Is No. 7 Oregon heading for another surprise NCAA Tournament run?

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MILWAUKEE — After No. 7 seed Oregon’s 87-68 win over No. 10 seed BYU on Thursday, the Ducks’ locker room wasn’t the typical scene you would expect after a big Oregon win.

Milwaukee-native Elgin Cook had a career game of 23 points and eight rebounds so the television cameras and reporters in the locker room crowded around the redshirt sophomore reserve forward as Oregon’s starters mostly sat around waiting to be addressed by reporters.

“Elgin was definitely the player of the game. He really gave this home crowd something to take home with them,” Oregon senior forward Mike Moser said. “You could say it’s kind of a surprise, but we see him every day and he’s one of the most athletic guys on the team so when we see him take the ball and dunk it on somebody’s head, it doesn’t surprise us. It’s more of, ‘It’s about time.'”

With reserves like Cook stepping up for a deep Oregon team, is it about time for the Ducks to make another surprise NCAA Tournament run?

The Ducks advanced to the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed last season after winning the Pac-12 Conference Tournament, and Oregon appears to be peaking at the right time heading into Saturday’s game against No. 2 seed Wisconsin in the West Regional’s Round of 32.

Performances like the one Cook had against BYU — in which Moser sat most of the second half with foul trouble and the Ducks shot only 2-for-13 from the three-point line after shooting 39 percent as a team this season — show why this Ducks team is once again a major threat to win multiple games in March. Oregon didn’t come close to bringing its ‘A’ game and still easily got past BYU on Thursday. The Ducks flew to the ball for most of the game, got 49 bench points and generally looked the part of a team that wants to make a statement in March.

“It’s definitely special, but it wouldn’t mean a thing if we didn’t get the win,” Cook said. “I think our guards did a good job of getting in the middle of the BYU zone and they found where I was comfortable at. My role is to come in, continue to play hard and play Oregon basketball and play as a team.”

Since an early February swing in which the Ducks lost by a combined total of four points to NCAA Tournament teams, Arizona and Arizona State, Oregon has rattled off nine wins in its last 10 games, with its only loss coming to 2014 Pac-12 Conference Tournament champion UCLA.

Ten different players played at least 23 games, and averaged 10-plus minutes a game for Oregon this season, so it doesn’t matter to the Ducks if a player like Moser gets in foul trouble in the second half of an NCAA Tournament game. Oregon’s players have the confidence that someone else will step in and fill the void.

“I was getting back loose and getting ready (to come back in), but thankfully we had guys step up and really close the game out,” Moser said of being on the sidelines in the second half. “I told them to just keep playing, even up 20. (At that point) I’m just a coach, (telling them to) just keep playing, play your heart out and don’t let them come back.”

Cook downplayed his special hometown performance on Thursday, a performance that included his mother appearing on the Bradley Center jumbotron smiling ear-to-ear and the sophomore getting a standing ovation from the Oregon faithful when he exited the game.

The sophomore didn’t know how many family and friends came out to see him play on Thursday, but said, “my phone is going crazy right now,” as he occasionally looked down at the white iPhone buzzing in his hand.

Oregon appears pretty comfortable in Milwaukee at the moment, even as a sea of Wisconsin red stuck around to see to see the Ducks dismantle BYU. Oregon will basically be playing a road game at Kohl Center East on Saturday against No. 2 seed Wisconsin, but that didn’t seem to faze them much after the game.

“I feel if we get stops and we can rebound it won’t be a slow-paced game (like Wisconsin wants),” Moser said of facing Wisconsin. “If that happens, we can impose that will that we want to run.”

With reserves like Cook stepping up for Moser and solid guard play from Joseph Young, Jason Calliste, Johnathan Loyd and Dominic Artis, the Ducks are confident heading into Saturday’s game against Wisconsin.

“The only thing that matters right now is that we continue to win,” Cook said. “I’ve never played at this level, so it’s definitely special, but it matters more if we win games.”

South Carolina advances to first Final Four in program history with win over Florida

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South Carolina entered this year’s NCAA tournament, their first NCAA tournament since 2004 and their fifth NCAA tournament in the last 43 years, having never won two consecutive tourney games in the history of the program.

On Sunday afternoon in Madison Square Garden, Frank Martin led the Gamecocks to their fourth straight win and their first trip to the Final Four.

Sindarius Thornwell scored 11 of his 26 points in the final 10 minutes, leading No. 7 seed South Carolina back from a 40-33 halftime deficit for a 77-70 win over No. 4 seed Florida. P.J. Dozier added 17 points and Chris Silva finished with a critical 13 points and nine boards, coming up with some huge offensive rebounds and hustle plays defensively in the second half.

After shooting 7-for-12 from three in the first half, Florida missed their all 14 attempts from beyond the arc in the second 20 minutes. South Carolina’s defense, which is second nationally this season, according to KenPom, and which allowed 40 points to the Gators in the first half, buckled down in the final minutes, forcing turnovers and taking the Gators out of what they wanted to do offensively. They shot just 11-for-35, or 31.4 percent, from the floor after halftime and didn’t get a clean look at the rim in the final five minutes of the game.

That’s how South Carolina plays. That’s who they are. It’s physical and it’s ugly and it’s just so effective when they’re able to make shots at the other end of the floor. And that is where this team has changed in March. The Gamecocks lost six of their last nine games heading into the NCAA tournament, failing to score more than 1.00 points-per-possession in five of those six losses.

But the story of this game isn’t how this South Carolina team has changed.

The story is how the program has changed.

The Gamecocks were a 10-win team that went 2-14 in the SEC the year before they Frank Martin away from Kansas State, a hire that was made thanks to a falling out with his athletic director, and boy, does that look like a coup now. He was responsible for leading Kansas State, which isn’t exactly a program known for basketball success, to their only Elite 8 since 1988. He’s now led South Carolina to their first Final Four in the history of the program.

South Carolina will advance to Phoenix to take on No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the Final Four.

A season of highs and lows ends for Kansas in the Elite 8 again

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For the second season in a row, Kansas was one-win shy of a Final Four appearance, falling to Oregon, 74-60, in the Elite Eight on Friday night at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.

This comes a year after Kansas, as the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, fell to eventual national champion Villanova in the Elite 8.

Just as stars such as Perry Ellis struggled in that regional final, so did KU’s freshman phenom Josh Jackson, whose quick two personal fouls that saddled him on the bench and appeared to take him out of the game mentally. Devonte’ Graham, averaging 20.0 points per game in the tournament, was 0-for-7 from the field. Frank Mason III’s first-half performance assured that Oregon would completely run away with the game before halftime.

The loss put an end to a tumultuous season for the Jayhawks.

Kansas entered the 2016-17 season as one of the favorites to win the national championship. The Jayhawks went on to win the Big 12 regular season title for an unprecedented 13th consecutive season. Frank Mason III, in the eyes of many, was the wire-to-wire national player of the year.

However, for all its accomplishments on the court, Kansas faced more than its share of issues off-the-court. Lagerald Vick, who was under university investigation for allegedly striking a female student. Carlton Bragg was arrested — and subsequently suspended — for drug paraphernalia. There was also the affidavit released a day before the start of the NCAA Tournament for the Jayhawks, detailing the incident outside a Lawerence bar from December involving both Vick and Josh Jackson. Even Devonte Graham’s arrest for an unpaid ticket made headlines during this string of non-basketball related news.

The Jayhawks downplayed talks of distraction before the start of the NCAA Tournament and backed it up by dominating opponents through the first three rounds. The average margin of victory was 30.0, and that includes victories over Michigan State and a 32-point beatdown of a Purdue team that held a massive mismatch on the interior.

It looked like Self was destined to add to his Hall of Fame résumé; a third trip to the Final Four — first since 2012 — was in front of essentially a home crowd. Instead, Oregon handed the Jayhawks their worst tournament defeat in the Bill Self era.

Seven times under Self, KU has made the Elite Eight and was sent home.

Perhaps, all would have been forgiven — or at the very least, overshadowed — had KU cut down the nets in Arizona.

Instead, its season ended in an all too familiar place.

Elite 8 Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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No. 4 FLORIDA (-3) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 2:20 p.m., CBS: If you’re a fan of uptempo, wide-open basketball, of teams running beautiful offensive sets, spreading the floor and using the three-point line like it should be used, this game probably is not going to be for you.

This is going to be as physical and as tough as any game you watched all season long. Both the Gamecocks and the Gators are top five teams in defensive efficiency, and both of them get out and pressure defensively, Florida in the full court and South Carolina in the half court. They shun shooters for the toughest athletes on their roster. They pride themselves in being tougher, both mentally and physically, than whoever they end up playing.

And they think that a game played in the 50s is beautiful basketball.

So bet the under if you can.

But the pick I like is Florida here. Their ability to defend is going to make it very difficult for South Carolina’s offensive renaissance to continue, and their guards will be able to make the plays offensively that South Carolina dares you to make.

PREDICTION: Florida (-3)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 5:05 p.m. CBS: This is the rematch we all wanted, right?

Ever since that day three months ago, when Kentucky got 47 points from Malik Monk in a 103-102 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, I don’t think there is a soul in the country that would have told you otherwise.

There are two major differences between these two teams now and those two teams then. The biggest is the presence of Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender. Pinson has dealt foot injuries all season long, and when these two got together in December, he was not yet healthy enough to play. I assume that he will draw the assignment of Malik Monk, chasing around the man that had definitively been Kentucky’s most dangerous scorer. Pinson will make life more difficult for Monk than it was the first time around.

But is he going to spend the entire game on him?

Because after De’Aaron Fox’s 39-point outburst against UCLA on Friday night, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Pinson may be better suited to taking on the task of keeping Fox from getting into the paint. Whatever Roy Williams opts to do, the bottom line is pretty simple — if he needs to find a way to keep Kentucky’s back court in check.

The other difference between now and then is that Bam Adebayo has been playing up to his potential for the past six weeks. He was solid earlier in the year. He can be dominant at times now, and that is going to be critical for the Wildcats, who are going to be outsized by a significant margin by UNC’s front line. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they are one of the only elite teams that thrives playing two bigs at the same time. In other words, one of Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis are going to have to deal with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. That’s a matchup that favors UNC, which is why Aebayo is going to have to play up to his size.

In the end, I think Pinson’s presence and North Carolina’s size advantage will be too much.

But if Fox and Monk play their game, they can carry Kentucky a long, long way.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (2.5)

Lawrence Police Department trolls Bill Self following Elite Eight loss

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Kansas had its season ended with a 74-60 loss to No. 3 seed Oregon.

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the South region. They were playing a de facto at the Sprint Center, which is 40 miles away from the school’s campus. As you can imagine, fans in Lawrence were likely unhappy, especially since it’s the second year in a row KU has been bounced one-game shy of the Final Four.

The Lawrence Police Department, while prepping for potential riots, couldn’t help tweeting a joke at the future Hall of Famer’s expense.

Bill Self’s teams have been eliminated seven times in the Elite Eight during his tenure at Kansas. He’s led the Jayhawks to a pair of Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2008.

Kansas finished the season 31-5.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.