Tar Heels play rope-a-dope with opponents they should clobber

The grand finale of March Madness may have a touch of anticlimax. The best game in the Final Four is likely to be a semi-final: North Carolina and Oregon in Phoenix on Saturday night (7:49 CST). And even that may not be as compelling a contest as Carolina-Kentucky was in the Midwest Regional.

Gonzaga, which will play feisty South Carolina in the opening semifinal (5:09 CST), is a narrow favorite over North Carolina, 7-5 to 8-5, to win college basketball’s championship.

The Zags are 36-1, but they played a mid-major schedule and drew some favorable bracketing for the Madness. It seems a bit much to expect them to stand up to the biggest of the big boys on the biggest of stages.

It’s not that the gambling houses of Vegas think the Zags are the best team, but that they have the easier road to the Sunday final.

The Bulldogs’ semifinal opponent, the Gamecocks, are a 7-seed that lost five of their last seven games entering the NCAAs, where they hadn’t won a game in 43 years.

Led by the splendidly named Sindarius Thornwell, Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, they’ve played the most tenacious defense of anyone in the tournament. That’s a tribute to Thornwell and coach Frank Martin, who in four years has rebuilt a strong program out of rubble.

South Carolina may be an even closer relative of Cinderella than Gonzaga is. Both Gonzaga and SC are in the Final Four for the first time ever, but the Zags are more experienced dancers and should survive the very game Gamecocks.

This is a spring in which no super-team has blossomed. And so far, no truly dominating player to project as a championship cornerstone in the pros. To be frank, this NCAA Tournament is probably not one that will be widely remembered.

Based on what we’re seeing so far, the high lottery picks are not worth what they used to be.

Two of the near-super teams, Kentucky and Kansas, lost in the Elite Eight. Two others – Duke and UCLA – dropped out earlier with miserable performances.

When UCLA flopped, 86-75, to Kentucky, Lonzo Ball, the next Magic Johnson, looked more like Rajon Rondo. He was 4-of-10 shooting (1-of-6 on 3’s) with 10 points, 8 assists, 4 turnovers. The player he was supposed to defend, De’Aaron Fox, exploded for 39 points. He ran through Ball like he was a stalk of corn.

The Bruins trailed by just 3 points at the half, but as Ball said in an interview with ESPN, “After halftime our defense really slipped.” Especially his.

One factor may have been Steve Alford’s unimaginative coaching. He stuck doggedly to a 3-2 zone that Kentucky’s sharp-shooting guards exploited.

But what about offense?

“I try to let the game come to me,” Ball said. “I try to get my teammates involved first. Unfortunately they couldn’t get anything going either. We all had a bad night.”

Which tells me he’s more of a complementary player than a championship maker.

Magic Johnson would have called his own shots. So would Steph Curry, who LaVar Ball had the temerity to say is not as fine a player as his son.

Papa Ball was more subdued after the Bruins came home early. He said Lonzo needs to get stronger and faster and “has to learn there are certain times when you can’t wait to get everybody to get going before you get going.”

Lonzo, who looked uncomfortable sitting next to his blustery dad on First Take, has been projected by ESPN.com to be the No. 2 choice in the next NBA Draft, behind Josh Jackson of Kansas, slated for Boston. The Celtics have the top pick thanks to a larcenous trade with Brooklyn that never stops giving.

While Ball is burdened by his omnipresent father, Jackson has heavier off-court baggage, a series of misadventures that led to a suspension. The most disturbing incident was cited in a police affidavit that accused him of threatening violence against a women’s basketball player.

De’Aaron Fox, who some NBA scouts see as on par with Ball and Jackson in talent, was looking like the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. But then he faced the blue wall of North Carolina, and he retreated: 13 points, 5-for-14 shooting, 4 personal fouls that limited him to 24 minutes. The Wildcats lost, but valiantly, 75-73 to the Tar Heels.

Far from invincible at 31-7, NC will be tested by Oregon, which is in the Final Four for the first time since 1939. Is this yet another Cinderella?

The most shocking score of the entire tournament was Oregon 74-60 in Kansas City, which made it a home game for the Jayhawks, No. 1 seed in the overloaded Midwest.

The Ducks’ rise through the brackets is due in large part to a very large, quickly moving part, 6-9, 230-pound power forward Jordan Bell. He blocked eight Kansas shots and altered as many.

He had 13 rebounds and 11 points and had the scouts buzzing, raising his draft prospects from mid-second round to mid-first.

The Ducks might be the favorite here if not for losing their rim protector, Chris Boucher, to a torn ACL in the Pac-12 Tournament. Without Boucher, they’re forced to rely on a 3-guard attack and a rotation of only seven players.

But the absence of Boucher has been offset to an astonishing degree by the expansion of Bell’s game. He’s a center whenever he needs to be. He covers the entire paint and so far in the tournament has outmuscled all his opponents.

While Bell dominates inside, Oregon attacks from the perimeter with Dillon Brooks, the Pac-12 Player of the Year and buzzer-beater specialist.

But Carolina’s Roy Williams can call on more troops, with his 9-man rotation, and should wear down the Ducks in the second half. Although the Tar Heels lack a superstar, they do have a steady scorer in 6-8 junior forward Justin Jackson, averaging 18.2 points.

If the Heels make it to the championship game, it could be close, because that’s how they play. They won by 3 over little Rhode Island, and they beat Michigan, the Big Ten’s fifth-best team, by 1. They’re not loaded with killer instinct.

They remind me of Muhammad Ali, playing rope a dope when he could knock you out if he really wanted to. While they sometimes show a touch of complacency, they’re a cohesive team, mutually supportive and clutchy.

The Tar Heels are covered in glory – six national titles – and are less likely than the Bulldogs or Gamecocks to feel the pressures of the final dance. Look for Justin Jackson, Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, to emerge as Most Outstanding Player, making the game-defining shots. This outcome is much in doubt, as it should be, but I’m expecting the blue-bloods of Carolina to prevail.

 

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