South Carolina. Gonzaga. Oregon. North Carolina. There it is: your 2017 NCAA tournament Final Four.
With the very-large exception of North Carolina, the other teams who’ll take the court next weekend in Phoenix are national unknowns. The smallest of the bunch has no national basketball footprint. Though respected in sports circles because of nearly 20 years of consistency, Gonzaga is best known by the general public, if at all, as March’s perennial little engine that couldn’t.
Travesty or not, the only way for a team west of the Rockies to make a name for itself in a sports world dominated by East Coast bias is to be extraordinary (and even Gonzaga’s 29-0 start barely moved the needle) or loud (Lonzo Ball’s UCLA). Oregon’s Nike jerseys cover the latter, but the team itself is a Pac 12 squad with no pedigree that doesn’t get the attention it would if it played in the ACC or Big Ten. As for South Carolina; up until three weeks ago, most alums probably couldn’t have told you a thing about the basketball program – except the coach. The one who yells a lot and whose face turns the same shade of garnet that’s on the team’s jerseys.
How odd is the sight of new teams at the Final Four? Of the 40 spots in the last 10 Final Fours, only three were taken by schools making their debut: Wichita State (2013), VCU (2011), Butler (2010). Add in George Mason (2006) and Maryland (2001) and there have only been five schools this century that broke through for an inaugural Final Four. This year alone there are two – Gonzaga and South Carolina. That hasn’t happened since 1996, when Mississippi State and Massachusetts pulled the feat.
It might as well be three new teams. As you’ll hear hundreds of time this week, Oregon won the first ever NCAA tournament and made its only Final Four all the way back in 1939. That might as well have been the basketball dark ages. The tournament was a second- or third-class event then. Teams turned down bids for any number of reasons, including to play in the more-prestigious NIT, for budget/travel purposes or just because they didn’t want to play. (Case in point: The two winningest teams of the 1940s were Kentucky and Seton Hall. The former school played just three NCAA tournaments that decade. The latter never did.)
So calling this Oregon’s second Final Four bid is a bit like saying Steve Young quarterbacked the 49ers to three Super Bowl titles. Technically true, yes, but he was a backup on the first two. Oregon made that ’39 Final Four, but they won one game to get there. By that measure Middle Tennessee would have made it this year.
The four teams descending upon Phoenix this week are basketball’s version of a merry band of misfits – the blue blood, the underdog, the well-funded upstart and the nobodies.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Would the Final Four be more exciting if you swapped South Carolina for Duke and Oregon for Kansas? Sure. Does the field show the downside of March’s one-and-done Madness, where the best teams can go out on a fluke or off-night? Absolutely. Other formats tend to get the best teams in position to play for the championship. (Think of the NBA or even College World Series, with its double-elimination rounds and best-of-three series.)
But you can’t love the thrill of the NCAA tournament and then be underwhelmed or disappointed when it produces regional champion South Carolina. The Gamecocks, and the three other teams, played their way into Phoenix and deserve every accolade and pat on the back that would have accompanied more famous competitors.
Who knows? This might be the perfect mixture for a memorable Final Four. The only thing better than South Carolina’s story has been the team’s play. Frank Martin’s defense is typically stifling. And Sindarius Thornwell, the do-everything SEC Player of the Year, is a win away from going down in tournament history as one of the few players to carry a team to a title game on his back. If they win it all (and that’s not as much of a stretch as you’d think), it’s pretty much him, Kemba Walker and Danny Manning.
Gonzaga has been building to this moment since 1999, when the tiny Spokane school, whose only basketball history involved having John Stockton wear their jersey for four years, burst onto the basketball scene and never left. Nineteen tournaments and a half-dozen heartbreaks later, Mark Few’s program has reached the pinnacle. In doing so, he’s gotten the monkey of the back of his team and himself. As of Saturday morning, Few had the most NCAA tournament wins of any college basketball coach without a Final Four appearance while Gonzaga was tied for the most of any team without a berth. The slate is now wiped clean. (Poor BYU; they were tied with Gonzaga atop that dubious list for all of 44 hours before the Zags erased their names.)
Oregon has any one of three stars who could go down in tournament history by next Tuesday. Tyler Dorsey had four 20-point games this season until he started his current run of seven-straight games with 20+ points. Overall, he’s scored 98 in the tournament. (Only Thornwell has more.) Jordan Bell had a man-among-boys performance against Kansas with offensive rebounds, vicious dunks and blocked shots that’ll have KU faithful waking up in cold sweats for the next 52 weeks. And then there’s Dillon Brooks. All he did was win Pac 12 Player of the Year.
North Carolina needs no introduction. Roy Williams will be going for his third national title in Chapel Hill, which would move him past his mentor, and the school’s all-time legend, Dean Smith. (Imagine if/when Nick Saban passes Bear Bryant at Alabama.) It’s Roy’s ninth Final Four (five at Carolina and four at Kansas) and provides a shot at redemption for the team’s core group – Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks – who lost last year’s title game on a Villanova buzzer beater.
South Carolina. Gonzaga. Oregon. North Carolina. It’s not your grandfather’s Final Four. Or your father’s. Or yours. In the recent history of college basketball, it’s completely unprecedented. But that’s completely immaterial. The narratives go out the window when the ball tips at 6:09 p.m. ET on Saturday night. It’s all basketball from there. And despite the unconventional group that’ll assemble in Phoenix, there’s no reason to expect this year’s Final Four to be anything less than a thrill.