USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach says you’re sorely mistaken if you think this won’t be an entertaining Final Four.
USA TODAY Sports
North Carolina coach Roy Williams joked that he and South Carolina coach Frank Martin have “humorous stories together” that they don’t want to share with anyone.
The veteran of the Final Four coaches, tabbed as “Mount Rushmore quality” by Gonzaga coach Mark Few and hailed for his “consistency” by Oregon coach Dana Altman, said of the other three coaches — all rookies in college basketball’s grand finale — that he “loves them all” while discussing those coaching relationships during a Final Four teleconference on Monday.
But friendships aside, Williams knows from his eight previous Final Fours at Kansas and UNC that the camaraderie and fun spirit is just part of the hoopla of the coming week heading into Saturday’s semifinals and Monday’s championship.
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Here are four story lines the coaches discussed five days from the Final Four:
1. Why are these teams here instead of Kansas, Villanova or Duke?
Outside of North Carolina — which is back in the Final Four after losing in heartbreaking fashion in last year’s national title game — South Carolina, Oregon and even top-seeded Gonzaga were not favorites to get to Phoenix. But title favorites Duke and Villanova were dispatched in the second round. And 13-time regular season Big 12 champion Kansas fell short against Oregon in the Elite Eight.
That’s the ugly reality of a single elimination tournament, but Martin made sense of why this unexpected group — his team by far and a way the most unexpected — got to Phoenix.
“That’s conference basketball. It’s so hard to win in league play,” Martin said. “I think once you get out of conference, teams don’t understand you as well. There’s a big difference watching a team on film then being on the court competing.” He added that not playing teams on a regular basis and hyper-focusing on their intricacies “facilitates more scoring.”
2. What does Gonzaga’s breakthrough really mean?
Williams said it was most satisfying from afar to see Few get to the Final Four, as the Bulldogs finally got over the hump in their 19th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. Does this mean Gonzaga will be getting back to the Final Four on a regular basis? It could. In discussing his reasoning for staying at Gonzaga for 28 seasons (18 as head coach and 10 as an assistant), Few said if the school “didn’t share the same vision as us making (Gonzaga) a national program, we would have left. …I always cringe when I hear someone say they want to try to do it somewhere else.”
Few also said the Zags are the “Lakers or Yankees” of Spokane, and that while the goal has always been about building Gonzaga into a Final Four-caliber program, his focus on developing his players has been more important. “I’d judge things more on those aspects, not Final Fours and wins and stuff like that,” he said.
3. Can anyone stop Sindarius Thornwell?
Florida coach Mike White called Thornwell the most “underappreciated player in the country” after his Gators lost to South Carolina in the Elite Eight. But Few is not looking past the tournament’s leading scorer at 26 points a game. How well Thornwell plays dictates the energy of the rest of the Gamecocks’ players so containing him will be the primary — yet difficult — objective of Gonzaga on Saturday.
“His whole package is dangerous,” Few said. “The Intensity he brings to the game. He can hurt you on the glass, shooting it, off the bounce, he gets to the free-throw line a lot. He’s going to be a really hard guard. It’s going to take a number of our guys. …he’s definitely going to be a handful.”
4. Does North Carolina really have that much of an edge?
The short answer is yes. Altman thinks the Tar Heels being there last year and having a nine-time veteran gives them a “tangible advantage.”
“I was on the phone with Lon Kruger last night. Got some advice on what to avoid, what to embrace. ….This is a bigger stage.”
But Martin emphasized that the experience pertained to the leadup to games, not actually playing.
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“I’m a big believer that experience helps, but once the game starts I think it’s irrelevant,” Martin said. “You can play in the national championship game nine years in a row. If you go the 10th time, you’re nervous before that ball goes up in the air. There’s no such thing as not being nervous for a big game.
“What I do think is a huge advantage for Roy, his players, staff members, everyone at the university, is having been through it as recently as last year. They’re fresh on the preparation, on the things to expect, what’s coming. That way they can better manage their times, their days, to eliminate any distractions that can prevent them from being prepared for the game itself.”
Few, likewise, felt half the battle for the teams is the spotlight beforehand.
“The distraction meter is going to go through the roof,” Few said. “The Carolina kids have dealt with that. …When we get out there, when the ball goes up, all four teams have shown they’re ferocious competitors. …(The experience) will help. But at the end of the day, it’s who is going to play the best for 48 minutes.”
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