WE began the college basketball season with 351 teams vying for glory. We are now down to four. This year’s Final Four is unlike any group have ever seen before though. Two schools making their first Final Four appearance, one appearing for the first time since 1939 and last year’s runners up form a group of schools that is very very different indeed. South Carolina, Oregon, North Carolina and Gonzaga all punched their ticket to Glendale, Arizona to play for a spot in the National Championship game. This is the March Madness we all know and love.
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YESTERDAY the 35-1 Gonzaga Bulldogs became the first school to advance, after comfortably beating #11 Xavier for win number 36 of the year. The path to the schools first Final Four runs much deeper than their win on Saturday. 2013 saw the Bulldogs a #1 seed but it meant little as they were upset by Wichita State, and an Elite Eight loss to Duke ended their championship dreams prematurely in 2015. You have to go all the way back to 1999 to find Gonzaga’s only other shot at a Final Four placement, but again they fell short, losing to Connecticut. Finally through the tutelage and guidance of head coach Mark Few, the 20th time was the charm for the Bulldogs, who have been to the tourney 19 straight times without a Final Four placement, until now.
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SOUTH Carolina have their own unique path to be one of the last four teams remaining. The 7th seed out East last made a tournament appearance 13 years ago, their last tournament win was in 1973 and since the field expanded to 68 teams they have never made it out of the first round. 2017 has proved to be a record breaking year for Frank Martin and the Gamecocks, who continue to defy logic beating ‘big name’ schools as they dream of going all the way. Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier’s decision to stand by South Carolina and dream of building a tournament worthy team payed off, with the pair combining for 43 of the 77 points scored in their win over Florida. With South Carolina and Gonzaga meeting in the 1st match next Saturday one school’s fairytale story will end, while another’s will write an infamous chapter in college basketball history.
AND while they do battle, both Oregon and North Carolina will be preparing for their own battle. Much of the ‘cinderella’ buzz and praise has being heaped onto Gonzaga and South Carolina, but Oregon deserves their fair share of the label. With one Final Four appearance in school history coming in 1939, they may as well be here for the first time. What makes the feat even more improbable is that they have done so without starting big man Chris Boucher. The 6’10 senior fell awkwardly chasing a rebound in the Pac 12 tournament against California, and once news surfaced that he had injured his ACL and would miss the remainder of the season, everyone wrote the Ducks off (including me). Tyler Dorsett didn’t get the message though, lifting his game to another to help Oregon beat ‘better’ opponents in Michigan and Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight. Added contributions from experienced pair duo Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell have been worth their weight in gold too.
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EXPERIENCE definitely counts at this time of the year and North Carolina’s legendary coach Roy Williams, who is coaching in his eighth Final Four match, will help to provide some of that experience. The rest will come from the 10 guys who had their hearts broken by Kris Jenkins at the buzzer in last years championship game loss. A chance to atone for coming up short last season will definitely be on the forefront of every Tar Heel that takes to the court against Oregon. North Carolina almost weren’t in this position though. In their Elite Eight game against Kentucky, that featured a portion of the entire 1st round in the upcoming NBA draft, walk-on Luke Mayes emerged as the hero knocking down the game winner with 0.3 left on the clock.
EVEN if the Tar Heels fall short again in Arizona, whether it be against Oregon or Gonzaga/South Carolina, making it to the last weekend of the season is something that the players will remember for the rest of their lives. The same goes for Oregon’s players. And Gonzaga. And South Carolina. Maybe these teams aren’t so different after all.
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