Running down the four-team contingent set to meet in the desert next weekend in the 2017 Final Four, in an orderly and alphabetical way …
A is for adjustments, which have propelled Oregon in particular to the final weekend of the season. The Ducks lost senior center and rim protector Chris Boucher to a knee injury during the Pacific-12 tournament, but he wasn’t solely responsible for Oregon’s No. 1 ranking in block percentage on KenPom.com. Bell had eight blocks in the Ducks’ regional final defeat of Kansas, while the rest of the Ducks have adapted to Boucher’s absence to propel the program to the Final Four.
B is for Dillon Brooks. The junior guard missed the first three games of the season in the wake of preseason foot surgery, and the Ducks weren’t right early in the year as a result. They split their first four games, but since have gone 31-3. For the year, Brooks is averaging a team-high 16.3 points.
C is for Zach Collins. The next in a line of Gonzaga big men, the 7-foot freshman represents one of the many milestones the Bulldogs have achieved during their nearly two decades of national prominence. Collins was the first McDonald’s all-American to sign with the Zags out of high school, and this year he is averaging 9.9 points and 5.7 rebounds and shooting 65.4 percent coming off the bench.
D is for Tyler Dorsey, one of two players (along with Dylan Ennis) to start every game for Oregon this season. The sophomore guard is arguably the most unstoppable player this month, stitching together seven consecutive 20-point games since the start of the Pac-12 tournament. In that span, he is averaging 23.6 points while shooting 62.4 percent from the floor (58 of 93) and 57.8 percent from three-point range (57.8 percent). He should top North Carolina’s scouting report. Remarkably, he had only four 20-point games on the year before this torrid stretch.
E is for encore, which North Carolina is hoping will give it a leg up at this Final Four. The Tar Heels fell, 77-74, to Villanova in last year’s national title game, but Final Four disappointment can give way to success the following year. Since 2000, Michigan State (2000), Maryland (2002), North Carolina (2009), Kentucky (2012) and Louisville (2013) have all won national titles a year after falling in the semifinals or title game.
F is for Firs - or, more specifically, the Tall Firs. That was the nickname of Oregon’s 1939 national champions, which won the first NCAA tournament ever contested with a 46-33 triumph over Ohio State. Until this year, it was the Ducks’ only previous trip to the semifinals.
G is for Gonzaga. The Bulldogs (36-1) will make their first Final Four appearance after claiming the West regional as the No. 1 seed with victories over South Dakota State, Northwestern, West Virginia and Xavier. Gonzaga is making its 20th NCAA tournament appearance and its 19th in a row.
H is for Isaiah Hicks, one of two veteran interior starters for North Carolina. While Kennedy Meeks puts up the most consistent stats, the Tar Heels are at their best when Hicks doesn’t wander into foul trouble and can stay on the floor. Hicks brings the benefit of efficiency both around the basket (59.8 field goal percentage) and at the foul line (78.6 free throw percentage) and fortifies North Carolina’s traditionally-sized lineup.
I is for intense, a descriptor so commonly used to describe Frank Martin it’s a surprise it isn’t part of his legal name. It is little surprise Martin, in his fifth season as South Carolina’s head coach, has instilled a defense-first mentality with the Gamecocks. South Carolina ranks second in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency ratings, behind only Gonzaga - its opponent Saturday.
J is for Justin Jackson, the ACC’s player of the year, a consensus all-American and a reminder that few programs find a way to keep heralded players to stick around for three or four years quite like the Tar Heels. Jackson struggled mightily from the perimeter in his first two seasons, shooting 29.7 percent from three-point range despite starting nearly every game on the wing. This year, Jackson has made a school-record 101 three-pointers and is shooting 38.0 percent from the outside.
K is for Przemek Karnowski. It didn’t help Gonzaga to lose the 7-foot-1 Karnowski to injury last year, but in the end it was a major factor in getting the Bulldogs to their first Final Four. The fifth-year senior is an exceptional passer out of the post, which makes doubling him a dangerous proposition considering Gonzaga shoots 37.8 percent from the outside. Of course, he’s listed at 300 pounds, which means there’s plenty of one-on-one matchups that lead to easy layups.
L is for the Little Apple, more commonly known as Manhattan, Kan. That town is home to Kansas State, which has not reached a Final Four since 1964 even though five of its last seven coaches have taken teams to the final weekend. Both Oregon’s Dana Altman and South Carolina’s Frank Martin are former K-State coaches, while Bob Huggins (West Virginia) and Lon Kruger (Florida and Oklahoma) also had Final Four trips after their stints with the Wildcats. K-State’s current coach, Bruce Weber, has a Final Four to his credit from his time at Illinois.
M is for Luke Maye. North Carolina’s basketball program doesn’t exactly produce unsung heroes very often, but Maye is a notable exception. Recruited to Chapel Hill as a preferred walk-on, he authored his first career double-double in a regional semifinal defeat of Butler, and his three-pointer with 0.3 seconds left sealed the Tar Heels’ defeat of Kentucky. Maye scored 17 points in the latter victory and earned the South regional’s most outstanding player honors. Not bad for a guy averaging 14.4 minutes.
N is for North Carolina. The Tar Heels (31-7) are playing in their 20th Final Four after securing the South regional as a No. 1 seed with defeats of Texas Southern, Arkansas, Butler and Kentucky. North Carolina is making its 48th all-time NCAA tournament appearance and is seeking its sixth NCAA title (1957, 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009).
O is for Oregon. The Ducks (33-5) will make their second appearance in the semifinals and their first in the modern Final Four after winning the Midwest regional as a No. 3 seed with victories over Iona, Rhode Island, Michigan and Kansas. Oregon is playing in the NCAA tournament for the 15th time and a school-record fifth in a row, and will attempt to win its second all-time title (1939).
P is for Phoenix, the host city for this year’s Final Four. While the games technically will be played in nearby Glendale, it marks the first time the NCAA tournament culminates in the state of Arizona and is the first time since the 1995 Final Four at the Kingdome in Seattle that it is played in either the Mountain or Pacific time zones.
Q is for quirky, which would describe South Carolina if it could knock off Gonzaga in Saturday’s first national semifinal. The Gamecocks already have defeated a No. 2 seed (Duke), a No. 3 seed (Baylor) and a No. 4 seed (Florida). Add a No. 1 seed like the Zags to that mix and South Carolina would join 2014 Connecticut as the only teams to beat a 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the same tournament.
R is for Roy, or Ol’ Roy if you prefer. Whether it’s discussing “dadgum” timeouts, describing one of his players as a “rascal” or countless other linguistic feats, North Carolina Coach Roy Williams has the market cornered on folksiness. He’s also 824-216 in his career, and two victories next weekend would make him the sixth coach to claim three national titles. The others: John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun.
S is for South Carolina. The Gamecocks (26-10) are making their Final Four debut after securing the East regional as a No. 7 seed with victories over Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida. South Carolina is in its ninth all-time NCAA tournament and has won as many games in this event (four) as it had in its previous appearances combined.
T is for Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC’s player of the year who is the centerpiece of South Carolina’s first Final Four team. The senior leads the Gamecocks in scoring (21.6), rebounding (7.2) and steals (2.2) and is also shooting 83.0 percent at the foul line. He’s been stellar in the NCAA tournament, and South Carolina’s national title hopes hinge on him continuing the play that earned him most outstanding player honors of the East regional.
U is for undefeated, which Gonzaga was up until a Feb. 25 loss to Brigham Young. The Zags were the last team in Division I to take a loss this season and thus will try to become the first “last of the unbeatens” since 2006 Florida to win a national title.
V is for vegetables, one of which could well be referenced in the closing minutes of a close contest on CBS’ broadcast this weekend. That’s because national treasure Bill Raftery will once again provide analysis during the Final Four along with Jim Nantz and Grant Hill. Prepare for some “lingerie on the deck,” a request to “move those puppies” and, of course, “ONIONS” to salute the fortitude of a tough late-game shot.
W is for Nigel Williams-Goss, the Washington transfer who cobbled together a season worthy of all-America honors in his first year of eligibility at Gonzaga. Williams-Goss is averaging 16.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists for the Bulldogs, quickly establishing himself as an offensive centerpiece for the West Coast Conference power.
X is for the X-factor on each team in this year’s Final Four. Whether it’s Jordan Bell’s rim protection for Oregon, Jordan Mathews’s outside shot for Gonzaga, Chris Silva’s exceptional offensive rebounding for South Carolina or Theo Pinson’s do-everything repertoire for North Carolina, each remaining team has a player it needs to thrive even if they aren’t the most lauded players on their respective rosters.
Y is for yawns, which are likely to be few and far between with these four teams. North Carolina (50th) and Gonzaga (73rd) both rank in the top 100 in KenPom’s adjusted tempo metric, and North Carolina (No. 6), Gonzaga (No. 14) and Oregon (No. 16) are all in the top 20 in offensive efficiency. Then again, all four remaining teams are in the top 20 in defensive efficiency.
Z is for zero, the combined number of Final Four appearances for coaches Dana Altman (Oregon), Mark Few (Gonzaga) and Frank Martin (South Carolina). The last time there were three first-time Final Four coaches was 2006, when John Brady (Louisiana State), Ben Howland (UCLA) and Jim Larranaga (George Mason) joined Florida’s Billy Donovan on the final weekend.
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