March Madness: Final Four set

It began with 68 teams two weeks ago, all pursuing the same goal – to become one of the last four teams playing in Phoenix. The field is now set in the sports world’s premiere spring event, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, which takes place April 1 and 3.

The North Carolina Tar Heels, Oregon Ducks, Gonzaga Bulldogs and South Carolina Gamecocks have all received their invitation to the big dance. Who will be the sole survivor? It’s anyone’s guess at this point. The four teams have defied the odds and they alone will command center stage for all the world to witness on college basketball’s grandest stage.

The first of two semifinal games will feature a pair of schools who have never reached the Final Four – Gonzaga and South Carolina. Hear is a glimpse at all four teams.

  • The Gonzaga Bulldogs have made 19 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament but have never participated in the final weekend. Gonzaga was once considered a nice little Cinderella story, happy to just make it to the dance and get lucky with an upset win. With their first trip to the Final Four the Bulldogs have cemented themselves as one college basketball’s best and most consistent programs over the past two decades.

Coach Mark Few’s squad finished the season 32-1, once again dominating the West Coast Conference. They entered the tournament as the No. 1 seeded team in the West Region and certainly lived up to the seed.

The Zags feature five players who average double digits, led by guard Nigel Williams-Goss (16 ppg.) and Przemek Karnowski (12.6 ppg)

“The Final Four doesn’t validate or discredit a season,” said junior forward Johnathan Williams. “It’s not an end-all, be-all. Gonzaga has been a great program and we’re just happy to keep carrying the torch.”

  • The South Carolina Gamecocks are clearly the Cinderella story of this year’s tournament. They finished fourth in the SEC (26-10) and entered the NCAA tournament as a seventh seed in the East Region. To say coach Frank Martin’s men are peaking at the right time is an understatement. Their path to the Final Four included an upset of No. 2 seed and perennial powerhouse Duke and the demolition of No. 3 seed Baylor.

The Gamecocks are led by senior guard Sindarius Thornwell (21 ppg.), sophomore guard P.J. Dozier (13 ppg.), senior guard Duane Notice (10 ppg.) and sophomore forward Chris Silva (10 ppg.).

Despite being a higher seed Thornwell just wanted the Gamecocks to get their opportunity.

“All I was looking for was a chance,” he said. “Once we got a chance, I thought let’s just see what we can do. Let’s see if we can prove people wrong.”

  • The Oregon Ducks take on North Carolina in the second semifinal game .When you think of Oregon athletics you normally think of high-flying offensive football. Now the basketball team has moved into the spotlight. This isn’t the first time Oregon has been to the Final Four; it’s just been a long time, 78 years to be exact. They won the national championship in 1939.

This year the Ducks finished as the top team in a very competitive PAC 12 conference (33-5). They entered the dance as a No. 3 seed and are now the champions of the Midwest Region.

“I am so happy for our team, our staff, our university,” coach Dana Altman said. “1939 was a long time ago, and I think everybody will be pretty excited about the opportunity to go to Phoenix and play for a national title.”

Altman’s team is known for its explosive offense, but the Duck’s defense has dominated in the NCAA tournament. Center Jordan Bell set the defensive tone throughout the Sweet 16 shutting down the paint and protecting the rim. He was named the region’s MVP.

  • The North Carolina Tar Heels are synonymous with college basketball and the team was runner-up in last year’s Final Four. This year marks the Tar Heels’ 20th appearance in the Final Four. They have been champions five times and runners-up five times. They will arrive to the big dance off the heels of the most exciting game of the Sweet 16, a thrilling, buzzer-beating shot to defeat a very worthy Kentucky team 75-73.

The Tar Heels are led by Tomball native and junior forward Justin Jackson (18 ppg.), junior guard Joel Berry II (14 ppg.) and senior forward Kennedy Meeks (12 ppg.).

Because of their experience, most experts believe North Carolina will be the team to beat.