After a first round with minimal upsets the 2017 NCAA tournament got wonky in typical fashion with each of the next three rounds featuring stunning upsets. What is left standing: two 1 seeds who each had their doubters coming into the tournament, a 3 seed which lost a key player on the eve of the tournament, and a 7 seed no one saw coming. A review of how each team made it through their region;
South Region: North Carolina
The Tar Heels seemed to have a fairly easy path to the Elite Eight and figured to have a behemoth of an opponent (Kentucky or UCLA) waiting for them there. This mostly came to fruition, but the Heels second round game against Arkansas proved to be much more difficult than expected. After falling behind, the Razorbacks successfully stamped the game with their brand of basketball forcing UNC into turnovers, and muddying the definition of a foul. The officials gave Carolina the benefit of the doubt, and the Tar Heels were able to make enough free throws and plays down the stretch to pull away. In the regional semifinal, North Carolina was able to handle a solid Butler squad with their typical rebounding advantage, with stars Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, and emerging Luke Maye leading the way.
After Kentucky dispatched UCLA, it was the same three Tar Heels, Jackson, Berry, and Maye, who came up big in their victory over the Wildcats. The regional final was another classic between the two blue bloods. UNC kept Kentucky at arm’s length until late when the streaky Malik Monk poured in a couple of quick 3’s which set up the fantastic finish where Maye hit the game winner. North Carolina proved their worth as a top seed, and the emergence of Maye, adding to their already formidable size and depth, makes them the favorite to win it all heading into the final weekend.
Midwest Region: Oregon
The Ducks did not have an ideal situation leading into the tournament, finding out that the dynamic Chris Boucher would not be able to play due to injury. While the loss did not keep them from reaching the Final Four, it did minimize their margin for error. After easily handling 14-seed Iona, the Ducks had to face a hot, upstart 11-seed in Rhode Island. The Rams, filled with talent, were a game opponent who gave Oregon all it could handle, leading for most of the game until late-game execution did them in. The shot-making of Tyler Dorsey was crucial for the Ducks in the second round, as well as in the next round. In the Sweet Sixteen, Oregon faced another lower seed who was coming in on a winning streak in Michigan. Oregon lead for most of the game until the Wolverines made their move late, taking the lead in the final minutes, only to be one-upped by Dorsey and the Ducks.
Ironically, the regional final, against the top-seeded Kansas, proved to be Oregon’s most comfortable win. The Ducks were able to hold off the Jayhawks behind more big-shot making and the defense and rebounding of Jordan Bell. Oregon has made the Final Four on the backs of its three best players: Dorsey, Bell, and Dillon Brooks. Dorsey and Brooks have made all the necessary perimeter shots, while Bell has controlled the interior. Bell is a tremendous shot-blocker who negated much of the Boucher loss in that area. However, despite Boucher being a mediocre rebounder for his size, his absence still makes the Ducks thin inside and hurts their already average rebounding numbers. The backboards will be vital in their matchup with Carolina, but this 2017 Oregon squad is nonetheless a testament to the power of being able to hit tough shots in March.
East Region: South Carolina
The surprise of the tournament has been South Carolina, primarily their second-round upset of Duke which featured an inexplicable surge on offense in the second half. The first weekend games in Greenville, South Carolina certainly hosted plenty of Gamecock fans, but SC was able to win each game with their work on the floor. The triumph over Duke would not have been possible without a first-round victory over Marquette, who lead the Gamecocks for the first half. In a foreshadowing of their Duke matchup, South Carolina surged with 54 points in the second half to blow past Marquette and win comfortably.
Then came the pivotal game of the 2017 tournament, South Carolina’s big win over heavily-favored Duke. Duke was leading 30-23 at half, but then SC scored an astonishing 65 points after the break. For context, the defensive-minded Gamecocks failed to score 65 in the entire game in TEN of their 33 contests leading up to the Duke game. South Carolina, a team that struggled to score all year, found its offense in the first weekend of the tournament, led by powerful guards Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier. They did not hit an inordinate number of 3’s, but they were able to expose Duke in the rebounding battle and play a physical game that gets most opponents out of their comfort zone.
The Gamecocks still had to head to New York to face third seed Baylor. South Carolina showed their new confidence in force, beating the Bears by twenty and pounding the taller team into submission. The regional final featured a rubber-match with conference foe Florida, who had survived an epic battle with Wisconsin. Once again the Gamecocks went to work on defense, holding Florida to no threes made in the second half. Once again Thornwell and Dozier made the tough plays on offense.
West Region: Gonzaga
The Gonzaga Bulldogs were able to exercise demons of tournaments past and reach the school’s first Final Four by simply being better than all of their opponents. The second round game against Northwestern got close, but the Zags were the better team. The Sweet Sixteen game against West Virginia has proven to be their toughest test. West Virginia’s press and physical style forced Gonzaga to dig deep and play a well-rounded, well-executed game. The Mountaineers won the rebounding and turnover battles, as they usually do, but the Bulldogs defense held WVU to 27% shooting from the floor. The experienced Zags were able to take the physical beating, minimize the turnovers, and still play excellent defense, and that is what allowed them to advance. Jordan Mathews has been able to hit big shots for them all season, and he hit the critical three after a wild sequence which gave Gonzaga the ultimate lead. Johnathan Williams also played well against WVU, but he raised his play even further in the next round against Xavier.
Xavier upset Arizona to face the Zags in the Elite Eight, and they had their own designs of finally reaching the Final Four. But Gonzaga handled them easily, with a clear size advantage, their best players stepping up, and by making twelve 3’s. This was in contrast to only making four 3’s against West Virginia, showing the team balance, and how the Zags can win in a variety of ways. Along with Williams, Nigel Williams-Goss played a masterful game for the Bulldogs. While it may appear that Gonzaga had an easier regional final matchup than some, Xavier was playing its best heading into that game, and the other potential opponent, Arizona, Gonzaga had already beaten earlier in the season. Gonzaga will have a clear size advantage against South Carolina, but SC plays a similar brand of ball to West Virginia who gave the Zags their toughest test so far.
The common thread between each of the Final Four teams is that they have players who can make tough shots in crucial moments. As the competition gets better, teams have to face tough defenses and need to have the ability to create and make shots over said tough defense. North Carolina has both Berry and Jackson who can create shots and make tough shots. Oregon has Dorsey and Brooks. South Carolina has Thornwell and Dozier. Gonzaga has Williams-Goss to create and make, and Mathews can make tough shots created for him. It is not easily predictable, but sometimes teams just need a guy who can rise up above the defense and score, thus throwing all the other factors at play out the window.