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  • With the NCAA tournament field cut to four teams, Gonzaga is the favorite to win the national championship.
By Luke Winn
March 30, 2017

Power Ranking the Final Four teams, in order of most to least likely to win the national championship:

1
1Gonzaga Bulldogs
No. 1 West

When facing the Zags, the first decision any defensive game-planner must make is how to defend the post—and particularly, how much attention to give 7'1" Przemek Karnowski, because so much of their offense flows through him on the blocks. Gonzaga has run an average of 15.8 possessions per game through the post during the NCAA tournament and 10.0 per game through Karnowski, who's personally generated 1.13 points per possession on his post-ups or passes:

(Chart data from SI's analysis of Synergy Sports Technology's game logs.)

Each of the Zags' four NCAA tournament opponents has taken a different approach to combating the Polish giant. No. 16 seed South Dakota State packed in to the extreme in round one; when Gonzaga looked to feed the ball inside, Karnowski's defender played behind him, but the Jackrabbits essentially put their 4-man in his lap and sagged a guard near the paint to obstruct the passing lane, daring the Zags' perimeter players to beat them with threes. If the ball did make it inside, South Dakota State preferred to dig with multiple guards rather than hard-double:

Northwestern's undersized defense post-doubled for most of 2016–17, and in his press conference prior to the second round, Gonzaga coach Mark Few said he expected that to continue. But the Wildcats threw a curveball, sagging their 4-man (like South Dakota State did) to prevent entries, then declining to instantly hard-double when Karnowski did get a post touch. Instead, Northwestern tried to sit its 5-man on Karnowski's right shoulder, then slide its 4-man along the baseline, later, to cut off a potential drop-step countermove to his bread-and-butter, the lefty hook.

In the Sweet 16, West Virginia created enough chaos with its press that it limited the Zags to just 13 post possessions. Occasionally, the Mountaineers let their 5-man play behind Karnowski and defend him one-on-one. But they also used more aggressive strategies, which are shown below: They got into low crouches and fought to front Karnowski, and if he did receive an entry, they ran a hard double at him with their 4-man while using a weakside guard or wing to step into the passing lane to the cutting Johnathan Williams III, who's Karnowski's favorite target for dunk assists.

Xavier mixed its defenses enough in the Elite Eight—alternating between man-to-man, 2–3 zone and 1-3-1 zone—that the Zags only had 12 post possessions, but they were so hot from outside that it didn't matter. When the Musketeers were in man, they often tried to three-quarter-front the post, sitting on Karnowski's high side when guards looked to enter the ball from the top of the key or near-wings. Once the ball reached Karnowski, typically via a high-arcing feed, they initially gave him a one-on-one look and then ran a strongside guard at him for a delayed double-team.

When the Zags did get a post feed through Xavier's 2–3 zone, the Musketeers sold out to stop Karnowski, collapsing three defenders and leaving multiple shooters open on the perimeter. I'm curious if South Carolina's 1-2-2 zone will adopt a similar strategy in the Final Four:

2
2North Carolina Tar Heels
No. 1 South

At full strength, the Tar Heels have a clear edge on Oregon, but how much will Joel Berry II's injured ankles matter in the Final Four? North Carolina’s junior point guard suffered a right-ankle sprain against Texas Southern in the tournament's opening round, sprained that ankle again in practice prior to the Elite Eight and then sprained his left ankle in that thrilling win over Kentucky. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams might have just been posturing, but on a Monday conference call he expressed concern over Berry's health. "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 just don't know."

What is clear through four NCAA tournament games in 2017 is that Berry isn't the same guy who brilliantly piloted the Tar Heels to the national title game in 2016. On this efficiency/usage matrix, compare his 2017 tourney games (in yellow, numbered by round) with his 2016 performances (in red, numbered by round). His usage rate, on average, is higher than it was last season, but his efficiency is significantly lower; he's already had three, sub-100 offensive rating games in this tourney after having none in 2016:

(Berry chart data from kenpom.com)

North Carolina has endured Berry's slump due to the unexpected offensive heroics of backup power forward Luke Maye and the expected continued stardom of Justin Jackson. The junior wing has become the toughest Tar Heels player to guard, as the assignment requires a defender to chase him off an exhausting parade of screens as well as guard him in isolation. In this possession from the Kentucky game, which is broken down screen-by-screen, Jackson sets two picks and runs off five of them, all in a matter of 18 seconds:

3
3Oregon Ducks
No. 3 Midwest

The question of whether the Ducks could survive after losing senior stretch-four Chris Boucher to an ACL tear in the Pac-12 tournament has been pretty well answered. In the Midwest Regional, they knocked off one of the nation's hottest teams (Michigan) and a prime national title contender playing a semi-home game (Kansas) to reach the Final Four. The best way to quantify how Oregon has changed is to calculate its adjusted efficiency splits with and without Boucher, who missed five games in March and two earlier in the season:

The Ducks' overall efficiency, with an adjusted margin of around plus-26, is the same in either situation, but they accomplish it by different means. With the 6'10" Boucher's rim protection, they were a stingy defensive team; without him they've dropped off slightly on defense but surged on offense while playing mostly four-guard lineups around center Jordan Bell.

Tyler Dorsey's high-usage, high-efficiency scoring run has been the key to this surge, and I expect Dorsey to try to do similar things to Tar Heels center Kennedy Meeks that he did to Kansas' Landen Lucas. In the GIF below, you'll see Oregon creating a two-man game on the strong side with Bell setting repeated ballscreens for Dorsey, eventually forcing Lucas to guard him in space, while the weak side is overloaded with three shooters:

4
4South Carolina Gamecocks
No. 7 East

For each tournament edition of the Power Rankings, I've been using a composite metric*—composed of six rating systems (KenPom, BPI, Sagarin, Massey, Dolphin and Matchup Zone) and SI's preseason projections, as a talent-and-coaching hedge—to calculate win-probability odds. The metric's final set of odds for reaching the title game and winning it all are below, and despite the Gamecocks' destruction of the East Regional, they're still at a measly 5.9%:

While the composite metric has Gonzaga as the clear, best title pick—in part because the Zags are perceived to have a much easier Final Four matchup than North Carolina does—oddsmakers do not agree. As of Tuesday, Westgate Las Vegas was siding heavily with North Carolina, giving the Tar Heels implied title odds of 44.4%, compared to 29.9% in the composite metric. Vegas is also slightly more bullish on South Carolina, giving it implied title odds of 11.1%:

(* Thanks, once again, to Seth Burn (@SethBurn) for converting the metrics to Pythagorean format, and John Ezekowitz (@JohnEzekowitz) for the log5 calculations.)

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