Without major minutes from Jordan Morgan, Michigan falls just short of another Final Four

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INDIANAPOLIS — Coming into Sunday’s Elite Eight game with No. 8 Kentucky, No. 2 Michigan had to feel confident in another close game that was coming down the wire. The Wolverines entered Sunday’s game 10-2 in games decided by five points or less — including nine straight wins in that situation — and Michigan seemed to thrive in late-game situations during the 2013-14 season.

But the Wolverines’ streak of strong play in tight games ended on Sunday as Aaron Harrison’s three-pointer with 2.3 seconds left gave Kentucky the 75-72 win, ending Michigan’s chances of making back-to-back Final Fours.

The Wolverines could never get over the hump in the second half against Kentucky.

After withstanding an early 8-2 second-half run from the Wildcats, Michigan rallied to take a 55-51 lead with 11:27 left but Kentucky was the one that made key plays down the stretch to come away with the victory. After tying the game at 55 with 8:52 remaining on a Julius Randle jumper, Kentucky never trailed again in the contest. Despite Michigan tying the game at 70-all and 72-all, Kentucky roared back and got baskets to maintain its late-game lead.

It just wasn’t Michigan’s night to win a close game in a season that had seen them pull out a lot of close finishes.

“Each team had spurts in the game where they made runs,” freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. said. “Their run kind of lasted longer than ours and the ball bounced their way tonight so credit them for executing their game plan.”

As Michigan forward Jordan Morgan sat with his shoulders slumped and his eyes red on a golf cart taking him from the Wolverines’ locker room to the postgame press conference, the senior completely looked the part of someone who had just lost their final college basketball game in heartbreaking fashion.

Disappointment was abound in the Michigan locker room in Lucas Oil Stadium, but most of the Wolverines seemed upset that they couldn’t get over the hump for Morgan, the only senior on Michigan’s roster.

“It hurts having a guy like J-Mo, putting his blood, heart, sweat and tears into this game and for this team,” Walton said. “Coming up short, knowing you could have made an extra play for him it kind of hurts.”

Michigan’s season has been defined by the extraordinary play of Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas, the talent of sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III and the emergence of younger players like Walton and sophomore wing Caris LeVert but losing Morgan to foul trouble for much of the game hurt Michigan tremendously on Sunday.

Morgan had been playing at a very high level in the 2014 NCAA Tournament and with the senior only playing 22 minutes on Sunday, Kentucky took advantage on the interior. Michigan’s offense missed Morgan’s ability to screen and slip on pick-and-rolls and the Wolverines’ offense wasn’t nearly as potent with junior forward Jon Horford in the lineup.

Morgan finished 5-for-6 from the field with 11 points on Sunday.

The Wildcats also pounded the glass for a 35-24 advantage and outscored Michigan in the paint 46-36. The Wolverines actually outscored Kentucky on second-chance points, 23-17, but without Morgan’s consistency inside, players like Julius Randle (16 points, 11 rebounds) and Marcus Lee (10 points, eight rebounds) made a killing on the inside.

Morgan had only one double-double during the regular season but the senior had back-to-back double-doubles in Michigan’s first two NCAA Tournament wins over Wofford and Texas. The forward also added 15 points and seven rebounds in Friday’s win over Tennessee as Morgan took the key charge on Volunteers junior forward Jarnell Stokes with the game on the line for Michigan.

​”One of the things we noticed with Jordan, when he has more playing time that he’s really excelled,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said after the game. “​The problem we had this year was Jordan was playing so well, he was such a leader and such an asset to the team.”

But without Morgan as Michigan’s rock inside, the Wolverines failed to make a significant run against a Kentucky team that has consistently pounded teams on the interior this season. Morgan’s missing presence in the lineup allowed Kentucky to stay in the game despite Andrew and Aaron Harrison starting a combined 2-for-15 from the field.

Once Aaron Harrison heated up from the perimeter with four three-pointers in the game’s final 8:06, it was too much in the end for Michigan to overcome. The Wolverines had their chance to capitalize on the Harrison twins’ slow start, but couldn’t do so without Morgan in the lineup.

“​It’s tough. You want to be out there, but I think Jon started to play a little bit better the second half,” Morgan said. “He really started to step it up, and, having fouls like that, that was a smart thing to do to just kind of conserve those fouls (and avoid) foul trouble so that I could finish out the game.”

It’s uncertain whether Stauskas, Robinson III and injured sophomore forward Mitch McGary will return to Michigan next season — as the trio flirts with the possibility of jumping to the NBA — but Michigan will surely miss the presence of Morgan next season.

Not many expected Michigan to be one possession away from making back-to-back Final Fours and winning the Big Ten title outright after losing Trey Burke — and the injury to McGary — but Morgan was a big reason why Michigan was a major contender this season.

“(This season) means a lot to us and I’m really happy for Jordan,” LeVert said. “We just tried to reflect on a great season, but at the same time, we lost by three (near) the buzzer, so it’s a tough loss for us.”

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.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

The slogan of the NCAA Tournament is “The Road to the Final Four”.

Outside of Duke, the runaway preseason favorite, and it’s months-long narrative of “Is Duke back?”, you could make the case there wasn’t a Final Four contender with a journey filled with more ups and downs than Oregon.

Weeks following a season-ending loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, Oregon learned that both Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey would return to school for the next season. In July, Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth-year of eligibility. With Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell returning, and Payton Pritchard joining the program, the Ducks were an easy choice for a preseason Final Four pick.

Brooks’ offseason foot surgery — and the recovery that followed — raised concern about whether or not Oregon could fully reach its preseason potential, entering conference play without a notable win. Brooks’ Pac-12 Player of the Year season put to rest the status of his foot, leading the Ducks to a 16-2 Pac-12 record.

Hours before Oregon was set to battle with Arizona, it was announced that Chris Boucher had torn his ACL and would be out for the remainder of the season. Not only could this have played a role in the team’s seeding by the selection committee, but Boucher offered more than rim protection, as he helped space the floor given his ability to step out and shoot from the perimeter.

After fending off a good fight from Iona, the Ducks looked to be part of a Rhode Island’s magical postseason run. Tyler Dorsey ended that. In the Sweet 16, Oregon was matchup with Michigan, dubbed as the team of destiny. Bell and Dorsey, Oregon’s two tournament stars, stepped up in critical moments once again. Slated as an underdog for the second straight game, Oregon proved its Final Four worth by handing Kansas its worst tournament defeat of the Bill Self era in a regional final game that was played 40 miles away from the KU campus.

“I’m happy for our team,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said following the game. “I’m happy for, as I mentioned, our university and our state. It’s been a long time coming and now we just need to go continue to play well.”

For Oregon, its road to the Final Four has come full circle.