By Ben Ramirez
The brackets have been busted, well except for 0.003 percent of them in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, and the Final Four is set. To call the 2017 NCAA March Madness Tournament exciting would be lowballing it. Close games, upsets, buzzer beaters, and more; this year has been a beautiful follow up to the 2016 National Championship game in which Kris Jenkins hit three at the buzzer to send Nova home with a win.
The weekend of April 1 will see a champion cut down the nets on the temporary baskets at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona, and who would have thought that these teams – besides their loyal fan bases that surely put their favorite teams as National Champs every year – would be the last four standing.
The University of Oregon had not been to the Final Four since their last national championship in 1939, the first year of the tournament. After scraping by the Michigan Wolverines in the Sweet 16, out played the number one-seeded Kansas Jayhawks physically out of the gates and turned out the lights after an offensive rebound led to a Tyler Dorsey trey.
Gonzaga University, despite being a one-seed, was doubted by many because of their weak strength of schedule in the West Coast Conference. After a string of close games in the first three games of the tournament, the Bulldogs hastily beat the Xavier Musketeers to advance to their first Final Four.
The University of South Carolina, the lowest seed in the Final Four (seven), came into the tournament winning four out of their last 10 games. Somehow, some way, the Gamecocks got to the Elite 8 where they – with the help of late game heroics led by Sindarius Thornwell – upset their Southeastern Conference rival, Florida Gators.
The University of North Carolina had the easiest road to the Final Four of the remaining teams. The Tar Heels continued to advance through the rounds without much of a contest until, facing the second-seeded Kentucky Wildcats, won with a game winning shot out of the hands of Luke Maye with 0.3 second left in the game.
If you pay attention to these four teams, a common theme can be spotted: they are gamers. They grind it out and fight to the last seconds and that can be seen not only in the tournament, but all year long. The Ducks had their fair share of buzzer beaters. The Gamecocks battled in the SEC all season and even had a quadruple overtime loss to Bama. The Bulldogs, despite not having too much competition in their conference, non-conference wins came against Arizona, Florida, and Iowa State, all in close games. And the Tar Heels, playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference – arguably the best basketball – had the privilege of seeing their powerhouse archrival Duke three times, losing two of three in thrilling, breath holding, white knuckle games.
Granted, all Final Four teams have talent. Good coaching will only take a team so far when they cannot make shots or play defense. But if the Tournament has been any indication, they know how to finish games. It took the buzzer sounding for them to stop fighting.
There are teams that have more talent, sure. One could argue that Kansas and Kentucky are two. Oregon beat Kansas by overpowering the Jayhawks on the boards and making their shots, but physicality on the blocks by Jordan Bell was a difference maker. It took a final second shot to put Carolina up over Kentucky and but great defense kept their freshman star, Malik Monk, to only 12 points.
There are talent on the Final Four teams, that is a given. But to make it as far as they have, that takes a willingness to keep the feet on the gas for 40 minutes. They fought their way through the season and into the tournament with relentless amounts of effort. And on April 3, a national champion will be crowned in Phoenix, a winner with the most resilience in college basketball.