Rushed Reactions: #1 Gonzaga 77, #7 South Carolina 73

Posted by rtmsf on April 1st, 2017

RTC is providing coverage from start to finish of the NCAA Tournament, including this weekend’s Final Four in Phoenix.

Gonzaga Advances to Its First National Championship Game in History (USA Today Images)

Key Takeaways.

  1. Balance, Balance, Balance. There are many good reasons why Gonzaga is now sitting at 37-1 and heading to the National Championship game on Monday night, but one of the best is because of its offensive balance. Nigel Williams-Goss is the proverbial star, but he is truthfully only one of roughly six players who can take the reins for large swaths of a game. The stat sheet shows that four Zags finished tonight’s game in double figures — led by Williams-Goss’ 23 points, five rebounds and six assists — but he, Przemek Karnowski (13 points, five rebounds), Jordan Mathews (12 points on four three-pointers), Zach Collins (14 points, 13 rebounds, six blocks) and even Silas Melson (six points on two three-pointers) all had their moments carrying the team. For the game, the Zags consistently got to their spots against the nation’s second-best defense, shooting 48.3 percent from the field and nearly the same (47.4%) from beyond the arc. In the late second half, Gonzaga was definitely in “hold on” mode as South Carolina made its charge, but for the majority of the game, Mark Few’s preparation and coaching ensured that they would find excellent shots. Despite a gutty 16-0 run by the Gamecocks to create all kinds of pressure, they made just enough to advance.
  2. Get to Know Zach Collins, America. There’s a reason that the seven-footer has been on NBA Draft boards all season long despite the freshman’s limited usage (43% of available minutes). Seeing a significant opportunity against South Carolina’s undersized frontcourt, Mark Few directed his team to pound the ball inside early and often. With Collins and Przemek Karnowski repeatedly frustrating the Gamecocks’ interior defense with post moves and kickouts to open shooters, the Zags were able to build a large lead that turned out to be just enough to hold on. Collins has an advanced post game for his age and his six rejections shows that he’s certainly no slouch on the other end of the floor either. With a showing like this, expect the freshman to become the first one-and-done player in Gonzaga history.
  3. Frank Martin’s Postgame Press Conference. Normally we leave it to the Quotable section below to describe the key moments from the postgame press conference. Not tonight. During Frank Martin’s time on the dais, he was asked a question by a reporter about how impactful his team’s run had been to the youngsters watching back in the Palmetto State. Martin immediately went quiet, not saying a single word for a long 10 to 15 seconds. You could hear a pin drop in that room as the normally stoic head coach was clearly moved to tears. When he finally spoke, all eyes were on him. He spoke like a proud but hurt father speaking about his children — a poignant and revealing moment for a man who loves his players that way, but has had a reputation for fire and brimstone throughout his career.

Star of the Game. Zach Collins, Gonzaga. Collins made a comment earlier in the day that he wouldn’t want to be playing himself tonight, and he was certainly prescient in his observation. His 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks were felt all over the floor tonight, and it’s unlikely that Gonzaga would still be playing if not for his outstanding effort.

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On Improving the NCAA Tourney: Part II

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 31st, 2017

This is the second edition of our two-part look at ways to improve the overall structure of the NCAA Tournament. In our Part I piece published earlier this week, we made several recommendations concerning the selection and seeding of the 68 teams in the annual field. Today we will focus on improving the bracketing process. Over the years, the Selection Committee has endeavored to better balance the bracket while easing travel burdens on participating schools’ players and fans. Examples of these modifications include the current “pod” system for the first two rounds; ranking the four top overall seeds so that the top two teams are on opposite sides of the bracket; and, easing the restrictions on where schools from the same conference can be placed in the bracket. Since the last change was implemented, the committee claims that it has not needed to swap any teams off their true seed line. We think there is also an opportunity for further adjustments to that process, including one that is relatively simple and involves future tournament sites.

Black Stars – First/Second Round Sites (2015-17)
Blue Stars – Regional Sites (2015-17)

Go West Young Men — Just Not So Often

Our top suggestion deals with the issue of geographic balance. NCAA member schools’ presidents and chancellors have mandated that the Selection Committee consider traveling distance a priority when placing teams into each season’s bracket. But the committee is somewhat handicapped by the previously established locations that they have available for those placements. In the image above, we can see all of the regional sites for the last three NCAA Tournaments. In almost every year since the NCAA Tournament expanded to a full six-round event in 1985, the western region of the country has hosted two First/Second round sites plus a regional championship. To put it in mathematical terms, 25 percent of the NCAA Tournament prior to the Final Four is typically played in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. Yet, only 19 percent (six of 32) of the nation’s conferences are primarily located in those two zones — and that’s giving full western credit to the WAC even though three of its eight schools are actually in the Central time zone.

Similarly, only about 17 percent of all Division I schools reside in those two time zones. By moving one of those western sites to another part of the country each year, the NCAA Tournament would become much more representative of its membership in a geographic sense. The recommendation here is to only move one of the First/Second round locations out of the west — keeping the regional round located there for the sake of broader balance. As for where to relocate that site, the mid- to deep south needs more representation. Most of the major basketball conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten and Big 12 — have plenty of viable nearby options in most years, but that’s not always the case for SEC schools. It’s not just about the big boys, though — there are a lot more mid-to-lower tier Division I schools that would have improved travel situations as well. There are plenty of options available in this region — cities with NBA arenas like New Orleans, Memphis, Atlanta, Nashville, Orlando and Miami.

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2016-17 RTC National Coach of the Year: Mark Few

Posted by Walker Carey on March 31st, 2017

The 2016-17 RTC National Coach of the Year Mark Few is a Gonzaga lifer. He served on Gonzaga’s staff from 1989-99 before taking over the head coaching position after Dan Monson left for the Minnesota job prior to the 1999-2000 season. Few has been wildly successful ever since. He has presided over 16 West Coast Conference championship teams and has led the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament in all 18 of his seasons in Spokane. While 36 wins, a #1 seed and a #1 ranking this season are undeniable markers of great success, Few has drawn some criticism over the years for Gonzaga’s relative lack of NCAA Tournament success. Between 2010 and 2014, for example, the Bulldogs failed to make it past the first weekend, losing five straight times in the Round of 32. The most disappointing of those early exits came in 2013 when #1 seed Gonzaga (for the first time in school history) was vanquished by eventual Final Four participant Wichita State. Gonzaga recovered nicely over the next two years, however, advancing to the Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen, respectively, before this season’s workmanlike run to Glendale. With several new shiny toys on Few’s roster this year — some key transfers and his first-ever McDonald’s All-American — it appears as if Gonzaga is poised to reach unprecedented heights.

Gonzaga completed its regular season mission with ease. The Bulldogs entered the NCAA Tournament with a 32-1 record and — just like in 2013 — the top seed in the West Region. The first weekend was far kinder to Few’s squad this time around, though, as Gonzaga coasted into the second weekend with victories over South Dakota State and Northwestern. The Bulldogs had a much more difficult task in facing a relentless West Virginia squad in the Sweet Sixteen. The Mountaineers forced the Zags into their style of basketball — an ugly, brick-filled affair — but Few pulled all the right strings down the stretch to handle the West Virginia pressure, allowing his team to advance to the Elite Eight with a gutsy three-point victory. Gonzaga then easily dispatched a plucky Xavier squad to get the proverbial Final Four monkey off the program’s back.

Gonzaga will face a difficult task this weekend in trying to take home the program’s first National Championship. It will first have to beat NCAA Tournament darling South Carolina in Saturday’s semifinal — a team known for a ferocious defensive attack that has made things a nightmare for their opponents. If the Bulldogs can surpass that hurdle, another arduous task awaits on Monday night when they would have to face either Oregon or North Carolina. With Few’s program running on all cylinders and the monkey finally removed, though, it would surprise nobody if Gonzaga becomes the first team from outside the power conference elite to cut down the nets this weekend in Glendale.

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2016-17 RTC National Player of the Year: Frank Mason III

Posted by Walker Carey on March 31st, 2017

One of the coolest things about collegiate athletics is when a relatively unheralded recruit develops into one of the country’s best players. College basketball has experienced this a few times in recent years with the likes of Trey Burke at Michigan, Victor Oladipo at Indiana and Doug McDermott at Creighton, but the case of 2016-17 RTC National Player of the Year Frank Mason III, though, is particularly unique. The Kansas point guard from Petersburg, Virginia, originally signed with Towson before a failing grade in a state-mandated government class torpedoed that plan. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the young player, as his stock rose considerably during a post-graduate year at Massanutten Military Academy (VA). Kansas was looking at a variety of point guard options at the time, but it was not until Cat Barber signed with NC State, Chris Jones went to Louisville, Demetrius Jackson went to Notre Dame, and Jordan McLaughlin went to USC that head coach Bill Self was willing to pull the trigger on Mason. That stroke of good fortune resulted in the development of a standout player who became a three-time all-Big 12 player and an All-American during a very successful four-season run in Lawrence.

While Mason was already a very good starting point guard during his sophomore and junior seasons, he took a superstar turn this season. What the dynamic playmaker lacked in stature – he stands at just 5’11” – he made up for it with a knack for making big plays and coming through in the clutch. Not only did Mason lead the Big 12 in scoring at 20.9 points per game, but he also became one of the country’s most reliable three-point shooters at 47.1 percent mark behind the arc. The performance that perfectly highlights how dominant Mason was this year came in Kansas’ regular season finale at Oklahoma State — in a battle with Cowboys’ point guard Jawun Evans, Mason finished with 27 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in an all-around effort. The floor leader turned in another virtuoso performance last week during the Jayhawks’ run to the Elite Eight. In their dominating Sweet Sixteen victory over Big Ten regular season champion Purdue, Mason controlled the entire game to finish with 26 points (9-of-11 FG and 4-of-5 3FG), seven assists and seven rebounds.

While Kansas’ season ended unexpectedly in a disappointing loss to #3 seed Oregon, it is difficult to characterize the Jayhawks’ season as a failure. Self’s team took home its 13th straight Big 12 regular season title – and considering its stark lack of depth, especially on the interior — this one was as difficult as any of the previous 12. The most important component of Kansas’s team success, though, was the steadying influence of Mason. The same Mason who was signed to play college basketball at Towson. The same Mason who ended up at an unknown military academy because of an academic misstep. The same Mason who needed several strokes of luck to wind up at Kansas, but made the most of the opportunity that he was given. College basketball success stories can be overblown and hyperbolic, but Mason’s rise to our 2016-17 RTC Player of the Year is truly one for the history books.

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2016-17 Rush the Court All-America Teams

Posted by Walker Carey on March 30th, 2017

Compiling preseason All-America teams is a difficult task because nobody knows what will come during the upcoming season. There will always be several players who fall short of expectations and there will always be several relatively unknown types who will unexpectedly emerge to stardom. When our outfit of seven RTC pollsters selected their preseason All-America teams in November; nobody could have guessed that only five of the 15 players chosen would live up to their hype; Villanova’s Josh Hart, Oregon’s Dillon Brooks, Iowa State’s Monte’ Morris, Washington’s Markelle Fultz, and Kansas’ Josh Jackson. Hart was the only player projected to be a first-teamer who ended up there. The 10 other players who did not make our postseason team are Duke’s Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum, California’s Ivan Rabb, Maryland’s Melo Trimble, Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes, Indiana’s Thomas Bryant, NC State’s Dennis Smith, Xavier’s Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett, and Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo. All turned in varying degrees of productive seasons but were surpassed in achievements by the names that moved ahead of them on our list. Here are the 2016-17 RTC All-America Teams.

First Team All-America

  • Frank Mason, Senior, Kansas (consensus) (20.9 PPG, 5.2 APG, 49% FG, 47.1% 3FG). After being little more than a complementary contributor during his first three seasons in Lawrence, Mason wrapped up his collegiate career this season in spectacular fashion. What the point guard lack lacks in stature (he is listed at just 5’11”), he made up for it in big time performances. Kansas earned its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title and advanced to the Elite Eight this season, and neither of those would have been possible without Mason elevating his game to a superstar level. One of the coolest things about college basketball is when a relatively unheralded recruit develops into one of the country’s most accomplished players – and Mason certainly personified that in his senior season. Kansas fields a great team every year, but it is certain the Jayhawks will miss Mason’s services when they hit the hardwood again next fall.
  • Josh Hart, Senior, Villanova (consensus) (18.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 51% FG, 40.4% 3FG). Hart starred on last season’s National Championship team, but he took his game to another level during his senior season. The Big East Player of the Year joined Villanova legend Kerry Kittles as the only players in program history to amass 1,800 points, 700 rebounds, 250 assists, and 150 steals. Villanova’s season ended with a surprising Second Round loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament, but that defeat should not cloud anyone’s perception of Hart’s season, as he was phenomenal from the opening tip of the first game to the final buzzer of the last one.
  • Lonzo Ball, Freshman, UCLA (consensus) (14.6 PPG, 7.6 APG, 6.0 RPG, 55.1% FG). Last year at this time, UCLA was coming off a very disappointing 15-17 season that suggested the 2016-17 campaign would be a make-or-break year for Steve Alford in Westwood. Luckily for the Bruins’ head coach, the arrival of Ball as the gem of a star-studded recruiting class aided significantly in morphing UCLA from a losing team to a Sweet Sixteen squad. A dynamic point guard known for his incredible court vision and ability to make his teammates better, Ball also helped had a knack for making key plays in big games – most notably in a December win at Kentucky and in a February home win over Oregon. Unfortunately for Bruins fans, they will not get to experience more of those star performances, as Ball quickly made his intention to enter the NBA Draft known following UCLA’s Sweet Sixteen loss to Kentucky.
  • Justin Jackson, Junior, North Carolina (18.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.8 APG). Following North Carolina’s heartbreaking defeat to Villanova in last year’s title game, Jackson chose to test the NBA Draft waters before ultimately returning to Chapel Hill for his junior season. At the time, Jackson stated, “The best choice for my basketball future is to return to school and play for the Tar Heels next season.” His statement turned out to be prophetic, as he became North Carolina’s go-to guy on his way to leading the team in scoring and earning the ACC Player of the Year award. The Tar Heels are a balanced unit with talent littering the roster, but Jackson’s emergence to stardom is the most important reason why Roy Williams’ team has another chance to play for the title this weekend in Phoenix.
  • Caleb Swanigan, Sophomore, Purdue (18.5 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 52.7% FG, 44.7% 3FG). The sophomore big man was a double-double machine for the regular season Big Ten champion — finishing a stellar year with 28 double-doubles and having four games where he grabbed 20 or more rebounds. A big reason for Swanigan’s increased productivity in his sophomore campaign was improved conditioning, as his minutes per game rose from 25.7 to 32.5. He also added a reliable three-point shot to his arsenal, improving his percentage in that are of the game to a robust 44.7 percent. As a result, the Boilermakers advanced to their first Sweet Sixteen since 2010, and that charge was led by a monster season from the All-American.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Gonzaga Bulldogs

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 30th, 2017

Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: Gonzaga.

How Gonzaga Got Here

Gonzaga’s maiden voyage to the Final Four was worth the wait (Photo: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

West Region Champions. Gonzaga’s road to the program’s first ever Final Four wasn’t especially treacherous, at least as Final Four roads tend to go. Both South Dakota State and Northwestern competed with the Zags for a half, but neither team was built for sustained postseason success. Gonzaga’s most impressive win was surely its Sweet Sixteen triumph over a fourth-seeded West Virginia team good enough to be a #2 seed, as the Bulldogs monopolized key plays down the stretch to escape the Mountaineers. Finally — and with no disrespect to Xavier’s inspired run to the Elite Eight — Gonzaga was handed as easy a regional final match-up as possible, taking care of the 11th-seeded Musketeers in short order. All this isn’t to say Gonzaga’s Final Four appearance is undeserved or not historic – when the best team in the country earns the program’s first appearance in the National Semifinals, it is surely both – but it is also worth noting the relative ease of the Zags’ arrival.

The Coach

Mark Few. Monkey. Off. The. Back. Few can deny the importance of this Final Four appearance all he wants, but if nothing else, he will value it for its ability to remove Final Four drought-related questions from the media’s playbook. If Xavier had beaten the Bulldogs on Saturday, Gonzaga would still be one of the premier programs in America, and Few one of the sport’s greatest coaches. However, a dose of validation is good for anyone every once in a while, and Few now has an amazing opportunity to join an even more exclusive coaching fraternity: National Champions.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: North Carolina Tar Heels

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 29th, 2017

Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: North Carolina.

How North Carolina Got Here

North Carolina is back in the Final Four (Photo: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports)

South Region Champions. This North Carolina run to the Final Four was equal parts exceedingly easy and excruciatingly difficult. The Tar Heels posted the largest margin of victory in the opening round against Texas Southern, but needed to overcome a five-point deficit in the final three minutes to escape Arkansas just two days later. The Sweet 16 brought a return to relaxation for Heels fans, as UNC exploded out of the gate en route to an “it-wasn’t-even-that-close” 12-point win over Butler. The final step was the hardest, however, as familiar Elite Eight foe Kentucky played the Heels even for 39 minutes and 59.7 seconds. Those finals tenths of a second are now history, of course, as Luke Maye propelled Carolina to another Final Four with his dramatic game-winner.

The Coach

Roy Williams. The UNC head man owns all eight of the career Final Four appearances (prior to this one) among the quartet of coaches still alive. He also earned a rare bit of praise for his timeout-avoidant tendencies last weekend, as it was Roy’s reticence to stop his offense that allowed Carolina to race down the court and beat an unsettled Kentucky defense for Maye’s game-winner. Few, Altman, and Martin have all been around and are respected coaches, but Williams’ experience sets him apart from his peers on the opposing sidelines in this Final Four. Whether or not it proves decisive is anyone’s guess, but Carolina fans should feel comfortable in the knowledge that Williams knows both his team and this stage better than anyone.

Style

The speed and efficiency of Carolina’s offense is well known as a Tar Heel strength, and deservedly so. UNC ranks 6th nationally in overall offensive efficiency, leads the country in offensive rebounding percentage, and has no problem playing fast, finishing possessions in an average of 15.4 seconds (22nd quickest in the country). The balanced Tar Heel offense is headlined by AP All-American Justin Jackson (18.2 PPG, UNC-record 99 3PM), but fellow upperclassmen Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks all join Jackson in averaging double-figure points per game. It’s an explosive offense, surely, but UNC’s success has been predicated off work on both ends of the floor. Amazingly, Williams’ bunch has been able to slow opponents down even while playing offense at a breakneck speed: Carolina foes average 17.8 seconds per possession, good for 272nd slowest in the nation. The underrated Tar Heel defense was on display in the South regional final against Kentucky, as Jackson and company harassed Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox into a combined 9-23 shooting from the field. A similar assignment will await in Phoenix, as Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey are likely to draw the bulk of the Carolina defensive attention. On paper, there’s no reason why Carolina, the 17th most efficient defensive team in the nation (one slot above Oregon), won’t be up to the challenge.

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On Improving the NCAA Tourney: Part I

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 28th, 2017

Last June the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) empaneled an ad hoc committee whose stated purpose was to provide the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Selection Committee a perspective from men’s basketball coaches and their teams regarding selection, seeding and bracketing for the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has in recent years become increasingly receptive to considering and making changes, and as this year’s event reaches its climax, we decided to offer some specific recommendations to bolster the best three weeks in sports. Let’s focus today on improvements to the selection and seeding process.

John Calipari is one of the members of the recently created NABC ad hoc committee formed to make recommendations to the NCAA Selection Committee. (Kevin Jairaj / USA TODAY Sports)

John Calipari is one of the members of the recently created NABC ad hoc committee formed to make recommendations to the NCAA Selection Committee. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

Bye Bye, RPI

Whenever the subject arises of improving the primary metric that the Selection Committee uses, there is one recurring response: Either dump the RPI altogether, or dramatically limit its influence. The good news is that we may finally be headed in that direction. A month after the NABC formed its committee and began communicating with the NCAA, the following statement was made as part of an update on the current NCAA Selection Committee:

The basketball committee supported in concept revising the current ranking system utilized in the selection and seeding process, and will work collaboratively with select members of the NABC ad hoc group to study a potentially more effective composite ranking system for possible implementation no earlier than the 2017-18 season.

Moving away from the RPI as the primary method for sorting teams into composite tiers would be a huge step toward improving the balance of the field. We have heard committee members for years make the point that a school’s RPI ranking is just one factor of many on its resume. But then the same committee members turn right around and cite that team’s record against the top-50 or top-100 — or its strength of schedule rating — all of which, of course, are derivative of the RPI. That means that the outdated metric is still, even now in an environment of Big Data, a highly significant influence on how teams are judged. The real harm occurs when the RPI results in entire conferences being overrated, which leads to those member institutions likewise being over-seeded. Placing five to seven teams well above their proper seed lines can have a substantial negative impact on the overall balance and corresponding fairness of the entire NCAA Tournament. Here are three recent examples.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: South Carolina Gamecocks

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 28th, 2017

Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: South Carolina.

How South Carolina Got Here

South Carolina is headed to its first Final Four ever. (Photo Credit: Elsa/Getty Images)

East Region Champions. Despite entering Selection Sunday having lost six of its previous 10 games, South Carolina was given a surprisingly-high seed (#7) in a surprisingly-favorable location: Greenville, South Carolina. The Gamecocks took full advantage, crushing #10 seed Marquette before pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the NCAA Tournament against #2 Duke, scoring 65 points in the second half en route to an 88-81 runaway victory against the National Championship favorite. In its first Sweet Sixteen since appearance since 1973, South Carolina then held #3 Baylor to a season-low 0.76 points per possession; two days later, the Gamecocks put the finishing touches on their Cinderella run by upending SEC rival #4 Florida, limiting the Gators to 0-of-14 three-pointers in the second half on their way to a seven-point triumph.

The Coach

Frank Martin. In just five short years, Martin — a former nightclub bouncer and perhaps the scariest man in college basketball — has lifted a program from the depths of irrelevance to its first Final Four in school history. And he’s done it with the same hard-nosed, defensive-minded coaching style that made him successful in his first Division I coaching stint at Kansas State (2007-12). The former Bob Huggins assistant has clear stylistic similarities to his mentor, employing an aggressive, relentless brand of basketball intent on wearing down opponents mentally and physically. In eight of his 10 years as a college head coach, Martin’s teams have ranked among the top 40 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Miami native spent 15 years coaching high school basketball in his hometown before joining Northeastern as an assistant in 2000, so his decision to take the South Carolina job in 2012 — a program with only three Sweet Sixteen appearances in its long history — was not overly surprising. Martin knows how to be patient. After missing the NCAA Tournament in his first four seasons, that patience is finally paying off.

Style

For South Carolina, success starts on the defensive end. The Gamecocks rank second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, fourth in defensive turnover rate, 12th in effective field goal percentage defense, and perhaps second to only West Virginia — Huggins’ group — in sheer physicality. Led by a pair of elite defenders in 6’5” Sindarius Thornwell and 6’6” PJ Dozier, South Carolina presses and traps all over the court, making it difficult for opposing ball-handlers to cross the timeline, much less comfortably run offensive sets. In the half-court, the Gamecocks aggressively extend on shooters, preferring to commit fouls over allowing open shots from the perimeter. Their length and knack for swarming to the ball (often employing a half-court trap) makes clean interior looks nearly as difficult, especially with 6’9” Chris Silva — a good per minute shot-blocker — manning the paint. They simply deny everything. Offensively, aggression remains the name of the game: South Carolina scores a whopping 23 percent of its points from the free throw line and another 50 percent from inside the arc, attack the basket at will, often off of turnovers. Having big, physical guard/forwards like Thornwell and Dozier helps.

Strengths

Sindarius Thornwell has been Superman for the Gamecocks this season. (Getty Images)

  • Limiting three-pointers. South Carolina does an exceptional job of taking away perimeter jumpers, allowing opponents to score just 25.6 percent of their points from behind the arc. The Gamecock guards relentlessly press up on shooters, sometimes resulting in fouls, but often resulting in forced jumpers or haphazard drives late in the shot clock. Really, the same reason opponents have such a difficult time shooting three-pointers is the same reason South Carolina forces turnovers at a higher rate than all but three other teams in the country: opposing guards simply can’t breathe once they cross half-court.
  • Attacking the basket. Thornwell is in a class of his own when it comes to attacking the rim. The senior ranks 13th nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, a testament to his bullish aggressiveness in the lane and willingness to push the ball as far and as fast as back-peddling defenders will allow. When South Carolina forces turnovers (which is often) he and his teammates waste no time getting downcourt—the Gamecocks average just 16.6 seconds per offensive possession. They also pound the offensive glass, cleaning up misses at the third-highest rate among SEC teams. Between free throws, offensive rebounds, and plain strong drives to the hoop, South Carolina is able to sustain itself offensively despite its poor shooting numbers.
  • Endurance. According to this account, South Carolina full-court presses during the majority of practices and often plays five-on-seven (advantage to the offense) in order to whip its dogged defense into shape. That grueling work ethic clearly pays off on game day. The Gamecocks are +54 in the second half during the NCAA Tournament, wearing down opposing offenses to such a degree that their offense — which, again, thrives on attacking the rim — can flourish. South Carolina’s second-half blitzes against Duke, Marquette, and Florida are shining examples. Conditioning, both mental and physical, seems to matter.

Weaknesses

  • Shooting. At 47.4 percent eFG, South Carolina ranks 299th nationally in effective field goal percentage. That’s not good. Outside of Thornwell (39.4% 3FG), there really aren’t any serious outside shooting threats on the roster. Guard Duane Notice (10.2 PPG) is capable of getting hot, but he’s also very streaky. Dozier (13.8 PPG) takes a lot of shots, but he’s usually not all that efficient. If Thornwell is off and Silva isn’t going to work inside, the Gamecocks can become very stagnant very fast.
  • Foul trouble. That aggressive defense has one glaring downside: free throws and foul trouble. Not only do South Carolina’s opponents score almost 27 percent of their points from the charity stripe, but several crucial Gamecock players — most notably Silva —are often forced to take a seat early. The 6’9” forward has fouled out 10 times this season, seven of which South Carolina lost. Dozier, another superb defender, also runs into similar trouble from time to time. Against talented offenses like Gonzaga, North Carolina and Oregon, free points and foul trouble could become an issue.
  • One-dimensionality. It may be oversimplifying things to say that South Carolina’s success boils down merely to defense and Sindarius Thornwell, but it’s not that far from the truth. Fact is, the Gamecocks must continue dominating on defense, and the senior sensation must continue to playing at a high-level offensively in order for Martin’s team to have a chance in Phoenix. If one of those two elements slips — say, the defense sputters like it did against Arkansas in Feburary, or Thornwell struggles like he did against Alabama in the SEC Tournament — it’s hard to envision South Carolina recovering.

Go-To Scorer

For South Carolina to succeed in Phoenix, PJ Dozier must keep performing offensively. (fansided.com)

Sindarius Thornwell (21.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.2 SPG). Before Duke’s Round of 32 loss to South Carolina, Mike Krzyzewski called Thornwell “the best, unheralded, great player in the United States.” And even that might be an understatement. The 6’5” in-state product is averaging nearly 26 points per game during NCAA Tournament play, showcasing his relentless aggression (he’s already attempted 39 free throws), shooting ability (42% 3FG over four games), and superb defensive skills. He’s also an outstanding offensive rebounder, once ripping down 10 offensive boards en route to a ridiculous 44-point, 21-rebound stat line against Alabama on February 7. Among players who have attempted 250+ free throws this season, only a handful of players boast a higher free throw percentage than the senior (83% FT). Thornwell also led the SEC in steal percentage during the regular season. There’s a reason he was the coaches’ choice for Conference Player of the Year (not to mention 7th in KenPom National Player of the Year rankings)—Thornwell is great.

X-Factor

PJ Dozier (13.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG). For better or worse, the talented sophomore takes a staggering 31 percent of his team’s shots while on the floor, which is roughly 70 percent of the time. That shot rate is higher than Thornwell’s (28.7%). When he shoots 50 percent or better from the field, South Carolina is 11-0; when he shoots under 40 percent, Martin’s team is 10-6. That seem like “picking and choosing” statistics, but it’s hard to deny that the Gamecocks’ offense is markedly better when Dozier is efficient. Silva, and bench production from players like forward Maik Kotsar (12 points vs. Florida), will also be key.

Outlook

When are we going to learn? South Carolina has entered each of its last three games as the underdog, yet won each contest by an average 11.3 points. It hadn’t scored over 1.1 points per possession since February 15 prior to Selection Sunday; in the four games since, Martin’s group has surpassed that mark three times. Tough, confident, and afraid of nobody, the Gamecocks now face their most difficult opponent yet: a Gonzaga team that boasts the nation’s most efficient defense with nearly an offense to match. Still, count South Carolina out at your own risk.

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Final Four Fact Sheet: Oregon Ducks

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 27th, 2017

Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: Oregon.

How Oregon Got Here

Oregon hopes to continue riding high in Phoenix (Getty Images).

Midwest Region Champions. After receiving a lower-than-expected #3 seed on Selection Sunday, Oregon rolled past #13 Iona 83-67 in its NCAA Tournament opener. Two nights later, it required a pair of clutch Tyler Dorsey three-pointers for the Ducks to survive #11 Rhode Island, which led by as many as 10 points in the second half. Oregon’s late-game execution continued against #7 Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen, where it held the Wolverines scoreless over the game’s final two minutes en route to a 69-68 victory. Finally, despite facing #1 Kansas in Kansas City on Saturday—a road game by almost any standard—the Ducks drilled 11 three-pointers, held the Jayhawks to their worst offensive output of the season (0.94 points per possession), and advanced to their first Final Four since 1939.

The Coach

Dana Altman. The 58-year-old Nebraska native has quietly had one of the most successful careers among active Division I basketball coaches — a career now punctuated by his first Final Four appearance. Altman ranks 10th on the all-time wins list among working head men (597 wins), joining Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Bill Self and Tom Izzo as the only active coaches with 20+ consecutive winning seasons. After spending 16 years at Creighton (and becoming the Bluejays’ all-time winningest coach in the process), Altman has turned an inconsistent Oregon program into a perennial threat to win the Pac-12. Prior to his arrival, the Ducks had reached the Sweet Sixteen three times in program history, and won 30+ games only once; since Altman took the job in 2011, Oregon has doubled that number of Sweet Sixteen appearances and won 30+ games twice. He may well be a future Hall of Famer.

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