Final Four Preview: Will South Carolina's Defense Slow Down Gonzaga's Offense?
Unlike the other side of the bracket -- where Oregon and North Carolina have previously participated in a Final Four -- this side of the bracket consists of two teams who hadn't been to a Final Four prior to this season..
In fact, the South Carolina Gamecocks, before this year, hadn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2004. And, in contrast, the Gonzaga Bulldogs had not made it past the Elite Eight in 19 straight tournament runs.
Now that the 1-seeded Bulldogs have finally reached this level, it's time for them to capitalize and put the finishing touches on a one-loss season. As for the Gamecocks, they're in search of their first national championship, as well, but they are looking to become just the second team (along with the 2014 Connecticut Huskies) to win a national championship as a 7 seed.
If the Gamecocks hope to accomplish that feat, they'll have to get past the experienced Bulldogs first. Of their eight players who average double-digit minutes on the season, two are seniors and three are juniors. Including redshirt-sophomore Josh Perkins, Gonzaga's top six players have 43 tournament games between them. South Carolina's top eight players in minutes have just this year's 32 combined games between them.
But the Gamecocks have shown that playmaking, defense and strategy can overcome experience. Will they be able to do it again in what is their tallest task yet? Or will the Bulldogs' experience and offensive firepower prove too much?
South Carolina's Keys to Victory
Much like we've seen with West Virginia's Press Virginia attack, a team can make its mark with stellar defense. That's exactly what coach Frank Martin's team has done during this tournament and throughout the season.
Dissimilar from the Mountaineers, the Gamecocks don't usually push the pressure past halfcourt. They do, however, pick up the intensity once teams bring the ball past the timeline. In doing so, they have held opponents to an adjusted offensive rating of 83.48 points per 100 possessions, which ranks third in the country. They're also among the top 30 teams in both steal percentage (11.0%) and effective field goal percentage against (45.0%).
They've been just as good against tough tournament competition, as well. In their four contests thus far, the Gamecocks have held three of their adversaries to an offensive rating of 100 or less. The only team to post an offensive rating of more than 100 against South Carolina was the Duke Blue Devils in their second-round meeting. In addition, South Carolina, in three of its four games, has ended at least 10.3% of defensive possessions with a steal.
Where the Gamecocks could use some improvement -- especially when you consider Gonzaga's strengths -- is on the boards. Yes, they've won the rebounding battle in all four rounds so far, but on the year they're outside the top 100 in opponent rebound percentage (49.1%) and rank in the bottom third of the country in offensive rebound percentage against (30.2%).
In their tournament run, Sindarius Thornwell sure has helped out in the that category and many others. The senior guard is averaging 7.5 rebounds per game in addition to his 25.8 points, 2.8 threes and 2.0 steals per round. South Carolina will probably need another big game from their star player in order to advance.
Gonzaga's Keys to Victory
The first thing the Bulldogs will need to do against the Gamecocks is to avoid unnecessary turnovers. This is always a point of emphasis for any team, but as we've already touched on, the Gamecocks are an opportunistic defense that thrives off on-ball pressure and steals.
As a whole, Gonzaga has done a good job of valuing the rock. They average just 11.4 turnovers per game on the season and 12.0 in the tournament to date. On the other hand, against the most comparable defense they've faced -- West Virginia two rounds ago -- the Bulldogs turned the ball over 16 times (21.3% of their possessions). The result was a nail-biting three-point win. If the Zags hope to avoid a tih, their players will have to do a better job of securing the ball.
Likewise, Gonzaga will have to take advantage of South Carolina's vulnerability down low on the other end. The Bulldogs have grabbed at least 50% of available rebounds in three of their four tournament games and have been even more dominant overall on the season, pulling down 54.9% of total rebounds this year.
On the offensive boards, they're not elite, ranking outside the top 150 in offensive rebound percentage (29.6%), but South Carolina struggles on the glass and could fail to contain forward Johnathan Williams, who has 14 offensive boards in four tournament games.
The key player to watch for the Zags, though, is California transfer and sharpshooter Jordan Mathews. In four tournament games, Mathews is averaging 13.5 points, scoring at least 11 in every game.
He's done so by hitting a trio of three-pointers in all but one of Gonzaga's tournament games, which could present a problem for the Gamecocks. If South Carolina packs it in with the intent to mitigate Williams and company's damage on the boards, that could leave Mathews open for business.
Will Gonzaga's inside-out game overwhelm South Carolina's defense? We'll have to see.