GLENDALE, Ariz. — After a few days in Arizona, the new car smell of the Final Four still hasn’t worn off for first-time participants Gonzaga and South Carolina.
Both programs are managing the insane pressure of trying to bring home a national championship while the Bulldogs and Gamecocks also try to encompass the magical experience of everything the Final Four festivities have to offer.
The banquets, dinners, media sessions and overall hype surrounding the Final Four dwarfs anything that these players and coaches have ever dealt with. Wide-eyed players and coaches are still figuring out strange Final Four challenges like the shooting backdrop in the cavernous University of Phoenix Stadium or handling all of the random outside distractions.
It can be a daunting task to juggle everything around the Final Four. Gonzaga and South Carolina are managing the best they can. In a Final Four that features three programs who have never been this far in the modern era, at least one of those teams — the Bulldogs or Gamecocks — will be playing for a national championship on Monday night.
“A lot of people that you haven’t talked to in years try to give you advice on what’s going on like they’ve been through it before,” Gonzaga freshman center Zach Collins said. “I mean, we all expected that. I think we’re all really, really good about keeping together in this locker room, focusing on the task at hand.”
Mark Few’s 18-year tenure at Gonzaga has seen the Bulldogs achieve an incredible amount of success considering the program’s West Coast Conference roots. Despite being a perennial NCAA tournament team who has reached the second weekend multiple times, preparing for the Final Four for the first time has involved new challenges for Few and his staff.
The Gonzaga staff spent the week calling other coaches about Final Four preparation while also relying on the guidance of assistant coach Donny Daniels — an assistant on Final Four teams at UCLA and Utah. The varying degrees of answers from other coaches has helped Gonzaga navigate the week.
Gonzaga players were asked to handle everything outside of basketball before Tuesday so that they could focus fully on Saturday’s game but they’re also trying to relish this experience at the same time.
“That’s the thing about athletics: everything is so regimented. Film is at this time and it’s this long. Practice is at this time and it’s this long. We eat breakfast at this time. And for 36 games, essentially everything has been the exact same,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “Then you get here and your schedule really is chopped up. You get five minutes for film here, five minutes for film there. You may have one scheduled [film session] and it may not end up happening. That’s been different for us. But so far the guys have responded to it pretty well.”
Gonzaga’s current roster and coaching staff has far more NCAA tournament experience than South Carolina, but the last few weeks for the Gamecocks have prepared them for everything that is currently happening to them at the Final Four.
Playing the first two rounds in nearby Greenville meant that South Carolina already had to deal with exaggerated off-the-court hype before the 2017 NCAA tournament even tipped. Gamecock fans were just clamoring for the team to earn its first NCAA tournament win since 1973. Things accelerated quickly for South Carolina and its fanbase after they knocked off Duke and advanced to Madison Square Garden for two more wins.
So while the Final Four still has some new wrinkles that the Gamecocks are adjusting to, they’ve already had to deal with a circus-like atmosphere just to reach Glendale. Most of South Carolina’s strategy to limit distractions has to do with making sure that head coach Frank Martin and his staff can handle everything possible to keep the players focused. Players for the Gamecocks maintain that everything has stayed pretty consistent throughout the season as they treat Gonzaga just like every other opponent.
“Honestly, it’s been pretty easy for us. We’re so focused on the game that we have tomorrow,” guard P.J. Dozier said of the week. “I hate to say that everything else doesn’t matter. But we know what we came here to do. We came here to win a national championship and we’re just trying to take it one game at a time.”
Right now, it seems easy for Gonzaga and South Carolina to limit distractions and stay focused for the national semifinals. Historic Final Four runs have a way of instilling confidence in teams that haven’t been there before.
But things also have a tendency to change very quickly once the ball gets tipped. Mistakes are magnified and the pressure of the Final Four can ramp up very quickly.
Gonzaga and South Carolina are both new to this, but one of them is about to play for a title on Monday. And the previous lack of Final Four experience will ultimately mean nothing.
“Experience helps you manage your mindset, your emotions, as you prepare for something. But when the game goes up, everyone’s nervous,” Martin said. “I don’t care how many Final Fours you’ve played in, every time you show up for that game you’re going to be nervous. And anyone who says differently is not telling you the truth. I don’t care how many games you’ve coached. You’re always nervous for the next game on the schedule. It just, it is what it is.”