This is nothing new for North Carolina. By edging No. 2 seed Kentucky in a thrilling regional final in Memphis on Sunday, the Tar Heels clinched their 20th Final Four berth. By contrast, Oregon is making its first trip to the national semifinals since the FDR administration, and neither Gonzaga nor South Carolina has ever made it to the NCAA tournament’s final weekend of action. With its star power, NBA talent and experience, coach Roy Williams’s team looks poised to take the step it couldn’t a year ago, when it fell to Villanova in the national title game thanks to one of the greatest shots in college basketball history. North Carolina is favored in its matchup against the No. 3 seed Ducks, but this tourney has offered the latest reminder that things tend to get weird in March. A panel of SI writers made its picks for that game, as well as the other Final Four tilt between the No. 7 seed Gamecocks and No. 1 seed Zags.
North Carolina (1) vs. Oregon (3)
The Ducks aren't done knocking out bluebloods. Yes, they're thin on the interior without injured senior Chris Boucher, but Jordan Bell is an elite defender who can battle with Tar Heels center Kennedy Meeks. On offense, Tyler Dorsey has emerged as the tournament's scariest perimeter scorer, and Dillon Brooks still has a few, huge tournament shots in him. The analytics say North Carolina is the better team, but look for Brooks to work his endgame magic in Phoenix, isolating for points multiple times in the final minutes. College basketball is long overdue for an all-West Coast title game, and although CBS wants Gonzaga-North Carolina, Zags-vs.-Ducks would make for equally great basketball.
Oregon 78, North Carolina 76
Seth Davis:North Carolina
There is a huge X factor in play here with respect to the health of Joel Berry. If the Tar Heels’ point guard can’t play or is badly hobbled, then that would greatly diminish their chances to win. That aside, I still like the Heels because I think their front line has the capacity to overwhelm the Ducks, despite the presence of the Everywhere Man, Jordan Bell. Moreover, North Carolina’s defense is vastly underrated. Justin Jackson blanketed Malik Monk for most of the Heels' regional final win over Kentucky, and I think he and Theo Pinson can do the same in helping to limit Dillon Brooks. I am also of the belief that Luke Maye’s sudden emergence in the postseason is no fluke. This isn’t a case of a guy playing above his pay grade. It’s a player who was finally given an opportunity to shine, and showing what he is capable of doing, and doing again.
North Carolina 79, Oregon 75
Pete Thamel: North Carolina
Few players have been as dominant in this NCAA tournament as Oregon’s Jordan Bell, who is shooting a near unconscious 22-for-30 from the field and averaging 12.5 rebounds and 12.5 points per game. For North Carolina to out-duel the Ducks—and make no mistake, this will be an up-tempo game—they’ll need to make sure Bell doesn’t put up another virtuoso do-it-all performance. UNC is the best and most balanced team remaining in the NCAAs, with its size, age and experience all showing in outlasting Kentucky on Sunday night. (A sun-kissed jumper from Luke Maye helped, too). Look for UNC to outrun Oregon, as the Heels are just a pinch better than the Ducks at their own game. UNC should have an edge on the offensive glass, as it is the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country and Oregon ranks 180th nationally at giving up offensive rebounds.
North Carolina 80, Oregon 77
Brian Hamilton: North Carolina
Jordan Bell is better than any of North Carolina's big men. The 6'9" Oregon forward has three double-doubles in four tourney games and just gave Kansas' frontline PTSD with eight blocks in the Midwest Region final. But the Tar Heels' quantity of big men, and the team's overall effectiveness on the offensive glass, should mitigate the biggest advantage the Ducks had in reaching the Final Four. Here's guessing North Carolina sees an uptick in its three-point shooting after five straight games of sub-40% efficiency, and that's enough offense to counteract the wizardry of Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Brooks and propel it to a second straight championship game. (This also assumes Tar Heels' point guard Joel Berry II is playing after turning an ankle in the South Region final. If he doesn't, all bets are off.)
North Carolina 79, Oregon 73
Michael Beller: North Carolina
Oregon did an excellent job of forcing Kansas to play at its pace in the Elite Eight. The Ducks slowed down Frank Mason and Josh Jackson, ground the tempo to a halt, and executed in the half court, offensively and defensively. They’ll try to roll out the same script on Saturday, but I think they’ll have a much tougher time succeeding with the Tar Heels on the other side of the floor. The absence of Chris Boucher hasn’t hurt Oregon to this point, but it will against North Carolina. Without Boucher, Oregon is not equipped to keep Kennedy Meeks off the offensive glass, and it will be a real challenge to check Justin Jackson with Tyler Dorsey, who gives up four inches to Jackson, likely drawing that assignment.
North Carolina 81, Oregon 70
Gonzaga (1) vs. South Carolina (7)
Luke Winn: Gonzaga
The Zags already survived one battle with a high-pressure, turnover-creating defense (West Virginia's, in the Sweet 16) and they can survive another against South Carolina. Gonzaga's multitude of offensive options—between the interior might of Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams, the driving game of Nigel Williams-Goss and the long-range shooting of Jordan Mathews—makes it somewhat drought-proof on the scoring front. And its defense is playing at a peak level, having just held the Mountaineers and Xavier to an average of 0.844 points per possession in the West Regional. The Zags' ability to protect the rim will make the difference against the Gamecocks.
Gonzaga 69, South Carolina 64
Who knew Cinderella could be so tough? The Gamecocks made the Final Four with rugged, physical, precise defense. They also have been far more efficient and prolific offensively than they were during the regular season. Unfortunately, they are now going up against a team that, believe it or not, is even better defensively. The Zags are ranked No. 1 nationally in defensive efficiency; the Gamecocks are second. Gonzaga also showed in its Sweet Sixteen win over West Virginia that it has the mental toughness required to win a national championship. Yes, Gonzaga’s guards will be defended harder than they have all season, but this team can also counter with a massive front line of Przemek Karnowski, Johnathan Williams, Zach Collins and Killian Tillie.
Gonzaga 74, South Carolina 67
Pete Thamel: Gonzaga
The Gamecocks have billy-clubbed their way to the Final Four with a relentless defense. Florida shot 0-for-14 from three-point range in the second half against the Gamecocks in the Elite Eight, the latest in series of suffocating performances. Gonzaga is shifting its reputational paradigm with every victory, as the Zags have left behind their tags as athletically overmatched tourney underachievers. The most impressive part of this Gonzaga team is its size, as 7’1” Przemek Karnowski and 7’0” Zach Collins pose giant challenges for South Carolina’s frontline. This will be a test of wills, with Gonzaga eventually overpowering and out-muscling South Carolina. Imagine that? The Zags out-toughing a Final Four opponent.
Gonzaga 56, South Carolina 52
Brian Hamilton: Gonzaga
The question most will ask: How will the Zags score on that physical, unyielding South Carolina defense? The question everyone should ask: How are the Gamecocks going to score on Gonzaga? We have here the teams rated No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation in defensive efficiency, and Frank Martin does not coach technique or attitude for the No. 1 team. While Sindarius Thornwell and the Gamecocks no doubt have improved in this tournament, this will be the most rigorous test for an offense that wasn't terribly impressive for most of the year. Meanwhile, Mark Few's crew is balanced and should have more outlets for buckets when the going gets tough (as it surely will).
Gonzaga 72, South Carolina 64
Michael Beller: Gonzaga
South Carolina’s improbable run to the Final Four has been one of the best stories of this tournament, but it will come to an end on Saturday. Gonzaga can do anything South Carolina can do better. The Gamecocks have the No. 2 defense by kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency? The Bulldogs are No. 1. Sindarius Thornwell? The Bulldogs see that perimeter star, and present Nigel Williams-Goss. The Bulldogs also have two crucial offensive features the Gamecocks are lacking. The first is Przemek Karnowski and his running mate, Zach Collins. The Gamecocks are going to have serious trouble dealing with their size and efficiency in the paint. The second is four shooters who have made at least 40 threes this season, all while shooting 36.7% or better, led by Josh Perkins and Jordan Matthews. Mark Few’s long-awaited first trip to the Final Four won’t be cut down in its first game.
Gonzaga 77, South Carolina 57