By Mike Bachini, CBS Connecticut
Connecticut (CBS) – Find a preview of Game 1 between South Carolina and Gonzaga here.
(3) Oregon (33-5) vs. (1) North Carolina (31-7) – Saturday 8:49 ET CBS
How They Got Here
1st Round – W over Iona 93-77
2nd Round – W over Rhode Island 75-52
Sweet 16 – W over Michigan 69-68
Elite 8 – W over Kansas 74-60
Oregon is a very good team. We can just get that out of the way first. They were ranked #5 in the preseason top 25. They returned 3 of their top 4 scorers from a team that reached the Elite 8 as a #1 seed last season. They’ve won 33 games so far this season and have won 31 out of their last 34. So why is it a bit of a surprise that they are here?
Well three weeks ago if you had told me Oregon would be in the Final Four I wouldn’t have blinked an eye. They are a great team. However, in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament, they lost their third leading scorer and leading rebounder, Senior Chris Boucher, for the season to a knee injury. In the Ducks’ next game, they played very well but lost to Arizona in the Pac-12 title game by 3 points. It just felt like this team had a ceiling all of a sudden. They still had great players, but it felt like a run in the tournament would be capped at some point.
It looked like this was definitely going to be the case in the second round against Rhode Island. The Ducks found themselves down 8 at half time to the Rams, and by 4 with just over 2 minutes to play. They then scored the games final 7 points to win that one by 3. In the Sweet 16 they were down 3 with just over 2 minutes to play against Michigan. Oregon scored the games final 4 points to win that one by 1 point. Those games were all well and good, but next they were going up against arguably the best team in the country in the Elite 8 in Kansas. This game was no contest. Oregon was in control the whole game and took out the Jayhawks in convincing fashion.
Oregon is led by a three-headed monster. Junior forward Dillon Brooks (16.3 points per game) is the teams unquestioned leader. Sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey has probably been the tournament’s best player outside of South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell. Dorsey has averaged 24.5 points per game in the tournament while hitting 13 three pointers while shooting 67% from the field. Junior forward Jordan Bell has stepped up big since Boucher went down with his injury. Bell has averaged both 12.5 points and rebounds per game in the tournament. He’s also averaging 4 blocks a game including 8 total against Kansas in the Elite 8.
Oregon’s depth obviously took a big hit when Boucher went down with his season ending injury, but if the remaining players can gut it out and leave it all on the floor for two more games, their talent can match up with any team. That’s not an issue. Hopefully their endurance isn’t either. Because North Carolina is a load to handle. As talented as Kansas is, North Carolina is deep, and very experienced.
How They Got Here
1st Round – W over Texas Southern 103-64
2nd Round – W over Arkansas 72-65
Sweet 16 – W over Butler 92-80
Elite 8 – W over Kentucky 75-73
North Carolina returns 7 key contributors from a team that was .1 seconds away from going to overtime in the National Championship Game last season. They lost their #1 and #3 scorers from that team, and while Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige were all-timers, it’s quite obvious that the returning depth from that squad has been able to get by without them this season.
North Carolina hasn’t been dominant this season from start to finish, as evidenced by their 7 losses and their inability to get to their conference championship game. But they have without a doubt been one of the most consistent teams, and have never looked bad either. Every one of their 7 losses are forgivable and they weren’t blown out in any of them either. They’ve also beaten some pretty good teams in convincing fashion as well.
North Carolina had all it could handle in the second round against Arkansas. Arkansas led by 5 with 3:30 to go in the game and then the Tar Heels outscored the Razorbacks 12-0 the rest of the way. In the Elite 8, UNC found themselves down 5 to Kentucky with 5 minutes to go, but outscored the Wildcats 16-9 the rest of the way to pull that one out as well. Very similar to Oregon’s games. While the good teams might struggle at times, they seem to find another gear when the time calls for it that allows them to be victorious in the end.
North Carolina has 4 players that score more than 12 points per game this season. Junior forward Justin Jackson is a match up nightmare at 6-8. He averaged 18.2 points per game and can hit the 3 at 38% efficiency. Junior guard Joel Berry II is the floor leader, but is dealing with bad ankles that has limited his consistency in the tournament. Senior forward Kennedy Meeks has been a beast on the glass in the last three games, averaging 13 rebounds a game.
Senior forward Isaiah Hicks is a good barometer for the team’s success. In UNC’s 7 losses, Hicks has averaged 9 points a game and didn’t play in the Tar Heels loss at Duke on February 9th. IN UNC’s 31 wins, Hicks has averaged 12.6 points per game including 21 over Duke and 19 over Florida State. He can tend to find himself in foul trouble as he has at least 4 fouls in 15 games this season and has fouled out five times this season including in the Sweet 16 against Bulter. If he can limit his fouls and contribute offensively, North Carolina is unmatched.
North Carolina is without a doubt the favorite to take home the championship of the four remaining teams. They do have their flaws just like any other team however. If Oregon isn’t fazed by the experience and depth that UNC brings to the table, this should be a very competitive and fun game. A lot of great college upperclassmen going head to head for a chance to get to the championship game on Monday is great for the sport. Will North Carolina make it to the championship game for the second year in a row? Or will Oregon once again prove all the doubters wrong with another upset? Either way it should be another entertaining semifinal match up.
Follow Mike Bachini on Twitter @MikeBachini