The first semifinal matchup on Saturday night will make history no matter what happens. Neither South Carolina nor Gonzaga has ever played in the Final Four.
The No. 7 seed Gamecocks made an impressive run through the East Region field, beating No. 2 seed Duke, No. 3 seed Baylor, and No. 4 seed Florida to earn their Final Four slot. Those were all impressive victories. So, how did they do it? South Carolina’s masterful coach, Frank Martin, has developed the suffocating Gamecocks’ defense that has worn down opponent after opponent.
The Zags had an easier path to the Final Four. They beat No. 8 seed Northwestern, No. 4 seed West Virginia, and No. 11 seed Xavier. Gonzaga, under Coach Mark Few, has also been a defensive powerhouse.
I covered South Carolina last weekend at the East Regional in Brooklyn, New York. Here are four things you need to know about the Gamecocks before the Final Four kicks off on Saturday at 6:09 p.m. on CBS.
Defense Is Their Strength
According to guard PJ Dozier, defense is not only important, “it is what we hang our hats on.” He explained that the Gamecocks “make their offense out of their defense.” Martin has trained them to “interrupt everything that the opposing offense is trying to do.” Based on the East Regional results—and the Gamecocks’ ranking as second in the nation in defensive efficiency (Gonzaga is first)—it is safe to say Martin is nailing it, and that the players have bought in to his system.
It is no secret that 7’1”, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski is the centerpiece of Gonzaga’s top-ranked defense. This big man, the NCAA’s all-time winningest men’s basketball player (136 victories), has outstanding passing, rebounding, and footwork skills. Don’t be surprised if South Carolina big men Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar double team Gonzaga’s immovable threat. But whether or not the Gamecocks are able to work their defensive magic against Big Przem and Gonzaga, as South Carolina has done against other opponents throughout the tournament, will be the real key to this game.
Senior Leadership Has Been Critical
Maturity has proven to be important to success for teams in the Final Four over the years, and the Gamecocks have plenty of it. Justin McKee, Duane Notice, and Sindarius Thornwell are the three senior leaders on this team. Notice reflected on what it was like to lose a lot of games during their early years at South Carolina, when they didn’t have a lot of older players to lead the way. “Playing through losses and getting better allowed us to mature,” said Thornwell.
South Carolina will certainly need to draw on the experience, leadership, and determination of those three seniors in order to advance to the title game.Notice must lock up on Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams Goss, which will be no easy task.
And Thornwell, the SEC player of the year and Most Outstanding Player of the East Regional, must continue to excel, as he has done throughout the first few rounds of the NCAA tournament. He can truly do everything on the court. He leads his team in every key stat: points, rebounds, steals, and assists. Despite being the standout player of the tournament so far, he is still underrated. This game will give Thornwell another opportunity to prove he belongs not only in national player of the year conversations, but also in the NBA.
They Have Two Super Sophomores
The Gamecocks have more than just senior leadership on their side; Chris Silva and PJ Dozier are both sophomores who have been outstanding all season. Against Gonzaga, Silva must shut down Karnowski. Although he does not have Big Przem’s size, Silva showed the damage he can do down low against Duke when he had 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Dozier is an offensive weapon, which makes it risky for teams to double-team Thornwell. Dozier is playing his best basketball, having reached double digits in scoring in each of the NCAA tournament games.
These two South Carolina superstars are skilled, athletic, and will be ready for anything.
Their Attitude is More Important Than Technique
Martin said it himself: “Attitude comes first. We got to have guys that are going to believe in our mission, that are going to believe in what we want to do. Once they believe, then we can teach them the technique. It all starts with our mindset. We have got guys that are completely bought into what we do."
The Gamecocks have proven they have a relentless, ferocious mindset, and they will need that against Gonzaga. The Zags will be the toughest opponent they have faced all year, and South Carolina will need plenty of attitude and determination—and that suffocating defense—to survive the Zags and advance to the championship game on Monday night.
Photograph by Lance King/Getty Images (Thornwell)