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Joe Boozell | | March 27, 2017

What this past weekend tells us about the Final Four

  South Carolina is headed to the Final Four thanks to its elite defense.

Now that was a second weekend for the ages.

There was noise about the lack of drama in the first weekend. Fair or not, we can all agree that the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 delivered in a big way. Here’s what we can take away from the second weekend as we try to project what might happen in Phoenix.

Defense, defense, defense. It matters.

Kansas and UCLA were popular picks to win it all. The temptation was understandable. The Jayhawks and Bruins are fantastic offensive teams that boast as much star power as anyone.

But had either won the title, it would have been unprecedented in the modern era. Since 2002, no team has won the NCAA tournament with a defense that ranks 22nd or lower.

Kansas is 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency. UCLA is 86th. Compare that to the teams who are Phoenix-bound:

Final Four defensive efficiency rankings
Team Ranking
Gonzaga 1
South Carolina 2
North Carolina 18
Oregon 19

This isn’t to suggest that you can win a national championship with an elite defense and a clogged-toilet offense. South Carolina struggled to score in the regular season, but the Gamecocks are averaging well above a point per possession in the tournament.  And one day, an offensive-minded team will buck this trend.

But last weekend reinforced the idea that both sides of the floor matter. Remember that before going all googly-eyed over the next UCLA.

Dillon Brooks might be the third-best player on Oregon, and that’s scary if you’re North Carolina.

Brooks, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, is a 6-foot-7 locomotive capable of scoring from all over the court. He’s also a crunch time assassin that has played well in March.

So the fact that he’s been Oregon’s third-best player in the tournament has to be terrifying if you’re a UNC fan. Brooks has two game-winning buzzer-beaters this season, yet Tyler Dorsey is the Ducks’ go-to guy in the waning seconds, and for good reason. Dorsey is averaging 24.5 points on 67 percent shooting in the tournament. He’s making 65(!!) percent of his 3s on a hefty dose of attempts. Some of the shots he hit against Kansas were just silly.

And to put in perspective how good Jordan Bell has been: Dorsey shot 67 percent and didn’t win the Most Outstanding Player award in the Midwest Region. That went to Bell, who posted an 11/13/8/4 line against Kansas.

The eight blocked shots were impressive enough, especially considering that a truly dominant rim-protector affects other shots he doesn’t touch. Bell had Kansas guards pump-faking ghosts on Saturday. Anticipating a Bell block attempt late in the second half, Devonte’ Graham lofted a floater so high it came up about three feet short in the lane. The Oregon center was in the Jayhawks' heads. We’ll see if he can have the same effect on North Carolina in Phoenix.

Depth still counts ...

Luke Maye was the best fourth big man on any roster in America this season. Without him, North Carolina wouldn’t be here:

In a sport where foul trouble can have such a profound effect, depth gives you a larger margin for error. When Josh Jackson hit the bench with two fouls in the first half of the Kansas-Oregon game, the Jayhawks, who use a seven-man rotation, weren’t nearly the same. On Sunday, we saw it with De’Aaron Fox. North Carolina didn’t play its best in the first half, but Kentucky couldn’t make up much ground with its star riding the pine because of early foul trouble.

The best teams have multiple players who can be dangerous to opponents. Gonzaga, for instance, brings Zach Collins off the bench. He's arguably the best NBA prospect heading to the Final Four. North Carolina brings Maye and Tony Bradley off the bench. It’s certainly possible to win the national title with a short rotation – Dana Altman only uses seven players at Oregon – but life is much easier with nine or 10 capable dudes.

... and so does experience.

These four teams are stacked with veterans:

Final Four experience
Team C F G/F G G  
Gonzaga Przemek Karnowski (Sr.) Johnathan Williams (Jr.) Jordan Mathews (Sr.) Josh Perkins (Soph.) Nigel Williams-Goss (Jr.)  
South Carolina Chris Silva (Soph.) Maik Kotsar (Fr.) Sindarius Thornwell (Sr.) PJ Dozier (So.) Duane Notice (Sr.)  
North Carolina Kennedy Meeks (Sr.) Isaiah Hicks (Sr.) Justin Jackson (Jr.) Theo Pinson (Jr.) Joel Berry (Jr.)  
Oregon Jordan Bell (Jr.) Dillon Brooks (Jr.) Dylan Ennis (Sr.) Tyler Dorsey (Soph.) Payton Pritchard (Fr.)  

The more college basketball changes, the more it stays the same. Defense, depth and experience can get you a long way. Don’t expect these players to be overwhelmed by the moment in Phoenix.

Gonzaga is loaded at every position.

The average college basketball fan doesn’t watch much Gonzaga from January through March. The games are on late for much of the country and the Zags are not involved in many marquee matchups. Totally understandable.

But this is Mark Few’s most talented team ever, so it’s fitting that the Bulldogs are headed to their first Final Four. Nigel Williams-Goss will likely be an All-American. Jordan Mathews is a good 3-and-D guy. Any team would happily take Josh Perkins as its secondary ballhandler. Johnathan Williams is a springy power forward that gave Trevon Bluiett fits in the Elite Eight. Przemek Karnowski is an interior beast. Collins may be the team's best player, and he comes off the bench.

Gonzaga deserves this. It’s good to see that outstanding basketball exists outside of the high-major conferences.

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