The story Saturday is the same as it’s been since South Carolina beat Marquette. It’s not so much about the Gamecocks’ next opponent as it is how long the Gamecocks can keep dancing.
But that opponent has to count for something, especially when it’s a team that’s lost one of 37 games with the Associated Press Coach of the Year and a second-team All-American at two-guard.
Two Final Four rookies meet Saturday when the Gamecocks and Gonzaga throw down at University of Phoenix Stadium. It will be the third team USC has played in four games that spent some time in the country’s No. 1 ranking this year; it’s the fourth time in four games the Gamecocks are underdogs.
Nobody seems too sure of what’s going to happen. USC (26-10) is playing the best ball in the tournament, beating Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida with a mix of airtight defense and spread-it-out offense. The Bulldogs (36-1) were one of the most consistent teams in the country all season, but still face doubters over the softness of their schedule.
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“I don’t know how we match up with them,” USC coach Frank Martin said. “I’m one of those guys, I always feel we can’t match up against anybody, but I’m going to make the statement of the year: They’re real good.”
The Zags feature a 7-1, 300-pound center (Przemek Karnowski), a light-it-up guard (Nigel Williams-Goss) and a power forward in Johnathan Williams who USC saw two years ago when he was at Missouri. Despite their No. 1 seeding, not many thought they’d be here – West Virginia or Arizona was picked to be the champion of the regional.
Yet Gonzaga edged the Mountaineers and wasted Xavier, a surprise winner over Arizona. Against a team that likes to target the paint, USC’s defense is going to be tested.
“Gonzaga does a good job of getting the ball inside, and we haven’t seen that a lot in this tournament,” top defender Duane Notice said. “We’re going to have to do a good job of protecting the paint and make sure we make it hard for them to get post touches.”
USC will try to deny interior passes up top, with Notice, Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier hounding the ball-handlers around the arc. If the ball does reach the paint, Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar have to play the same tight defense they did against Baylor and Florida, while avoiding whistles.
“I’m not worried about the refs,” Kotsar said. “I’m worried about myself having to defend (Karnowski).”
Then the Gamecocks will have to try to replicate the offense that’s been so marvelous for the past two weeks. Thornwell is fine after a mild fever kept him out of practice Thursday, and the rest of the Gamecocks aren’t stressing shooting on a temporary court at a football field.
Gonzaga has to shoot on the same baskets.
The Gamecocks have been on the biggest thrill ride in their history, posting their winningest season and taking steps nobody thought they’d take. Gonzaga is the latest team to try and stop it.
That’s fine. USC doesn’t see itself as a Cinderella team. It’s a good team, a great team, and one that can take the final two steps.
“The outsiders consider it a Cinderella story,” Thornwell said. “We always felt we could compete with everybody in the country.”
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(7) SOUTH CAROLINA (26-10) vs. (1) GONZAGA (36-1)
What: National semifinal, NCAA Tournament
When: 6:09 p.m. Saturday
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
Radio: 107.5 FM