Ultimate Guide to the 2017 Final Four
Unless you keep up with the NIT, CBI and CIT, the gap between the Elite Eight and Final Four is by far the longest lull in the action during the college basketball season, leaving quite the void to be filled with off-court storylines.
But it's just too much to keep up with, right? Plus, with incessant news of players transferring, coaches coming and going and high school all-star games, it's tough to even separate the 2016-17 news from everything thereafter.
No need to sweat. We've got you covered.
From Gonzaga finally reaching the Final Four to North Carolina seeking redemption in its 20th trip, this is your one-stop shop for the stories and topics you need to know about before the final weekend of the season commences.
Welcome to the Big Stage
For most coaches, the path to the first Final Four isn't an easy one. Mike Krzyzewski has been to 12 Final Fours, but it wasn't until his 11th season that he made his first trip. And if we exclude the two at Massachusetts and Memphis that were later vacated, John Calipari didn't reach the national semifinals until his 19th season as a college head coach.
And this year, there are three first-time head coaches who waited a long time to get here.
The story of Frank Martin's career has been told so many times by so many outlets over the past two weeks that you probably have it committed to memory. He got his start as a JV head coach because the previous one simply didn't show up one day. Once he got his foot in the door, he just kept winning at every stop in his career. Martin took Kansas State to the Elite Eight a few years ago and now has South Carolina in the Final Four in his 10th year as a D-I head coach.
Gonzaga's Mark Few had a much more linear journey. He became the head coach of the Zags when Dan Monson led them to the 1999 Elite Eight and promptly left to take the job at Minnesota. After 18 years of having people say that he (a) should leave Gonzaga for a better job and (b) will never make a Final Four, Few proved you don't need to leave Spokane to become a contender.
But you have to add together the careers of Martin and Few to match the number of years before Oregon's Dana Altman reached the Final Four. Altman spent one year at Marshall, four years at Kansas State, a lifetime at Creighton and is now in his seventh year at Oregon. All told, it took 28 years and 597 wins for him to get to college basketball's Promised Land.
It's not just the coaches, either. Both Gonzaga and South Carolina are making their first ever appearances in the Final Four, and this is Oregon's first trip since winning the first NCAA tournament in 1939.
And then there's Roy Williams and the Tar Heels.
This is the 20th trip to the Final Four for the program, including five national championships. North Carolina leads the nation in the former category and could move into sole possession of third place in the latter with two more wins in Phoenix.
South Carolina was overjoyed to win its first NCAA tournament game since 1973.
North Carolina has now won 40 tournament games since 2004.
The head coach is no stranger to the thoroughfare, either. This is Williams' fifth trip to the Final Four with the Tar Heels and his ninth overall. Only Mike Krzyzewski (12), John Wooden (12) and Dean Smith (11) have taken a team to the national semifinals more times than Williams has.
If we also consider that Williams is seventh on the all-time wins leaderboard with 814 of them and that he has a career winning percentage of 79.0, one could already make a compelling case that he belongs on the Mount Rushmore of college basketball coaches. He could end that debate once and for all by winning his third national championship on Monday.
Subconsciously, this is why so many people think North Carolina is the overwhelming favorite to win the title. Strip away the history and you'll find that Gonzaga was clearly the best team in the country this year. But because this is Gonzaga's first trip to the Final Four and because Williams and the Tar Heels have been here so often, that experience should give them all the edge they need.
Sindarius the Great
In a world full of one-and-done superstars and incessant transferring, Sindarius Thornwell feels like a player from a bygone era.
The 4-star shooting guard is now in his fourth and final season with the Gamecocks, improving every step of the way. Thornwell played at least 1,000 minutes in each of his seasons, so it's not as if he was a hidden gem that is now finally benefiting from more playing time. Rather, he has simply become a better and more efficient player over the years.
As a freshman, Thornwell's win shares per 40 minutes ratio was 0.089. According to Sports-Reference, among the 495 players who logged at least 1,000 minutes that year, he ranked 448th in win shares. (Oddly enough, Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss is No. 449 on that list.) Thornwell's WS/40 ratio increased slightly to 0.103 and 0.144 over the next two years before exploding to 0.281 as a senior.
But despite being named SEC Player of the Year, it wasn't until this NCAA tournament run that he became a household name. Thornwell has scored at least 24 points in each tournament game, averaging 25.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.0 steals.
It's the defense that sets him apart from the other high scorers in this year's tournament. Thornwell is leading South Carolina's charge on both ends of the floor, as he has been all season long. Rather than running out of gas, though, it seems like he's still gaining steam.
Thornwell wasn't on any draft boards a month ago, but all of a sudden, people are starting to wonder (with good reason) why he isn't yet a projected first-round draft pick. Given the success Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon—a player of similar build and style—has had in his first year at the next level, you'd think teams outside the lottery would be lining up to take a flyer on Thornwell.
Mr. March's Quest to Become Mr. April
Do you remember a couple of years ago when the National Player of the Year race was a tight one between Duke's Jahlil Okafor and Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, and it was ludicrous to suggest that anyone else belonged in the conversation?
Well, that's where we're at with South Carolina's Sindarius Thornwell and Oregon's Tyler Dorsey in the battle for 2017 NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player.
Through the first 67 games of Dorsey's collegiate career, he had scored at least 20 points a respectable 10 times. He was averaging 13.0 points per game and shooting 39.3 percent from three-point range.
Then, he became Mr. March.
Dorsey has scored at least 20 points in seven straight games. In the tournament, he's averaging 24.5 points on just 12.8 field-goal attempts. This young man is so hot right now that he shot 6-of-10 from three-point range in the Elite Eight and lowered his three-point percentage for the tournament to 65.4.
Dillon Brooks was viewed as the star of the Ducks all season long. Prior to tearing his ACL, Chris Boucher was probably the runner-up to Brooks in that category, followed closely by Jordan Bell—who has had a shot-blocking breakout party of his own in the tournament. But Dorsey has asserted himself as the most indispensable weapon for this team.
If he's able to put on two more shows against Joel Berry and Nigel Williams-Goss, it would resonate with the NBA scouts in attendance who don't have much else to watch.
Is There a Scout in the House?
In each of the past six years, the Final Four has been one final chance for NBA scouts to see potential first-round picks in action. In fact, there have been at least three first-round draft picks and at least one lottery pick from Final Four teams every year since 2011. The best of the bunch was in 2015 when seven lottery picks were vying for a title.
This year, though? Not so much.
The folks at DraftExpress.com view Justin Jackson as a possible lottery pick, projecting North Carolina's wing-forward as the No. 12 overall pick. However, they don't see any other first-rounders in this year's Final Four.
Oregon's Jordan Bell and Dillon Brooks are close at No. 37 and No. 38, respectively. And maybe South Carolina's Sindarius Thornwell—currently projected at No. 49—has a shot if he can finish off this Kemba Walker-like run for a championship. But that's the full list of projected picks from the remaining rosters.
Maybe that ends up being a different story if Gonzaga's Zach Collins and Nigel Williams-Goss, Oregon's Tyler Dorsey or North Carolina's Joel Berry and Tony Bradley declare for the draft, but as things currently stand, not one of them is likely to hear his name called in June.
Fortunately, lack of future NBA stars doesn't necessarily equate to a boring conclusion to the college basketball season. Butler's Gordon Hayward was the only top-40 pick from a 2010 Final Four team, and Butler's final two games against Michigan State and Duke were both dramatic nail-biters.
There's an undeniable East Coast bias in college basketball, and it's largely because the West Coast is rarely represented on the game's biggest stage.
Prior to Gonzaga getting there this year, the West Coast Conference had not sent a team to the Final Four since 1957. The Big West hasn't done it since UNLV in 1991, and the Western Athletic hasn't been there since Utah in 1998. The Big West and Mountain West have never gotten there. And the Pac-12 had only sent four teams in the previous 18 years—Arizona in 2001 and UCLA from 2006-08.
Add it all up and the Horizon League (Butler twice) and Colonial Athletic Association (George Mason and VCU) had combined for as many Final Four appearances since 1999 as all of the teams from west of Texas.
But Gonzaga and Oregon are looking to put an end to the monopoly that the Eastern and Central time zones have had on the CBB title, while North Carolina and South Carolina seek to bring yet another title back to either the ACC or SEC.
It's a coastal clash unlike anything we've seen since 1998, when Utah and Stanford went to war with Kentucky and UNC. [The Utes upset the Tar Heels and Stanford took Kentucky to overtime before the Wildcats knocked off both teams from out west.]
Maybe one of the coasts sweeps the other in the Final Four to set up a border war for the title, but there's a good chance we'll get three consecutive games between teams separated by more than 2,500 miles.
Defense Plays for a Championship
If there's one thing we've learned in 15 years' worth of data on KenPom, it's that defense is a prerequisite for winning a national championship.
Dating back to 2002, every national champion has been ranked No. 21 or better in adjusted defensive efficiency (AdjDE) at the end of the NCAA tournament. Fourteen of those 15 teams were ranked in the top 15, 10 ranked in the top 10, and eight ranked in the top seven.
This extends beyond just the national champion, too. Of the previous 60 teams to reach the Final Four, only four (Texas and Marquette in 2003; Butler and VCU in 2011) finished outside the top 40 in AdjDE. Only 13 of the 60 teams (21.7 percent) finished outside the top 20, and 33 of them (55 percent) finished in the top 10.
Teams don't necessarily need to be that elite on defense during the regular season in order to win it all. Two years ago, Duke entered the dance ranked 37th in adjusted defensive efficiency before stifling six straight opponents to jump up to No. 12. But mediocre defense was one of the main reasons a lot of experts shied away from picking Duke or UCLA to win it all this year.
Not surprisingly, all four of this year's Final Four teams are currently ranked in the top 18 in AdjDE, including No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 South Carolina, which will battle for the right to play for the title.
They didn't creep to the top of that list because of their play in the first four rounds, either. The Zags entered the tournament at No. 1, while South Carolina was at No. 3. Even North Carolina (22) and Oregon (24) were already among the better defensive units in the field.
Redemption for the Tar Heels?
Villanova was unable to uphold its end of the bargain to set up a rematch of last year's national championship game, but the only thing that changes for the Tar Heels is that Kris Jenkins will be sitting behind their bench in support of Nate Britt rather than sinking a soul-crushing three-pointer against them.
Everything about the past 11 months and four weeks has been geared toward this moment for North Carolina. Joel Berry and Justin Jackson probably could have gone to the NBA after last season, but they came back to settle some unfinished business.
Andrew Carter of the News & Observer wrote earlier this month that the team's group text has been titled "Redemption" since the summer.
"For Jackson the word has come to mean 'getting a national championship back, where we almost were,'" wrote Carter.
Now that they're here, can they seal the deal?
According to FiveThirtyEight.com, Gonzaga is the overwhelming favorite to win the title. The Zags' chances are listed at 42 percent, as opposed to just 24 percent for North Carolina—largely because the Tar Heels have the tougher opponent Saturday night.
If those teams do meet for the national championship, though, here's hoping it's a more aesthetically pleasing game than the last time a team made it to a second straight title game. One year after Gordon Hayward's half-court heave left Butler two points shy of the 2010 national championship, the Bulldogs faced Connecticut in the hideous 53-41 title game in 2011.
And before you write off that possibility completely, keep in mind that North Carolina lost 53-43 to Virginia just a few weeks ago.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.