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5 X-Factors for South Carolina Gamecocks vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs Final Four Matchup

Gonzaga is no longer an underdog. The Bulldogs built their brand as the mid-major upstart who wrecked brackets in March. Now they are the favorite trying to avoid falling to another team making its own Cinderella run.

 

Both South Carolina and Gonzaga are making their first Final Four appearances. The journey each team took to get to this point is wildly different.

 

The top-seeded Bulldogs (36-1) spent a large chunk of the season ranked No. 1 in the nation. They combine an explosive offense with a stifling defense and opponents have had trouble figuring out how to fare well against either one. Gonzaga leads the nation in scoring margin, totaling 22.3 points per game more than its opponents.

 

The seventh-seeded Gamecocks (26-10) caught fire during the NCAA Tournament after losing five of seven games before it started. South Carolina has forced 17.2 turnovers per game and is outscoring opponents by 13.5 points in the second half in NCAA Tournament games.

 

It sets up for a memorable Final Four battle. Here are five x-factors that could determine who prevails on Saturday night:

 

1. Defense vs. defense

Much like it did in the Sweet 16, Gonzaga gets to deal with another opponent who can match it in defensive toughness. The Gamecocks have a knack for making other teams work for every single shot and many opponents can't handle the pressure.

 

South Carolina allows just 64.9 points per game. They allow opponents to shoot 39.8 percent from the field and a meager 29.8 percent from the perimeter. The Gamecocks rank in the top 10 nationally in both turnovers forced and 3-point field goal defense. This ability to force bad shots and disrupt normal offensive rhythm has turned out to be a major catalyst driving second-half comebacks.

 

The Bulldogs are more than capable of winning a defensive battle. Gonzaga allows just 60.9 points per game and limits opponents to 36.5 percent shooting from the field. Taking care of the ball is also not a problem for the Bulldogs. They cough up only 11.4 turnovers per game.

 

2. Tall timber

Interior size has played in Gonzaga's favor in nearly every game this season. The Bulldogs have a pair of 7-footers in Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins who are challenging to defend around the paint.

 

Karnowski, a senior, is Gonzaga's most consistent post threat. His 7-foot, 300-pound frame makes him feel like a bruising lineman in the post for opponents. Karnowski takes up acres of space around the basket and limits teams from slashing to the rim or muscling their way to the glass to gather in a loose rebound.

 

Collins, a freshman, is a legitimate NBA-level talent. He is projected as a first-round pick in many mocks for the 2017 NBA Draft. Collins has had a strong season, averaging 9.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. He has size, length and enough versatility to attack opponents around the basket or step out and knock down a long-range shot.

 

3. Sindarius Thornwell

Before the NCAA Tournament, the South Carolina offense didn't do anything to strike fear into the hearts of any opponent. The Gamecocks averaged just 1.00 points per possession during the SEC portion of their schedule – good for 11th in the 14-team league.

 

It all changed in the NCAA Tournament because of Thornwell. His impact has been felt on both ends of the floor as a defensive leader and dynamic scorer. Thornwell has put South Carolina on his back in March and the results have been spectacular.

 

In four NCAA Tournament games, Thornwell has averaged 25.8 points on 50 percent shooting. He has shot 40 percent or better from the perimeter in three out of four games. This is his best production since stringing together five straight games with 20-plus points in mid-February.

 

Thornwell does well at creating his own shot and getting to the free throw line. If he gets going early, it could cause major headaches for Gonzaga.

 

4. Nigel Williams-Goss

No player is a better barometer for how a game will go for Gonzaga than Williams-Goss. When the junior guard is in a groove offensively, the Bulldogs can bury any team in a hurry.

 

Williams-Goss is an electric playmaker. The Washington transfer averages a team-high 16.7 points and dishes out 4.6 assists per contest. He enjoyed his finest game of the Tournament against Xavier, posting 23 points, eight rebounds and four assists to help Gonzaga reach the Final Four for the first time in school history.

 

If Williams-Goss can knock down mid-range jumpers and long-distance baskets, it will force South Carolina away from the basket and open it up for Karnowski and Collins to do some damage down low. If not, the Gamecocks can have more freedom to swarm the Bulldogs' big men in the paint.

 

5. Who can handle the pressure?

Both Gonzaga and South Carolina showed tremendous composure to get to Glendale. The Bulldogs outlasted West Virginia in the final minute and held off a second-half rally from Northwestern. The Gamecocks mounted second-half rallies after trailing at halftime in three of their four games.

 

The pressure will be much more intense for both teams this time around. Neither school is accustomed to playing in a Final Four setting. Jitters could be a real thing.

 

Gonzaga does have more NCAA Tournament experience to draw on. The Bulldogs have played in the Tournament every season dating back to 1999. Before this season, South Carolina had not even won a NCAA Tournament game since 1973.

 

The outcome will likely hinge on which team can get off to a good start. The Gamecocks are a strong second-half team, but Gonzaga rarely surrenders leads once it gets up by double digits on an opponent. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, have played few close games this season and could struggle if it is a one- or two-possession game down the stretch.

 

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.