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Gonzaga and Oregon Are in the Final Four Because of Their Balance

Naming the best player on the Zags or the Ducks is about as hard as stopping them. Plus: Dillon Brooks is the new Grayson Allen and Bill Self comes up short … again.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Gonzaga systematically dismantled Xavier on Saturday night, winning by a score of 83–59 and ending a Pacific-time-zone Final Four drought that dates back to when UCLA lost to Memphis in the national semifinals in 2008*. The drought that came after Gonzaga punched its ticket didn’t last quite as long: Less than three hours later, Oregon shocked Kansas and earned a trip to the Final Four as well. This marks the first Final Four for the Ducks since 1939(!), while Gonzaga will be making the first Final Four appearance in the history of its program, which, as we all know, was founded in 1999 when Gus Johnson had a legendary Gus-gasm at the end of Florida’s Sweet 16 loss to the Zags. Approximately four months later Mark Few’s coaching career was born.

Anyway, here’s what I took away from Saturday’s action.

(*Never forget: Ben Howland had a week to prepare and a starting lineup of Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Josh Shipp, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Kevin Love, and he still lost by 15 to a Memphis team that was basically Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and a bunch of bums.)

1. Gonzaga is the best team in the country.

This isn’t a takeaway so much as it’s a case of Gonzaga’s win over Xavier reminding me of a truth I’ve already known. Hating on Gonzaga has been in vogue for well over a decade now, starting around the time Adam Morrison cried against UCLA in the 2006 Sweet 16. It reached its apex when the Zags climbed to no. 1 in the polls in 2012–13 before losing in the Round of 32 to a no. 9 seed. I guess I get how we arrived at this point. I mean, the idea that the Zags always choke in March is batshit insane — they’ve been upset twice in the past nine NCAA tournaments — but the concerns about being “battle-tested” with a West Coast Conference schedule has always been a valid-enough criticism for me to have wondered if the Zags would ever have what it takes to win a national championship.

But anyone who watched even a handful of Gonzaga games this year should have seen this Final Four run coming. Nothing about Gonzaga teams of the past applies to this group, which is pretty clearly head-and-shoulders better than any Bulldogs team that has come before it. Gonzaga’s talent, experience, and chemistry is off the charts, to the point that I’m only half-joking when I say that just a handful of Gonzaga players from the past decade would even crack the rotation on this team.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

If you still find yourself wondering how it’s possible that Gonzaga — GONZAGA! — is truly the best team in America, think about this: The Zags’ best player is Nigel Williams-Goss, who is a former McDonald’s All American and one of the five best point guards in college basketball. But Przemek Karnowski’s combination of size, skill, and court vision might make him the Zags’ most important player. His presence alone commands attention and opens up all sorts of stuff for his teammates. And yet, Johnathan Williams, a junior transfer who averaged 11.9 points per game for Missouri two seasons ago, was the best player in the West regional, while Jordan Mathews is the only Bulldog to score in double figures in each of Gonzaga’s four NCAA tournament games. And on top of all of that, the Zags bring off the bench two 7-footers and a guard in Silas Melson who has hit double figures in scoring 10 times this season. Oh, and Gonzaga ranks no. 1 in KenPom’s adjusted defense metric, shoots​ 50.9 percent from the field as a team, and has five guys who can get hot from the 3-point line.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If Gonzaga was regularly on national TV all season and if their jerseys said “Duke” or even just “Not Gonzaga,” 80 percent of this country would have had them going all the way in their brackets without giving it a second thought.

2. Teams that make shots are better than teams that miss shots.

I’m being facetious, sure, but sometimes the difference between winning and losing really is as simple as making or missing wide-open shots. Against Purdue on Thursday, Kansas did a little thing that we in the business like to call “shooting the piss out of the ball,” hitting 15 of their 28 3-point attempts as they ran the Boilermakers out of the gym. Two nights later, the Jayhawks looked like they were shooting the ball out of a T-shirt cannon. Kansas finished 5-for-25 from downtown against the Ducks, as Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson, who were a combined 7-for-14 from behind the 3-point line against Purdue, went 0-for-8 from deep.

And yes, Oregon deserves a ton of credit for its defense. The Ducks have it rolling on that end of the floor right now with Jordan Bell protecting the paint and the perimeter players switching from a matchup zone to man-to-man so often that it’s kind of remarkable how they all stay on the same page. But still, Oregon shouldn’t get credit for EVERY Kansas miss. Far too often the Jayhawks got a decent look and just couldn’t put the ball in the basket, which was made all the more frustrating when the Jayhawks would play decent defense and give up a tough 3 to the Ducks because Tyler Dorsey is a goddamn magician.

Tyler Dorsey (Getty Images)
Tyler Dorsey (Getty Images)

This is one huge difference between college basketball and the NBA. Guys rarely miss open shots in the pros, which is why NBA fans who never watch college basketball want to gouge their eyes out when they stumble across a college game. But that’s part of college basketball’s charm and one of the reasons I love it so much. Even the best college teams can go ice cold at a moment’s notice, so there’s truly no telling what’s going to happen in any NCAA tournament game.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Ducks were lucky, that Kansas was unlucky, or that any combination of the two was the cause for what transpired on Saturday. Oregon outplayed Kansas in virtually every facet of the game and undoubtedly deserves its place in the Final Four. Based on what we saw, if they played 10 times, Oregon would win six or seven against the Jayhawks. But given how many tough shots the Ducks seemed to hit and how uncharacteristically bad Kansas’s shooting was, if I were a Kansas fan it would be tempting to play the what-if game.

Put it this way: Oregon and Kansas each shot 25 3s. Oregon hit 11, Kansas made 5, and the Ducks won by 14. I’m not a stat nerd or anything, but if Oregon misses on three of those “NOOOOOOOOOOoooooh my god how did he make that?????” 3s and if Kansas hits three of the wide-open 3s that it missed, I’m thinking it’s an entirely different ballgame.

3. The Pac-12 Player of the Year is Oregon’s third-best player.

Dillon Brooks (Getty Images)
Dillon Brooks (Getty Images)

Dillon Brooks was named player of the year in a conference that will likely claim the top two 2017 NBA draft picks and at least one other lottery pick. Yet Brooks hasn’t led the Ducks in scoring, rebounding, or steals in any of Oregon’s four NCAA tournament games. And here’s the craziest part of that: He’s still averaging 16.5 points, 5 boards, and 3.3 assists in tournament play. The problem, if that’s what you want to call it, is that Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey are playing so well right now that if you squint hard enough they kinda look like Bill Russell and Ray Allen. Bell has been out of this world defensively for an Oregon team that lost its leading shot blocker, Chris Boucher, to a torn ACL in the Pac-12 tournament, while Dorsey has bee — wait, why am I using my words to describe these guys? Why not just show the sequence that clinched the Kansas game and is a perfect representation of what Bell and Dorsey have been in this tournament?

Similar to Gonzaga, the Ducks are remarkably balanced, to the point that the team’s best player can change from game to game. I mean, just think about what I wrote in that previous paragraph. Oregon has a player averaging 16.5 points per game in this tournament and he’s the THIRD-best player on the team. It makes no damn sense.

You know how everyone was excited about Duke a week ago because the Blue Devils had three guys — Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum, and Grayson Allen — who could conceivably be the three best players on the floor no matter who their opponent was? It’s starting to feel like Oregon has the same thing going on right now, which is perfect since I’ve been hammering the “Dillon Brooks trips guys, flops, talks a ton of shit, hates that he’s not the best player on his own team, and is therefore the Grayson Allen of the West” take for months now.

More importantly, though, if Brooks is the Allen of the West and if Oregon is the team that we all thought the Blue Devils might be, that means … you guessed it, folks …

DUKE IS BACK!

4. Bill Self is now 2–7 in Elite Eight games in his career.

Bill Self has been to fewer Final Fours than Ben Howland.

Bill Self has been to as many Final Fours as Bill Guthridge, Dale Brown, Terry Holland, Lou Henson, and Hugh Durham.

Bill Self has been to only one more Final Four than Tom Crean, Mike Davis, Kelvin Sampson, Paul Hewitt, Bruce Weber, Rick Barnes, and John Thompson III.

Tyler Olander and Niels Giffey won more national titles in their four-year playing careers at UConn than Bill Self has won in his 24-year coaching career.

That is all.