Final Four Preview and Picks: Saturday, April 1

The Final Four is here. The matchups are set. Sixty-four teams are gone. Four remain.
There will be much anticipation and much discussion over the next five days about Saturday’s two national semifinals. To set the stage for that anticipation and discussion, it’s time to look ahead to the four biggest story lines that await in Phoenix:
One of this year’s participants, North Carolina, qualified for its 20th Final Four, the most of any school, with its win over Kentucky Sunday. As for the other three remaining contenders combined? They have one prior appearance among them, and it was Oregon’s way back in 1939. The last time three of the four semifinalists collectively had one or fewer Final Four appearance was 1979, when Penn (0), Indiana State (0), DePaul (1) and Michigan State (1) were the contestants.
Gonzaga, despite this being its debut, has plenty of postseason experience, and it would be wonderful to see the Zags further prove their doubters wrong. Oregon’s rise under Dana Altman has been gradual, and is ongoing; the Ducks are a burgeoning power out west, and are here because they came up just short a year ago. South Carolina, meanwhile, is the one true newbie on the big stage, and the one team that only a couple weeks ago seemed like it wouldn’t have belonged.
Gonzaga and Oregon didn’t just end their own droughts. Heading into the 2017 tournament, no team located west of Norman, Okla., had reached the Final Four since UCLA in 2008. The barren slate included shortcomings from the Bruins themselves, but also Arizona, Oregon, Utah, Gonzaga, San Diego State, BYU, New Mexico and others. Finally, after nine years, not one but two teams broke through.
The closest thing to a broad common theme between Gonzaga, Oregon, South Carolina and North Carolina and their roads to the Final Four is defense. The four teams have allowed 0.85, 1.05, 0.98 and 0.95 points per possession, respectively, over their past four games. Oregon got through the early rounds with offense before holding two top-five offenses to a combined 0.98 points per trip. The Ducks threw three or four different looks at both Michigan and Kansas to disrupt their rhythm. North Carolina needed defense on the first weekend before its offense picked up on the second.
Meanwhile, teams such as Kansas, UCLA and Michigan that put together multiple offensive masterpieces in earlier rounds were bounced in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. 
Oregon’s upset of Kansas was stunning for a few reasons, but the Ducks are far from a Cinderella story. South Carolina isn’t really a classic March Madness underdog either, but at least some rational prognosticators had Oregon in the Final Four; nobody had the Gamecocks getting past the second round.
Frank Martin’s turnaround in Columbia is a remarkable tale of belief. South Carolina lost 14 SEC games in 2012-13, Martin’s first year. It lost 13 the following year and 12 in 2014-15. Martin raves about the way his players battled through defeat after defeat, and finally tasted some success last year. But they faded late, and faded in February again this season. They lost six of their last nine games heading into the tournament. They were near the bottom of sleeper lists, if not off the lists entirely.

Get the Gonzaga/South Carolina winner

Get the North Carolina/Oregon winner


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