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2017 NCAA Tournament: Final Four Half Set

Sunday’s games should be tremendous

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Gonzaga vs Xavier
Mar 25, 2017; San Jose, CA, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs players celebrate after defeating the Xavier Musketeers in the finals of the West Regional of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at SAP Center. 
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Half of the Final Four is set and while neither the Xavier-Gonzaga game nor the Oregon-Kansas game was as riveting as the Xavier-Arizona tiff or the incredible end to the Florida-Wisconsin game, both were still interesting and, in the Oregon case, occasionally dazzling.

We have a sort of formula we use to handicap the tournament. We didn’t discuss it this year but basically it comes down to a few things you can quantify like coaching, guard play, good defense, experience and talent, and some you can’t like luck and heart.

No one fully understood how big Khalid El-Amin’s heart was in 1999 or Tyus Jones’ was in 2015 other than the people who were with them every day.

This year we figured injuries would play a major role for teams like Creighton (true), Xavier (not true) and Oregon (definitely not true).

They did play a role for Xavier and Oregon but both teams really overcame a tremendous amount after they lost key players.

Xavier was just a bit behind Gonzaga all night partly because of Gonzaga’s size advantage and partly because Gonzaga held the Musketeers to 35.5%.

The only Xavier starter to shoot well at all was our new favorite non-Duke player JP Macura, who finished 7-13. The other four finished 10-32.

That kid has game.

Trevon Blueitt, who has been so uniformly excellent lately, was just 3-14.

It’s Gonzaga’s year, their first trip to the Final Four, and they’re ready. This is a very, very good team.

By the way, Jay Bilas said that if the Zags made it he’d grow a beard like that of Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski. After the win he confirmed it, saying he “paid up” on bets. So this will be fun to watch.

The takeaway from that game was the worthiness of Gonzaga. It’s been an annual joke watching them get booted after a great season. Well, that’s over. The Zags,the first WCC team to make the Final Four since Bill Russell’s San Francisco Dons in 1957, belong.

We were more excited about that game than we were about the Kansas vs. Oregon, which turned out to be a mistake.

Oregon, playing without star Chris Boucher, really didn’t miss him that much, at least from where we sat.

Jordan Bell came very close to a triple double the hard way, scoring 11 points, grabbing 13 rebounds (six offensive) and blocking eight shots.

Somewhere, Moses Malone is smiling.

The Jayhawks had a big time prior to this game scoring 288 points in the three previous games, winning by an average of 31 points.

Only Oregon put game pressure on Kansas. Only Oregon put them on their heels and maintained a lead for virtually the entire game.

And the way they did it was amazing. You’d see these incredibly deep shots go in. You’d see this bushel of blocked shots, you’d see Devonte Graham shut out from the field, you’d see Josh Jackson held to 3-8, you’d see the superb Frank Mason III held to 8-20 and obviously a bit frustrated.

And we saw this despite some egregious errors by Oregon involving the shot clock and other dumb oversights.

And most amazingly, we saw this happen in Kansas City Missouri, just over the river from Kansas and only about 40 minutes from Lawrence, essentially a home game for the Jayhawks.

The Ducks will have to wait to see who they face next as UNC and Kentucky play in Sunday’s late game.

Those teams played in mid-December in Las Vegas in a game which saw Malik Monk score 47 points. He shot 8-12 from three point range.

We would remind you that UNC didn’t have Theo Pinson in that game as he was still out with an injury. We’d bet he could have held Monk to, say, 35.

That sounds funny but shave 12 points off of that game and UNC wins by nine.

As we saw against UCLA, Wildcat De’Aaron Fox is a brilliant talent. We watched him several times this year and while he doesn’t have Lonzo Ball’s vision, he did to UCLA what he has done so often: overwhelmed them with athleticism. We’d take him over John Wall at the same stage. He’s incredibly bouncy. You get him in the lane and he’s impossible.

However he has one significant shortcoming and that’s three point shooting. Monk certainly can compensate, but Pinson changes the equation a bit.

Fox scored 24 in that first game, which gave Kentucky’s backcourt 71 points. We’d bet they won’t get that this time.

Over the years we’ve blown a lot of predictions but the easiest one was in 1993 when UNC took on Michigan in the title game.

We said publicly (on Prodigy) what any ACC fan knew would happen: UNC would be ahead or very close at the end and Michigan would make a fatal mistake.

We didn’t know Chris Webber would call a timeout he didn’t have but we knew it would be something. We were as sure of that prediction as we were the sun would come up the next day.

We’re not as certain this time, but we think a reasonable expectation is that UNC’s experience will again be key. We don’t think Kentucky will be as stupid as Webber was, but a turnover, a missed or hurried shot, a critical foul?

Sure. We could see that.

A lot depends on how healthy Joel Berry is and how well UNC shoots. It’d be an interesting historical reversal if Justin Jackson replayed Tayshaun Prince’s incredible three point outburst against UNC back in the day.

As for South Carolina and Florida, there are no secrets between the SEC stable mates. South Carolina won at their place by four while Florida won in Gainesville by 15.

Both teams have evolved since then though and both are playing incredibly well. It’s a tough call. South Carolina’s defense has gotten them this far but it’s no mystery to the Gators. This is one minor point but worth considering.

On relatively rare occasions when Duke loses in the NCAA tournament, it’s a real upset. Think Lehigh or Mercer. Neither did much more.

More often though, teams that knock Duke off are playing near their program’s peak. That’s not saying that much for South Carolina since it’s been a basketball backwater for a very long time, but look at what they’ve done: whipped Marquette by 20, knocked off Duke by eight and then Friday’s 70-50 win over Baylor.

That’s pretty solid.

We’re back and forth on this one but South Carolina seems to have hit another gear. So does Florida of course, so who the hell knows?

We just think South Carolina is hitting a slightly hire gear but a win depends on them outperforming offensively. That’s going to be tougher against a team that knows them really well, so we’ll go with the Gators here.

One small quibble with our friends down south: we don’t have a problem with your mascot, but is it really necessary to have spurs on the legs of the chicken? Maybe it’s just us, but cockfighting is from another time and place to which none of us wish to return. Keep the chicken by all means, but really, it’s 2017 and time to lose the blades.

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