ELITE 8 GAME PREVIEWS (EAST and SOUTH REGION)


SOUTH CAROLINA VS FLORIDA 2:20PM

Even the most ardent fan of the SEC couldn’t possibly have predicted that the University of Florida — the #4 seed in the East region — and the University of South Carolina — the #7 seed in the region — would be the two teams to make it to the Elite Eight.

That’s especially the case, given the improbably way both teams arrived at this point in the tournament. Heading into the tournament, South Carolina hadn’t won a single tournament game since 1973. The Gamecocks, who hadn’t won a tournament game since 1973, got their third this year. Their head coach, Frank Martin, wondered if he’d ever get back to an Elite Eight, after his Kansas State team — who was a #2 seed — lost to Butler in 2010.

But after defeating Marquette in the opening round, then busting brackets everywhere with their shocking upset of Duke, South Carolina continued their march in March with a beat down of Baylor University, by a 70-50 score. It was their second time in three tournament games that they advanced after beating a team by 20 points.

There might not be a single player in the tournament right now that’s more valuable to his team than senior South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell. After putting up 24 points and six rebounds in the win against Baylor, he’s averaging 25.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game during the Gamecocks run.

The Gamecocks will take on the Gators this Sunday (tipoff is set for 2:20pm EST), in a match up that looks more like it should be taking place on the gridiron in October, as opposed to the hardwood in March.

South Carolina will be facing a Florida team that has to be totally spent, both physically and

SOUTH CAROLINA HEAD COACH FRANK MARTIN

emotionally, after emerging from their win over Wisconsin — a game that turned out to be the most thrilling tournament game we’ve had this year so far.

The Gators blew an 11 point lead with 5:24 left in the game, with Wisconsin guard Zak Showalter hitting a three point shot with three seconds left, to send the game into overtime.

From then onward, it looked like the more-experienced Wisconsin squad — making their fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance — had the momentum on their side, and would pull away with the victory.  Wisconsin never trailed Florida throughout the extra session, until junior Florida guard Chris Chiozza took off with the in-bounds pass with four seconds left, sprinted down the court, and heaved up a running three-point attempt with time expiring, and watched it go through the hoop. That gave Florida an 84-83 win.

Florida is now in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2014, and for the first time under head coach Mike White.

For all the talk about the SEC being one of the weaker conferences in college basketball this year, the conference had five of its 14 teams make it into the NCAA Tournament, and three of the Elite Eight teams coming from the conference. With the Gamecocks and Gators being the last two teams standing in the East region, the SEC is guaranteed to have a team in the Final Four as well.

NORTH CAROLINA VS KENTUCKY 5:05PM

Less than six minutes into the game, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels took a three point lead over the Butler Bulldogs. It was a lead they would not relinquish for the rest of the game.

KENTUCKY HEAD COACH JOHN CALIPARI

The Tar Heels defeated the Bulldogs by a score of 92-80, reaching the Elite Eight for 26th time in program history. Sophomore forward Luke Maye was the unheralded hero for the Tar Heels in their win, recording his first career double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds. Of course, the usual cast of stars for North Carolina, like Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II, weren’t exactly missing in action themselves. Berry led all scorers with 26 points in the game, while Jackson had a well-rounded stat line of 24 points, five assists, and five rebounds.

Butler did manage to score 80 points in the loss, which was the third highest point total that the Tar Heels have allowed since the end of January. But North Carolina’s defense made it very difficult for Butler to attempt any quality shots all evening, forcing the Bulldogs players to settle for lots of contested looks, many of which stopped falling as the game wore on. At one point, the Tar Heels held a 20 point lead over the Bulldogs.

After a somewhat narrow victory over the University of Arkansas, many observers began to question whether North Carolina’s title hopes were as realistic as were previously made to believe. However, this beat down of Butler re-established the Tar Heels as one of the top contenders remaining in the tournament.

If the Tar Heels are to make the trip out to Phoenix for back-to-back Final Four appearances, they’ll have to get through John Calipari and the University of Kentucky Wildcats to do so. Calipari led Kentucky to its third Final Four in four years, after the Wildcats defeated the UCLA Bruins by a 86-75 score on Friday evening.

With most of the national chatter surrounding the Ball family, between freshman phenom Lonzo Ball (who’s sure to be a top three selection in the upcoming 2017 NBA Draft, and his father Lavar Ball (who’s been making outrageous proclamations to anyone who’ll give him the air time to do so), it was a freshman phenom from Kentucky who ended up headlining the evening.

De’Aaron Fox of the Wildcats scored a career-high 39 points, while thoroughly outplaying Lonzo Ball on the biggest stage of their respective careers to date. Fox’s star freshman teammate Malik Monk added 21 points as well. In general, Kentucky exposed what many people who doubted UCLA believed: the Bruins were able to stockpile a lot of victories this season, by virtue of having more talent than the other teams. But when they played a team with as much talent and offensive firepower as they have themselves, the results were very different.

The match-up between North Carolina and Kentucky figures to be one of the best games of the tournament so far. It’s the only region that has gone “chalk,” with the top two seeds advancing to the Elite Eight. Both teams have coaches with championship pedigree, and players who are among the very best in the nation. They’ll tip off at 5:05pm EST on Sunday afternoon.

 

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