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Jayson Tatum shines as No. 18 Duke knocks off No. 8 North Carolina at home

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Grayson Allen scored 25 points and Jayson Tatum chipped in with 19 points, all of which came in the second half, nine boards and five assists as No. 18 Duke knocked off No. 8 North Carolina, 86-78, in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday night.

Luke Kennard chipped in with 20 points of his own as Duke moved to within a game of first place in the ACC regular season standings.

Justin Jackson led the way with 21 points for North Carolina, but he was quieted down the stretch. Joel Berry II finished with 15 points for the Tar Heels, who got Theo Pinson back but played this game without one of their starting big men, Isaiah Hicks.

Duke is now 4-0 since fully embracing small-ball by playing Tatum at the four, while UNC suffered their first loss with Pinson in the lineup.

Here are five things that we can take away from this game:

1. This was the Jayson Tatum break out game: The second half on Thursday was the first time all season long that we’ve had a chance to see Jayson Tatum take over a game.

After going scoreless in the first half – he didn’t actually play poorly, more on that in a second – Tatum exploded for all 19 of his points after the break. A potential top three pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Tatum hasn’t really looked comfortable on the offensive end of the floor this season. Some of it is that he doesn’t seem to know where his shots are coming from, when he’s supposed to attack and when he’s supposed to keep the ball moving, where the help-side is coming from.

All of that disappeared in the final 20 minutes, as Tatum was hitting threes and beating bigger defenders off the dribble and overpowering smaller guards that tried to guard him. Should I mention the poster he put Kennedy Meeks on?

But it wasn’t just his offensive arsenal that was on display. We knew that was going to come with time. It was the team-high five assists that he had, four of which came in the first half. It was the team-high nine rebounds he finished with, spending much of his 32 minutes of the floor dealing with Meeks, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye, UNC’s oversized front line. He even blocked a couple of shots for good measure.

Duke is quite clearly going all=in on small-ball, and the only way that can be effective is if Tatum is able to hold his own on the defensive end of the floor against bigger players, and that’s exactly what he did Thursday and what he’s done for the last four games.

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2. It’s funny what happens now that Duke has had everyone healthy for a little while: Duke has now won four straight games. All four of those games have come with Tatum at the four. Coach K is back. Everyone on the team is, for the most part, healthy; at least healthy enough to suit up every night. This is the first time all season long where the Blue Devils have been able to play, and practice, with all of their key pieces available.

Guys are learning their roles. They’re figuring out where in the offense they can get shots. They’re getting more comfortable playing with one another.

It really shouldn’t surprise you that having everyone available has led to things starting to come together for this group.

3. North Carolina is a different team when Theo Pinson plays: The thing to keep in mind about this loss for North Carolina: They were playing without one of their starters – the guy that was a key to counteracting Duke’s small-ball lineup – on the road in one of the toughest environments in college basketball, and they had a chance to win this thing down the stretch.

Put another way, the Tar Heels are really, really good, and nothing about this loss should impact your opinion on that.

The difference for them on Thursday was the return of Theo Pinson, who is a difference-maker for this group. Jackson is clearly UNC’s star and Berry is the guy that makes this offense tick, but Pinson provides something that no one else can. For starters, at 6-foot-6, he’s the best perimeter defender on the roster, a guy that’s athletic enough to guard twos and big enough to defend small-ball fours like Tatum, Josh Jackson and Dillon Brooks. Beyond that, he’s a tough rebounder, a playmaker and a guy that can stick a jumper when he’s left open.

There’s no one else on the roster that can play the role that he plays, and it’s not a coincidence that this is the first game UNC has lost with him available.

And when Pinson is playing, North Carolina may not have the highest-ceiling of anyone in the country, but I’m not sure if there are many elite teams that have a higher floor.

Theo Pinson
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

4. Depth is an issue for Duke because they have a lot of guys that just aren’t ready: For a team that has roughly 6,000 McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster it’s surprising just how much issues Duke has with depth. The reason why is pretty simple: Some of those youngsters they have just are not ready to play at this level yet.

The most glaring example is Marques Bolden, who played quite a few minutes on Thursday after managing all of just four minutes in his previous three games. He’s just a mess defensively, a guy that has no idea where he’s supposed to be and when he’s supposed to be there. Chase Jeter, when healthy, isn’t much better. Javin DeLaurier isn’t either. What that means is that Duke’s rotation is, essentially, limited to the five starters, Frank Jackson and Harry Giles III, who is still clearly dealing with the after-effects of the three knee surgeries that he’s had already.

He’s getting closer, but he still doesn’t have the strength, explosiveness or endurance that he needs.

5. The ACC title race is going to be nuts: We already knew that was going to be the case coming into the season, and it sure it living up to its promise. As it stands today, after Duke’s win, North Carolina is tied with Florida State for first place in the league with Virginia sitting a half-game off the pace. Syracuse is a game behind the Seminoles and the Tar Heels while Duke and Louisville sit a game-and-a-half back, just one game back in the loss column.

Throw in Notre Dame and Miami, and there are eight teams currently within two games of first place in the ACC.

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.