Final Four Tale: 1 Gonzaga Vs. 7 South Carolina
- OffenseThe Bulldogs have the No. 14-ranked offense in the nation, according to kenpom.com, and that’s just one reason why Gonzaga is 36-1 overall this season. This is a mature roster that is patient and wise when it comes to shot selection, as evidenced by a 50.9-percent shooting rate this season (second-best mark in the nation). The Bulldogs do it the old-fashioned way, too, shooting 57.3 percent from two-point range. Five players on the team average at least 9.9 points per game, including scoring leader Nigel Williams-Goss and his 16.7 ppg. The junior guard also leads the team in assists (4.6 per contest).With a pedestrian offense, the Gamecocks rely on defense and offensive rebounding to set up their scoring opportunities. Putting up just 73.2 points per game, which ranks 178th in the nation out of 351 teams, South Carolina doesn’t scare opposing defenses. However, underestimating this team is what doomed Duke, Baylor and Florida in prior rounds of March Madness. The Gamecocks have four players that score in double digits, including the amazing Sindarius Thornwell, who is putting up 21.6 ppg this season — that includes 25.8 ppg in the NCAA Tournament. The senior guard gets his points win or lose, so the key is to silence the rest of the Gamecocks, really, while keeping them off the offensive glass: South Carolina ranked 16th nationally for offensive rebounding.
- DefenseBoasting the best defense in the nation this year in terms of efficiency, the Bulldogs hold opponents to just 60.9 ppg, the fourth-best mark in the country. Look at what Gonzaga did to West Virginia in the Sweet 16: The Mountaineers scored just 58 points, after averaging 81.5 points per contest all year. That’s defense, and with the Gamecocks already a mediocre scoring team, the Bulldogs defense will be ready to choke the life out of South Carolina on Saturday. Overall, Gonzaga’s opponents shot just 36.4 percent this year from the floor (second-best mark in the nation), and the Bulldogs led the nation in defensive rebounding, meaning there are very few second chances to be had against them.The Gamecocks are No. 2 in the country in defensive efficiency, right behind the Bulldogs. They just face a tougher challenge in this game, because Gonzaga’s offense is so good. South Carolina opponents have shot 39.8 percent from the floor this season, and the Gamecocks have made almost eight steals per game this year (12th-best in the nation). That’s a lot of lost possessions for the other team. South Carolina forced 620 turnovers this season, which was second in the country. If you don’t take care of the ball against the Gamecocks, it’s going to be a long 40 minutes on the court.
- BenchWith a primary rotation of six players, the Bulldogs go eight deep in reality. After that, there is a huge decline in production for the rest of the bench. All eight players are active rebounders, keeping the team’s strengths at the forefront of the in-game substitution plan. The top seven players score actively, while eighth-man Killian Tillie still shoots 52.9 percent from the floor. The Gonzaga roster is finely tuned with its bench relief this season, and it has paid off with this Final Four run.The Gamecocks have eight players averaging at least 14.8 minutes per game, which is quite significant for a team that plays their level of defense. What this ensures is a consistent level of play without a lot of drop off, if any, on the defensive side. On the offensive side, it doesn’t matter as much to South Carolina as evidenced above. The team’s game relies on defensive prowess, so being able to move eight players in and out of this scheme is very significant for the Gamecocks.
- CoachingIn his 18th season in Spokane, Mark Few finally took the Bulldogs to the Final Four. Six times before this year, Few took Gonzaga to the Sweet 16. His overall record (502-112, 81.8 winning percentage) is impressive, even playing in a mid-major league like the West Coast Conference. Few has won either the WCC regular-season or tournament championship in 17 of his 18 seasons with the Bulldogs. This is the seventh time Gonzaga has finished the regular season in the Associated Press Top 10 and the fourth time in the Top 5. This is a model NCAA basketball program, thanks to Few.How many NCAA basketball fans have heard of Frank Martin before this moment? Not many, although that’s no knock against Martin. But this is the first time he’s taken the Gamecocks to the Big Dance in five years at the helm. Previously, however, he led Kansas State to the NCAA Tournament four times in five seasons, including a trip to the regional finals in 2010. This is his first Final Four, yet he’s clearly a capable coach with a lot of power-conference experience under his belt in 10 years of program leadership. Martin has this South Carolina program on the rise.
There are two different ways to look at this. First, the Bulldogs are the top-rated team in the country, according to various advanced metric measurements (including the newly trendy BPI), and the Gamecocks suffer in comparison, ranked way below that (25th at kenpom.com, 28th in BPI). Second, our analysis here shows enough evenness that this game could be much closer than most expect it to be. The reality probably rests somewhere in between, but in the end, the significant edge on offense for Gonzaga is going to be the big factor in this game. The second key to determining the winner will happen under the South Carolina basket: Who gets the rebounds when the Gamecocks miss the bucket? Look for the Bulldogs to grab more glass and advance to the title game on Monday with a hard-fought 75-67 victory.