Gonzaga, often cast as the gutty underdog, finally finished the climb to its first Final Four, doing so as a No. 1 seed. The Bulldogs' reward: playing a gutty underdog.
South Carolina, which advanced to the Final Four as a seventh seed in the East, is hardly a Cinderella, coming from the Southeastern Conference. But the Gamecocks seemed more like bracket-filler than bracket-buster when they lost five of their last seven games before the NCAA Tournament.
The combination of high-scoring senior guard Sindarius Thornwell (Update: Thornwell missed practice Thursday afternoon before returning to practice on Friday with an illness) and some hellacious wear-you-down defense has been more than good enough in the past two weeks, however, as South Carolina knocked off the No. 2 (Duke), No. 3 (Baylor) and No. 4 (Florida) seeds in the East.
The Gamecocks, like Gonzaga, will be appearing in their first Final Four when the game tips off Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET in Glendale, Ariz.
"We're defending at a high clip again, which is allowing us to get out in the open court and get opportunities," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. "And our inside play has gotten good again. It kind of disappeared on us there the last month of the season. But our inside guys have played well in the NCAA Tournament."
The Gamecocks (26-10) will need that against a big Gonzaga frontline that features 7-foot, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski, blue-chip 7-foot freshman Zach Collins and 6-9 forward Johnathan Williams. The player who really makes the Zags go, though, is Washington transfer point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who was selected to the 10-man Wooden Award All-America team.
Williams-Goss had 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists as Gonzaga blew out Xavier 83-59 in the West Regional final, showing the offensive and defensive efficiency that have been season-long hallmarks. Critics might have doubted the Bulldogs' level of competition in the West Coast Conference, but Gonzaga showed steel in surviving the defensive pressure of fourth-seeded West Virginia in the Sweet 16.
Williams-Goss, Williams (a transfer from Missouri) and Cal transfer guard Jordan Mathews have helped transform Gonzaga (36-1) into a more dangerous, more athletic team.
"It was no secret that we were coming in here to do something as a collective unit," Williams-Goss said. "If we wanted to do things individually, we would have just stayed where we were at."
The best player on the court might be Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year. He is averaging 25.8 points in the NCAA Tournament, scoring at least 24 in each outing.
South Carolina can't be counted on to hit from 3-point range (33.7 percent for the season), but the Gamecocks allow just 29.8 percent from behind the arc.
They have forced an average of 17 turnovers in four NCAA Tournament games, outscoring every team in the second half by an average of 13.5 points. They unleashed a 65-point second half against Duke.
That defense will put a lot of pressure on Williams-Goss, who averages a team-high 16.7 points as well as 4.6 assists. Karnowski averages 12.2 points in a balanced scoring effort.
Martin counters inside with 6-9 Chris Silva and 6-10 freshman post Maik Kotsar, who has been playing well, including hitting a late mid-range jumper that was key to holding off Florida.
"We play in the SEC," Martin said Tuesday. "I understand some of you guys never watch us play, but, my god, anyone see Alabama play? They were big. Anyone see LSU? They were big.
"If we were one of those smaller mid-major schools, this is where you start kind of worrying if can you handle size. ... Our team has been exposed to everything: size, athleticism, winning, losing, good, bad, suspensions. Those kids have not thrown in the towel or blinked one time all year."
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Prediction: South Carolina senior guard Sindarius Thornwell is playing some of the best basketball in the country as of late, and the South Carolina defense is rounding into an extremely efficient group.
Gonzaga's Williams-Goss has been stellar, but will face an impressive defensive team that has been forcing turnovers at a high clip throughout the NCAA tournament.
Pick to win: South Carolina 70, Gonzaga 63