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March Madness Final Four Predictions
Updated: January 2018

North Carolina was supposed to be here, but Oregon, Gonzaga, and South Carolina? It is one of the more unlikely Final Four scenarios in recent history. The Ducks played in the very first NCAA tournament, advanced to the Final Four, and won the NCAA title. They hadn’t played in another Final Four since. South Carolina? The Gamecocks went to the Sweet Sixteen once…back in 1971. Gonzaga? One of the best programs of the past of the past 20 years, the Bulldogs have made 19 consecutive tournament appearances. None of them had ever ended in a trip to the Final Four.

So, a basketball blueblood, North Carolina, a team that hasn’t been to the Final Four in 78 years, Oregon, and two that have never had the fortune to make it this far will slug it out this weekend to determine the 2018 national champion. One of those two teams that have never been to a Final Four will be playing for the national title as seventh-seeded South Carolina takes on Gonzaga in the first semifinal at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, on Saturday.

Gonzaga, which has lost just once this entire season, is the favorite heading into Saturday’s game with the Gamecocks. This may be the best team that head coach Mark Few has had and he has had some good ones. Few’s Bulldogs have made 19 straight trips to the NCAA tournament but had never advanced past the Elite Eight until this season. Few has skilled guards – Nigel Williams-Goss is a 6-3 junior who can do a bit of everything. He leads Gonzaga in scoring (16.7 ppg) and assists per game (4.6). In the Elite Eight win over Xavier, Williams-Goss scored 23 points, grabbed eight rebounds, had four assists and two steals. He is the leader that makes Gonzaga go.

What puts this year’s Gonzaga team ahead of others in the past is its balance and its work on the defensive end.  While the Bulldogs are one of the highest scoring teams in the nation (83.2 ppg, 14th in the nation), they are also one of the best defensively giving up just 60.9 points per game. Outside of a 79-73 defeat of Northwestern in the second round of the tourney, Gonzaga has held its tournament opponents to 46, 58, and 59 points.

South Carolina is almost a mirror image of Gonzaga. In games against Marquette and Duke, two teams that are known for scoring, the Gamecocks scored 93 and 88 points, respectively. In a Sweet 16 game against Baylor, the Gamecocks held a talented Bears squad to just 50 points. Then, South Carolina took care of Florida, 77-70, a team that had beaten the Gamecocks by 15 at the end of February.

Sindarious Thornwell may be having the best tournament of any player in it. He shot 8-of-13 from the field and 9-of-10 from the free throw line scoring 26 points in the win over Florida. The 6-foot-5 senior is averaging 25.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game for the Gamecocks. For South Carolina to overcome Gonzaga, Thornwell will have to play well and his teammates are going to have to do the same. The Gamecocks cannot match Gonzaga’s size, especially 7-footers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, but they can make up for it with grit and determination as they have throughout the tournament.

South Carolina has been an underdog in each of its last three games. Still, the Gamecocks dispatched the No. 2, 3, and 4 seeds in the East Region. While it’s hard to see South Carolina upending a No. 1 seed like Gonzaga, that is what the tournament is all about – upsets.

In the other semifinal, Oregon could surprise North Carolina, especially if Tar Heels guard Joel Berry’s health is an issue. The Ducks are in uncharted territory and have done it without the help of Chris Boucher, who was lost for the tournament with a knee injury. A 6-10 leaper, Boucher was a dominant force on the defensive end leading the team in blocked shots (2.5 per game). He also provided 11.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, but both Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey have been pleasant surprises helping to pick up the slack from Boucher’s absence.

Dorsey, a 6-4 sophomore, is averaging 24.5 points per game in the tournament, 10 points above his regular season average. Bell, a 6-9 junior, is averaging 12.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game in the tourney. In the Ducks impressive win over Kansas, Bell scored 11 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and set an NCAA tournament record with eight blocked shots. Oregon’s performance against the Jayhawks in the Midwest Regional final was likely the most spectacular of the entire tournament. The Ducks held Kansas, a team that averaged 83.2 points a game, to just 60. If head coach Dana Altman’s team can do that to the Jayhawks, they can surely do it to Roy Williams’ Tar Heels.

North Carolina’s advantage in this Final Four comes down to experience. All five starters for Williams are either juniors or seniors. All were present one year ago when Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit the buzzer-beating 3-pointer that gave the Wildcats a national championship. The Tar Heels have it all. They are big, talented, experienced, and deep. It was relatively unknown 6-8 sophomore Luke Maye who scored 17 points, including the game-winner, in the South Regional Final win over Kentucky.

Justin Jackson, North Carolina’s leading scorer (18.2 ppg), cannot afford to go cold in the Final Four and Berry, who averages 14.6 points per game, needs to be as close as possible to 100 percent if the Tar Heels are going to play for another title. Berry sprained both of his ankles during the tournament and likely won’t practice until late this week.

All four teams in the Final Four have one common opponent – Tennessee. The Vols lost to all four teams, including two losses to South Carolina in SEC play. Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes would love to see the Gamecocks pull out a national title because of the SEC connection, but Barnes, like many across the nation, sees Gonzaga and North Carolina as the two best teams in the country.

A Gonzaga-UNC matchup for the national championship is likely. The game would likely open as a pick-‘em. Both teams can score. The Tar Heels are ninth in the nation averaging 85 points per game. North Carolina does give up 70 points per game, but they also played a much stronger schedule than Gonzaga. The biggest factor in determining whether or not North Carolina wins a sixth national title is Berry’s ankles.

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Predicting any year’s Final Four is never an exact science, but there are a few things that are likely to happen. Most national champions are usually a No. 1, No. 2, or No. 3 seed. In the past 15 years, the lowest seeded team to win a national title was No. 7 Connecticut in 2014. It is unlikely that this year’s Final Four will consist of four No. 1 seeds. In fact since the modern era of seeding began in 1979, a Final Four comprised of all No. 1 seeds has occurred only once (in 2008). While not all four No. 1 seeds end up making it to the semifinals, at least one is almost a sure bet. A No. 1 seed has been in every Final Four since 1979 but three – 1980, 2006, 2011. It may also be helpful to know that the last three national champions have been at-large bids and 12 of the past 13 titlists have worn the color blue. With this knowledge, we can determine which teams are likely to make it to this year’s Final Four.

One thing that is likely with this year’s tournament is that Villanova, the No. 1 seed in the East Region and defending national champ, will not repeat. The last team to repeat was the Florida Gators in 2006 and 2007. That said, the Wildcats are likely headed back to the Final Four. Villanova went 31-3 in the regular season. Almost all of coach Jay Wright’s lineup from a year ago returned this year. The Wildcats are experienced and deep. Of their three losses, two were to Butler. Villanova plays great defense and is at its best when it cranks down and creates scoring opportunities from their defense. The Wildcats will return to the Final Four.

When Kansas was upset in the first round of the Big 12 tournament, it might have been the best thing that happened to the Jayhawks. Instead of playing for four days, Kansas went back home and rested. The Jayhawks are seeded atop the Midwest and face a potential speed bump to the Final Four if they face fellow Big 12 member Iowa State in the regional semifinals. The Cyclones beat Kansas 92-89 at Allen Fieldhouse. If Iowa State can beat Kansas at home, they can surely do it the NCAA tournament. With the extra rest and the return of second-leading scorer Josh Jackson (16.4 ppg), this could be the year the Jayhawks win it all.

If there was ever a year to bet on Gonzaga making it to its first-ever Final Four, it could have been this year. But, when the selection committee put Arizona at the bottom of the bracket giving them the No. 2 seed, the likelihood began to fade. The Bulldogs, which lost just one regular season game, beat Arizona earlier this season, but the Wildcats did not have Allonzo Trier. With their leading scorer (17.3 ppg) back and paired with 7-footer Lauri Markkanen (15.6 ppg), the Wildcats have been nearly unstoppable. A No. 1-versus-No. 2 regional final goes to Arizona, the Pac-12 champion. Oh, and the Wildcats are on a 24-2 run since losing to Gonzaga early in the season.

The selection committee put together one of the more memorable brackets when they drafted the South Region of this year’s tournament. Within the region is No. 1 North Carolina, No. 2 Kentucky, and third seed UCLA. Between the three schools, there are a combined 24 national championships. Kentucky won the most recent title back in 2012. For added competition, the committed added fourth-seeded Butler, which played for national titles in 2010 and 2011. Kentucky and UCLA would meet in a regional semifinal with the top-seeded Tar Heels and Butler in the other. North Carolina has had its share of ups and downs this season and UCLA and Kentucky have not always been consistent. If one team can get hot for three weeks, it is UCLA. The Bruins run and gun at a frenetic pace and have the game’s best in running the show in guard Lonzo Ball. UCLA leads the nation in scoring averaging 90.4 points a game led by 6-10 freshman T.J. Leaf (16.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and Bryce Alford (15.8 ppg). Ball adds 14.6 points, 7.7 assists, and 6.1 rebounds a game. Isaac Hamilton (14.1), Aaron Holiday (12.6), and Thomas Welsh (10.7) give UCLA six double-figures scorers. Head coach Steve Alford’s misgivings on the defensive end are made up for by points and the Bruins can provide plenty of those.

So, there it is, a Final Four that can certainly happen. Villanova, Kansas, Arizona, and UCLA. Two No. 1 seeds, a No. 2, and a No. 3. Remember, it is unlikely for a Final Four to consist of all No. 1 seeds, but there is usually at least one. Most national champions are a top three seed and the last three national champions have all been at-large teams. Kansas and UCLA each lost in their respective conference tournament and earned at-large bids to the tournament.

Now for a national champion. It’s actually pretty simple. The science behind choosing the 2016-17 national champ is fairly basic. If you think back, remember that 12 of the past 13 national champions have worn blue as one of their major colors and the last team to win a national championship whose coach did not have an ‘I’ in his name was Arizona in 1997 (coached by Lute Olson). That makes this year’s champion the blue-wearing Jayhawks of Kansas coached by Bill Self.


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