By Ryan Sjoberg, Colton Molesky, and Colt Johnson
The weekend was wild, as the 16 teams were narrowed down to a meager four, with Wisconsin falling on a buzzer-beater in over time, Oregon outlasting Kansas, Kentucky topping UCLA and the South Carolina Cinderella story. And that is just the half of it! Join us again as we dive in, again players first.
Ryan – Sindarius Thornwell, Guard, South Carolina
Many people didn’t know who Sindarius Thornwell was before this magical run to the Final Four. Now, a couple weeks into March Madness, the South Carolina guard is a household name for many college basketball fans and is in good shape to take home the coveted tournament MVP Award. The 2016-2017 SEC Player of the Year can create his own shot from anywhere on the court—and it shows. Averaging nearly 22 points per game during the regular season, Thornwell has surprisingly played better in tournament play against better competition. Against the likes of Duke, Baylor, Florida and Marquette, Thornwell has managed to average 26 points per game and thrives when his team needs him at his best. The Gamecock guard also plays bigger than one would think. Given he stands at 6’5”, it is very impressive that a player of this size leads his team in rebounding with nearly eight per game in tournament play. They say guards win in March so watch the matchup of Sindarius Thornwell against Gonzaga All-American point guard Nigel Williams-Goss when the two face off against one another Saturday.
Colton – Joel Berry II, Guard, North Carolina
After dealing with an ankle injury in the Arkansas game, UNC gave a glimpse of how the team looked without their point guard healthy. In that game, despite having players like Isaiah Hicks and Justin Jackson, the Tar Heels offense looked sluggish. Berry came back with a vengeance against Butler for 26 points. Then against Kentucky, he posted 11 points with four rebounds, three assists and two steals to show off his versatility. In a tournament with so many high potential freshman, the talent of this veteran point guard has flown under the radar, but will be the difference for a UNC title.
Colt – Tyler Dorsey, Guard, Oregon
Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey is earning the title Mr. March for his incredible performances in the tournament during his team’s run to the Final Four.
His latest MVP-worthy performance came against the No. 1 seeded Kansas Jayhawks. Dorsey tied his tournament high in points against the Jayhawks with 27, which helped lead the Ducks to their first Final Four appearance in school history, since they won the tournament in 1939. He was instrumental in the game, leading his team in points and pulling down five rebounds for his team. Dorsey was also lights-out from beyond the three-point line hitting six of his 10 shots taken from three. The Ducks have been relying on Dorsey’s hot shooting all tournament and he’s been their go-to guy in clutch situations all tourney.
And the winner is…
Ryan – Gonzaga Bulldogs
After always hearing how overrated the Gonzaga program was for losing earlier than expected in the tournament year-after-year, Bulldogs’ Head Coach Mark Few is finally making his and the program’s first Final Four appearance in program history. The Bulldogs present a good mix of size and spectacular perimeter play, led by the duo of Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski. Williams-Goss is a top-tier point guard who excels in pick-and-roll type situations, while Karnowski gives teams trouble down in the post because of his size (7’1 305 pounds). Only having one loss on the season, Gonzaga has the depth, size and speed to not only contend for first National Championship in school history, but to win the first National Championship in school history. This team is hungry and wants to show the rest of the country that the little school from out west is here to stay as a contender for the long haul and is not about to give up on its title dreams just yet. Gonzaga plays South Carolina in the Final Four on Saturday. Tip is scheduled for 5:09 CT and is being aired on CBS.
Colt – Oregon Ducks
The 79-year drought to the Final Four is finally over for the Ducks after their two victories against Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen and Kansas in the Elite Eight. Oregon barely edged out the Wolverines with a 69-68 victory. In their win over Michigan, the Duck’s three-point shooting was spectacular. As a team, Oregon shot 47.1 percent from beyond the three-point line, hitting 8 of 17. The game winning layup came with 1:09 left on the clock from none other than Tyler Dorsey.
Michigan’s Derrick Walton Jr. had an opportunity to win the game with a last second shot, but it was just off and Oregon’s Jordan Bell came down with the rebound. Bell played a major role for the Ducks in the win, scoring 16 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. He was a monster on the boards and his seven of 10-shooting helped propel Oregon past the Wolverines.
In their 74-60 victory against the Jayhawks, Oregon played an extremely well-rounded game. Offensively, they played well as a unit with four players scoring in double-digit figures and shot 50.9 percent as a team from the field. Their three-point shooting was also terrific once again, hitting 11 of 25 from beyond the arch.
It wasn’t just their offense that led to the 14-point victory; The Ducks held Kansas’ shooting to just 35 percent from the field and only 20 percent from three. It wasn’t a good shooting night for the Jayhawks, but the persistent and pestilent defense of Oregon didn’t make it any easier for Kansas. Oregon’s Bell finished the game with eight blocks anchoring the defense, which helped the Ducks cruise to the easy victory.
Oregon is now set to face the heavily favored No. 1 Seeded North Carolina in the Final Four. The Tar Heels have been one of the best teams all season and have a 56.8 percent chance to win, per ESPN’s basketball power index. It’s going to take a lot if the Ducks want to pull off the upset against North Carolina and defense will be key. Oregon will have their hands full with ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson, who averaged 18.2 ppg, and without the Duck’s leading shot-blocker in Chris Boucher, other players must step up and play solid team defense.
Colton- North Carolina Tar Heels
You can argue scheme, coaching, or depth all you want. But no matter what, Kentucky was the best team in the tournament as far as talent is concerned. De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe and Edrice Adebayo all averaged double-digits point throughout the season and the defense is long, fast and stifling. That’s the team that UNC beat by getting to the perimeter defensively and grabbing 13 offensive rebounds. With Kansas and Duke out, this team does not have to face anyone with the caliber of talent that UNC has on the roster. With Berry, Jackson, Hicks and Maye all hitting their shots and winning their man-to-man match ups, this looks to be the favorite. They win the championship.
This has been one of the most tumultuous years in the tournament in a long time, as South Carolina and Gonzaga make their first Final Four appearances ever, while the Ducks are in for the first time since 1939 (the first one) and UNC marks their 20th appearance to this stage in their appearance. A strange collection indeed as Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky and Wisconsin all were excused this weekend. One thing all of us writers can agree on is that for the teams that have made it this far, two-way point guards that control the offense and pace may just be the difference. UNC has Berry, Oregon has Brooks, Gonzaga has Williams-Goss and South Carolina has Thornwell. All of these players make contributions everywhere on the stat sheet and all four may need to have the best two games of their career to grab the title in this year’s tournament.