PHOENIX Tennessee's Rick Barnes has coached 43 games in 22 NCAA tournaments during his 30 years as a Division I head basketball coach. This is the first time Barnes can recall in all those years playing all four of the Final Four teams in one season. He holds the distinction this year as the only coach to face North Carolina, Gonzaga, South Carolina and Oregon. (He went 0-5, with two losses coming to league rival South Carolina).
Barnes predicts that North Carolina will cut down the nets on Monday night, but only after an epic tussle with Gonzaga. He considers that game a toss up, as he considers these Zags the best Gonzaga team he’s seen Mark Few put together. In an interview earlier this week, Barnes broke down the Final Four for Sports Illustrated.
Why do you like North Carolina to win the title?
I thought all year with the way that they shot the ball and rebounded with their frontline that they were the best team. This is an old school, throwback kind of Final Four. Carolina is experienced and has big guys, and they can really play inside and out. The guy who I really like for North Carolina is Tony Bradley (6’10” freshman averaging 7.3 ppg). I know he doesn’t play a ton, but his upside is truly incredible. I will say this, Joel Berry’s ankle is going to be an X-Factor for them. I can guarantee you that Roy Williams is worried to do death about that kid’s ankle.
What stands out about Gonzaga?
I give Gonzaga an edge against South Carolina because they’re so good inside that they can withstand a night where they’re not shooting the ball well from the perimeter. The guy I really love for Gonzaga is Zach Collins, the 7-foot freshman. I love him. All the NBA guys I spoke with this year, I’ve told them that he’s one of the most impressive players I have seen during an actual game. I’ve scrimmaged Mark Few and those guys for years when we were at Texas. This is by far and away his best team, as they have really quality depth. If they end up playing Carolina on Monday, that game is a coin flip. It would be a great, great game.
How did South Carolina end up here?
I think the biggest surprise team would be South Carolina. There’s no doubt about that. We have a similar defense-first philosophy to them. We had 42 combined turnovers against them in our two games with them this season. They’re a terrific defensive team. I don’t think there’s a team in the Final Four that isn’t good on defense. But the difference is that South Carolina relies on their defense so much to get them going. The other three teams know that their offense can get them going.
How scary is Oregon right now?
The most impressive win in this whole tournament was Oregon beating Kansas. I’m just telling you, to beat them (74-60) in what was essentially a road game in Kansas City. That showed me that they can beat anyone. Their poise and defense was outstanding in that game. One thing that’s tricky about them is that they change defenses quite a bit. Kansas was averaging like 96 points per game in the tournament and they couldn’t score. Jordan Bell has just been terrific for them.