by: Robert Williamson
I. The Matchup
The story last week was that of two Jesuit schools with nearly identical paths squaring off for either of their first trips to the NCAA March Madness Final Four. The Gonzaga Bulldogs earned the program’s first ever birth into the prestigious national semi-final with 83-59 trouncing of the Xavier Musketeers last Saturday.
The two teams appeared to be an excellent match-up heading into the game, but it was anything but. Gonzaga’s choking nationwide best defense held the Musketeers to a horrid 36 percent from the field and an even worse 12 percent from long range.
While the Bulldog’s efficiency was on full display, hitting 48 percent from the field and a far more impressive 50 percent from three. Gonzaga’s ticket has finally been punched, after decades of tournament play and one of the final pieces of the puzzle has finally been put in place. It’s a program that has always played the underdog, and at the beginning of the tournament it appeared they would continue to do so if they had made it this far.
What they didn’t expect was to meet a seven seed in the second to last round The South Carolina Gamecocks have easily been the underdog on their path to the program’s first ever Final Four, much like their Gonzaga opponent. In the round of the 32, they took out two seed Duke, an infamously successful program known for making deep runs in the March tournament. Followed by three seed Baylor and four seed Florida last Sunday in a game where they beat the Gator’s by forcing 16 turnovers and getting to the line more than twice as many times as Florida did. It was a scrappy victory, but it’s how the Gamecocks have carved out their success all month, after losing five of their last seven entering the tournament.
A tale of two underdogs, both en route to their program’s first ever Final Four will square off in Phoenix. It may not be pretty, Gonzaga is first in the nation in defensive efficiency, South Carolina is second, but we will gifted a chance to see either program punch their first ever ticket to the national championship.
II. Gonzaga Bulldogs
The Bulldogs came into this tournament riding one of the nation’s best records, a strong 32-1. Since then, they’ve mopped the floor with the likes of Xavier and South Dakota State, while barely scraping by Northwestern, playing in the program’s first ever national tournament, and West Virginia, nicknamed “Press” Virginia for their suffocating style of defense.
For what has been argued to be a relatively easy path to the Final Four, the Bulldogs haven’t been as convincing as you’d would imagine a 1 seed would perform. But a win is a win, and they’ve yet to abandon a style of play that lead to being ranked first in both overall and defensive efficiency according to KenPom. ESPN’s Matchup Predictor has Gonzaga going through to Monday’s championship game at an 88.2 percent chance. They’ve built success off wonderful distribution of the ball and a pressing defensive style, something they may find is mirrored by their opponent come Saturday.
III. South Carolina Gamecocks
Yes, Gonzaga is finally getting to the program’s first Final Four after 19 years of consecutive play, but that’s not the best ‘feel-good’ story of this tournament. No, that distinction goes to the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Entering the tournament as a seven seed for the first time in 13 years, the Gamecocks under coach Frank Martin’s guidance have executed upset after upset en route to the national semi-finals. They’ve choked out opponents’ offense, forcing turnover after turnover with an efficient midrange game, and even better around the basket. What they lack, is decent perimeter shooting. They’ve only hit a measly 33.7 percent from behind the arc on the season but that trusty old defense makes up for what they lack on offense, as they’ve only allowed opponents 29.8 percent from three all year.
Their success may hinge on senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, who’s averaging 25.8 points per game in the tournament and a team high 7.2 rebounds per game over the season. There’s a reason he won the SEC player of the year, and their success against this hot Gonzaga team could hinge on how plays Saturday night.
As the old saying goes, ‘defense wins championships’, and it’s clear that will be the focal point of this highly anticipated matchup in Phoenix, Arizona on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m.