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NCAA Basketball: Old underdog vs. new underdog

PHOENIX, Arizona--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.

North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams, right, watches forward Justin Jackson during practice for the NCAA Final Four on Friday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona. Robert Deutsch / USA TODAY Sports
North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams, right, watches forward Justin Jackson during practice for the NCAA Final Four on Friday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona. Robert Deutsch / USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX, Arizona-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 and some hellacious wear-you-down defense has been more than good enough in the past two weeks, however, as SouthCarolina 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."

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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.

"His kind of whole package is very dangerous," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "Just kind of the intensity that he brings to the game. He can hurt you on the glass. He can hurt you shooting it. He can hurt you off the bounce. He gets to the free throw line a lot. Yeah, he's definitely going to be a handful."

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.

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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."

Surprising Oregon faces old-school UNC

North Carolina is the best rebounding team in the country. Oregon is down a big guy.

The Tar Heels reek of old-school. They are the only blue-blood in the Final Four. They have an old-school coach in Roy Williams. They have an old-school, low-post big man in Kennedy Meeks, who dominated Kentucky in the South Regional final, grabbing 17 rebounds and blocking four shots.

North Carolina (31-7) has a national-best rebounding margin of plus-13 per game. And the Tar Heels are rebounding nearly 42 percent of their missed shots entering Saturday's game in Glendale, Ariz., tipping off at 8:49 p.m. ET.

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"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. And Kennedy does a great job rebounding the basketball. ...

"I do think you have to have some guys that can make 3-point shots. 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."

Oregon (33-5) provides a contrast. It is a good rebounding team, too, although not like North Carolina. The Ducks do it more through athleticism and effort, especially after losing shot-blocking stretch-forward Chris Boucher to a torn ACL in the Pac-12 tournament.

The Ducks, playing in their first Final Four since winning the inaugural NCAA Tournament in 1939, often play with 6-foot-7 wing Dillon Brooks at power forward next to active 6-9 center Jordan Bell.

Bell had 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks in a 74-60 takedown of overall No. 1 seed Kansas in an Elite Eight game in Kansas City, Mo.

"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 they were not going to get easy baskets," Ducks coach Dana Altman said.

While many wrote off Oregon after the Boucher injury, the Ducks got hot behind a tight rotation that is not going much past six players.

Sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey has scored at least 20 points in seven consecutive games. He made 25 of 40 3-point shots in the past six games.

Bell, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, has double-digit rebounds in six straight games. Hardly anyone plays harder than Brooks, the Pac-12 Player of the Year who is averaging 16.3 points per game.

"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."

Much of the focus before Saturday will be on the health of North Carolina point guard Joel Berry II, who is dealing with two balky ankles.

"Hopefully by the time we get to Thursday or Friday, he'll be able to do some things in practice," Williams said, "but I'm scared to death right now because I don't know."

The Tar Heels have been led all season by All-America wing Justin Jackson, who is averaging 18.2 points per game and shooting 38 percent from 3-point range (101 of 266). Berry is averaging 14.6 points, Meeks is at 12.3, and forward Isaiah Hicks scores 12.1 per game.

Forward Luke Maye came off the bench to average 16.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in two games in the South regional in Memphis. His jumper with 0.3 seconds left beat Kentucky 75-73.

North Carolina, which was the top seed in the South, is in the Final Four for the second consecutive season, having lost in the 2016 final when Villanova's Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. The Ducks, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest, have taken a step further than last season, when they lost in the Elite Eight.

"This is a bigger stage," Altman said. "Our guys are aware of that."

Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Zach Collins warms up during practice for the NCAA Final Four on Friday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona. Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports
Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Zach Collins warms up during practice for the NCAA Final Four on Friday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona. Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports

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