I wish to first say sorry to most of the news media and fellow bloggers that mention every four years when the United States elects its’ President during the early primaries when they take place in certain states on Saturdays…
This to me, is the real “Super Saturday”.
Each time the calendar arrives in the late part of March, I often feel a bit of excitement and some sadness. The exciting part of course is knowing which schools are going to play in the biggest event of the year, while the sad part is the simple fact that many dozens of players (especially any seniors), plus those heralded freshmen like Malik Monk and DeAaron’ Fox from Kentucky who continue to follow the path of many who play under Head Coach John Calipari and bolt immediately to the NBA after playing only one year of college ball.
ESPN analyst extraordinaire and 1986 Duke graduate Jay Bilas brought up some interesting points on Monday morning’s Mike and Mike show on ESPN Radio. Talk about this at your next dinner party:
Bilas cited the celebrated movie actor Tom Hanks of Forrest Gump fame, where he only went to college one year and then decided to quit (true story). Same went for legendary astronaut and one of the first men to walk on the moon, the late great John Glenn.
As veteran CBS Sports announcer Jim Nantz mentioned in the 2006 book by Eddie Einhorn, How March Became Madness:
“College basketball is a transient sport–by that I mean the players move on after four years–so the losses are hurtful or devastating than anything else I’ve seen in team sports…I feel it every time I broadcast an NCAA Tournament game and I see a senior walk off the floor at the end. There will always be a bond (between player and coach), but he’ll never be on the floor playing for that man again.”
In a commercial underwritten by the NCAA which has run on CBS and the three Turner networks, NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice is definitely on point. He said, “only 2 percent of today’s college athletes will end up going pro.”
That means the other 98 or so percent of us, give or take a few decimal points will end up doing what we all are doing or aspire to do–to make our marks on this really complex journey of a game we simply call life.
2017 Edition of the Final Four offers many contrasts and similarities
The familiar adage of, “Only the strong survive” definitely rang true during the first 64 games of this tournament.
- South Carolina used the second half of games to evoke the frenetic memories of Bo Kimble and the 1990 Loyola Marymount Lions when their scores for 40 minutes resembled that of the NBA during that time.
- Gonzaga as a team exorcised a ton of demons as they finally got over the Sweet 16/Elite Eight hump and to go along with it, some major inside presence to complement their always steady yet sometimes lethal three-point shooting.
- Oregon suffered two major injuries–first, guard Dillon Brooks lost some time in the Thanksgiving holiday period and center Chris Boucher was lost in late February due to a torn ACL (and he even tried to walk it off for five minutes before medical officials finally advised him to get treatment). But here they are, after everyone’s pick in the brackets of Kansas may have gotten a bit too complacent with their lofty ranking (let alone a few of their players dipping their toes on the wrong side of the law).
- Finally, North Carolina survived a classic game with Kentucky with only three-tenth of a second left on the FedEx Forum clock. And yet, here are the Tar Heels (like them or not) back again.
The last time the University of Phoenix Stadium played to a major spectacle of an event, Tom Brady was watching from the sidelines before Malcolm Butler made the Super Bowl saving play for New England.
However, that took place nearly 30 game minutes after Katy Perry simply rocked the halftime show in February 2015 at Super Bowl XLIX:
Images courtesy of blabladobia.com (above) and billboard.com (below)
Poor right shark:(.
Just a few yards away from that stage, the 2017 edition of the NCAA Men’s Final Four promises to be both interesting and hopefully one to remember.
Best to start this preview with one of two schools making their first ever appearance in the pinnacle event of college basketball:
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS: 26-10 OVERALL RECORD, 12-6 IN SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE. STUDENT ENROLLMENT 33,575 ON THE COLUMBIA CAMPUS. FIRST EVER FINAL FOUR APPEARANCE.
“I know we work hard. We go to the weight room year-round…we practice, we compete, we go against each other. We created a motto for this team called ‘Don’t Let Go of the Rope’.
Adversity is part of the deal. It’s not all bread and roses…Sometimes, your side starts getting pulled in the wrong direction. Every once in a while, somebody lets go of the rope and if one person lets go of the rope, you’re team’s done. It’s over. You have to hold on to that rope.”
One-time bouncer and South Carolina Head Coach Frank Martin referring to tug-of-war concept on Mike and Mike ESPN Radio show, Monday, March 27
Sindarius Thornwell certainly has made a name for himself in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Following in the footsteps of hundreds of past college greats who finally saw their dream become reality, only a handful actually made it to the Final Four. Names in recent years that were the face of other universities include the likes of Bryce Drew of Valparaiso in 1998, Jimmer Fredette of BYU, and Doug McDermott of Creighton in the last few years. never made it to college basketball’ Promised Land.
Small history lesson on what their nickname of Gamecocks is for the misinformed (which their athletic site at GamecocksOnline.com mentions as, “a fighting rooster known for its spirit and courage. A cock fight, which was a popular sport throughout the United States in the 19th century, would last until the death of one of the combatants.”)
Not only did this woman survive her time on campus, she thrived in a totally different arena.
Some of you might recall one of their famous alumni who would become a Playboy Playmate in February 2001 named Lauren Michelle Hill.
Courtesy of youtube.com
The key to South Carolina’s overall team concept starts with their defense. Ball hawking at almost every possibility, players like Duane Notice along with Thornwell will look at every possible opportunity to get their hands on the ball, without getting into major trouble. The way their defense enjoys trapping so much has given great offenses from the likes of Duke and Baylor fits.
Which plays into my next point…
THE GAMECOCKS WILL WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE IF…
Other guys average in double figures, besides Thornwell, the 6’5″ senior guard. Look for P.J. Dozier and maybe Chris Silva to take up a bit more of the slack.
THE X-FACTOR TO WATCH FOR SOUTH CAROLINA IS…
Freshman guard Rakym Felder. Standing at 5’10” and weighing 210 pounds, this Brooklyn native has hit 43 percent of his three-point attempts. He also has 21 steals in 35 games played.
STAT YOU NEED TO KNOW…
I have two stats for all of you fans to chew on–
Although their team average scoring-wise is only at 73.2 ppg (8th during the regular season in the always top-heavy SEC), their defense allows only an average of 64.9 ppg–good enough to be in the top 30 of all in Division I. They will need a lot of that, plus some lucky breaks to go their way against another newbie to the Final Four.
And talk about a cool history nugget: South Carolina became the first team since the 1992 Cincinnati Bearcats to miss 10 consecutive years playing in the NCAA Tournament, and then in the following year reach the Final Four.
GONZAGA BULLDOGS: 36-1 OVERALL RECORD, 16-1 IN WEST COAST CONFERENCE–REGULAR SEASON AND TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONS. STUDENT ENROLLMENT 7,352 (4,837 UNDERGRADUATES). FIRST EVER FINAL FOUR APPEARANCE.
”The Final Four doesn’t validate or discredit a season. It’s not an end-all, be-all. Gonzaga has been a great program and we’re just happy to keep carrying the torch.”
Junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss during the postgame press conference at the HP Pavilion after Saturday’s convincing West Regional Final victory over Xavier. Williams-Goss was named as an Associated Press Second-Team All-American on Tuesday
For the last several years, it has felt at times like there was one league for the Gonzaga Bulldogs and another for the rest of the teams that reside in the West Coast Conference. They were the bridesmaid, never the bride–that is, until this season. Sure, they haven’t been in a lot of close games but they definitely played like a number 1 seed should play during a balance of the year. Although the likes of other well-known Western schools like Arizona and the pair of schools which reside in Lipstick City in USC and UCLA went by the wayside, Gonzaga is hoping to make the most of their first ever trip to the Final Four.
The offense is built around three key players: Williams-Goss (the 2017 West Coast Conference Player of the Year), along with guard Jordan Mathews and center Przemek Karnowski. The more this trio distributes the ball and makes key plays, this offense is almost difficult to stop.
Their 83.2 ppg average was more than enough to get past South Dakota State and the upstarts from Northwestern. West Virginia tried to use their press, but in the end it came back to bite the Mountaineers. By the time they raced off to that early lead against the 11 seed of Xavier, their past frustrations of Regionals gone bad finally went away.
THE BULLDOGS WILL WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE IF…
Their defense keeps playing sound and keeps both Williams-Goss and Karnowski out of foul trouble.
THE X FACTOR TO WATCH FOR GONZAGA IS…
Similar to UCLA and at times with Oregon, Gonzaga loves to distribute the ball. Enter junior Johnathan Williams. The 6’9″ Missouri transfer upped his stat line from being around a 42 percent shooter from behind the arc to shooting 40.5 percent for the year (15 out of 37). His six blocks and 14 offensive rebounds thus far in the Tournament are going to be huge if Gonzaga is going to reach their first ever trip to the national championship game.
STAT YOU NEED TO KNOW…
23 of Gonzaga’s wins in the 2016-2017 season have been by at least 20 points. This is the most since Duke reached the national final during the 1998-99 season.
Back in the NCAA’s rather humble beginnings in 1939, only eight teams competed in Evanston, Illinois with the “Tall Firs” winning the first men’s college basketball title.
Scores of marginal talent and 78 years have passed, but here they are–quirky looking uniforms and all:
OREGON DUCKS: 33-5 OVERALL RECORD, 16-2 IN PAC-12 CONFERENCE–SHARED REGULAR SEASON TITLE WITH UCLA AND ALSO WON TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP. STUDENT ENROLLMENT 23,364 (20,067 UNDERGRADUATES). SECOND FINAL FOUR APPEARANCE, BUT FIRST SINCE 1939.
“They always (the media) talk about how West Coast basketball is not as good as whoever, but we don’t worry about that. We just lace them up and go play and play as hard as we can. People think West Coast kids are soft. We’re all about going to the beach, sunshine…It shows no matter where you’re born, toughness is just something you learn. I think people really have the wrong mindset about the West Coast.”
Sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey in post-game comments after the Midwest Regional final Saturday night in Kansas City
I have said all along that if one star player goes down for the Ducks, their chances of cutting down the nets goes down with it. No question about it, Tyler Dorsey makes some great points. I have lots of online friends who proudly call the West Coast home. As laid back as that area is, I only know what I see is on YouTube and in pictures.
And after many years in dominating indoor track, we will see if their basketball skills will translate well against one of the true longest standing blue bloods of the sport in North Carolina on Saturday night.
Obviously, they do miss senior center Chris Boucher. He was their rock, their spearhead, their leader on and off the court. Somehow, Head Coach Dana Altman molded the rest of the team to rise up and play a spirited brand of ball. Similar to the last time two schools west of the Mississippi River played in a Final Four at the old Seattle Kingdome in 1995, they were led by Tyus Edney of UCLA and Bryant “Big Country” Reeves of Oklahoma State.
The way their defense completely took apart Kansas spoke volumes. They will need that and plenty more intestinal fortitute to win on Saturday.
THE DUCKS WILL WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE IF…
They manage to catch North Carolina into a state of complacency, and I just don’t see that happening. Outside of that, Dorsey and Dillon Brooks will have to each score at least 30 points each to at least keep this game from being another Super Saturday blowout. Another key is to see how their defense will stack up against the North Carolina guards of Joel Berry II and new hero Luke Maye.
THE X FACTOR TO WATCH FOR OREGON IS…
Senior guard Dylan Ennis. Missing out on last year’s championship in Villanova, the Brampton, Ontario, Canada product has certainly stepped up his game after missing significant time for the Ducks during the 2015-2016 season. He comes into this Final Four averaging 10.7 points per game and his 42 steals were among the tops on the team.
Watch for Ennis to score in double figures for the third straight game if the Ducks have a realistic chance to knock off their second straight number 1 seed.
STAT YOU NEED TO KNOW…
Their offense is fairly good, finishing in second behind UCLA and their average of 89.8 ppg to the Ducks’ 78.9 average on the year. They blew out their closest competitor in USC with 241 blocks on the season–49 more than the Men of Troy that occupy Lipstick City in L.A.
That leaves us with the only Number 1 seed and the only school to repeat as Regional Champions:
NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS: 31-7 OVERALL RECORD, 14-4 IN ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE. WON REGULAR SEASON TITLE. STUDENT ENROLLMENT 29,084 (18,415 UNDERGRADUATES). MAKING A RECORD 20TH FINAL FOUR APPEARANCE.
“I think when you get in the really big domes, I don’t know that you feel a home crowd. I think we’ll have a good crowd out there.
“The seriousness of Marcus (Paige) is gone. The quietness of Brice (Johnson) is gone. Now it’s Theo and Joel and it’s comedy express out there half the time. They are closer together because they are all idiots.”
Veteran North Carolina Head Coach Roy Williams talking to reporters Wednesday in Phoenix after arriving a day earlier than other teams and discussing the differences between the 2016 national runner-up squad compared to this year
The common word around North Carolina basketball is togetherness. It all started many decades ago with the legendary Dean Smith. Later on, Bill Guthridge took on the mantel and the Carolina way continued its’ domination of the ACC. Since Roy Williams left the many pile of riches in Kansas, he has taken five different North Carolina teams to the Final Four and winning it all in convincing fashion in 2009 at Ford Field in Detroit.
THE TAR HEELS WILL WIN THE NATIONAL TITLE IF…
They don’t play in a close game. When sophomore guard Luke Maye hit the winning shot to claim the Memphis Regional on Sunday, he got a standing ovation the next day in class. Maye would have to step up his game big time against the very talented Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey. Otherwise, I feel like I am saying the same things that I did in the 2016 Final Four Preview (of which you can read for enjoyment at the very bottom of this page when you click on the March 2016 tab).
THE X FACTOR FOR NORTH CAROLINA IS…
Their bench. The Tar Heels bench was exposed big time against their Tobacco Road rivals of Duke in the ACC Tournament. Also, their defense has been suspect at times and is something I hope the CBS cameras could try to keep a close eye on. I really cannot put a finger on any one or two players, but pound for pound–the likes of Joel Berry II (pending the status of his ankle injuries) and Justin Jackson will have to continue playing their game well and playing it to a higher level.
STAT YOU NEED TO KNOW…
The UNC defense averaged a rather paltry 70.6 ppg, good enough for 7th in the always tough and rugged ACC. But far and away, it is their offense and their league best 85 points per game that is good enough to take down any team on any given day.
Bottom line, and it is no April Fool’s joke:)
I hope as a Superfan of the sport that the games turn out to be fun and exciting. There are not too many days on the sports calendar in the United States that brings about so much conversation and so much wonder, except outside of the week leading up to the Super Bowl and the Indy 500 auto race.
But I am sticking with my original bracket picks, as somehow Gonzaga will solve the suffocating defense employed by South Carolina in the second half and Oregon will finally realize after seven games how valuable Chris Boucher was to the Ducks in general.
If Boucher was still playing, this game with North Carolina would be relatively even.
As it is, I expect it will be North Carolina looking for a different ending to what happened to them in the last five seconds in 2016 and Gonzaga hoping to become the first true mid-major to reach the national final since tiny Indiana State led by Larry Bird had that magical undefeated run in 1979 before getting derailed by double digits to the hands of Gregory Kelser and the Most Outstanding Player that year in junior guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
See you all on Saturday night with my game recaps of both games from Glendale, Arizona.