B/R Expert NCAA Bracket Picks 2017: Final Four Predictions
Gonzaga, South Carolina, North Carolina and Oregon are all in Phoenix, waiting for the opportunity to play their way into the 2017 NCAA men's national championship final.
Will it be Gonzaga vs. Oregon in a Pacific Northwest showdown, or is a war between the Carolinas more likely?
B/R's college basketball experts gazed into their collective crystal ball to let you know what to expect from Saturday's games.
For the first four rounds of the tournament, our predictions weren't detailed. There was plenty of compelling data in the game previews, noting what could go right or wrong for each team. But now that we're into the final weekend of the Big Dance, we've expanded our panel to five experts—David Gardner, Jason King, Kerry Miller, C.J. Moore and Brian Pedersen—and asked each of them 10 questions about the Final Four.
Questions range from forecasting how the winning teams get the job done to thoughts on X-factors, raucous fanbases and NBA draft stocks.
No stone was left unturned, and not a single response was unanimous.
Who Wins: Oregon or UNC? And How Does It Happen?
David Gardner: North Carolina. Don’t be fooled by the close games against Arkansas and Kentucky. As head coach Roy Williams might say, close is only for daggum horseshoes and dadbern hand grenades. In this calendar year, the Tar Heels have only lost four times, and three of those were true road games.
Oregon is a balanced team that has gained confidence with each win it has earned after losing forward Chris Boucher to injury. Ultimately, though, North Carolina has too many offensive weapons and will outscore Oregon to get back to the national championship game.*
*My original title game pick was Villanova over Kansas. These predictions are guaranteed, though, or your money back.
Jason King: It's a shame these schools can’t meet in the title game because they're the best two teams in Phoenix. I'm giving North Carolina the edge, mainly because of postseason experience.
Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson have spent the past year stewing over their last-second loss to Villanova in the 2016 NCAA title game. They're going to be tough to contain from the moment they step on to the court. I may have picked Oregon if Boucher were healthy, but I’ll go with the Tar Heels, 78-73.
Kerry Miller: The Tar Heels hold serve, and they do so with the same frontcourt dominance that has propelled them to two consecutive Final Fours.
Oregon's Jordan Bell put on a show in the Elite Eight, but he did it against a Kansas team that struggled with dominant big men all season. Until now, Oregon has been fortunate to not run into an opponent equipped to exploit Boucher's absence. But North Carolina ends that string of good luck for the Ducks.
C.J. Moore: Berry's ankles are a real concern, and North Carolina is not the same team without him. The Tar Heels have also struggled this year with small-ball 4s, and Dillon Brooks is the best scoring small-ball 4 in the country.
Look for a heavy dose of Tyler Dorsey-Brooks pick-and-pops. Dorsey is key because he's made Oregon's spread offense almost unguardable. If he keeps shooting like he has been, the Ducks win.
Brian Pedersen: North Carolina gets back to the title game by maximizing its interior size and more efficient shooting. The Tar Heels are the best rebounding team in the country and have the best group of big men in the remaining field. That will turn the game into more of a shooting match, which favors the Tar Heels because they're much more consistent.
Oregon shoots 38.3 percent from outside, but the Ducks sometimes get obsessed with the perimeter shot and can go cold. UNC spreads its shooting around better and can thus withstand going cold from outside much more easily.
Who Will Be the Best Player on the Court in Oregon vs. UNC?
Gardner: Justin Jackson is not only the best player in this game, but he's also the best remaining player in the NCAA tournament. In its latest mock, DraftExpress predicts Jackson will be the first collegiate non-freshman selected in June. Although there's a case to be made for Mr. March, Tyler Dorsey, Jackson is the most consistently dangerous player still dancing.
King: North Carolina's Justin Jackson has had one of the best seasons of any player in college basketball, and he was rewarded for it by being named a consensus first-team All-American. He's also projected as a lottery pick in this summer's NBA draft, which is something no other player in the field can say. The 6'8" small forward is a matchup problem for any opponent.
Miller: For Oregon to keep this within a single-digit margin, Dorsey needs to be the star. Mr. March is shooting 68 percent from three-point range in the tournament and has scored at least 20 points in seven straight games. If he doesn't stretch that streak to eight, this might be over by halftime.
Moore: Dillon Brooks. Oregon has lost only three games all season with a healthy Brooks. He's a mismatch in just about every game the Ducks play, and that'll be the case against UNC's big front line. Isaiah Hicks has the best shot to stay with him, and he'll need to stay out of foul trouble.
Pedersen: Justin Jackson. The junior has finally put it all together this season after a pair of inconsistent years, discovering a perimeter shot to go with his mid-range game and driving ability. He's averaging 19.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in the NCAA tourney and has become much more aggressive with the ball.
The X-Factor in Oregon-UNC Will Be…
Gardner: Joel Berry II. Although Jackson is North Carolina's best player, Berry is its most important. We'll know more soon about Berry's ankles, but if he's healthy, North Carolina is the national title favorite. If he's not, the Tar Heels are vulnerable.
King: No player in the NCAA tournament has been as hot from long range as Tyler Dorsey, who, in four games, has connected on 17 of his 26 attempts from beyond the arc while averaging 24.5 points. The basket has looked like a hula hoop to Dorsey the past few weeks. If that continues, North Carolina will be in trouble.
Miller: North Carolina's nation-leading offensive rebounding. Oregon blocks a lot of shots, and North Carolina doesn't shoot particularly well, but neither of those things is an advantage for the Ducks unless they can end possessions with defensive rebounds.
Moore: Jordan Bell. He had eight blocks against Kansas and had the Jayhawks totally spooked. The Heels are a different challenge because they get the ball to the paint through post touches instead of penetration. But Bell has had an Anthony Davis-like impact on the defensive end in this tournament.
Pedersen: Rebounding. The Tar Heels are tops nationally in both overall and offensive rebounding, and Oregon is no slouch, either—not with Bell's ability to chase down offensive boards. The Ducks and Tar Heels' 12 combined losses all came when they lost the rebounding battle.
Who Wins: Gonzaga or South Carolina? And How Does It Happen?
Gardner: Gonzaga. It seems silly to continue betting against South Carolina. After all, the Gamecocks beat a No. 2 seed, a No. 3 seed and a No. 4 seed to get to Phoenix. But the thing about a Cinderella (even a Power Five Cinderella) is that midnight strikes eventually. And midnight for these Gamecocks is around 8:45 p.m. ET on Saturday.
With all due respect to South Carolina's defensive achievements during the Big Dance, Gonzaga has the best defense in the country. The Bulldogs also have an unrivaled post-up offense among Final Four teams and enough outside shooters to put this one away by the middle of the second half.
King: Both teams are in the Final Four for the first time, so nerves could be a factor on the offensive end. Defense, though, travels well, and South Carolina has played it as well as any team in the tournament thus far. Simply getting off a quality shot has been difficult for opponents—and it will be difficult for Gonzaga too. Look for Frank Martin's squad to muck it up and win in a mild upset.
Miller: Do you remember in Cinderella when the clock strikes midnight and the beautiful carriage abruptly turns back into a pumpkin? That's what happens to South Carolina against Gonzaga.
Facing the nation's most efficient defense, we'll be suddenly and vividly reminded that South Carolina entered the tournament as the worst shooting team in the field. It might not be a 30-point blowout but only because both teams dig in on defense and keep the overall scoring to a minimum.
Moore: The Gamecocks have scored 1.17 points per possession in the tournament and scored just 1.02 coming in. At some point, you would think they'll regress toward the mean. And if there's a defense to slow them, it's Gonzaga. The Zags rank first in adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, per KenPom.com.
Gonzaga has also already knocked off a similar team during this tourney run in West Virginia. South Carolina's pressure is different, but West Virginia served as good prep. The Zags find a way to get the ball inside to their bigs and win.
Pedersen: South Carolina is the closest thing we have to a Cinderella story, but Gonzaga's journey to its first Final Four is just as compelling. Each team has leaned on its defense to get this far, so with both capable of winning an ugly, low-scoring game, it should come down to who can make more shots.
That's where Gonzaga has the advantage. The Bulldogs shoot 50.9 percent, second-best in the country, and their reserves are just as capable of scoring as the starters.
Who Will Be the Best Player on the Court in Gonzaga vs. South Carolina?
Gardner: Nigel Williams-Goss. It seems hard to describe a second-team All-American guard as underrated, but Williams-Goss is certainly underappreciated. He transferred from Washington because he was sick of losing. At Gonzaga, he's gotten a taste for winning and will continue to shine for at least one more game.
King: Gonzaga point guard Williams-Goss has done what Kevin Pangos, Adam Morrison and so many other standout Bulldogs couldn’t do, which is lead his squad to the Final Four. That alone will cause him to be remembered as one of the best players in school history. Williams-Goss will face a stiff challenge penetrating South Carolina's stout perimeter defense and creating scoring opportunities for his teammates. His performance will be key.
Miller: Sindarius Thornwell is the obvious choice, but I'm going with Gonzaga's Zach Collins. Assertive big men who are willing and able to get to the free-throw line have been a major problem for the Gamecocks all season, and Collins fits that description.
Moore: Thornwell. The South Carolina senior has averaged 25.8 points per game during the tournament. The Gamecocks do a great job of getting him the ball in different spots on the floor. He's also a weapon on the defensive end because of his versatility and ability to guard multiple positions.
Pedersen: South Carolina's Thornwell. He's almost single-handedly gotten the Gamecocks to their first Final Four while shooting at a 50 percent clip. Sometimes the best player isn't on the winning team.
The X-Factor in Gonzaga-South Carolina Will Be…
Gardner: Sindarius Thornwell. If the Gamecocks do end up keeping their streak alive, it will be because Thornwell willed his team to advance. There hasn't been a more impressive player in this NCAA tournament, and he's the guy any opposing coach in this Final Four would hate to see with the ball in his hands at the end of a close game.
King: Thornwell has been the darling of the postseason thus far. Along with being a lockdown defender on the perimeter, Thornwell, a senior, is a high-level scorer who has averaged 25.8 points in his first four tournament games. The SEC Player of the Year will have to continue his hot streak for the Gamecocks to have a chance.
Miller: Whistles. During the regular season, the Gamecocks put opponents on the free-throw line like it was their job, but the refs let them get away with a lot of physical play in the past two rounds. If South Carolina continues to draw fouls without committing too many of its own, things could get interesting.
Moore: Przemek Karnowski. You can pressure all you want, but if the Zags get the ball to the big fella close to the bucket, good things are going to happen. Not only is he a strong finisher, but he's also the best passing big man in the country.
Pedersen: Turnovers. Gonzaga ranks in the top 40 nationally in turnover percentage, giving it away just 11.4 times per game overall and 12.0 times per game in the NCAA tourney. South Carolina has committed only 42 turnovers in the tournament while forcing 65. Whoever takes better care of the ball should come out on top.
Which Team Will Have the Most Raucous Fanbase at the Final Four?
Gardner: South Carolina. Maybe you chalked up the rowdy crowd in Greenville, South Carolina, to something akin to home-court advantage in the earlier rounds, but that doesn't explain how South Carolina fans turned Madison Square Garden into a Gamecocks arena. This team is 13th in the country in attendance, and its fans have shown so far that they travel—and that they travel loudly.
King: Oregon and Gonzaga are the closest schools to Phoenix, and North Carolina brings the most tradition. But I expect South Carolina and its blue-collar band of rowdies to take Phoenix by storm. Even when you don't see them, you'll be able to hear them.
Miller: I can't imagine many South Carolina fans were planning on making this trip two weeks ago, but enough of them will show up and enough people will be pulling for the underdog that the Gamecocks get the loudest ovation.
Moore: North Carolina will likely have the biggest following, but I'm going to bet the rowdiest bunch is from South Carolina. Any fanbase getting to experience the Final Four for the first time is pumped to be there, and the fans will often mirror their coach. In the case of Frank Martin, that means loud noises.
Pedersen: Gonzaga. Among the many ways the Zags aren't like other mid-major teams is how well their fans travel, which was seen in Salt Lake City and San Jose, California. The entire city of Spokane, Washington, may end up either being at the game or in nearby bars watching the Bulldogs, and they'll make their presence known.
What Will Be the Most Memorable Moment in Phoenix?
Gardner: If North Carolina loses, the most memorable moment of this Final Four will be Crying Jordan 2.0. Someone will put a Crying Jordan face on actual Michael Jordan, and Twitter will collapse in on itself.
King: Seeing North Carolina coach Roy Williams cut down the nets after winning his third NCAA title. Williams has been as good as any coach in college basketball over the past 25 years, but there are those who still consider him to be a notch below Mike Krzyzewski and a handful of others. Another NCAA title will change that. Or at least it should.
Miller: In the Oregon-North Carolina game, there will be an Oregon possession in the final minute of the first half—preferably in the final 10 seconds—when Tyler Dorsey tells everyone to back off, leaving him against Joel Berry II for a three-point attempt. If it goes in, buckle up for a fun second half.
Moore: Oregon. I'm betting on Dorsey staying hot, and he's made some memorable shots in this tournament. He's the top candidate to hit a game-winner.
Pedersen: Frank Martin's wardrobe choice. The colorful South Carolina coach has made some bold fashion statements with his garnet blazers and pants, and we can only hope he kicks things up a notch on such a big stage. How much longer until he has his own signature clothing line?
Which NBA Prospect Will Help Himself the Most in the Final Four?
Gardner: Justin Jackson. As previously mentioned, he is on the verge of becoming a lottery pick in June's draft. That big leap has happened over the course of a season—remember, he attended the NBA Draft Combine last year but decided to return to school—and every game is a fresh opportunity to impress scouts.
King: The initial lean is with Jackson, but he's already enhanced his draft stock so much during the regular season that I'm not sure it can go much higher. That's why I'm picking Sindarius Thornwell, who, in four years, has gone from a mid-tier recruit signed by a long-struggling program to one of the most recognizable names in college basketball. Scouts love seeing players perform on a big stage, and at the college level, there is none bigger than this. Win or lose, Thornwell will ball out.
Miller: If I'm right about my Gonzaga-South Carolina best player, that would be Zach Collins. Everyone says he's the best NBA prospect on the Bulldogs' roster, but he hasn't shown much of anything against their toughest opponents. This is a huge chance to change that.
Moore: Dillon Brooks. NBA folks will question his quickness, but he is so strong and such a shot-maker that he finds a way to carve out a role for himself in the league. The ability to show that on as big a stage as the Final Four will benefit him.
Pedersen: Thornwell. South Carolina's senior was far from the draft radar when the season began, but his dominance in the SEC and continued strong play in the postseason has turned heads. Another big performance will only further his rise up big boards.
Will Any of This Year's Semifinalists Be Back in the Final Four in 2018?
Gardner: My ability to pick Final Four teams in the year of the tournament is questionable, but for the sake of argument, I'll say that Gonzaga has the best shot at making it back. There's a good chance the Bulldogs return three starters and Zach Collins.
King: I simply don't see it. Gonzaga would have the best chance, especially if 7-foot freshman Collins bypasses the draft and opts to return along with Nigel Williams-Goss. Oregon graduates seniors Chris Boucher and Dylan Ennis and could lose underclassmen Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey. Justin Jackson is almost certainly gone from North Carolina along with seniors Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt and Kennedy Meeks. Thornwell will be the only significant departure from South Carolina, but he's a big one.
Miller: Both Carolina schools are losing too many important pieces, but Gonzaga and Oregon could repeat—provided they don't have too many guys leave for the NBA draft. If Dorsey, Bell and Brooks all jump to the pros, the Ducks might not even make the 2018 NCAA tournament.
Moore: Yes. If Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson and Tony Bradley come back to school, the Tar Heels will be one of the best teams in the country. And they'll have a senior point guard running the show who has already been to two Final Fours. Gonzaga should also return a talented roster. It's tough to get back, but those two teams will have a shot.
Pedersen: Gonzaga has the best chance of returning to the Final Four a year from now if the bulk of its roster remains intact. If Collins or Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams decide to turn pro, though, it's likely we'll get a completely new quartet in 2018.