It was a struggle, a road that for many years was littered with disappointment and failure. This time, though, the road to the Final Four opened up for Gonzaga and coach Mark Few to finally break through.
This was pretty easy. The Zags basically got a police escort to the NCAA semifinals, passing South Dakota State, Northwestern, West Virginia and Xavier on the way to Glendale, Ariz. Only the Mountaineers, as a No. 4, were seeded better than eighth in the West Region.
Next up is seventh-seeded South Carolina, the surprise winner in the East. The Gamecocks opened the tournament by winning a pick’em game before upsetting No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Baylor and No. 4 Florida. It was a rough road.
But how the teams got here no longer matters. Both teams are legit. The coaches and their defenses are rock solid. What matters is how Gonzaga and South Carolina match up today, and the tale of the tape slightly favors the Zags.
The Gamecocks wear down opponents with relentless defensive pressure on the perimeter. Each pass and 3-point look gets contested. South Carolina is the college version of the San Antonio Spurs, with 6-foot-5 senior guard Sindarius Thornwell playing the role of Kawhi Leonard. Thornwell has averaged 25.8 points in four tournament games, and he’s a lethal weapon on the defensive end, too.
Thornwell missed Thursday’s practice with the flu, but he returned Friday to say he’s good to go. Gonzaga’s defensive plan will zero in on Thornwell, and if he has to do it all, the Gamecocks cannot win. Other scorers — most likely sophomore guard PJ Dozier — will need to emerge, as is often the case in big games such as this.
The Zags’ obvious edge is inside with 7-1 Przemek Karnowski, 7-foot freshman Zach Collins and 6-9 forward Johnathan Williams. Expect the ball to get pounded into the low post to Karnowski, who uses his power to draw fouls and get to the rim. If the defense doubles down, Karnowski is adept at passing out to open shooters. Collins and Williams are more athletic and versatile. South Carolina lacks front line depth, so 6-9 forward Chris Silva must avoid foul trouble, and he’ll need help from his teammates.
The wild card will be Nigel Williams-Goss, an intelligent, veteran point guard who can handle pressure and execute the offense. If Goss plays well, Gonzaga should be in good shape. The Gamecocks took advantage of a Duke team with an inexperienced point guard and a Baylor team with a weakness at point guard and a weak coach.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin has a physical team that mirrors West Virginia in many ways. The Zags were fortunate to get by the Mountaineers 61-58 in the Sweet 16. This matchup shapes up as a similar dogfight.
I bet the Gamecocks last week in both of their wins, and I played them again as 7-point underdogs in this one. The line has dipped to 6½ at most books. Slowing down Thornwell is easier said than done, and Martin is not going down without a fight. I project Gonzaga, because of its strength at the guard positions and size advantage, to win by four points.
My lean is under the total of 137½ or 138, due to the defenses and tricky shooting background in a football stadium. But in a situation like this, the number of free throws that will be attempted late in the game is too random to predict, so I stayed away from the total.
In the nightcap, more sharp bettors preferred Oregon as a 5-point underdog against North Carolina. The line has dropped to 4½.
Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey make the Ducks dangerous, but this is where they will miss injured Chris Boucher on the front line. Jordan Bell will have issues with athletic Tar Heels forwards Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. The mystery is how effective point guard Joel Berry II will be on a pair of sore ankles.
South Point sports book director Chris Andrews took a large moneyline wager Friday on North Carolina — $525,000 to win $250,000. That’s a bold bet. I expect the Tar Heels to advance, but I’m not laying a price or more than a few points with Roy Williams in a coaching matchup with Dana Altman. This will be a live wagering game for me, watching and waiting for a better spot to bet.
The underdogs look live, but South Carolina is my only play today, and a Gonzaga-North Carolina matchup is probably what we will see on Monday night.
Last weekend: 2-1 against the spread
FINAL FOUR PROPOSITIONS
Posted at Westgate sports book
(All sides are minus-110)
Total 3-point field goals made by both teams: 12.5
Largest lead of the game by either team: 15.5
Points by Sindarius Thornwell (SC): 22.5
Points by Nigel Williams-Goss (Gonzaga): 18.5
Total 3-point field goals made by both teams: 15
Largest lead of the game by either team: 14.5
Points by Tyler Dorsey (Oregon): 20.5
Points by Dillon Brooks (Oregon) 18.5
Points by Justin Jackson (NC): 19.5
Points by Joel Berry (NC): 15.5