I had Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas and UCLA making it to Phoenix. So this is not the Final Four I expected. But let’s be honest. This is not the Final Four you or basically anybody else expected either.
Who had South Carolina winning the East?
Who had Oregon winning the Midwest?
When Gonzaga -- a school some have forever insisted would never make a Final Four -- finally making the Final Four is among the least surprising developments, you have, by definition, a surprising Final Four. So, absolutely, this is surprising -- even though it’s a Final Four featuring three league champs and two No. 1 seeds.
Three men are coaching in their first Final Four.
One man is aiming for his third national title.
Consider this your Final Four lookahead:
LET’S PUT THIS SURPRISING FOURSOME IN CONTEXT
Gonzaga, North Carolina and Oregon were ranked second, sixth and ninth in the AP poll before this NCAA Tournament began. So it might not seem too surprising that they’re in the Final Four. But almost nobody had an Oregon team without Chris Boucher beating Kansas in Kansas City. Oregon did that, though. And South Carolina? South Carolina was unranked two weeks ago after going 3-6 in the nine games played immediately before the start of this NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks lost to Alabama twice in that stretch. But then they went on a run featuring victories over Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida to make the Final Four for the first time in school history. Amazing. And they’re the biggest reason we have a fairly unpredictable Final Four. If you’re curious, these Final Four teams were fifth (Oregon), sixth (North Carolina), 14th (Gonzaga) and unranked (South Carolina) in the preseason AP poll. So this South Carolina thing is bonkers on multiple levels. It seemed improbable in November and as recently as two weeks ago.
GIVE IT UP FOR THE FIRST-TIMERS
I love watching coaches, especially quality coaches, climb the Final Four mountain for the first time, which is why this Final Four is cool for me. Gonzaga’s Mark Few, South Carolina’s Frank Martin and Oregon’s Dana Altman are now on the list of men who have made a Final Four. And either Few or Martin will make the national title game -- meaning a first-time Final Four coach will spend next Monday playing for the biggest trophy in the sport. Fun stuff.
GIVE IT UP FOR THE NINE-TIMER
North Carolina’s Roy Williams is a bit more experienced at this than his counterparts. The Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer will be coaching in his ninth Final Four -- which is more than everybody in the history of the sport except for John Wooden (12), Mike Krzyzewski (12) and Dean Smith (11). If Williams wins the national title, he’ll become just the sixth coach in history to win at least three national championships. The five coaches currently ahead of Williams are John Wooden (10), Mike Krzyzewski (5), Adolph Rupp (4), Bob Knight (3) and Jim Calhoun (3).
DEFENSE REALLY MIGHT WIN CHAMPIONSHIPS
It’s a cliche that’s not always true. But “defense wins championships” does apply to this Final Four. Gonzaga is rated No. 1 in defensive efficiency. South Carolina is No. 2. North Carolina is No. 18. Oregon is No. 19. So this is the second straight season all four Final Four teams have had top-25 defensive efficiency ratings. And South Carolina’s defense has been so amazing that the Gamecocks are going to Phoenix despite ranking 105th in offensive efficiency.
AND SATURDAY’S WINNERS WILL BE ...
Gonzaga and North Carolina, I think. Which makes sense because those schools have been on my #ListOfEightRealTitleContenders for months. (The others were Arizona, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA and Villanova.) Simply put, the Zags and Tar Heels are favored in the national semifinals for a reason. I don’t believe either is unbeatable. But I also don’t believe either will lose Saturday.
AND THE NATIONAL CHAMPION WILL BE ...
Gonzaga, I think. But I’m genuinely torn here. At certain points this season, I’ve thought both Gonzaga and North Carolina looked like the nation’s best team. And if we get that matchup on the first Monday in April, the point spread, I’m told, will basically be a pick’em. So it could obviously go either way. But, like I’ve written elsewhere, I believe North Carolina is the more talented team but that Gonzaga is the slightly better team. Not by much. Just slightly. Gonzaga has the size to match North Carolina in the frontcourt -- even if the Tar Heels are much bigger on the wings. And I’ll just trust the nation’s best defense to frustrate North Carolina enough to bring a national championship back to the West Coast Conference.
Predicted final score: Gonzaga 79, North Carolina 78
And wouldn’t that be some kind of story?