The hoops gods must like coincidences. The basketball programs of these two Jesuit schools, 2,000 miles apart, have mirrored each other with an eerie degree of fidelity over the last two decades.
No. 11 seed Xavier vs. No. 1 Gonzaga
Former Zags coach Dan Monson got the ball rolling in Spokane, Washington, with a trip to the Elite Eight in 1999. Mark Few stepped in the following season and has taken it from there.
Conversely, the Musketeers have minted a veritable who's who of up-and-coming head coaches over the last 20 years. The late Skip Prosser, Thad Matta and Sean Miller all made their contributions, and since 2009, Chris Mack has occupied this same career launch pad in Cincinnati. Like his predecessors, Mack is leading his team deep into the NCAA tournament with one hand and fending off job offers with the other.
One of these two programs is about to go to the Final Four for the first time in its school's history. The losing team will have been bested not by a Kentucky or a North Carolina, but by a fellow longtime sufferer in the "almost got there" green room.
That won't render a loss any more palatable, but it will almost certainly make for a suspenseful contest. The winner of this game is exceedingly likely to be the casual fan's sentimental favorite at the Final Four.
Make that a sentimental favorite who could win it all. Gonzaga and Xavier got here by playing some outstanding basketball.
The Bulldogs have ably navigated their way through a rather profound tournament-long shooting slump -- they've made just 29 percent of their 3s -- by visiting this same fate upon their opponents. No, the Northwestern Wildcats and South Dakota State Jackrabbits don't have the most high-powered offenses. Nevertheless, when you're limiting tournament opponents to just 37 percent shooting inside the arc, you are doing something very right on defense.
Gonzaga guard Jordan Mathews was the hero against West Virginia with his decisive 3 in the final minute, but Johnathan Williams and Przemek Karnowski got Gonzaga to that point. Those two were a combined 10-of-15 from the floor, while their teammates were just 8-of-29. If Nigel Williams-Goss can finally get unstuck in the tournament (or if Zach Collins attempts a shot, something he did not do against Press Virginia), the Bulldogs could at last have an excellent offense to go along with their suffocating defense.
For its part, Xavier has beaten two teams that were talked up at various points this season as potential No. 2 seeds -- the Maryland Terrapins and Florida State Seminoles -- and an actual No. 2 seed, Arizona. Few, if any, teams in the Elite Eight can boast a more impressive list of vanquished foes than the Musketeers.
Xavier carries an air of good fortune achieved through its great performances. It has been allowing opposing offenses to launch a high number of 3-point attempts, but so far, just 24 percent have been converted in NCAA tournament play. The odds say that can't continue forever, but the schedule says it doesn't have to -- the Musketeers need it to last only for three more games.
Besides, the sheer number of points scored by this offense, and especially by Trevon Bluiett, has defied the odds in its own way. Bluiett is averaging 25 points per game in the tournament, and he's scoring those points with a high level of efficiency. With the junior wing leading the way, and with big contributions from J.P. Macura and Malcolm Bernard, this offense has recorded 1.22 points per trip in its three NCAA tourney games.
Xavier is the underdog against Gonzaga, but the Musketeers have grown accustomed to hearing that term. The Bulldogs continue to be doubted and continue to win, albeit in a rather ungainly fashion.
One of these two teams is going to Glendale, Arizona, and will savor the delights of a full week of adulation that comes before a Final Four. Both teams are deserving, but the blunt winnowing force of the bracket says that only one of these teams will make history in 2017.
Bill Self's team is starting to look uncannily similar to last year's Villanova title team. Unstoppable offense, ridiculous shooting, sharing the ball, a tad on the small side -- it's all there.
In the Jayhawks' 98-66 dismantling of what was previously regarded as a formidable Purdue team, Frank Mason III and Devonte' Graham did most of the damage (to the tune of 26 points apiece). As with all scary-good offenses, however, the leading scorers in any individual game are almost beside the point. When you're connecting on 47 percent of your 3s and 60 percent of your 2s, as KU is in the tournament, Mason can lead that charge one game, Josh Jackson the next and, who knows, Dwight Coleby the game after that.
The question now is simply whether any team can stop this Jayhawks offense.
If Oregon still had Chris Boucher, this would have been a very interesting query indeed. Before he suffered a knee injury in the Pac-12 tournament and was lost for the remainder of the postseason, the senior was one of the few players nationally who could both keep pace with the Jayhawks in transition and defend the rim. Conversely, without their leading shot-blocker, the Ducks' odds of drawing Kansas into a tense defensive struggle appear to be remote.
On the other hand, the Ducks don't particularly want to get into a tense defensive struggle. That's not how Oregon is built. Against Michigan, the Ducks turned the ball over just five times in 66 possessions, and Tyler Dorsey and Jordan Bell combined for 36 points. With a microscopic minimum of giveaways and a penchant for timely offensive boards (take a bow, Mr. Bell), Dillon Brooks & Co. have simply been generating more shots than their tournament opponents.
When Kansas has the ball, Oregon will rightly be concerned with stopping a KU transition offense that has blown opponents off the floor over the last 120 minutes. The best building block for good transition defense is to make your shots on offense, and this is where, at least on paper, the Jayhawks could finally meet some resistance on the break.
Few teams remaining in the bracket have tournament numbers that more closely resemble their regular-season profile than the Ducks, and a prominent feature of the Oregon Way is accuracy. In the tournament, the Ducks are making their shots from both sides of the arc.
If that continues, the lowly underdog (ha!) 3-seed has a chance. If it doesn't, well, let's put it this way: The Jayhawks look like they finally got fed up with hearing about how all they ever do is win close games. Kansas doesn't play close games anymore.