Predicting a single-elimination tournament like March Madness is almost impossible. Anything can happen in the span of one 40-minute game. Teams go hot or cold from the perimeter for no rhyme or reason. Star players can pick up two early fouls, completely throwing off the rhythm of their game and their team’s rotation. College kids (and coaches) can momentarily lose their minds and screw up even the most basic things in the final possessions. Run the past two weekends back 10 times and you would get a different Final Four each time.
Often, it comes down to matchups. Gonzaga barely survived against West Virginia in the Sweet 16, yet blew Xavier off the floor in the Elite Eight. The struggles the Zags had getting into their offense against Press Virginia makes you wonder how they would have handled the length and athleticism of a team like Florida State, the 3-seed in their region. However, it didn’t matter because Florida State didn’t have the shooting to punish Xavier for sitting in a zone in the second round. There is no transitive property in basketball, particularly in a tournament setting. An upset anywhere in the bracket can have a butterfly effect, changing the dynamic of matchups two and three rounds down the road, and opening and closing windows for teams to make a deep run.
Any team that makes the Final Four has to be taken seriously. Winning four consecutive games in March requires running a gauntlet against some of the best teams in the country, who often play radically different styles of basketball. Now that they have made it this far, Gonzaga, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Oregon can all take a deep breath, as they have a week to review film and create a specific game plan for their opponent on Saturday. Here are three key matchups from each game to watch this weekend; how they play out will go a long way toward determining who is playing for the national title on Monday.
(7) South Carolina vs. (1) Gonzaga
1. How will Gonzaga guard South Carolina’s perimeter stars?
Frank Martin’s team is led by two perimeter players with imposing physical maturity in senior Sindarius Thornwell (6-foot-5, 211 pounds) and sophomore PJ Dozier (6-foot-6, 205 pounds). South Carolina is a defensive-minded team that counts on the one-on-one abilities of its best players to carry it on offense. Thornwell’s and Dozier’s length means they can create shots when the offense breaks down, and they have the passing ability to find the open man if a double-team comes.
Gonzaga’s lack of length on the perimeter is its biggest weakness on defense. None of their four main guards — Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews, Josh Perkins, and Silas Melson — is taller than 6-foot-4. The Bulldogs got around that problem against Xavier by putting Johnathan Williams, their hyper-athletic 6-foot-9 power forward, on the 6-foot-6 Trevon Bluiett, but the Musketeers started four perimeter players, which meant Gonzaga could cross-switch Williams on Bluiett without giving up size anywhere else. If Williams guards Thornwell, that leaves Perkins or Mathews at a disadvantage guarding one of South Carolina’s big men, not to mention Dozier still towering over whoever guards him.
What Gonzaga coach Mark Few could do to minimize those matchups is pack the paint and dare the Gamecocks to shoot, since neither of their big men (sophomore Chris Silva and freshman Maik Kotsar) has made a 3-pointer this season, and Dozier is a 29.7 percent shooter from deep. In order to get more shooting on the floor, Martin often slides Thornwell (who boasts a 6-foot-9 wingspan) to power forward and brings in another guard (either senior Justin McKie or freshman Rakym Felder). Expect South Carolina to go small on Saturday to open up the floor against Gonzaga.
2. Can South Carolina handle the Gonzaga big men?
Gonzaga has one of the biggest frontcourts in the country, and makes good use of it. They are built to play inside-out, exploiting their mismatch in the post, then kicking the ball out to their waves of 3-point shooters, a strategy which was devastatingly effective against an undersized Xavier team in the Elite Eight. Kotsar (6-foot-10, 245 pounds) and Silva (6-foot-9, 223 pounds) can hold their own in the post, but they will still be giving up size to Gonzaga senior Przemek Karnowski (7-foot-1, 300 pounds) and freshman Zach Collins (7-foot, 230 pounds). Gonzaga will try to pound the ball inside and force South Carolina to send double-teams. The Gamecocks need their big men to hold their own to allow their perimeter players to stay at home on their own assignments.
Even more important is what happens when South Carolina goes small with Thornwell at the 4. Williams had 19 points and eight rebounds against Xavier, and if he can score over the top of Thornwell or get him in foul trouble, it will force Martin to play more limited offensive lineups. That’s easier said than done, though, as Thornwell is built like a rock and is in the 75th percentile of post defenders in the country, according to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports. The matchup between Williams and Thornwell will go a long way toward determining the winner on Saturday.
3. Can Gonzaga deal with the South Carolina pressure?
Martin is a disciple of Bob Huggins — he took over for Huggins at Kansas State after Huggins went to West Virginia — and there are more than a few similarities in the way their teams play. South Carolina forces 17.2 turnovers per game, second in the entire country, and Gonzaga will have to do a better job of handling the Gamecocks’ pressure than they did in their Sweet 16 game against West Virginia, who hounded the Bulldogs into 16 turnovers. Williams-Goss had five turnovers and Karnowski had three; they were just not strong enough with the ball against such an aggressive defense.
The Gamecocks have big and physical defenders on the perimeter, with dimensions closer to what you see in football than in basketball. Dozier and Thornwell are huge, and their two point guards, senior Duane Notice (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) and Felder (5-foot-10, 210 pounds), can bully people, too. Notice, Thornwell, and Dozier combine to average 4.4 steals per game, and getting out in transition is crucial for a South Carolina team that can struggle to score in the half court. Whatever team wins the turnover battle and gets some easy baskets in the open court will have a huge edge in a game between two of the top defenses in the country.
(3) Oregon vs. (1) North Carolina
1. Can Justin Jackson repeat his performance against Kentucky?
A tall perimeter player who can be a primary option is a huge advantage in college basketball, where wings with NBA-caliber size and athleticism are at a premium. Jackson, at 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, was a matchup nightmare for Kentucky in the Elite Eight, because he had five inches on Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky’s starting small forward. Jackson has always had a gift for using floaters to score from a wide variety of angles, and he has become a much better 3-point shooter as a junior. He had 19 points and four assists on 7-of-17 shooting against Kentucky, and Oregon, which starts three guards together with none of them taller than 6-foot-4, doesn’t have an obvious cover for him.
Oregon will have the same problem defending Jackson that Gonzaga has with Thornwell. If Dana Altman puts power forward Dillon Brooks on Jackson, that leaves Tyler Dorsey (6-foot-4, 195 pounds) giving up a ton of size to Isaiah Hicks (6-foot-9, 242 pounds) inside. What makes things even worse for the Ducks is that Brooks is only an average athlete, so he may not be able to cover Jackson even if the cross-switch happens. Hicks is also a lot more skilled than the South Carolina big men: If he has a mouse in the house, he’ll be able to score at will and dominate the boards against a smaller opponent.
Jackson’s size could be just as big a problem on defense. He’s coming off a dominant performance against Malik Monk, whom he held to 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting on Sunday, with six of those points coming on miracle shots in the final moments. Dorsey has been Oregon’s most consistent offensive weapon in the tournament, averaging 24.5 points per game on 67 percent shooting, and he and Monk have fairly similar games. Jackson, who is widely projected to be a lottery pick in the upcoming draft, will be the toughest defender Dorsey has faced yet.
2. How will UNC deal with the Oregon zone?
On paper, Kansas star Josh Jackson presented just as many matchup problems for Oregon in the Elite Eight as Justin Jackson, but the Ducks were able to hold him in check, thanks to Jackson’s early foul trouble, as well as the intricacies of their matchup zone. The Jayhawks’ high-powered offense was bewildered by the way Altman switched his defenses over the course of the game, while Jordan Bell’s ability to completely lock down the paint gave Oregon a ton of flexibility when it came to how the Ducks deployed the four guys in front of him.
Even if the matchups when they play man aren’t favorable for Oregon, it won’t matter if they can zone UNC and force the Tar Heels to beat them from the high post and the 3-point line. Roy Williams teams like to run-and-gun and push the pace at every opportunity, so the Ducks should slow the game down and force the Heels to execute in the half court. Beating a zone requires shooting and playmaking from your frontcourt players, not a strength of either Hicks or Kennedy Meeks, which means the Tar Heels may need another big performance from backup power forward and unlikely March hero Luke Maye.
3. Can Oregon play UNC to a draw at point guard?
Jackson is UNC’s best player, but the Tar Heels will go only as far as Joel Berry II can take them. After rolling his ankle in their opening-round win over Texas Southern, he was a shell of himself in their second-round game against Arkansas, shooting 2-of-13 from the field, and the Tar Heels narrowly pulled out the win in a game marred by ugly officiating. When he is at his best, like when he scored 26 points on 8-of-13 shooting in their beatdown of Butler in the Sweet 16, they are almost unstoppable.
Payton Pritchard, the Ducks starting point guard, is a heady player who is wise beyond his years, but he’s still only a freshman. He scored only two points against Kansas, and he’ll need to put pressure on Berry and force him to expend energy on both sides of the ball. The good news for Pritchard is that he can be very aggressive when guarding Berry, knowing that Bell can clean up penetration at the rim. The ability of the point guards to control the tempo will be crucial, since UNC is a completely different team when it can play loose and free in the open court.