Next Monday, one school will be playing for its first-ever national championship in men’s basketball as both South Carolina and Gonzaga have reached the first Final Four in school history and face off Saturday in the desert. The Zags were expected to reach the national semifinals as a No. 1 seed, but the seventh-seeded Gamecocks are a huge surprise. Sports Interaction NCAA oddsmakers believe USC’s Cinderella run will end.
NCAA Final Four Odds: South Carolina Gamecocks vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Spread: Gonzaga -6 Total: 138.5 Date: Saturday, April 1, 6:10 p.m. ET Location: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
South Carolina Gamecocks
If you had South Carolina reaching the Final Four in your NCAA Tournament bracket, you are lying, an alum of the school or related to someone on the team. This school hadn’t even been to an NCAA Tournament since 2004 or won a game in it since 1973. In all seriousness, kudos to you if you did as few saw this run coming. South Carolina, picked to finish eighth in the SEC this year, was just 3-6 in its final nine games of the regular season after losing its SEC Tournament opener to Alabama.
However, the East Region champion ‘Cocks deserve to be here and are the 13th team seeded seventh or lower to make a Final Four — and the eighth in the last seven tournaments. They caught a break in getting slotted in Greenville, S.C., for the first two games of this Big Dance, ousting No. 10 Marquette 93-73 and then shocking No. 2 Duke 88-81. USC scored 65 second-half points against the Blue Devils in rallying from a 10-point deficit, the most ever given up in a half by a Mike Krzyzewski-coached Duke team. South Carolina isn’t considered a very good offensive team, either. Strong on defense, yes.
In the Sweet 16, Coach Frank Martin’s squad upset No. 3 Baylor 70-50 and then knocked off No. 4 Florida 77-70 in the Elite Eight. The Gators led that one by seven at halftime but were 0-for-14 from 3-point range in the second half. That same Florida team had easily handled South Carolina 81-66 in Gainesville on Feb. 21. The Gamecocks became the fourth team to overcome three halftime deficits in the tournament en route to the Final Four.
South Carolina (26-10) has one excellent player in senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year and East Regional Most Outstanding Player. He’s averaging 21.6 points on the season and hasn’t been held under 24 in the four NCAA Tournament games. As noted above, though, this club is built on defense. USC ranks No. 2 nationally in defensive efficiency. I would argue this is the most unlikely Final Four team since No. 11 George Mason in 2006.
Gonzaga (36-1) has been the most successful “mid-major” program for the past two decades but was never able to get over the hump and into the Final Four until now. Coach Mark Few’s club was the best team in the country in the regular season with just one loss – at home to BYU on Feb. 25 – and leading the nation in defensive efficiency while in the Top 15 on the offensive side. Gonzaga’s plus 22.3-point differential on the season is the second largest entering the Final Four in the last 20 seasons, behind only Duke in 1998-99 (+25.9).
Many were skeptical of the Zags because of their weak level of competition in the West Coast Conference, but they also beat the likes of Iowa State and Arizona out of conference. The Zags did not play particularly well the first three games of this tournament and were the beneficiaries of a terrible non-goaltending call in the Round of 32 against Northwestern. The Wildcats had staged a big rally and might have pulled upset if not for that missed call. Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 game vs. West Virginia came right down to the wire, with WVU missing a couple of potential tying 3-pointers at the end.
Gonzaga was then more dominant in the Elite Eight than any school with an 83-59 victory over No. 11 Xavier. The Bulldogs made 12 of 24 shots from 3-point range after struggling in the first three games from long range (29 percent). That terrific defense held the Musketeers to 35.5 percent shooting.
One big reason, both literally and figuratively, that Gonzaga is in this position is 7-foot-1, 300-pound Polish center Przemek Karnowski. That guy has been in college for about 10 years, it seems, and he is the winningest player in the history of Division I basketball. Karnowski was limited to five games last season and had back surgery. The NCAA allowed him a rare sixth year of eligibility on a medical hardship. Otherwise, Karnowski was headed back to Europe to play professionally. Karnowski (12.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg) isn’t the team’s best player as that is Washington transfer guard Nigel Williams-Goss (16.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 4.6 apg), but Karnowski is the heart and soul.
The Bulldogs do have one Canadian on the roster in junior guard Dustin Triano (Vancouver), but he rarely plays. They also have players from Denmark, Japan and France. Gonzaga has for years landed good international talent.
South Carolina vs. Gonzaga Predictions
That total is really low, which indicates how good these two are defensively. This likely isn’t going to be a pretty game stylistically. It’s the first meeting between Gonzaga and South Carolina. The Zags did beat SEC teams Florida and Tennessee at neutral site holiday tournaments in the regular season.
Gonzaga has been one of the best against the spread teams in the country this year at 23-9-2. USC is 15-17-1 ATS. That’s enough for me. Give the points and go under the total.