The South Carolina Gamecocks enjoyed their first NCAA Tournament win since 1973 so much that they decided to do it three more times and now find themselves in the Final Four. The Gonzaga Bulldogs probably didn’t expect to be the more experienced team at this stage of the game, but Mark Few’s bunch is a big favorite to make it to the national championship game for the first time in program history. Both teams are in the Final Four for the first time in program history. CBS network executives probably aren’t too excited about this matchup, but it’s great for college basketball. South Carolina is a Cinderella story. Gonzaga isn’t based on seeding, but there’s something to be said about a mid-major from the West Coast Conference potentially playing for a title. The Bulldogs are favored by six at the CRIS books, DSI and Bookmaker, with a total of 138.5.
It is incredibly hard to believe that this is the same South Carolina team that lost six of its last nine games, including a one-and-done in the SEC Conference Tournament with a double-digit loss to Alabama, who went to the NIT. With four straight wins, and four straight covers, in the NCAA Tournament, the Gamecocks are now 26-10 straight up on the season. The Gamecocks beat just two of the 68 NCAA Tournament teams during the regular season. The Gonzaga Bulldogs have been an impossible team to rate throughout the season. They stood up well in non-conference play with wins over Florida, Iowa State, and Arizona, but we still weren’t sure what the Bulldogs were as conference play went on. They enter the Final Four with a record of 36-1 and just blew out Xavier by 24 points in the Elite Eight to punch a ticket for Glendale. One thing is for sure. Mark Few didn’t expect to be a six-point favorite at this stage of the game.
The six-day layoff is definitely an interesting thing for both sides. After riding high through four games of the NCAA Tournament, the players now sit around for a few days before flying out to Glendale for all of the media responsibilities and shootarounds. There’s a learning curve to being in front of the media and not falling victim to some of those distractions. This was South Carolina’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004. Frank Martin was an assistant on the Cincinnati staff. Sindarius Thornwell was nine years old. Before Martin showed up in Columbia, the Gamecocks had one winning season dating back to their 2006 NIT Championship. The Gamecocks have shown an extra offensive element in the NCAA Tournament, but at their core, the boys from the Palmetto State are the same tenacious defensive team that they have been all season long. If the axiom is true about defense traveling, it is going to help the Gamecocks in a big way. The challenging shooting backdrop of Madison Square Garden now becomes the extremely unique shooting venue of University of Phoenix Stadium, which, as we know, is primarily a football venue.
Sindarius Thornwell has been something special in this tournament. The senior from Lancaster, South Carolina, who played his high school senior season at Oak Hill Academy, has 29, 24, 24, and 26 points in his four NCAA Tournament games with 30 rebounds and 10 assists. He’s 32-of-39 from the free throw line and has had some enormous plays defensively. While Thornwell stands out and does deserve all the accolades, other players have really stepped up. PJ Dozier had 17 in the win over Florida and opened the tournament with 21 against Marquette. Chris Silva had 13 and 9 in the Elite Eight and has averaged 13 points and nearly eight rebounds per game. The head coaching battle between Frank Martin and Mark Few will be interesting to watch in this game. Gonzaga has preached grit and determination on both ends of the floor and those are hallmarks of the South Carolina style of play. What mismatches can each guy find? Will the players be ready for the big stage? Can Martin get Thornwell the ball and can Few and the ‘Zags get him in foul trouble? These are all big keys to the game that you need to handicap as we approach tip-off.
The Final Four is a new thing for Gonzaga, but NCAA Tournament success is not. The Bulldogs made the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season and the Elite Eight for the second time in those three years. Gonzaga hasn’t missed an NCAA Tournament since 1998. Mark Few took over the program in 1999. Few’s Sweet 16 triumph over West Virginia was the 500th win of his career. There are already some skeptics out there calling out Gonzaga’s route to the Final Four because Northwestern wasn’t as strong of a #8 seed as some of the others and Xavier wound up making it through Arizona and Florida State to get to the Elite Eight. Teams can only play the opponents that pop up on the schedule. Some will scoff at Gonzaga’s draw here in this game as well. It certainly does help Gonzaga that they have power conference talent and have drawn some of the weaker power conference teams, West Virginia aside, but that cannot be used as a criticism of the Zags. It’s simply a byproduct of the way that the tournament is set up. For the most part, Gonzaga has taken care of business and that’s what matters.
Different players have taken turns making big shots for Gonzaga in this tournament. Up until the blowout win over Xavier, Nigel Williams-Goss had been fairly quiet. The regular season leading scorer had a quiet 20 against Northwestern because he was only 6-of-19 from the line. He was 2-of-10 against West Virginia with five turnovers against only two assists. But, NWG had 23 points in the win over Xavier. Przemek Karnowski was really quiet against Xavier with just five points. Cal transfer Jordan Matthews has scored at least 10 points in all of the NCAA Tournament games, but is just 16-of-44 from the floor in this tournament. After a slow start, Johnathan Williams has 32 points over his last two games. The scary thing about Gonzaga is that the Bulldogs have had a lot of guys looking for their shots, and yet they are still in the Final Four. That’s a testament to the depth and the defensive prowess of the Bulldogs.
College Basketball Free Pick: South Carolina Gamecocks +6
Gonzaga’s scoring threats have been very inconsistent in this tournament and that is a bad sign going into a massive venue against a top-five defense in college basketball. This should be a low-scoring affair, even though the total of 138.5 doesn’t quite suggest that. This is a very unique shooting backdrop for the players and both teams are going to be stronger defensively than offensively in a matchup like this. The Gamecocks also have the best player on the floor in Sindarius Thornwell. With that in mind, we’ll take the Gamecocks plus the points. The winner of this matchup will take on the winner of Oregon vs North Carolina.
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