lose: North Carolina lost two of its last four games going into this tournament, so has been prone to deliver disappointing games. Plus, the ACC has had a dud of a tournament for the most part with only one of nine teams reaching the Sweet 16. Yes, UNC has saved face for the conference, but it could end early with a stiff test against Oregon.
Prediction: The Tar Heels fall short to Oregon as the Final Four goes full West Coast in Phoenix. UNC would love to win title No. 6 and break a tie for third most with rival Duke and Indiana, but don’t get it done this season.
West Region 1 seed
The Path: Defeated South Dakota State 66-46, defeated Northwestern 79-73, defeated West Virginia 61-58, defeated Xavier 83-59.
Why they’ll win: Coach Mark Few has finally reached the Final Four, and isn’t going to be overwhelmed by the moment. Plus Few has the talent to win it all. Guard Nigel Williams-Goss is a veteran backcourt leader playing well, senior Przemek Karnowski is a force in the middle and forward Zach Collins is a possible NBA lottery pick.
Why they’ll lose: They’ve looked beatable throughout the tournament. Heck, 16-seed South Dakota State hung with the Zags almost the entire game and Northwestern had a questionable officiating call help derail its upset bid. West Virginia also gave Gonzaga a run for its money in the Sweet 16.
This is also a program that has never reached this stage and could very well fade fast.
Prediction: Gonzaga wins the national championship. The Zags haven’t looked like the best team much of this tournament, but found their stride in the Elite Eight against Xavier. They’ll carry that into the Final Four with a win over South Carolina and then a rugged “W” over Oregon. Hey, the Zags have already beaten a Pac-12 school this season — Arizona back in December.
East Region 7 seed
The Path: Defeated Marquette 93-73, defeated Duke 88-81, defeated Baylor 70-50, defeated Florida 77-70.
Why they’ll win: Who doesn’t like a good Cinderella story? South Carolina fits the bill with an impressive run so far, but nobody should be overly surprised. Talented, veteran backcourts always matter in March, and the Gamecocks are led by Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC player of the year, and PJ Dozier. Both are playing exceptionally in this tournament and will keep South Carolina in position to pull off the miracle.
Why they’ll lose: The magic has to run out at some point, right? Fewer than 1 percent of the brackets on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge had the Gamecocks reaching this point and even fewer (0.1 percent) had them winning it all. South Carolina is a great story, but simply runs into a better team in Gonzaga.
Prediction: Remember Oklahoma running out of magic a year ago despite having Buddy Hield? This South Carolina team feels as though it could do the same, as good as Thornwell is. Plus, the Gamecocks knocked down only 2-of-10 3-pointers in the Elite Eight, something that will catch up to them on the biggest stage against a deep, talented team such as Gonzaga.
The NCAA championship games will continue April 1-3 at the University of Phoenix Stadium. Visit NCAA.com for the complete schedule.