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This Final Four Is About More Than Just New Blood

The field also includes the nation’s best team, the nation’s hottest player, and a potential all-time “irrational confidence guy”

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

As a professional sportswriter, I know a fundamental part of my job is to complain about stuff that has zero impact on my readers. It’s something I’ve always taken seriously and will continue to in this moment. So with that, I would like to publicly shame WBNS — the CBS affiliate in Columbus, Ohio — for forcing me to miss the end of North Carolina–Kentucky because it felt it necessary to broadcast a black screen as a local weatherman explained that a tornado might or might not be headed my way.

Look, I get what WBNS was trying to do — save lives or some bullshit like that. But how about a little common sense? This wasn’t just any basketball game, you know? This one featured the two of the winningest programs in college basketball history, playing a rematch of one of the three best games of the 2016–17 season, with a trip to the Final Four on the line. If WBNS wanted to show a tornado warning during the South Carolina–Florida game, then by all means, go right ahead. But to cut into a three-point contest with 16 seconds left to show a black screen FOR SIX F’ING MINUTES, even though there was a “TORNADO WARNING” scroll and a siren blaring outside? Get the hell out of here. We all have the internet and can assess a tornado threat on our own time, thank you very much. And if nothing else, why in God’s name couldn’t you have gone to a split screen or something?

Here’s the bottom line: I would’ve rather died watching Luke Maye one-up Malik Monk than live to experience whatever the hell was happening on my television. So thank you, WBNS. You deprived me and at least five or six of my readers of the opportunity to tweet “OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!” when Maye’s buzzer-beater went in. I’ll never forgive you for this.

Thankfully, I did get to see some college basketball Sunday. Here are four thoughts as we look ahead to the Final Four.

1. South Carolina might be this year’s version of Connecticut.

UConn won national championships in 2011 and 2014 by playing great team defense and relying on offenses that were carried by one and a half elite guards. That’s really all there was to it. We remember the 2011 run as Kemba Walker basically playing one-on-five every game and the 2014 run as Shabazz Napier morphing into Kemba 2.0, and both of those guys did have ridiculous tournaments. But what gets overlooked is how stout the Huskies were defensively during their both of those tourneys. I mean, the 2011 team held Butler to 18.8 percent shooting in the title game, including a 3-of-31 showing from inside the 3-point arc. (Admit it: You knew the 2011 national championship was one of the worst games you had ever seen, but you forgot that it was THAT bad.) And the defining game of UConn’s 2014 tournament came when Ryan Boatright put the clamps on SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin and the Huskies defeated what was arguably the second-best Florida team in school history in the Final Four.

Those two UConn teams offered a formula to win a national championship as an under-the-radar contender: Play great on defense and put the ball in your star guard’s hands on offense. That’s exactly what South Carolina has done, as the Gamecocks are playing as well on defense now as any team has played at any point this season. In Sunday’s 77–70 Elite Eight win over Florida, they held the Gators to 41.7 percent shooting and 26.9 percent from 3. Meanwhile, senior guard Sindarius Thornwell — who just might be the best player left in the field — has been out of this world, averaging 25.8 points and 2.5 assists on 50 percent shooting in four tournament games.

The Gamecocks will have their hands full against college basketball’s best team in the Final Four, as Gonzaga’s defense is as good as South Carolina’s, and the Bulldogs also put a balanced and potent offense on the floor. But the idea of the Gamecocks winning a national championship — something that would have seemed ludicrous when the bracket was released and a second-round matchup against Duke loomed — suddenly isn’t so far-fetched. We’ve seen this story twice before; we might just see it again.

2. Luke Maye isn’t going away.

The hero of North Carolina’s 75–73 win over Kentucky on Sunday was named the South regional’s most outstanding player, and not just because he hit the game-winning shot with 0.3 seconds remaining on the clock. Maye also threw flames for 25 minutes in the Tar Heels’ Sweet 16 win over Butler, and he followed that up with a 17-point performance on a nice 6-of-9 shooting display against the Wildcats.

What’s fascinating isn’t so much that Maye is on a tear right now, although that is nuts. It’s that he doesn’t seem the least bit surprised by it. The dude comes into every game looking to kill, and he’s been that way every time I’ve seen him play this season. The sophomore checks every box on the list of “irrational confidence guy” requirements, except his confidence isn’t really irrational anymore, seeing as how he simply cannot miss.

Luke Maye (AP Images)
Luke Maye (AP Images)

Now that the Heels are marching to the Final Four, the question is whether Maye can keep his hot streak rolling. Assuming Oregon plays straight-up defense and doesn’t sell out to stop Maye, I don’t see any reason he can’t. The Ducks defense has been phenomenal in the tourney, anchored by a 6-foot-9 brick wall named Jordan Bell. But Maye has two things working in his favor: He has a big frame and decent passing skills and can knock down 15-footers all day, making him a perfect high-post presence against whatever zone defense the Ducks might throw at the Heels. And Carolina has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to size while Oregon doesn’t, an imbalance that could put the Ducks in a bind with man-to-man defense.

As great as Bell is defensively, his bread and butter is rim protection, not stepping out to contest pick-and-pop 3s (which would open the paint for Carolina’s guards to get to the hoop). And Bell probably won’t guard Maye next Saturday since that would leave Dillon Brooks to cover Kennedy Meeks or Tony Bradley, and either individual matchup would be a disaster for the Ducks. So if Brooks is on Maye, which Oregon player would have to guard 6-foot-8 Justin Jackson? The logical choice would be sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey, who is basically Oregon’s version of Malik Monk. That shouldn’t be all that encouraging for Ducks fans, considering Jackson dominated his matchup with Monk on Sunday.

That’s why I think the Ducks will stick to zone or a switching man-to-man (which is basically a zone) for most of the game. And if that is indeed the case, the stars could align for Maye to do work in the high post. Regardless of whether he succeeds, I can guarantee that he won’t be passive.

3. Don’t let the names of Gonzaga, Oregon, and South Carolina trick you into believing that North Carolina has the title sewn up.

The stories entering this year’s Final Four are Gonzaga and South Carolina making their first trips to college basketball’s biggest stage and Oregon earning its first Final Four appearance since 1939. This is obviously a big deal, and I’m all for celebrating how rare it is to see a Final Four headlined by new bloods instead of blue bloods. But as we praise these teams for finally breaking through, we should also note that all of them are very good basketball teams and have been for most of this season.

Gonzaga is the best and most complete team in college basketball. Oregon was the most balanced and consistent team in a loaded Pac-12 that had three teams ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll for most of the season. And while I’ll admit that no. 7 seed South Carolina’s run to Phoenix has been surprising, it’s not like the Gamecocks had a disappointing season up until the tournament started. They finished tied for third in the SEC (the two teams that finished ahead of them both made the Elite Eight) and won the first 12 games of the season in which Thornwell played.

In other words, the names on the front of the jerseys might not jump out, but that doesn’t mean this Final Four field is a dud. Oregon is every bit as good as UNC. South Carolina might have the hottest player and team in the country. And Gonzaga is the Vegas favorite to win it all for a reason.

4. Tweets that are just a player or coach’s name with no other context is the new “This is March.”

Most of you already know about Jon Rothstein’s Twitter account, but for those who don’t, here’s the gist: Rothstein is a cyborg college basketball reporter for CBS Sports who has a habit of tweeting various catchphrases into the ground. People give him shit for it all the time, yet he remains unfazed, maybe because he really is a robot and doesn’t feel any emotion. Or perhaps it’s because he’s noticed that the people making fun of him are helping put his catchphrases in the public consciousness, which is actually great for his brand. I don’t really know.

Whatever the case, his favorite catchphrase this time of year is “This is March.” He tweets it a million times every March, so it’s the most famous phrase that he has. And people love to make fun of him for it because (1) he’s stating a basic fact that everyone knows, and (2) he’s adding no other context whatsoever. When you first start following Rothstein, you might think his catchphrases are fun. A little while later, you’ll learn to despise them for the irrelevant annoyances they are. But then, if you have patience, you’ll break through and begin to view the catchphrases as endearing.

I say that to say this: A challenger to Rothstein’s repetition has emerged in college basketball media. It’s the posting of a name — often in all caps — with virtually no other context. Drink this in, folks.

Not everyone in the media is into this trend, though. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman is not afraid to share his thoughts on using repetition as a Twitter crutch.

No, wait. I got that wrong.

JEFF. GOODMAN. THIS IS MARCH.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to North Carolina–Kentucky as a game between the two winningest programs in college basketball history; they are two of the winningest programs.