When Gonzaga first became part of our basketball vocabulary more than 15 years ago, the Bulldogs were clawing their way to the Sweet 16 as adorable underdogs.
Gonzaga won our hearts for its early round upsets, but the team was always resting comfortably at home by the time the Final Four arrived. All that changed over the weekend when the Zags earned their first Final Four appearance in school history.
They will be joined in Phoenix by a cast of mostly fresh faces.
There’s South Carolina, an afterthought in just about every sport and a No. 7 seed from a conference best known for football.
There’s Oregon, a team nearly everyone treated as a pretender after a major injury to one of its key players on the eve of March Madness. The Ducks are making a return to the Final Four just 78 short years after their last appearance.
Then there’s North Carolina, the thing in this group that doesn’t belong. With new kids on the other three blocks, the Tar Heels are seasoned vets occupying a familiar corner. UNC has made more Final Four appearances, 20, than any other school. Yet it took a former walk-on to hit the winning shot that catapulted North Carolina into the Final Four.
So who will emerge with the national championship Monday night? It all comes down to matchups.
In the first semifinal game, Gonzaga squares off against South Carolina. The Zags (36-1) have compiled perhaps the quietest one-loss season in college basketball history. They will face a Gamecock squad that has unraveled teams with its perimeter defense.
South Carolina has defied the skeptics and won behind defense and the sparkling play of Sindarius Thornwell, who has at least 20 points in all four tournament games.
That being said, I’m going to toss more doubt on the South Carolina fire and say the Gamecocks don’t have enough scoring power to get past a Gonzaga machine that’s well-built from top to bottom.
I expect Oregon to prevail in the second semifinal game, despite UNC’s enormous lineup. The Tar Heels are huge and they can rebound, especially on the offensive end. But sharp-shooters they are not.
Oregon has been the underdog all tournament and the Ducks seem to paddle well in those waters.
“Everybody doubts us, not that it matters,” Oregon’s Dylan Ennis told the New York Times. “I always ask one of our managers, ‘What does Vegas have us at today?’ And it’s always us losing by 10 or by 1. It’s always us losing.”
I say Oregon won’t lose again this year.
It will be the Ducks over Gonzaga for the national title.