By Mike Bachini, CBS Connecticut
Connecticut (CBS) – The Final Four is just about here. Every single year it never ceases to amaze me how fast the NCAA Tournament flies by. One minute the field of 68 is announced, the next you’re trying to savor the last 3 games of the college basketball season.
This years’ March Madness did not disappoint. From upsets, to buzzer beaters to monkey’s officially off of backs (looking at you Gonzaga), this tournament has had it all and luckily for us, there are still some games to enjoy.
(7) South Carolina (26-10) vs. (1) Gonzaga (36-1) – 6:09 PM ET CBS
How They Got Here
1st Round – W over Marquette 93-73
2nd Round – W over Duke 88-81
Sweet 16 – W over Baylor 70-50
Elite 8 – W over Florida 77-70
South Carolina was a good team all season and they play basketball in the SEC. So why is it so surprising that they’ve come this far? Well, they lost six of nine to close out the regular season, including a quarterfinal loss in the SEC Tournament in what was their first game of the tournament to Alabama by 11 points. What has been proven this year is that however you were playing heading into the NCAA Tournament means just about nothing. A lot of teams that were struggling down the stretch made deep runs in this tournament. But we obviously didn’t know that then.
I thought that South Carolina’s hot and cold offense wouldn’t be able to keep up with Marquette’s more consistent offensive attack in their first round game and I was wrong. Next up for the Gamecocks was Duke, who was arguably the hottest team in college basketball at that point. South Carolina had 23 points at the half, and looked like they were going to be the Blue Devils’ next victim. They then proceeded to rattle off 65 points in the second half en route to an 88-81 victory in what was the biggest upset of the tournament at the time. Baylor was next. Baylor spent 13 straight weeks in the AP top 10, and were even ranked number 1 in the country in week 10 and number 2 in the country in week 13. South Carolina didn’t care. Twenty point beat down. Next. Florida and South Carolina split their two meetings in SEC play this season. South Carolina won by 4 points at home in January and Florida handled South Carolina by 15 at home in February. Once again the Gamecocks found themselves down by 7 at the half. Once again the Gamecocks played a near flawless second half and outscored the Gators by 14.
Besides head coach Frank Martin, Senior Guard Sindarius Thornwell has been the talk of the tournament. Thornwell has been an absolute beast, averaging 25.8 points per game. It’s not like he’s needed to be a high volume shooter to get to that number either. He’s shot 50% from the field, hit 11 threes and shot 82% from the free throw line. He’s also pitched in with 7.5 rebounds per game and has only turned the ball over 3 times per game. Those are outstanding numbers. He’s been a good player throughout this season and his career, but he has taken it to another level the past few weeks. Thornwell did miss practice yesterday with an illness, so that is something to keep an eye on.
South Carolina played 9 guys against Florida in the Elite 8. Other players to watch are Sophomore guard PJ Dozier (13.8 ppg) Senior guard Duane Notice (10.3 ppg) and Sophomore forward Chris Silva (13 ppg and 7.8 rpg in the tournament). They’ve also been shooting an average of 26 free throws a game and making them at a 75% clip in the tournament. If Gonzaga gives South Carolina 19-20 free points from the line, they are going to be hard to beat.
South Carolina doesn’t strike me as the kind of team that will get too wide-eyed at the stage of the Final Four. Just getting in to the tournament didn’t intimidate them. Beating Marquette for the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1973 didn’t intimidate them. Duke didn’t intimidate them. Madison Square Garden and Baylor/Florida didn’t intimidate them. So I doubt the Final Four will either. A viewing tip, if South Carolina is down by any amount at the half, or if they look completely lost on offense in the first half, don’t bail on the game. They’ve proven that they have a run in them. Yes, Gonzaga is the best team they will have faced all season, but they aren’t perfect either. South Carolina will give it all they have in the second half. Unless Thornwell’s illness is a factor, I don’t see how this game is anything but extremely close down the stretch.
How They Got Here
1st Round – W over South Dakota State 66-46
2nd Round – W over Northwestern 79-73
Sweet 16 – W over West Virginia 61-58
Elite 8 – W over Xavier 83-59
Gonzaga has been to the NCAA Tournament every single year since they broke down the door and crashed everyone’s party in 1999. This year they made it to their 3rd Elite 8, the other two seasons being that same year and in 2015. In both cases they lost to the eventual NCAA Champion. Uconn in 1999 and Duke in 2015. This year they finally broke through the Elite 8 wall, and they did so in very convincing fashion beating Xavier by 24 points. Yes Xavier was an 11 seed that was playing without one of it’s best players. But that can’t be held against Gonzaga. Xavier also beat Florida State by 25 and one of the best teams in the country in Arizona in the Sweet 16. They were playing at a very high level. You can’t take that away from Gonzaga.
Gonzaga only lost one game this whole season, at home to BYU on February 25th. A lot of people point to their schedule and bloated win total as a reason to count out the Bulldogs. While it is true that South Carolina might be a little more battle tested in the NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga tested themselves this season as well. They beat Arizona, Iowa State, Florida and St. Mary’s three times this season. That’s no easy task. They survived an all-out battle against West Virginia in the Sweet 16 which proved that Gonzaga can win pretty, and win ugly. They are well-rounded enough to adapt to whatever game is being thrown at them.
When Gonzaga was the true Cinderella story, they had a bunch of players on their team no one had ever heard of which added to the drama. The same simply cannot be said of this team. Three key players are transfers from power conferences. Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Matthews (California) and Johnathan Williams (Mizzouri) were all either highly rated recruits or key contributors on their former teams. Matthews is a grad transfer who just last season averaged 13.5 points for the Bears who were a #4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Johnathan Williams averaged 11.9 points per game and 7.1 rebounds per game for the Tigers two seasons ago as a Sophomore. And the real gem of the group, Williams-Goss, was the 4th ranked point guard and 19th overall ranked prospect in ESPN’s 2013 rankings. These aren’t your father’s Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Other players to watch for Gonzaga is tournament icon Przemek Karnowski (12.2/5.8) and dynamic Freshman forward Zach Collins (9.9/5.7).
If Gonzaga can stay out of foul trouble and keep South Carolina at bay in the second half, they should win this game. That’s not to say they will, of course. South Carolina is on quite a run right now, and as mentioned above, are a little more battle tested than the Bulldogs in this tournament. If you want to compare opponents, Baylor and West Virginia were #3 and #4 seeds from the same conference, and South Carolina won their Sweet 16 game by 20 and Gonzaga won theirs by 3. This is obviously a dangerous game to play considering all teams and match ups aren’t created equally. But it just goes to show you the kind of run South Carolina is on.
Honestly, this game should be played within 7 points for the majority of the game. Anything otherwise would be the only thing that would surprise me. Either team could win this game. And either way, a great story is going to come from it.
Follow Mike Bachini on Twitter @MikeBachini