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Joe Boozell | | May 19, 2017

Final Four preview: Key questions for both semifinal tilts

  Kennedy Meeks will have his hands full with Oregon center Jordan Bell.

Two of the most highly anticipated games of the year are nearly upon us.

Let’s dive deep into both of these matchups. Here are some key questions that will determine who will play for the national championship on Monday night.

North Carolina vs. Oregon

-Who gets the edge in the Isaiah Hicks-Dillon Brooks matchup?

From an Xs and Os standpoint, this is the most intriguing aspect of this clash. Brooks is a 6-foot-7 wing playing power forward partially because of need, but partially because it makes Oregon extremely hard to guard. Thanks to Brooks’ versatility, the Ducks are able to flank Jordan Bell with four shooters and playmakers. Good luck defending that. As Iona, Rhode Island, Michigan and Kansas know, luck might not even be enough.

There are consequences of playing small, though — especially against the jumbo package that is North Carolina’s frontcourt. The Tar Heels retrieve 41.9 percent of their own misses, which tops the nation. Oregon ranks 180th in defensive rebounding rate, which is last of the remaining teams by a mile.

The Ducks are well aware of this. Despite occasional rebounding woes, Dana Altman has (correctly) concluded that the offensive benefits of small-ball outweigh the defensive drawbacks. Against most teams, that’s a winning formula.  

But UNC is a different beast. Oregon will surrender some offensive boards, but it has to at least stay competitive on the glass. Getting one stop against these Tar Heels is hard enough; to have to get two or three in one trip down the floor is totally demoralizing.

The style clash has implications on both sides, but North Carolina has seen an offense just like Oregon’s before: Duke. Jayson Tatum has a very similar skillset to Brooks; he gave North Carolina serious issues. The Blue Devils beat the Tar Heels two out of three times — in the two wins, Tatum averaged 21.5 points. Hicks is quick for his size, but to ask him to guard Tatum or Brooks on the perimeter is unrealistic.

The game may boil down to this: can Brooks hit enough 3s to counter the second-chance points Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley will gobble up? We’ll see.

Who guards Justin Jackson for Oregon, and who does Jackson guard?

Jackson’s value as a two-way player can’t be overstated. He was good but not great on offense against Kentucky, but he still made a huge impact — Roy Williams slotted his 6-8 workhorse on Malik Monk, who torched the Tar Heels in December for 47 points.

Monk hit some late clutch shots this time around, but he was silent for most of the game — the freshman finished with 12 points. Credit the nimble Jackson, who completely smothered him; given his defensive success on Sunday, you’d have to think Roy Williams will try to have Jackson do the same to Tyler Dorsey.

A fair thought: Does chasing around a Monk or a Dorsey affect Jackson’s offense, where UNC so desperately needs him to produce?  

The Tar Heels sure hope not, because this looks like one tasty matchup for the ACC Player of the Year. Dylan Ennis will likely draw the Jackson assignment, but he’ll be giving up six inches — that said, he’s the best perimeter defender out of the Ennis-Dorsey-Payton Pritchard trio. Truthfully, Jordan Bell is probably the Duck who’s most equipped to guard Jackson; the dude is a shadow. But having him switch onto Jackson and leaving one of the guards to handle Hicks or Meeks is a losing proposition. We’ll see if Ennis is up to the task.

Can Oregon avoid fouling?

This one’s pretty simple. North Carolina drew 19 fouls against Kentucky, which made John Calipari dive deep into his bench. Kentucky has a better bench than Oregon. If one of Bell, Brooks or Dorsey has to hit the pine due to foul trouble, the Ducks may not be able to recover. In that scenario, don’t be surprised if Altman chances it by leaving them out there.

Score prediction: North Carolina 77, Oregon 73

South Carolina vs. Gonzaga

Road to the Final Four: Gonzaga Bulldogs

Can the South Carolina supporting cast stay hot?

Not only is Sindarius Thornwell one of the best players in America -- he’s also one of the most consistent. He’s the anti-Monk, who can go for 47 one night and 12 the next — Thornwell has scored at least 20 points in nine of his last 11 games. He’s hit double-figures every time out this season.

Thornwell needs to play well in order for the Gamecocks to win. That goes without saying. But they’ll need their supporting cast — which has been excellent in the NCAA tournament — to play like it has in March as opposed to how it did in, say, January.

Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar combined for 25 points on 15 shots against Florida. That’s really solid production from a frontcourt duo that was inconsistent on offense this year. PJ Dozier is super talented, but he hasn’t always been an efficient scorer — until this NCAA tournament. The sophomore is shooting better than 50 percent from the floor in his last four games.

South Carolina has been great defensively all season. Thornwell has been great all season. The Gamecocks elevate to a new level when their second, third and fourth options become offensive threats. They’ll need to be against the No. 1 Gonzaga defense.

Which Nigel Williams-Goss shows up?

On one hand, Gonzaga’s Final Four run is the most impressive accomplishment in program history. On the other, if they make it to the title game, the Bulldogs will have gone through the two most trip-to-the-dentist-like opponents in America: West Virginia and South Carolina. It’s fun if they win after the fact, sure; but in the moment, it’s not exactly a trip to Disneyland.  

Those teams are particularly difficult to play against when you’re a point guard.

MORE: How Gonzaga retooled on the fly

Williams-Goss struggled mightily against the Mountaineers — he went 2-for-10 with five turnovers. The Washington transfer was spectacular in the Elite Eight against Xavier, scoring 23 points and snaring eight rebounds. The bad news for Williams-Goss: The defense he’s about to face resembles West Virginia’s far more than it does Xavier’s.

The Gamecocks’ strategy doesn’t even sound real — until you watch them. They try to deny every pass. They aren’t successful in that regard, but they deny most passes, which is more than any other team can say — a “simple” post entry or pass to the wing is anything but against these guys. They make basic basketball acts excruciatingly difficult.

Williams-Goss is a great point guard, and that shouldn’t be doubted. With that said, he’s got quite a bit on his plate for Saturday.

Can Gonzaga avoid late, desperation heaves?

Gonzaga plays relatively fast — it ranks 73rd in adjusted tempo — and if at all possible, the Bulldogs should push the pace against South Carolina. Why? Because puncturing its half-court defense is next to impossible.

Road to the Final Four: South Carolina Gamecocks

When Florida scored against the Gamecocks, it was usually either in transition or the result of a decisive Chris Chiozza drive. Swing the ball around the perimeter without purpose, and you’re doomed against these guys. Even if Gonzaga doesn’t attempt a shot via the fast break, simply getting down the floor quickly will make it tougher for South Carolina to get set.

The Gamecocks forced the Gators into bad looks with the shot clock winding down several times. Usually, a Florida guard would panic, attempt a halfhearted drive and either turn it over or take a contested 2.

If Gonzaga finds itself in that scenario, maybe its guards should just pull the long 3. Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews and Josh Perkins are good shooters. That’s not an ideal shot, but it beats a drive to the basket when there’s no space to operate.

Gonzaga has shown it can win many different ways. If the Bulldogs are going to reach their first national championship game ever, they’ll have to do it in ugly fashion against South Carolina.

Score prediction: Gonzaga 69, South Carolina 62

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