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The Morning Dish – Sunday, March 26, 2017

March 26, 2017 The Morning Dish No Comments

Half of this year’s Final Four is set, and we can already say this much: good luck choosing just one sentimental favorite.

One team already in has never been to the Final Four, period, and 20 years ago was an undistinguished if respected regional program that no one in their wildest dreams could’ve imagined would very soon become one of the top national names of all in the sport. The other hasn’t been to the national semifinals since 1939, the first year of the NCAA Tournament and a year in which its team known as the Tall Firs won the national title.

(As if that wasn’t enough, it also has Donald Duck as its mascot)

Gonzaga and Oregon may even have competition for the best storyline if South Carolina can reach the Final Four from a 7 seed or Florida can capitalize on its buzzer-beating win over Wisconsin two nights earlier. For now, though, the Bulldogs and Ducks give us more than enough to chew on in anticipation of next weekend, with great backstories for both programs.

The Zags won the battle of Jesuit schools looking for a breakthrough Saturday, ending Xavier’s outstanding run in the tournament with an 83-59 win in the West Regional final. Later, Oregon kept the heat on Kansas all game and defeated the top-seeded Jayhawks 74-60 in the Midwest final to end a 78-year drought since its last Final Four trip.

Both teams advanced first and foremost by throwing daggers from the outside, with Gonzaga foiling Xavier’s defensive plan to clamp down inside by nailing 12 three-pointers and Oregon keeping Kansas on its heels all game by drilling 11 triples, while their opponents combined for seven threes, total. Both also received step-up performances from supporting players to their stars, with the Bulldogs’ Johnathan Williams totaling 19 points and eight rebounds and the Ducks’ Tyler Dorsey running wild for 27 points-including a number of in-your-face bombs-and Jordan Bell adding 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocked shots.

Gonzaga showed no ill effects from its 15-round bout with West Virginia two nights earlier, and the Musketeers just couldn’t keep up and fell off the pace in the second half. Oregon, meanwhile, showed no ill effects from playing a virtual road game in Kansas City, taking it to the Jayhawks and never letting them get close in the second half as the top seed tried to rally but kept rushing and kept missing three-pointers.

As a result, two of the best coaches in the country to never make a Final Four will get there at the same time next week. Mark Few has almost been taken for granted for the consistent success Gonzaga has, but it can never be overstated just what a job he has done with the Zags program (and Dan Monson before him, too). The Bulldogs are one of the great rags-to-riches stories in all of sports over the last 20 years, showing that you really can get there from here, no matter how modest your resources to start.

And while Dana Altman is fairly anonymous on the national level, he’s put together a terrific run over the last 20 years at Creighton and now at Oregon, and with wise recruiting and player development has turned the Ducks into a power that is built to reload and withstand player losses. Which, not coincidentally, is exactly what Oregon has done in the NCAA Tournament, getting to the Final Four even after athletic forward Chris Boucher went down for the season with a knee injury.

Both teams also faced considerable pressure this year, yet delivered. Oregon was a Final Four favorite coming into the season, and though they lost early to a Baylor team that was vastly underrated and slipped out of the spotlight for a time, the Ducks eventually became exactly the team many thought they could be. Gonzaga, meanwhile, nearly went undefeated in the regular season, enduring constant discussion of if they could keep it going, as well as the typical ignorance from some who thought the Zags’ winning streak was somehow something any of about 60 schools in the country could’ve done.

Oh, and this also gives us two Northwest schools in the Final Four. And that region has every reason to crow about that this week.

It’s likely Gonzaga will take on the role of America’s Underdog next week, if for no other reasons than its funny name, the size of the school and its lack of a football program. And it can’t be understated just how good for the sport it is to have a school like Gonzaga (and Villanova last year) playing so deep into the NCAA Tournament.

As wonderful of a story as the Zags are, though, Oregon is a pretty good one, too. And so, too, would be South Carolina. Or Florida, for that matter. Even as the number of traditional power program names will be few (North Carolina and Kentucky will fight for the honor of carrying that mantle tomorrow), it’s quickly shaping up to be an attractive Final Four with a lot to like.

Side Dishes:

  • The CollegeInsider.com Tournament has two of its four semifinalists set now. In a wonderful defensive battle between teams coached by two of the better defensive coaches in the country, John Dunne and St. Peter’s won at Danny Kaspar’s Texas State team 49-44, giving the Peacocks two postseason wins for the first time since the 1980 NIT. Some will say this was ugly; they don’t understand defense. The road team also won when Furman rolled to a 79-64 victory at Campbell, with the Paladins keeping the Southern Conference alive in the postseason after Kris Acox scored 24 points and added 10 rebounds. Campbell scoring machine Chris Clemons scored 29 points.
  • Indiana found its head coach, and his name was not Steve Alford. The Hoosiers have hired former Dayton coach Archie Miller, a terrific hire, and one that only the fans most intent on being miserable will be disappointed in. Miller, like brother Sean Miller at Arizona, has every making of being able to lead a team to consistent national contender status and a national championship someday. He did outstanding work at Dayton and also was wise in biding his time with the Flyers, not feeling the need to take the first job that opened up. Miller had a great job at a great basketball school, and now he has a great job at an even greater basketball school. Good for him.

Today’s Menu:

  • The remainder of the Final Four will be set, starting with an all-SEC final in the East Regional, where No. 7 seed South Carolina faces 4 seed Florida (2:20 p.m. Eastern, CBS). Two excellent defensive teams who do it in a little bit different ways. This should be fun. The second game has Kentucky against North Carolina, the top two seeds in the South Regional facing off in the game a few people too easily influenced by brand names are calling the tourney’s ‘real’ title game (5:05 p.m., CBS). Over the course of the year, UNC has been the better team, while the Wildcats have been tested nicely in the tourney so far and are passing the tests.
  • The remaining two CIT semifinal matchups include Liberty at Maryland-Baltimore County and IPFW on the road at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Enjoy your Sunday.

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