These teams are here for a reason.
Beyond excellent coaching and program infrastructure, the players we’ll watch on Saturday are extraordinarily talented. Each is unique, too. Different wrinkles make the star players great.
Here are our 2017 Final Four superlatives.
Best intimidator: Jordan Bell, Oregon
“Jordan Bell is a maniac down low,” Justin Jackson said on Friday.
“Just a freak,” Theo Pinson added.
Bell played Moritz Wagner, who has well on his way to becoming an NCAA tournament darling before facing Oregon, off of the floor in the Sweet 16. In the second round, Louisville switched everything against Michigan. Wagner abused smaller guys in mismatches en route to 26 points.
The Ducks decided to play it straight up, and Bell made Dana Altman look prophetic. Wagner tried to play hero ball against Bell, it didn’t work, and he was summoned to the pine.
Bell was even better against Kansas, blocking eight shots and affecting several more. The Jayhawks spread the court as well as anyone – with four capable 3-point shooters and playmakers, lumbering centers usually can’t affect the game against them.
Bell is no lumbering center. He’s a prototypical modern big who can defend the rim, defend the perimeter and flush alley-oops on the other end. He’ll have his hands full against Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and company. But Bell is probably the best defender in college basketball; that makes him the default choice here.
Biggest pest: Duane Notice, South Carolina
This is meant in an endearing way. Notice is no fun to play against — Sindarius Thornwell may be the Gamecocks’ star, but no player signifies the South Carolina basketball ethos like Notice.
“Even though [Notice] doesn't play the point on offense, he's our point on defense,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “And he's relentless. Kind of his career, relentless. That's hard. That's the hardest thing in basketball is guarding the basketball, guarding the guy with the ball. That's the most difficult thing to do in the game. And he's just relentless at it. And we're here and the big reason we're here is because of who he is and the way he does that.”
Florida point guard Chris Chiozza has the jets to blow by just about anyone in America — except Notice. Down four with a minute left, most teams would surrender a quick two in an effort not to foul.
Not South Carolina, and it’s because of Notice. Florida has four guys spread beyond the arc with Notice on an island here — and he forces Chiozza into a wild floater:
If Nigel Williams-Goss plays well against Notice and the Gamecocks, he deserves major props. Notice takes pride in bugging the heck out of elite point guards.
Most underappreciated: Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina
Meeks is a sneaky Perry Ellis type — it feels like he’s been in Chapel Hill forever. Last season, people called for Isaiah Hicks to replace him in the starting lineup — much to the chagrin of Roy Williams.
Whatever his motivation is, Meeks is on a new level this season, but you don’t hear much about it. He and Hicks are dominating opposing frontcourts together now, and the former has been particularly awesome. His per-40 numbers: 20.4 points, 15.4 rebounds. Both are career highs. Opponents score 92.9 points per 100 possessions with Meeks on the floor; that leads Tar Heels regulars.
North Carolina is the rare team that can punk you on the offensive glass while running you out of the gym in the same game. Meeks leads a crew that collects an astonishing 41.9 percent of its own clanks — he’s massive, but he’s also smart. Meeks feasts off of overeager weak-side shot-blockers; once the rim-protector sells out and whiffs, it’s an automatic Carolina bucket — the shot either goes in or Meeks bullies his way into position for the put back.
MORE: Full Final Four coverage
Bell was underappreciated most of the season, but he’s getting praise now. Meeks still isn’t.
“He [Bell] does a great job of blocking shots on the weak side, anchoring the defense,” Meeks said.
“But I feel like I can do the same thing.”
Most watchable player: Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga
There’s the beard, which is fantastic. There’s the redemption story — Karnowski wondered whether he’d ever play again this time last year. There’s his style — Karnowski is a delightful 300-pounder whose exuberance shines through.
But more than that, Karnowski does things a 300-pounder shouldn’t be able to do. His passing is well-documented — the redshirt senior averages almost two helpers per game. He’s expected to be a dominant post defender given his size, but he’s surprisingly graceful on the perimeter; Mark Few loves to unleash him as a weapon on unsuspecting guards.
“We've even switched ball screens with him late, and he's very intuitive and got a great feel,” Few said. “And I think the first time you hit him, when I watch games, it's the first time a guy comes down the floor either on offense or defense and feels him and hits him, it's usually an eye-opener for that particular player.”
It’s an eye-opener for the viewer, too. Enjoy Karnowski while you have him, college hoops fans.
Best heat check guy: Tyler Dorsey, Oregon
Dorsey can’t miss in the NCAA tournament. He’s shooting 67 percent from the floor and 65 percent from 3 — when Oregon’s offense stalled out in the second half against Kansas, he saved the day. Some of the shots he took were just ridiculous:
As far as pure scorers go, few are better than Dorsey. He’s not a crazy athlete, but he can stop on a dime and get a shot from anywhere; Dorsey is one of the best off-the-dribble snipers in the NCAA.
Assuming Justin Jackson guards Dorsey, that’s an extremely intriguing matchup. Dorsey can create his own shots against 95 percent of defenders. We don’t know if Jackson is in the five percent who can stop him — yet. But there’s a reasonable chance he is.
Best two-way player: Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
If this doesn’t sum up Thornwell, what does?
From Mike LoPresti’s piece:
Coach Frank Martin mentioned how Thornwell felt bad about missing practice Thursday. “He’s wired to compete. He said to me last night, `Man I feel like I’m letting everyone down.’ I said `Huh? What is wrong with you? Letting who down? The game’s Saturday.’
“That’s just who he is.”
Like Jackson, Thornwell is a two-way beast. He can guard everyone. South Carolina is essentially hopeless on offense when he sits – the Gamecocks score 118.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Nobody else on the team has a mark above 108.6. Of the Final Four teams, there is no bigger discrepancy.
Thornwell has a chance to complete one of the all-time great NCAA tournament runs if the Gamecocks win the crown. He’s a special, special player.
The guy who makes it look easiest: Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Jackson noted on Friday how he looks up to Kawhi Leonard in the NBA — and though comparing anyone to Leonard is a stretch, Jackson shows glimpses.
Going into his junior year, Jackson knew he needed to improve his shooting in order to elevate a notch. He did just that; Jackson is draining 38 percent of his triples on seven attempts per game. As a sophomore, he connected on 29.2 percent.
That’s just who Jackson is now – a lockdown perimeter defender that can slash to the rack or torch foes from deep. There aren’t many guys with his combination of size and skill set.
“It helps to be 6-8.” Jackson said. “So inside, I'm able to shoot over the top of people a little bit more. And then I don't necessarily need as much space to shoot over the top of people.”
Jackson mentioned that he has a group text with Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, who told him not to participate until be brings home the national title.
If UNC gets revenge, its small forward will have plenty to do with it.
Most likely to have a Kris Jenkins moment: Jordan Mathews, Gonzaga
The dude is as clutch as they come:
"I call him Big Shot Bob,” Few said. “I can't remember, was that Bob, who was that guy in the NBA Finals? Robert Horry. Unbelievable.”
Mathews transferred to Gonzaga for this exact moment. Don’t expect it to be too big for him.
“The great thing I love about Jordan is he's got a very, very short memory, Few continued. And so he's not one of those guys, that if he misses two or three or four jumpers, he's mumbling to himself and it affects the rest of his game. We've had games this year where I think he hasn't maybe started out that great. And then as the moment got bigger and it was time, I mean, he just stepped up and hit the big shots.”