It’s finally here.
Six days after the Final Four was set, things will kick off here in Phoenix on Saturday night.
Let’s take a look at the two games:
No. 1 GONZAGA (-7) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 6:09 p.m., CBS: Gonzaga is the heavy favorite in Saturday’s opener, and rightfully so, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that South Carolina will give them a fight, not the least of which is the fact that the Gamecocks are just so good and so disruptive defensively. The Gamecocks don’t play the same way that West Virginia does — their pressure exists in the half-court where West Virginia plays in the full court — but they do the same things, overplaying every passing lane and daring an opponent’s play makers to be able to beat their defenders off the bounce. To put it far too simply, Frank Martin bets on the fact that his players, defensively, are better.
And the Zags, as good as they are and as great of a year as Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins have had, don’t really have guards on their roster that are great in one-on-one situations like that, particularly against defenders that are more athletic than them. Take West Virginia: Perkins was invisible and Willaims-Goss played about as poorly as he is capable of playing.
Gonzaga has an incredible size advantage over South Carolina, one that Mark Few should be able to capitalize on, but I fully expect the Gamecocks to muck this game up. The Zags should be just fine playing in a game like that — they are, after all, the nation’s best defense — which is why the key for South Carolina is going to be whether or not Sindarius Thornwell can take advantage of the fact that Gonzaga doesn’t really have anyone that can guard him. South Carolina is going to struggle to score, but if they can run things through the Thornwell, they should be able to score enough to keep this thing close.
PREDICTION: South Carolina (+7)
No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-4.5) vs. No. 3 OREGON, 8:49 p.m., CBS: The first question that has to be answered here is whether or not Joel Berry II is actually healthy. He said he was 85 percent on Thursday as he battles a pair of injured ankles, and that will be critical to a UNC team that relies so much on him. As Berry goes, so goes UNC, and if he’s at all limited in tonight’s nightcap, it will be a brutal blow for the Tar Heels.
But it won’t change the fact that Roy Williams’ club has so much more size in the paint than the Ducks. Oregon plays small-ball. Without Chris Boucher available, they’ve relied even more heavily on a lineup that features Dillon Brooks — who is more of a shooting guard than anything else — at the four. It’s lethal offensively when hit creates mismatches. But it also leaves Oregon susceptible to teams with a bigger front court, and North Carolina’s front court is as big as anyone’s. Can Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks force Oregon to play big, or will UNC, who is the best offensive rebounding team in the country, be forced to play a smaller lineup to defend Brooks?
I would expect Oregon to spend quite a bit of time in a zone as a result, which means that the Tar Heels are going to have to make perimeter jumpers on Saturday. If they’re going down, and the Heels are getting to the offensive glass, it could be a long day for Oregon.
PREDICTION: North Carolina (-4.5)