The Final Four is here. The matchups are set. Sixty-four teams are gone. Four remain.
There will be much anticipation and much discussion over the next five days about Saturday’s two national semifinals. To set the stage for that anticipation and discussion, it’s time to look ahead to the four biggest storylines that await us in Phoenix:
1. The have and the have-nots
One of this year’s participants, North Carolina, qualified for its 20th Final Four, the most of any school, with its win over Kentucky Sunday. As for the other three remaining contenders combined? They have one prior appearance among them, and it was Oregon’s way back in 1939. The last time three of the four semifinalists collectively had one or fewer Final Four appearance was 1979, when Penn (0), Indiana State (0), DePaul (1) and Michigan State (1) were the contestants.
This year’s Final Four field, therefore, offers up plenty of intriguing narratives. Gonzaga, despite this being its debut, has plenty of postseason experience, and it would be wonderful to see the Zags further prove their doubters wrong. Oregon’s rise under Dana Altman has been gradual, and is ongoing; the Ducks are a burgeoning power out west, and are here because they came up just short a year ago. South Carolina, meanwhile, is the one true newbie on the big stage, and the one team that only a couple weeks ago seemed like it wouldn’t have belonged.
2. The West returns, but a drought still lingers
Gonzaga and Oregon didn’t just end their own droughts. Heading into the 2017 tournament, no team located west of Norman, Okla., had reached the Final Four since UCLA in 2008. The barren slate included shortcomings from the Bruins themselves, but also Arizona, Oregon, Utah, Gonzaga, San Diego State, BYU, New Mexico and others. Finally, after nine years, not one but two teams broke through.
The Elite Eight triumphs of Gonzaga and Oregon were the culmination of a narrative that picked up steam before the season even began. With the Pac-12’s top three programs all appearing primed for strong years and Gonzaga with arguably its most talented team ever, the nearly decade-long run of failure was treading water, and appeared to be tiring. The “West Coast basketball is back” narrative wasn’t fulfilled by teams outside that elite class, but those big four delivered, and two delivered when it mattered most.
But perhaps this wasn’t the culmination. Both Gonzaga and Oregon are certainly good enough to win it all — something no team west of Lawrence, Kan., has done in 20 years. This year’s Final Four presents the West Coast with its best chance yet to end that drought too.
3. Defense wins regionals
The closest thing to a broad common theme between Gonzaga, Oregon, South Carolina and North Carolina and their roads to the Final Four is defense. The four teams have allowed 0.85, 1.05, 0.98 and 0.95 points per possession, respectively, over their past four games. Oregon got through the early rounds with offense before holding two top-five offenses to a combined 0.98 points per trip. The Ducks threw three or four different looks at both Michigan and Kansas to disrupt their rhythm. North Carolina needed defense on the first weekend before its offense picked up on the second.
Meanwhile, teams such as Kansas, UCLA and Michigan that put together multiple offensive masterpieces in earlier rounds were bounced in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. The successful reliance on stout defense, as opposed to the unsuccessful reliance on offense, isn’t a sign of any long-term trend, but it does mean we could get defensive battles in Phoenix. The first game features the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. The second one should have more offense, but Roy Williams must crack Altman’s constantly shifting scheme, and if the struggles of Michigan and Kansas are instructive, that won’t be an easy task.
4. South Carolina is the one major surprise, but has a legitimate shot at the title
Oregon’s upset of Kansas was stunning for a few reasons, but the Ducks are far from a Cinderella story. South Carolina isn’t really a classic March Madness underdog either, but at least some rational prognosticators had Oregon in the Final Four; nobody had the Gamecocks getting past the second round.
Frank Martin’s turnaround in Columbia is a remarkable tale of belief. South Carolina lost 14 SEC games in 2012-13, Martin’s first year. It lost 13 the following year and 12 in 2014-15. Martin raves about the way his players battled through defeat after defeat, and finally tasted some success last year. But they faded late, and faded in February again this season. They lost six of their last nine games heading into the tournament. They were near the bottom of sleeper lists, if not off the lists entirely.
But when you have the belief to go to a place like South Carolina, a program that had finished above .500 just once since 1998 when every upperclassman on the current roster arrived, and when you have the belief to endure long strings of losses as freshmen and sophomores, it’s easy to have the requisite belief for a tourney run. Or maybe it’s not easy; but it’s not surprising that these players do have it.
And while the Gamecocks are the biggest surprise, they’re a legitimate contender for the national championship. Sindarius Thornwell is the leader in the clubhouse for most outstanding player of the tournament. He’s scored a total of 103 points on 60 shots over the four games, and has been unsurprisingly outstanding on defense. The entire team has been relentless on both ends of the floor, but if there’s one player remaining who can single-handedly will his team to two wins, it’s Thornwell.
More March Madness coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Recently fired Tom Crean attends Indiana women’s basketball game
• Darius Rucker won’t miss South Carolina basketball, even when there’s a concert
• Frank Mason’s Kansas career ends without a Final Four appearance
• Oregon stuns Kansas to reach first Final Four in 78 years
• Gonzaga throttles Xavier to send Mark Few to his first Final Four