Ahead of this weekend’s men’s Sweet 16 games, we’re breaking down why each of the remaining teams will and won’t make the Final Four. We’ll go region by region, focusing here on the West (click here for the East, here for the South and here for the Midwest), where Gonzaga, Creighton, USC and Oregon compete for a spot in college basketball’s final weekend.
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 5 Creighton (Sunday, 2:40 p.m. ET, CBS)
How it got here: Beat No. 16 Norfolk State, 98–55; beat No. 8 Oklahoma, 87–71
Why it will make the Final Four: In its two NCAA tournament wins, Gonzaga did nothing to dissuade us from the notion that this is the clear-cut best team in the country. The Bulldogs nearly put up 100 against poor Norfolk State, then shot 49.1% from the field and went 23 for 26 from the free-throw line in a mostly stress-free win over Oklahoma. The Sooners, a good but flawed team, shot 50% from the field as a team and only turned the ball over 13 times, yet couldn’t get within single digits after halftime. The Zags have an extra gear offensively, both in terms of efficiency and pace, that no team in the field has demonstrated this season. Their three stars—Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme—can each take over a game on a given night. If all three are clicking simultaneously, then this tournament is a wrap.
Why it won’t make the Final Four: It’s hard to envision Creighton taking down Gonzaga, barring some really flukish outcomes. The Bluejays have a balanced, experienced lineup that’s smaller and not quite as up-tempo as the Zags. An Elite Eight matchup against USC or Oregon presents a much tougher test. The Trojans and Ducks are similarly explosive athletically, with USC being the longer and better defensive team and Oregon having a slightly more efficient offense with better shooting. Gonzaga will go down to either of these teams if that length and athleticism provides too big of a step up in competition compared to what it's faced since WCC play began. Using games from November as reference points isn’t the most practical exercise come March, but it’s worth noting that two of Gonzaga’s biggest résumé-building nonconference wins—Kansas and Iowa—were just run off the court by USC and Oregon, respectively.
How it got here: Beat No. 12 UC Santa Barbara, 63–62; beat No. 13 Ohio, 72–58
Why it will make the Final Four: After a first-round scare against the Gauchos, Creighton was business-like in its win over Ohio. All five starters scored in double figures, and the Bluejays held the Bobcats to 31.8% shooting from the field. To beat Gonzaga, those five will all need to pitch in again, and most importantly avoid foul trouble. The Bulldogs rank 21st nationally in free throw attempts per game, and Creighton does not have the depth to rely on its bench for long stretches. Junior Christian Bishop, who at 6’ 7” is Creighton’s tallest starter, and has grabbed 26 rebounds over his two tournament games. He’ll need to continue that rebounding clip if the Bluejays are to contend with their taller competition in the West.
Why it won’t make the Final Four: Going from playing UCSB and Ohio to Gonzaga in the span of less than a week is a steep challenge. Creighton won’t be able to out-rebound the Bulldogs, and it won’t beat them on the boards. Its best chance is for Marcus Zegarowski, Mitchell Ballock and Denzel Mahoney to all get hot from deep, and that’s too simplistic an approach to catch Gonzaga by surprise. If the Bluejays somehow pull off the upset of the season on Sunday and advance to the Elite Eight, USC or Oregon would both present their own set of challenges in length and speed.
No. 6 USC vs. No. 7 Oregon (Sunday, 9:45 p.m. ET, TBS)
How it got here: Beat No. 11 Drake, 72–56; beat No. 3 Kansas, 85–51
Why it will make the Final Four: No team in the field can match USC’s height and length, and all of its big men are light on their feet. Evan Mobley is the most talented player left in the tournament, and he’s peaking at the right time. The Pac-12 Player of the Year is averaging 18.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 3.8 blocks per game while shooting 57.4% from the field. With Mobley anchoring the back line, the Trojans’ defense has been elite all year, and they held both Kansas and Drake to under 30% shooting. The offense, though, can come and go sometimes. Right now, it’s on the come, with all of the Trojans’ supporting cast clicking. Going forward, the Trojans can’t rely on shooting as well from the field as they did against Kansas (57.1%, including 11 for 18 from deep). But if guys like Isaiah Mobley, Drew Peterson and Isaiah White can continue to supplement the scoring output from Evan Mobley and Tahj Eaddy, the Trojans have what it takes to be the last one’s standing in the West.
Why it won’t make the Final Four: Eaddy and Evan Mobley have been the most reliable sources of offense for USC all year, but a consistent third scoring option has been difficult to come by. Isaiah Mobley has been excellent in two games, but counting on him to continue his hot shooting from behind the arc doesn’t feel like a safe bet. The Trojans’ real Achilles’ heel this season has been at the free throw line. USC shoots 64.3% from the line—326th in the country. With two comfortable wins to this point, that weakness hasn’t come back to bite the Trojans yet. But if and when USC gets eliminated, it will likely be because of poor shooting from the stripe.
How it got here: Advanced to the second round due to a no-contest vs. No. 10 VCU; beat No. 2 Iowa, 95–80
Why it will make the Final Four: Dana Altman has earned a reputation for being something of a March maestro, and his résumé supports that narrative. This is his fifth trip to the Sweet 16 in the last nine seasons, and his Ducks are once again gelling when it matters most. Oregon is finally healthy, and the team is shooting 38.2% from deep on the season. It showed no signs of rust after missing out on its first-round game against VCU, running Iowa off the floor to the tune of 95 points on 55.9% shooting. The Ducks lost by 14 to USC in the teams’ only meeting on Feb. 22. To avoid the same fate, Oregon will need to improve its finishing inside the arc. The Ducks shot 7 for 17 (41.2%) from deep but just 16 for 40 (40%) on two-point attempts. Defensively, Iowa is far from USC, but Oregon shot 62.8% inside the three-point line against the Hawkeyes. If the Ducks’ guards can stretch defenses out and open up driving lanes for Chris Duarte, they have enough firepower to get past USC and continue their march to the Final Four.
Why it won’t make the Final Four: Like USC, Oregon probably won’t shoot as scorched-earth as it did in the second round going forward. That will be a problem against an elite defense like USC, or against the nation’s best offense in Gonzaga. In their most recent loss against rival Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament, the Ducks shot 24% on three-pointers on 25 attempts, so getting too reliant on the deep ball when they aren’t falling is a dangerous trap to fall into. If Oregon can’t adequately adjust to USC’s length a second time around, it won’t get a chance to go up against (most likely) Gonzaga. If the Ducks do move on to the regional final, they will need an Iowa-level offensive output to keep pace with the Zags.
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