No. 3 Oregon (33-5) will play No. 1 North Carolina (31-7) in the 2017 NCAA Tournament Final Four on Saturday night from the University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona. The winner will advance to the national championship on Monday evening from Glendale.
The Ducks are making their second Final Four appearance in program history. It had been 78 years since the last Oregon team advanced this far in the tournament. The 77-year drought was the longest in college basketball history between appearances.
“This is a bigger stage,” said Oregon head coach Dana Altman. “Our guys are aware of that.”
For North Carolina, this is nothing new. The Tar Heels are making their 20th appearance at the Final Four. UNC’s head coach Roy Williams has won two national championships (05, 09) since he took over in 2002-03.
“I do think you have to have some guys that can make 3-point shots,” stated Williams about the Oregon offense. “But I've seen very few teams win the NCAA championship just shooting threes, because everybody's got somebody inside that can give you a little balance.”
The Heels are beating their opponents by an average margin of 15 points per victory in the tournament. It certainly is not the 30 PPG margin that Kansas was boasting entering their match-up with the Ducks, but it’s formidable nevertheless. The numbers are misleading after a 39-point dismantling of No. 16 Texas Southern in the first round.
After their first round victory, UNC followed that up with a nail-biting win against No. 8 Arkansas, 72-65, to advance to the Sweet 16. Then, Carolina cruised past No. 4 Butler, 92-80, before barely escaping the No. 2 seed Kentucky Wildcats, 75-73, in the Elite Eight on Sunday.
“We feel like it's extremely important to get the other team in foul trouble,” said Williams. "The biggest way to get their big guys in foul trouble is to go inside.”
UO routed No. 14 Iona, 93-77, in the first round of the tournament. They advanced to the Sweet 16 after a furious 11-point comeback in the second half against No. 11 Rhode Island, 75-72. Following their 1-point win over No. 7 Michigan, 69-68, Oregon dismissed No. 1 seed Kansas, 74-60, in the Midwest Regional Final.
This is a completely different match-up for Oregon. The Jayhawks, like the Ducks, were a 4-guard starting unit. Carolina boasts a 4-forward starting line-up. Their length is undeniable. The average player height per UNC starter is 6-foot-6.
The Ducks enter the Final Four with the most blocked shots (241) in the NCAA this year. It was the most blocks recorded in a single season in college basketball history. UO erased Washington’s previous 2015-16 mark of 224. Carolina has not faced anything like Oregon yet.
Entering this tournament, I was concerned about two teams for the Ducks. Louisville was eliminated by Michigan thankfully, then UO slipped past them. North Carolina was the other mismatch that drew my attention. They have unique length and athleticism that will cause problems for Oregon. Let’s preview the 2017 Final Four:
If you missed it, I compared this Oregon team to the 2016 Villanova squad. The same team that won the 2016 NCAA Championship. Last season, No. 2 seed Villanova eliminated No. 1 North Carolina in the 2016 National Title, 77-74.
Kris Jenkins buried the game-winning buzzer-beating 3-pointer to seal the win. Ironically, this Oregon team leads the nation in game-winning buzzer-beaters from behind the arc (4) this season. Dillon Brooks has three, while Tyler Dorsey has one. Could history repeat itself for UNC? There are some factors working in Oregon’s favor.
Last year, North Carolina coasted into the national championship after an easy 83-66 victory over No. 10 Syracuse. In fact, the Orange had the easiest road to the Final Four in tournament history. Jim Boeheim’s team did not play a single team ranked higher than a No. 11 seed until beating No. 1 Virginia in the Elite Eight.
After an Elite Eight appearance last season, the Ducks are clearly looking for more in 2017. The 1939 Championship banner is getting lonely at Matthew Knight Arena. Oregon players would love to add a second.
“We never been there, but we’re not done yet,” said Dorsey. “We want to put the banner up. There is only one banner at Oregon.”
This is the most successful team in Oregon basketball history. At 33-5, it is only fitting that they finish the way they started this campaign, winning. Their current .868 winning percentage is the highest recorded in program history.
DANA ALTMAN vs ROY WILLIAMS
Overall, the Oregon lead man is 597-312 in 909 career games (.657). With the Ducks, Altman is an impressive 187-69 in 256 games (.730). He has 13 career appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Yet, his career skyrocketed since joining Oregon seven years ago. Altman began the greatest run in school history.
Williams came to North Carolina after 15 incredible years with Kansas (418-101) without a national championship. In 2003, he made the switch from one blue blood program to another. Since then, Williams has won two titles (05, 09) with North Carolina amid a sterling 396-116 overall record (.773 winning percentage).
PAYTON PRITCHARD vs JOEL BERRY II
The true freshman needs to prepare for another fistfight. In his last game, Pritchard had the opportunity to guard National Player of the Year frontrunner Frank Mason III. He held his own at times, limiting the 5-foot-11 guard to a team-high 21 points for Kansas. Yet, Mason only scored four points in the second half.
At one point in the Elite Eight, the KU guard scored 15 straight points for the Jayhawks. That can NOT happen again in this game. Berry may not be as aggressive, but he can be just as lethal as Mason from the floor when he’s feeling it.
In 2016-17, the UNC starting point guard averaged 14.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 3.6 APG and 1.4 SPG in 30.1 minutes per game over 36 contests. He is shooting 39 percent from deep, 44 percent from the floor and a robust 81 percent from the charity stripe.
Keep in mind Berry sprained not one, but both ankles last weekend against Butler and Kentucky. If he is hobbled or restrained in any way, the Tar Heels offense will suffer.
“Not going to sit out,” said Berry.
There is nobody on the UNC roster close to his skill level or experience. UNC would be at a strict disadvantage on both ends of the floor if he is still banged up.
“Hopefully by the time we get to Thursday or Friday, he'll be able to do some things in practice,” said Williams. “I'm scared to death right now because I don't know.”
Pritchard seems to be trapped in an offensive slump. He is averaging seven points per game in four tournament games. At times, he seems apprehensive to shoot when open. It was apparent against Kansas he was going to facilitate more than score. With Oregon facing an oversized UNC front, Pritchard may be thrust into the spotlight.
TYLER DORSEY vs THEO PINSON
During my last preview, I said the match-up between Dorsey and KU guard Devonte’ Graham would determine the outcome and it did. Alongside Jordan Bell’s heroics, Dorsey added a game-high 27 points on 9-for-13 shooting. Meanwhile, his counterpart scored just three points on 0-for-7 from the floor. The Ducks won by 14 points.
I am going to repeat myself this week. This match-up between Dorsey and Pinson will determine the outcome of the game. Pinson is North Carolina’s most talented defender. At 6-foot-6, he is a match-up problem for the 6-foot-4 sophomore from Los Angeles.
Pinson is not spectacular on offense, but he’s a smart player. Last weekend, the junior found Luke Maye for the game-winning bucket against Kentucky. Most players would’ve kept dribbling toward the rim with an opening for greatness in the final moments of a regional final. Yet, he intelligently pulled the ball back out and hit the trailing player for the buzzer-beater victory.
What else can we say about Dorsey? He has scored 20 points or more in seven straight games and is leading Oregon’s offense. The sophomore guard is amassing an incredible 24.5 points per game in four tournament games this season.
He has only missed 17 shots in 51 attempts this NCAA Tournament. Dorsey is shooting a ridiculous 67 percent (34-for-51) from the floor in his last four games. I’m not joking.
DYLAN ENNIS vs JUSTIN JACKSON
Everyone expected this to be the All-American showdown between Jackson and Dillon Brooks. Unfortunately for Oregon, UNC’s massive front line causes major issues. With two starters 6-foot-9 and above for the Heels, Brooks will be forced to guard one of them as UO’s power forward.
DB was near perfect against the freshman phenom, Josh Jackson. After forcing the youngster into early foul trouble, Jackson was a non-factor for Kansas. That Jackson was the second-tallest player in the line-up. UNC’s Jackson is their third-tallest starter.
Justin Jackson has elite skills with a wingspan to match. The 6-foot-8 forward is having a brilliant season, averaging 18.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG and 2.8 APG in 31.7 MPG over 38 games played. He scored a game-high 19 points against the Wildcats in the Elite Eight. GM’s are salivating at the thought of the junior entering the 2017 NBA Draft.
If Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are on the floor, Ennis will draw Jackson defensive duties. However, if Altman switches to a bigger line-up, then Kavell Bigby-Williams would defend one of the big boys alongside Bell. That would enable Jackson for Brooks and Ennis could slide over to Pinson.
The 6-foot-2 Ennis would give six inches to Jackson, alongside more athleticism for the Tar Heel AP All-American. It would place Oregon in a vulnerable spot when this happens. This game is going to be about adjusting on the fly. Which coach will flinch first? Jackson’s performance will go a long way in deciding the outcome.
Keep in mind, Oregon’s senior guard stifled 6-foot-8 Kansas junior Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk during the Midwest Regional Final. Don’t be surprised if Oregon uses more match-up zone defense in this contest. UO wants to force UNC to shoot from the perimeter.
DILLON BROOKS vs ISAIAH HICKS
This will be interesting. Hicks would be the typical center on most teams in the nation. With Meeks dominating the paint, Hicks exploits open opportunities in the post.
The Oxford, NC native is shooting a robust 60 percent from the floor and 79 percent from the line this season. UO can not afford to foul the 6-foot-9 big man. However, he is not considered a sturdy defensive player, which Brooks will exploit early and often.
North Carolina’s senior forward averaged 12.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.4 APG and 0.7 BPG in 23.2 MPG over 37 games played. When Hicks plays the high-low game with Meeks, UNC is very difficult to defend. Brooks will need to avoid foul trouble and the Tar Heels are prepared to attack him. UNC wants Bell or Brooks out of the game early.
“We feel like it's extremely important to get the other team in foul trouble,” Williams said. “The biggest way to get their big guys in foul trouble is to go inside. That's something that's been important for us ever since I started coaching, and I still believe that.”
On the other end, Oregon’s All-American will dominate offensively. This smells of a 30-point performance from Brooks. With everyone in the nation focusing on Dorsey and Bell, don’t be surprised if the Canadian refocuses their attention.
I see him fearlessly attacking the rim in this one. Bringing Hicks out to the top of the key is essential. Once this occurs, Brooks can take over the game as the prime facilitator through penetration of the lane. And whenever he needs, Brooks can step back and bury the 3-pointer. His jab step will go a long way in this battle.
JORDAN BELL vs KENNEDY MEEKS
This is the marquee match-up of the 2017 Final Four. Forget any showdown in the Gonzaga vs South Carolina game, Bell vs Meeks will dominate the headlines.
“I can't overemphasize Jordan controlling the paint in the first 10 minutes of the game and just putting a thought in their mind that we’re not going to get easy baskets,” Altman stated.
Meeks is the man down low, averaging 12.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 1.1 APG and 1.2 BPG in 24.2 minutes per game. He is shooting 54 percent from the floor this season. At times, Meeks will have lapses on both ends. For 6-foot-10, he should be garnering more than a block per night. The UNC forward shoots 63 percent from the charity stripe.
“Kennedy does a great job rebounding the basketball,” said the UNC head coach.
The Charlotte native can be passive on offense and lethargic on defense. He also struggles with constant foul trouble. Meeks shows a lack of discipline when the fouls begin to stack up. Nevertheless, he’s a force when rolling. If he is on from the start, it will be a long day for the Ducks.
Enter the Midwest Regional’s Most Outstanding Player. Oregon’s all-time leading shot-blocker (229) is coming off a heroic 8-block performance against the Jayhawks. The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year dominated the game from start to finish, registering four rejections in each half.
For the tournament, Bell is leading all players with 50 total rebounds. The Long Beach product is amassing 12.5 boards per game. The junior forward is averaging 12.5 points per game and three blocked shots per contest. Meanwhile, the Ducks have coincidently won four straight NCAA Tournament games.
Meeks will be looking to get him in early foul trouble, but we all know how disciplined Bell is on defense. Saturday, he didn't draw his first foul of the game until late in the second half. There is no question North Carolina has the size advantage. Yet, Oregon’s defensive intensity and athleticism will cause havoc for the Heels.
It may be the most important factor in both teams success this season. Having consistent, dependable depth is vital for a college basketball coach. At times, it could be the only difference between a second-round losing team and a Final Four participant. For these two programs, their bench helped guide them here.
With Oregon, the missing link is Chris Boucher. After losing their sixth man to a devastating season-ending injury in the Pac-12 Tournament, the Ducks needed to find strength from within. They rallied to the tune of four straight wins in the tournament using an 8-man rotation.
“I think all the guys have picked it up a little bit, just knowing that Chris isn't there,” Altman said. “But we will have our work cut out for us on Saturday. North Carolina is probably the best rebounding team that we faced all year. They score pretty good on the first shot, but their offensive rebounding numbers are off the charts.”
Players like Bigby-Williams, Casey Benson and freshman Keith Smith have provided a boost for Oregon. All three share the responsibilities of replacing Boucher. The team, as a whole, has embraced the challenge of playing without their most-skilled bench player.
Most feared Boucher’s injury would cost the team their season. Without CB on the floor in 2017, Oregon is 4-1. Nevertheless, UO wouldn’t be in this position without their senior. He helped build the Oregon empire and is the unquestioned leader on and off the floor. There is no replacement for that type of value off the bench, physically or emotionally.
Just like Oregon, North Carolina would not be in the Final Four without the help of their bench, namely Maye. He provides the spark for the Tar Heels. I view him as a less talented version of Kevin Love.
The 6-foot-8 sophomore drilled the game-winning bucket against No. 2 Kentucky in their regional final thriller. It was his career-high 17 points off the bench that carried UNC to victory. Maye enters the Final Four averaging 5.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG and 1.2 APG in just 14.4 minutes per game over 33 appearances in 2016-17.
He is amassing 12.5 points per game during the tournament. The North Carolina native will be the x-factor in this game. Maye is instant-offense upon entry and his size could cause issues for Oregon. It will be interesting to see who he replaces in the line-up, but Williams will ride the hot hand.
North Carolina had nine blocked shots in their last game against the Wildcats. Yet, the effort is not there on a consistent basis. UK forced the issue, driving the lane constantly which influenced defenders to make decisions.
Oregon is more opportunistic, allowing the game to unfold and then exploiting the weaknesses of their opponent on individual possessions. The Ducks will be able to score against the Heels. But, they don’t want to get into a shootout. With more shot attempts come more second-chance opportunities. North Carolina’s second-chance points will be monumental in determining the outcome against an undersized unit.
“North Carolina is probably the best rebounding team that we faced all year,” said the Duck head coach. “They score pretty good on the first shot, but their offensive rebounding numbers are off the charts.”
No. 3 Oregon (33-5) will square off against No. 1 North Carolina (31-7) in the 2017 Final Four. Tip is set for 5:49 p.m. PT from the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on Saturday. UO is seeking their first title appearance in 78 years. The game will be televised by CBS.