2017 Final Four

The FINAL FOUR tips off tomorrow. South Carolina and Gonzaga, then Oregon and North Carolina from Phoenix. And with three teams making their first appearance in the Big Dance, and North Carolina dealing with TWO ankle injuries on guard Joel Berry — in the words of Kevin Garnett: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!

So throw out the seeds. Forget that two No. 1s are still standing. Because it’s a new deck of cards. It’s a whole new set of circumstances and it’s four great coaches, South Carolina’s Frank Martin, Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Oregon’s Dana Altman and North Carolina’s Roy Williams — who have all managed the process perfectly so far — and now they need to close the deal in a stadium that’ll pack in 80K — not exactly your average environment, especially for three teams who have NEVER DONE THIS.

And for as battle-tested as all four of these teams are: THIS IS DIFFERENT. 80,000 seats. A football stadium. One shining moment. A different ball game.

Earlier in the week, I talked to Gonzaga coach Mark Few about it, and he acknowledged that it felt like the circus was coming to town.

36 and 1. Four straight in the tourney to beat back that ridiculous rap that they’re an overrated, overhyped mid major, that gets fat in a weak conference and will never get to a Final Four : that’s garbage. And a terrible take. Especially after watching them — grind out wins against Northwestern and West Virginia before blowing away Xavier.

But now they’re at the circus. And waiting for them under the Big Top is Frank Freaking Martin. And a team full of bullies that are ready to brawl. With Sindarius Thornwell lighting up the tourney — averaging almost 26 a game. A defense that shut down Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida — the toughest road to get here and not getting any easier for the Gamecocks and Martin, who came into the Jungle twice since winning South Carolina’s first tourney game in 44 YEARS. And he knows he’ll have a challenge with Mark Few’s team.

Martin’s team isn’t going to be scared. Not when they’re riding a heater and playing with all sorts of house money. Not when you’re Frank Martin and your team is fueled by ALL SORTS of self-belief. And not when Frank Martin is leading you into battle and there’s nothing you want to do for the man after he showed you the path to the Final Four. I love this matchup. Love both coaches, and their teams. And hate that one of them is going to get their heart ripped out. And most of all, hate that I have to predict a winner.  Absolutely hate it. But if I have to I’ll say this: there was an awful lot to like about the Zags coming into the tourney… and even more to like about them now. They have tremendous depth, balance, weapons and will lock you up defensively. While South Carolina is one of the best stories ever, this is the best Zags team Mark Few has ever had.  Consider this NOT, NOT a pick against my man Frank Martin, but a pick for Mark Few and the Zags. I just think they’re too deep, too big, too skilled, and too active defensively.  I’m taking the Zags in another of what Mark Few likes to call, a rock fight.

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