Final Four 2016-17 Preview: Game 1

-Jim Root

(1)  Gonzaga vs. (7) South Carolina

Initial Thoughts: It’s so ridiculous Gonzaga made it this far playing such a soft schedule! And of course they get a weak run through the NCAA Tournament! How lucky can a team be?

Actually, they’re not lucky at all. Going 32-1 and earning a 1-seed will earn you a better path than, say, a 7-seed got; that’s just the way it works. And even as far as 1-seeds go, Gonzaga’s path this year was of average difficulty – even Yale students concluded this, and they’re really smart! So let’s just be happy for the Zags, who have finally reached the Promised Land of college hoops after nearly two decades of pounding on the door. And of those congrats, a giant heap of them goes to Mark Few. Long held in the dreaded “good coach, can’t make the Final Four” conversation, Few has finally broken through that glass ceiling (is the roof) and made it. I know he has talked publicly about how little it means to him (he’s said all the right things about how it’s for the players, etc.), but I hope he’s also getting a bit of personal enjoyment. Laboring for 18 years in Spokane, WA, and turning Gonzaga into a powerhouse should be commended – it’s the ultimate fever dream for fans of any mid-major program. And lastly, a quick shout-out to semi-True Son Johnathan Williams III, who I met once at a Mizzou party for five minutes, which is enough to conclude that he’s a cool dude and to say that I’m happy to see he’s doing well.  

On the other hand, congratulations to South Carolina too! Frank Martin is an extremely fun guy to cheer for (even as he seems terrifying to play for), and the Gamecocks have earned every bit of their Final Four appearance. Duke and Florida gave them games, but they won each of those games by 7, and they beat the living crap out of Marquette and Baylor. During the run, Sindarius Thornwell has risen up draft boards as a 3-and-D guy with some sneaky-strong creative skills ( has him going to the Bucks in Round 2 – yes, please).

Gonzaga on Offense: Let me hit with you some serious analysis – if they’re knocking down perimeter shots like they did against Xavier, the Zags are almost certainly going to win. Yeah, how about that! Alright, you want actual analysis? Fine.

The biggest decision will be made by South Carolina. The Gamecocks have brought a mix of defenses thus far this tournament, playing some man-to-man and a whole lot of 3-2 matchup zone in an effort to keep opposing offenses from getting comfortable:

This includes extending the zone to half-court at times and trapping in the corners:

The trapping only amplifies the surplus of turnovers that their defense already forces. Based on the personnel advantage Gonzaga has, I’d say the zone is the best bet here. Przemek Karnowski is just too huge to handle inside (I’ve typed that a lot this tournament), and guarding him with either Maik Kotsar or Chris Silva (or even Khadim Gueye) just seems masochistic. Silva, in particular, is too valuable on the glass to risk him guarding Mount Poland. He fouls 7.3 times per 40 minutes (at one point, he fouled out of four straight games during SEC play), and he’ll likely find himself in foul trouble even without giving up 80 pounds to Przemek.

So that means zone is the best move for SC. The numbers also support this: Per Synergy, Gonzaga scored 1.028 points per possession against man (that’s good for the 100th percentile in the country – yep, 100th, ranked #2 in the country), while they “only” scored 0.979ppp against zone (73rd percentile). They are coming off a highly-efficient game against Xavier’s zone (and man, at times), but that was via bombing threes, and that’s a risk you have to take against Gonzaga. 

Part of the reason they were so effective from the outside was the type of threes they were getting. Almost all of the makes were from some sort of catch-and-shoot, inside-out action, whether it be via post-up (this one is against man - hard double Mount Poland at your own risk):

Or probing the soft middle of the zone:

Or even a simple drive, draw, and dish kick-out:

The amoeba-esque, shape-shifting nature of South Carolina’s zone (along with the length of guards like Thornwell, PJ Dozier, and Justin McKie) will make getting these looks a lot more difficult, though, especially given how well the Gamecocks deny interior touches. Florida ran some interesting action against the zone in the regional final to get their shooters open baskets, and Few would be wise to study that tape and learn from the Gators’ success (for all the love the Gamecocks’ D deservedly gets, Florida did score over 1ppp). The matchup zone is extremely reliant on constant communication as offensive players move around, but it’s still vulnerable to a nice, old-fashioned overload:

Lastly, I wouldn't be doing my job (if only this was my job) if I didn’t discuss the Bulldogs’ ball security issues against West Virginia. They turned it over on 24% of their possessions (an extremely high rate), including five by all-everything point guard Williams-Goss, and although South Carolina forces its turnovers in a different way (through suffocating half-court D), Gonzaga being able to handle that intensity will be crucial. The ‘Cocks get a significant amount of easy points off of forced turnovers, so the effect of shaky ball-handling by the Zags will be doubled. Conversely, if you take care of it, the Gamecocks will hack and slap all day and put you on the free throw stripe - free points against an ultra-stout D. See the “Key Factor” section for how I think this will play out…

South Carolina on Offense:  After a season of being dragged down by their offense (despite the tourney run, they still rank just 104th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency), South Carolina has been cooking on this end in the NCAAs. They’ve scored an impressive 1.29, 1.19, 1.06, and 1.12 points per possession so far, the latter two games coming against very strong defenses. They’ve done so by relentlessly attacking the rim through any and all avenues: transition off the many turnovers they force, post-ups with Kotsar (especially against UF’s weak interior), offensive rebounding from Silva and company, and drives off the bounce. All of this has earned them a whopping 105 free throws in four games, the primary driver for their efficiency boost.

The problem with all of this? Gonzaga’s ultra-disciplined half-court defense doesn’t give up offensive rebounds, they defend without fouling, and their insane size and rim protection makes scoring in the post nearly impossible. And even if you are able to break through in those areas, you still may not score – West Virginia had 20 offensive rebounds and took 29 free throws, and yet they put up a gross 0.87ppp. They simply do not give you easy shots, contesting everything on the perimeter and funneling you into their gigantic interior defenders, where opponents shoot only 46.1% at the rim, dead last in the entire damn 351-team nation, per hoop-math. Finding ways to score will be a challenge for Martin’s men, and the best way to do so will be playing through their star.

As I discussed with Esa Ahmad in my West Virginia/Gonzaga preview, the Zags don’t really have the right guys to defend a big, strong wing. Ahmad only took three shots in that game, but he did take eight free throws, and using Thornwell to attack inside against the smaller Melson (or whichever guard Few puts on him) should create issues. Against Florida, South Carolina did a nice job of finding ways to get Thornwell in positive positions that weren’t just lazy isolations. I loved seeing the ‘Cocks use a little bit of flex action to get Thornwell on the block and draw attention to him, allowing Dozier to curl off the weak side down screen:

When in doubt, they can just post him up, too – he’s good enough to score on the 6’8 Justin Leon here:

I highly doubt Mark Few lets Thornwell beat him. He’ll send help when needed, and all of their defenders will be aware of where he is at all times – digging at his dribble every time he puts the ball down, forcing him to give the ball up.

You really want to make South Carolina be a team of shooters. They’re just not very good at it, and although their offense has been very efficient this tournament, it has done so in spite of continued blah perimeter shooting. For this reason, Gonzaga may be tempted to go the 2-3 zone it has played at times (it helps them guard Thornwell, and prevents Karnowski from being put in pick-and-roll situations). The numbers are screaming at them not to do that, though: per Synergy, South Carolina scores a pitiful 0.787ppp against man (in the 7th percentile in the country – SEVENTH!), while their efficiency spikes to 0.982 against the zone (all the way up to the 74th percentile). Kotsar farts away the lay-up here, but look how pretty the ball movement is against Florida’s attempt at zoning them:

The 2-3 would also open up the offensive glass, a place where South Carolina has really thrived this tournament (haven’t grabbed less than 33% of their misses in any of the four games). Gonzaga has the bodies to matchup with South Carolina’s bigs, so their best strategy is playing straight man and finding ways to send help at Thornwell – make Dozier (28% from deep), McKie (32%), and Duane Notice (34%) prove they can hit shots.

One last wrinkle that South Carolina has found success with is playing small, with Thornwell occupying the four-spot. This has created a lot of mismatches offensively for them, but oddly enough, that may play into Gonzaga’s hands here. At 6’9 and relatively quick, Williams III may in fact be the Zags’ best option to guard Thornwell, and allowing them to match up guard-vs.-guard at every other perimeter spot might actually alleviate some of the matchup concerns for Gonzaga.

Key Factor(s): I’m going with the possibly-naive take that Gonzaga will benefit from having already survived the West Virginia hellstorm, Again, it’s a different kind of pressure, but that experience should still be invaluable to a group of ball-handlers that simply didn’t see that kind of pressure in the WCC or the NCAA tournament’s first two rounds. Finding ways to move the ball inside-out against the 3-2 will still be tough, but if they can at least get shots up on the rim, they also have a chance to take advantage of the Gamecocks’ abysmal defensive rebounding (they rank just 275th nationally in defensive rebounding rate).

Predictions: I just struggle to see how South Carolina scores in this one. As mentioned, they’ve gotten a vast majority of their points off turnovers, offensive rebounds, post-ups, and getting to the foul line, all things that Gonzaga’s defensive style is engineered to take away. Both teams’ defenses force opponents into long possessions, so this could be a slog pace-wise, and both defensive schemes have some real edges on the opposing offense. In the end, I just think Gonzaga’s array of weapons gives them far more avenues to points. 71-60, Gonzaga

SU Pick: Gonzaga
ATS Pick: Gonzaga -6.5
O/U Pick: Under 138