6:09 PM EST, CBS – Line: Gonzaga -7, Over/Under: 138.5
The 2017 NCAA Final Four kicks off today with a pair of teams making their maiden voyage into the National Semifinal, as the Seventh-Seeded South Carolina Gamecocks battle the One-Seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs for the right to compete in Monday Night National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona. While their opponent has been more commonly associated with the underdog label, South Carolina (26-10, 12-6 in SEC) has reveled in that particular role this March, crawling their way out of the East Region as a Seven Seed. Indeed, many believed that the Gamecocks were fortunate enough to selected to compete in the Tournament, particularly given how they finished the campaign; Frank Martin’s charges backed their way into the Big Dance, losing six of their final nine outings of the season, including the SEC Tournament. However, no team has been able to flip the script like these kids have, who have strung together successive victories over the likes of Duke (88-81), Baylor (70-50), and Florida (77-70), all of whom were ranked in the Top-15 of the Polls. So what did Martin do to get his troops to turn things around, you ask? It’s really rather simple: they started making shots. All throughout the term, South Carolina was one of the most staunch defensive teams in the country, yielding just 64.9 points (31st Overall) on 39.8% shooting from the field (14th Overall), including 45.2% from within the three-point arc (38th Overall) and 29.8% beyond it (8th Overall), and 9.7 assists (15th Overall), while forcing 17.2 turnovers (2nd Overall), 7.8 of which are steals (13th Overall), and racking up 3.7 blocks (79th Overall). Yeah, they defend like hell for forty minutes. The problem though, is that they’ve also been maddeningly inconsistent on the offensive end of the floor, shooting a miserable 42.2% from the field (291st Overall), including 46.4% from within arc (295th Overall) and 33.8% beyond it (241st Overall), while dishing out 12.7 assists (144th Overall). Basically, this team has made their living off good old-fashioned hard work, forcing turnovers, getting offensive rebounds, and going to the Free-Throw Line, which isn’t necessarily a recipe for prolonged success in the Tournament. Well, something strange happened over the past four games…. they started making shots. Through the first four rounds of the tourney, the Gamecocks are averaging 82.0 points on a much-improved 47.9% from the field, with SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell (21.6 PTS, 44.8% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 7.2 REB, 2.8 AST, 2.2 STL) leading the charge, torching the opposition for 25.8 points. The Senior Guard came up huge in South Carolina’s victory over Florida in the Elite Eight, scoring a game-high twenty-six points no 8-of-13 shooting from the field (61.5%), along with seven rebounds, an assist, and a pair of steals. As a team, they hammered the Gators in the paint, shooting a stellar 55.8% inside the arc, while taking residence from the charity stripe, where they knocked down 23-of-31 free-throws (74.2%), ten more than their opponent. Defensively, Martin had to be pleased with the effort his kids put forth against a team that defeated them 81-66 just over a month; the ‘Cocks relegated them to 41.7% shooting overall, including 7-of-26 from downtown (26.9%), while forcing them into fourteen turnovers and permitting just eleven assists. Their defensive pressure was a major component in rallying back from a 40-33 halftime deficit, as they rode the momentum to a convincing 44-30 second half. The key to tonight’s contest will be how they combat Gonzaga’s size in the interior, which could potentially cause a wealth of problems for Martin’s band of overachievers. While this team does possess size of their own, particularly in the form of Sophomore Forward Chris Silva (10.2 PTS, 54.1% FG, 5.9 REB, 1.3 BLK) and Freshman Center Maik Kostar (5.9 PTS, 49.0% FG, 4.8 REB), who stand 6’9″ and 6’10” respectively, they haven’t always made the most of it, which can be damning at times when competing in a physically imposing conference such as the SEC. With that said, that’s not to say that they can’t trade blows around the rim when needed; South Carolina battered Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen, shooting 50.0% inside the arc compared to 32.6% for the bears, and outrebounding one of the best in the business in that regard 37-29.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t all that long ago that Gonzaga (36-1, 17-1 in West Coast Conference) was labeled the perennial underdog, despite being arguably the most successful non-Power Five Conference team over the past decade and change. Making their nineteenth consecutive Tournament appearance (eighteenth under Mark Few), the Bulldogs have now advanced to their first Final Four in School History, after coming up short in the Elite Eight twice during that span, most recently two years ago. This team however, has ran roughshod throughout their schedule, with their only slipup being a 79-71 loss at home to BYU. Save your argument that they play in a week conference. That debate is tired, for Few’s charges tackled their non-conference slate with a fury, knocking off traditional powers such as Florida (77-72), Iowa State (73-31), Arizona (69-62), and Tennessee (86-76), who by the way all made the tourney this season. As we briefly touched upon earlier, the strength of the Zags is clearly their size, which stacks up favorably against just about every other team in the country. Simply put, they have MEN in the paint. Senior Center Przemek Karnowski (12.2 PTS, 60.1% FG, 5.8 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.0 BLK), and Freshman Forwards Zach Collins (9.9 PTS, 65.4% FG, 5.6 REB, 1.6 BLK), and Killian Tillie (4.4 PTS, 52.9% FG, 3.1 REB) all stand at least 6’10”, while Few has yet another seven-footer available off the Bench in the form of Junior Center Ryan Edwards (2.0 PTS, 62.5% FG, 1.0 REB). As you can imagine, all that beef makes them very difficult to move in the interior, which is a big (pun intended) reason why they’ve allowed a scant 60.9 points (5th Overall) on 36.4% shooting from the field (1st Overall), including 39.8% shooting from inside the three-point arc (1st Overall) and 29.3% beyond it (4th Overall), while leading the nation in defensive rebounds (40.5). Basically, most of their opponents have to settle for sniping away from the perimeter, only to get one shot before change of possession. With that said, let’s not make the mistake of overlooking their own Guard play, for the Bulldogs have a star in their Backcourt that can cause headaches for the opposition. Nigel Williams-Goss (16.7 PTS, 49.0% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 5.9 REB, 4.6 AST, 1.8 STL) is as criminally underrated Guard that you’ll find in this competition, who has shown up in big games time and time again this season. Case in point; after they rode Karnowski and their bigs to victory over West Virginia (61-59) in the Sweet Sixteen, it was their Backcourt that rose to the occasion to snuff out Xavier (83-59), as Williams-Goss scored a game-high twenty-three points on 7-of-19 shooting from the floor (36.8%), including 4-of-7 from three (57.1%), along with eight rebounds, four assists, two steals, and a block, while Johnathan Williams (10.3 PTS, 59.4% FG, 6.6 REB, 1.0 BLK) added another nineteen points on 8-of-12 shooting (66.7%), with eight rebounds, and assist, two steals, and three blocks. The difference in the game was clearly three-point marksmanship, which the Zags had in spades, netting half of their twenty-four attempts (50.0%), besting the Musketeers by a whopping thirty points in that regard. Williams-Goss will be the key for Few’s side, for the Junior must maintain composure in the face of the South Carolina’s at times overwhelming pressure.