By Adam Lindner | Asst. Sports Editor
As we inch toward the last weekend of the college basketball season, we can look back and marvel at what’s been a fabulously intriguing year thus far. While it’s bittersweet that college basketball is soon to be wrapping up once again, the Final Four is what college hoops enthusiasts everywhere have been waiting for since the beginning of the season. With the tournament set to conclude in Phoenix this Monday, definitely try and make an effort to savor this limited amount of college basketball that we have left to enjoy this season.
Throughout the course of the NCAA tournament, we’ve seen some top seeds fall early, some underdogs prevail and some moderately surprising upsets, but for the most part, the chalk reigned supreme this year.
Among the tournament’s few surprises were two-seeds Duke and Louisville both falling remarkably early in the Round of 32, and the 11th-seeded Xavier Musketeers knocking off 3rd-seeded Florida State and title-contender Arizona en route to making an unexpected run to the Elite Eight.
One of the competition’s biggest surprises may not have been an actual upset, but the ACC’s futility and the SEC’s success. The ACC – largely regarded as the most prestigious basketball conference in all of the land – faltered when it mattered the most, with only North Carolina making it past the first weekend. Duke, Louisville, Florida State, Notre Dame and four others all failed to even see the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, the SEC is largely disregarded nationally with the exception of Kentucky, but of the SEC’s five teams that garnered a bid, Florida, South Carolina and Kentucky all reached the Elite Eight.
Though the tourney’s biggest surprise, South Carolina, is far from the conventional idea of a Cinderella team. The No. 7 seeded Gamecocks won the East Regional, defeating the likes of Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida, and will now play Gonzaga on April 1 at 6:09 p.m. in Phoenix for a spot in the National Championship game.
South Carolina hardly fits the mold of the traditional Cinderella team because of their large-conference affiliation, as well as their considerable success throughout the season. Recently, bracket-busters like Butler’s 2010 and 2011 teams, VCU’s 2011 squad and Florida Gulf Coast’s 2013 team all qualified as bona fide Cinderellas, as none of these schools were heralded coming into the tourney nor were they affiliated with a top conference. This year’s Gamecocks squad hardly feel like outcasts.
However, coming into the tournament, South Carolina had lost five of their last seven games, including a first-round exit from the SEC Tournament. Without any momentum heading into their first-round matchup with 10th-seeded Marquette, South Carolina was very much an afterthought.
Nevertheless, Frank Martin’s Gamecocks hit their stride at the exact right time, and are now in the Final Four for the first time in school history with newfound national relevance to boot.
Joining them in the Final Four will be Gonzaga, Oregon and North Carolina. While this field’s teams are certainly creditable, what makes this field so unprecedented is the lack of Final Four experience that these teams have. South Carolina will be making their first appearance, as will Gonzaga. Oregon will be making their second appearance, with their first being in 1939.
UNC, meanwhile, is a clear-cut aberration. The Tar Heels will be making their 20th appearance, with their most recent appearance being last year. North Carolina will be looking to avenge last year’s heartbreak, as they fell to Villanova in a wild National title game.
“There’s an advantage (for North Carolina) with the whole process,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Monday per release. “The general distraction meter is going to go out the roof. Obviously, the Carolina kids have dealt with that and managed it great.”
While Carolina will be looking to right last season’s wrongs with a title, besting semifinal opponent Oregon first stands as a tall order.
Ducks guard Tyler Dorsey, averaging 24.5 points per game during the NCAA tournament, is shooting an asinine 65 percent from three-point range over the past four games. Accompanied by dominant forwards Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell, Dorsey’s Oregon squad couldn’t have caught fire at a better time.
Both semifinal matchups are intriguing, and the championship on Monday, April 3 figures to be all the more riveting.
Will perennially-doubted Gonzaga be able to quiet the pessimists? Can Tyler Dorsey continue to dominate? Will the championship be a west-coast matchup, or instead a battle of the Carolinas? This all remains to be seen.
Surely, however, prophesying what may happen next is simply arbitrary. Purely take advantage of this opportunity to witness college basketball on its grandest stage.