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#pounditFriday, July 23, 2021

5 biggest storylines entering the Final Four

Sindarius ThornwellCollege basketball has the unique advantage of not just an exciting championship, like the Super Bowl or World Series, but having that level of excitement carry through the semifinals as well.

The Final Four is so gargantuan in importance and pressure. Everything either seems bigger, or is actually bigger, like the giant football stadiums the games are played in.

With nearly a week between the final Elite Eight game and the first tip at the Final Four, the stress and anticipation build. Digging through those emotions reveals the match-ups and scenarios that will land two teams in Monday’s title game.

Here’s a look at the five biggest storylines entering the Final Four.

1.) It’s a year of firsts

It’s impossible to ignore the amount of milestones and firsts happening in Phoenix at the Final Four. North Carolina is participating in the program’s 20th Final Four, seeking redemption after losing last season’s National Championship Game at the buzzer.

The other three teams feature just one Final Four appearance between the three — Oregon’s in 1939. After two decades of mid-major success, Gonzaga seeks to truly prove its staying power. South Carolina has never been known for basketball success, but has a chance to build under Frank Martin. Oregon has always had the potential to be an athletic power, though football had taken the reigns for the last decade.

Any of those three schools could alter the landscape for their program, school, and conference with two wins this weekend.

2.) Sindarius Thornwell continues his run

Looking at South Carolina’s run to this point, the national narrative has been dominated by the Gamecocks’ defense. Without question, South Carolina’s success has been driven by its ability to stifle opponents. Without a scoring punch though, the Gamecocks could never have advanced this far.

Sindarius Thornwell has been the answer on the offensive end for the Gamecocks. The senior is averaging 25.8 points per game in the tournament, an increase from the 21.6 points he averaged in the regular season while earning SEC Player of the Year.

Thornwell essentially missed the entire month of December due to a suspension for violating team rules. Since then, he’s been both reliable and lights out. He’s posted five double-doubles in the calendar year, while driving everything South Carolina wants to do offensively. Meanwhile, he was playing good enough at the other end of the floor to win SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

His performance should remind fans of Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier leading low-seeded UConn teams to championships. Because those guards were taking step back threes and handling the ball constantly, they attracted much more attention. The 6-foot-6 Thornwell loves to post-up, attack the rim, fight for rebounds, and defend the other team’s best player, no matter his size.

3.) Gonzaga’s chance to earn respect

Despite reaching the pinnacle of college basketball, Gonzaga is still hearing whispers about their resume and path to the top. Because Xavier upset Florida State and Arizona — knocking off the two and three seeds in the region — there are some who think Gonzaga’s trip to Phoenix continues the Zags’ history of only beating soft opponents.

The Bulldogs, and their fans, couldn’t be more excited to prove those naysayers wrong.

Gonzaga has been perched atop Ken Pomeroy’s rankings for months, besting the power conference teams even in a metric that accounts for level of competition. The Zags feature a top-five offense and the No. 1-ranked defense in the nation.

Of the four teams remaining, none is better prepared for any style of game than Gonzaga.

South Carolina wants to play slow and ugly; North Carolina wants to speed everyone up; and Oregon doesn’t have the size to bang inside. Gonzaga can win any of those ways, and can exploit any of the other remaining teams’ weaknesses.

4.) Oregon’s trio of stars

The Ducks are playing with a short bench, with only seven players seeing the floor for more than two minutes against Kansas. That kind of shallow bench does not leave a lot of margin for error for Oregon’s top players, who are asked to do more than most starters.

They’ve answered the call, and then some.

Dillon Brooks, named Pac-12 Player of the Year, is scoring 16 points per game in the tournament, while playing up a position as a power forward. He’s creating mismatches on offense and fighting through them on defense.

Jordan Bell has been everything for Oregon inside. His near triple-double (11 points, 13 rebounds, 8 blocks) against Kansas may have been the single best performance by any player in the tournament to date. He was everywhere, bursting with energy and coming up with every loose ball or defensive stop the Ducks needed. For Oregon to top North Carolina, he’ll need to repeat that feat.

Then there’s Tyler Dorsey, now being referred to as “Mr. March.” The sophomore guard has elevated his game to new heights this month. After averaging 14 points per game in the regular season, Dorsey is dropping 25 points per contest in the Big Dance. He’s been the most confident shooter in the tournament, draining 65 percent of his three-point attempts. He’s attracting the kind of attention that allows teammates the freedom to attack intelligently and find the right opportunities to score.

5.) Oregon-North Carolina will be decided by mismatches

Since Chris Boucher tore his ACL, Oregon has been playing a man-down and significantly smaller. The entirety of Dana Altman’s rotation has consisted of two point guards (Payton Pritchard and Casey Benson), two combo guards (Dylan Ennis and Tyler Dorsey), a center in the middle (Jordan Bell), and Dillon Brooks doing everything else. The 6-foot-7 Brooks has played a ton at the power forward slot, a potential problem against the Tar Heels.

Roy Williams loves to play a traditional lineup with two big men in the game. Per the lineup data at KenPom.com, UNC has played zero minutes without two of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Luke Maye, and Tony Bradley on the floor in the Heels’ last five games. Any of those four would cause a match-up problem for Brooks, but none of those four are capable of chasing Brooks around the perimeter on the other end.

The two coaches will be locked in a game of chicken to see who flinches and tries something new first.

Altman could play more minutes with forward Kavell Bigby-Williams, but the freshman averaged less than 10 minutes per game this season. Williams could slide the 6-foot-8 Justin Jackson to the four spot and play smaller with three guards and one true big man.

In the end, the players on the floor will force their coach’s hand. Whichever team handles the size difference best will likely cause the other coach to pull the trigger on a lineup change.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about college basketball and the NBA at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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