The Final Four may contain four relatively household names in North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina and Gonzaga, but each is surprisingly different with regards to their college hoops legacy, pedigree and strategy.
The seeming sprint to the finish that began two weeks ago with 68 teams has slowed down as the spotlight shines on Phoenix and the national title up for grabs whenthe first game tips at 6:10 p.m. on CBS Saturday (No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 7 South Carolina) followed by 8:50 p.m.’s night cap (No. 1 UNC vs. No. 3 Oregon).
In the last double-header of the college basketball season, here are five things we’ll be watching:
1. First timers
There is a guarantee that a first-time Final Four squad will play for the title Monday. That’s because neither Gonzaga nor South Carolina has ever advanced this far. Which sort of evens the playing field for the first match up, though the Zags are a 6.5 point Vegas favorite.
Could a first-time team win twice and bring home a title over a more experienced crew like the Tar Heels? Frank Martin, head coach of the Gamecocks, thinks so.
“Once the game starts, I think everything is irrelevant. Everyone’s nervous,” the coach said. “I don’t care, you can play in the national championship game nine years in a row, if you go the 10th time, you’re going to be nervous before the ball goes up in the air. There’s no such thing as not being nervous for a game.”
2. Future NBA stars
There are a handful of names to know before the games tip off, starting with Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey. He hasaveraged 24.5 points per game on 66.7 percent shooting in the NCAA Tournament and is lethal from beyond the arch.
South Carolina’sSindarius Thornwellis the front-runner for Most Outstanding Player, netting 25.8 points per game — best in the tourney. His draft stock is soaring.
UNC has a handful of future NBAers led by Justin Jackson and Joel Berry, while Gonzaga will be well-represented on draft day asNigel Williams-Gosscould be playing himself into first-round pick territory.
3. The coaches
Martin is best known for being the angry red-faced former coach of Kasas State (during the Michael Beasley days), but he has turned into a master motivator and recruiter. UNC’s skipper, Roy Williams, has two NCAA titles under his belt while Oregon’sDana Altman is bursting onto the national scene after unbridled success coaching Creighton for over a decade when it was a mid-major.
And of course, finally, there is Gonzaga’s Mark Few, who has enjoyed a period of masterful success in the Northwest and knows what to expect Saturday.
“I think everything is going to get ratcheted up 300 percent now,” Few said, “with the media, the demands, the time. The general distraction meter is going to go out the roof.”
4. The favorites
The Tar Heels are big favorites to win a championship after falling, well, one second short in 2016 thanks to Kris Jenkins’ now legendary buzzer-beating 3-pointer in Villanova’s title last April.
Most of the principle parts of the team are back, with Berry leading the offense like a true point guard and Jackson providing a high-volume scoring approach that has worked throughout the tournament. They also have size and experience in senior big men Kennedy Meeks and IsaiahHicks.
5. Anything can happen
History has shown that while the big-name favorites — like the Heels — are usually favored, there is a reason why they play the games. The Oregon approach is different than any other Final Four team, with shooters and playmakers spreading the floor. Gonzaga has experience and basketball IQ while South Carolina has lots of talent.
It’s not a seven-game series, it’s one and done. And with one chance to win it all, sometimes the best team isn’t the last one standing.