And then there were four. The 68-team field that started the NCAA Tournament has been pared down to just four, and by Monday the nets will have been cut down and only one team will be undefeated. The remaining teams range from the unsurprising (top seeds Gonzaga and North Carolina), to the somewhat surprising but not shocking (Oregon) to the just plain bizarre (that would be you, South Carolina). Those last two squads have wreaked havoc on most brackets, so it only makes sense to get a fresh start for the last weekend of games. Here, then, are my Final Four bracket picks ( odds to win the tournament are from BetOnline ):
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Gonzaga (+175) vs. South Carolina (+700): The first thing I would be willing to bet on is that this game is going to be a disaster from a ratings perspective. Gonzaga vs. Xavier's ratings were a 20-year low, and South Carolina doesn't have a lot of broad appeal - very few people had them surviving the first weekend. This is the early game, and I strongly suspect that a lot of viewers will wait until the later game to tune in.
While I'll be watching from tipoff, I don't really blame those who don't - I don't expect this one to be particularly close. The long break before this game has a way of bringing teams that are floating high back to earth. South Carolina has been great the last two weeks, but there is no question they are playing over their heads. They limped into the tournament, and now they have a whole week to let the magnitude of where they are at sink in. There are many head coaches who weren't alive yet the last time the Gamecocks won a tournament game, so this is new ground for them. Gonzaga is in their first Final Four as well, but they are eternally in the tournament and the public eye.
On paper Gonzaga is the better team by a pretty wide margin, and now they have a week to plan for this opponent and to find ways to minimize Sindarius Thornwell. The Bulldogs haven't always been winning easily this tournament, but they have done an exceptional job of frustrating opponents offensively. They are going to win this one by discouraging the Gamecocks, and there won't be a whole lot of drama in the closing minutes of the second half.
North Carolina (+110) vs. Oregon (+400): Figuring out Oregon is tough for me. They deserve credit for getting here, obviously, but neither Michigan nor Kansas played any good at all last weekend. Oregon gets some credit for causing it, but not all of it. I think there was luck involved for Oregon, and I'm just not convinced it can continue. Actually, I'm quite convinced that it won't. North Carolina has the massive advantage of experience, having made the Championship Game last year with much the same team. They are talented and experienced. The Kentucky game came right down to the end. However, given the athleticism and talent of the Wildcats, they get a lot of credit for that win even if it wasn't by any significant margin. Oregon isn't as athletic as Kentucky, and they aren't as well-coached when it comes to this stage, either. Like the other game, I don't expect this one to be that close in the end, either.
North Carolina vs. Gonzaga: After a less-than-memorable Saturday we should have one heck of a final. The blue bloods against the outsiders - outsiders who are very familiar, but outsiders nonetheless. Both teams have done exactly what was expected of them - after strong years they earned top seeds and they have taken advantage of it to this point. Experience is a concern for Gonzaga, but they have done a very good job all season, and all tournament, of sticking to their system and not letting things distract them. North Carolina has had by far the most productive postseason offense of any remaining, but Gonzaga has worn down and frustrated opponents so far and will do it again. This is basically a coin toss, but I had Gonzaga in my bracket to start the tournament, so I might as well stick with it - or at least go back to it, because I did shift to Kentucky when I did this before the Elite Eight. Gonzaga it is.
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