2017 NCAA Tournament Superlatives: Best Players, Unforgettable Moments, Biggest Disappointments

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With the first 60 games of the NCAA tournament now in our review, it is the perfect time to look back at what, exactly, happened over the course of the first two weekends of the greatest show in sports.

Who was the best player? The most unforgettable moment? The biggest disappointment?

We’ll break all of that down for you here:

NCAA TOURNAMENT MOP: Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina

While there were a number of names that were more than qualified for this award, to me, Thornwell is the obvious choice. He’s the leading scorer in the tournament, averaging 25.7 points, and one of the biggest reasons that the offensively-challenged Gamecocks have been anything-but through the first four games of the event. But what sets him apart from some of the other big scorers left in the tournament is that he also happens to be an elite defender, typically tasked with slowing down whoever the best perimeter scorer is on their opponent’s roster.

ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM

  • Tyler Dorsey, Oregon: Dorsey has deservedly been dubbed Mr. March after his performances the last three weeks for the Ducks. He’s scored at least 20 points in all seven of Oregon’s Pac-12 tournament and NCAA tournament games, made the game-winner to beat Rhode Island in the second round and hit dagger after dagger in the upset win over Kansas in the Elite 8.
  • Jordan Bell, Oregon: There has not been a better all-around defender in this tournament than Bell, who had three double-doubles in four games, including a dominating performance against No. 1 seed Kansas in the Elite 8: 11 points, 13 boards, eight blocks and four assists.
  • Trevon Bluiett, Xavier: Bluiett was instrumental in getting No. 11 seed Xavier all the way to the Elite 8. He averaged 25 points in the three wins the Musketeers notched during the Big Dance, including 25 points in an upset of No. 2 Arizona and 29 points in the blowout win over No. 3 Florida State.
  • Luke Maye, North Carolina: As weird as it may sound, in North Carolina’s loaded front court, Maye was the best of the bunch the last two weeks. He had 16 points and 12 boards in the Sweet 16 win over Butler and followed that up with 17 points — including the regional-winning jumper with 0.3 seconds left — as the Tar Heels knocked off Kentucky.

BEST GAME: No. 4 Florida 84, No. 8 Wisconsin 83 OT

The Badgers were down big at the end of regulation and rallied to tie the game on an off-balance three from Zak Showalter with 2.5 seconds left. In overtime, the Badgers missed free throws to keep Florida close, Canyon Berry had an epic chase-down block to keep the deficit at two points and the comeback was capped with a buzzer-beating, three-point floater from Chris Chiozza:

BEST PLAY: Luke Maye’s game-winner

The ending of this game was nuts. Kentucky took a 64-59 lead with four minutes left. North Carolina responded with a 12-0 run to go up 71-64 with less than a minute left. A trio of Kentucky three combined with a missed front-end and a head-scratching five-second call allowed the Wildcats to tie the game with 7.2 seconds left on the clock, but Maye, who arrived at UNC as a preferred walk-on, had an answer. Ironically enough, I would argue the best play here wasn’t Maye hitting an open jumper, it was Theo Pinson taking the in-bounds pass and leading UNC quickly down the floor:

MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT: The non-goaltend goaltend

The two shots you see above were the two most memorable moments of this event, but since I already mentioned them, let’s go with the game-changing goaltend that wasn’t whistled against Zach Collins. If you’ve forgotten, Collins, a freshman center for Gonzaga, blocked a shot by putting his hand through the rim — illegal! — on a shot that would’ve cut a 20-point Gonzaga lead all the way down to three.

Chris Collins reacted by getting a technical foul, and instead of being within three with all the momentum, Northwestern was down by seven points again as Gonzaga regained their confidence and kept the Wildcats from ever threatening again.

MOST FORGETTABLE MOMENT: Matthew Fisher-Davis’ poorly timed foul

Fisher-Davis committed an intentional foul with 14 seconds left against Northwestern in the first round of the tournament, thinking that No. 9 seed Vanderbilt was down a point. Whoops! Vandy was winning, and the foul allowed Northwestern to take the lead in a game the Commodores would eventually go on to lose. Not his best moment, to say the least.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: South Carolina’s run to the Final Four

When Frank Martin took over at South Carolina, it was a program that hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years, had reached the Big Dance just four times in the previous 43 years and who had never won back-to-back games in the NCAA tournament before. They had lost six of their last nine games before the tournament began and had spent the entirety of the season struggling to score … until they turned into the Showtime Lakers during the NCAA tournament. It’s a terrific run that puts the feather in the cap of an unlikely career for Frank Martin.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Duke and the ACC

For a conference that was as good and as dominant as the ACC was all season long, it was something of a shock that the conference only got one team into the Sweet 16 this season. Some of that was mitigated by North Carolina getting to the Final Four — if the ACC has more Final Four teams than the Big 12, the Big Ten and the Big East combined, doesn’t that make them elite?!? — but it doesn’t quite erase the shadow that was created by some individual failures in the tournament. No. 2 seed Louisville lost in the second round. No. 3 seed Florida State was blown out in the second round. No. 5 seed Virginia was embarrassed in the second round.

But the biggest disappointment of all was Duke, who had finally looked like they turned a corner during the ACC tournament, putting a tumultuous season behind them as they were primed for a run in March.

And then they lost to South Carolina in a game where they couldn’t get stops and couldn’t get the big, crunch-time buckets they needed. It was a fitting end to a year where Duke just wasn’t as good as anyone thought they had a chance to be.

Minnesota’s Amir Coffey out for the season with shoulder injury

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Minnesota sophomore Amir Coffey will miss the rest of his sophomore season with a season-ending shoulder injury, according to a release from the school.

The 6-foot-8 Coffey was one of the Big Ten’s most productive freshman last season but he wasn’t able to stay consistently healthy during the 2017-18 campaign. Coffey put up solid numbers when he was able to play, averaging 14.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, but he missed 10 total games with the injury.

Coffey has been out for the last five games, and with Minnesota’s postseason hopes plummeting during an eight-game losing streak, the decision to hold him out was probably best for his long-term health.

Barford leads dominant Arkansas past No. 21 Texas A&M, 94-75

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Daniel Gafford capped off the most difficult stretch of his young Southeastern Conference career with a disappointing and foul-plagued performance the last time Arkansas faced Texas A&M.

The standout Razorbacks forward remembered that game all too well, and it showed as he added yet another dominating effort to his remarkable freshman season on Saturday.

Gafford scored 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting to lead Arkansas (19-8, 8-6 SEC) to its fourth straight win, 94-75 over the No. 21 Aggies. It was the fifth straight game in double figures for Gafford, who is shooting 70.7 percent (29 of 41) since the 80-66 loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 30.

The 6-foot-11 freshman was on a mission to atone for that loss, and it showed as he hit his first five shots and punctuated the dominating win with a late dunk.

“Playing them here, in my mind I had to play smarter and more physical,” Gafford said. “Because in my mind, I was ready for them. I was ready for Tyler Davis, I was ready for pretty much all the big men because pretty much I got punked when we went up to Texas A&M, and I didn’t want that to happen tonight.”

Gafford had plenty of help from his teammates, with Jaylen Barford scoring 14 of his 21 points in the second half and adding five rebounds and five assists for the surging Razorbacks.

Also, Daryl Macon finished with 20 points for an Arkansas team that’s won seven of its last nine. It was the eighth time in the last nine games Macon has scored 20 or more. C.J. Jones had 13 points off the bench.

Robert Williams had 20 points and 14 rebounds to lead Texas A&M (17-10, 6-8), which lost its second straight after entering the rankings this week. The 6-foot-10 sophomore also had three blocks and finished 10 of 13 from the field.

Admon Gilder also scored 20 points for the Aggies, while Davis added 15 points and T.J. Starks had 12. However, Texas A&M was unable to slow down an Arkansas team that shot 49.3 percent (35 of 71) from the field and hit 10 of 23 3-pointers.

“There’s not many teams going to come in here and beat Arkansas when they shoot the ball like they did today,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “I thought they shot the ball extremely well and made some tough shots.”

REBOUNDING RAZORBACKS

Texas A&M entered the game 3rd nationally and tops in the SEC in rebounding with an average of 41.9 per game. The Aggies also outrebounded Arkansas 45-30 in their win last month, but the Razorbacks turned the tables on Saturday — finishing with a 45-33 edge on the glass.

Freshman Darious Hall followed up his career-best 11-rebound effort in a win over Mississippi earlier in the week with seven rebounds in only 17 minutes on Saturday, and Gafford and senior Trey Thompson had six rebounds apiece.

“This is a team that beat us by 15 at their place, and they’re one of the better rebounding teams in the country with all that size,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Somehow we found the energy. We found the players that were really engaged and going to get those rebounds.”

BIG PICTURE

Texas A&M: The last time the Aggies won in Fayetteville was March 1, 1986, when both teams were members of the Southwest Conference and Arkansas still played in Barnhill Arena. They led only once on Saturday, a 4-2 advantage that disappeared quickly after the Razorbacks went on an 11-0 run. Texas A&M was 0 of 7 on 3-pointers while trailing 43-32 at halftime, and it just avoided matching its season low for 3-pointers — finishing 4 of 17 as a team.

Arkansas: The win starts a difficult five-game stretch to end the regular season for Arkansas, which entered Saturday 32nd in the NCAA’s RPI ratings. Beginning with the 18th-rated Aggies, the Razorbacks face teams all 31st or higher in the ratings during the five games — including Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri. They started the stretch in dominating fashion on Saturday, a key victory for a team hoping to reach the NCAA Tournament for a third time in four seasons this year.

UP NEXT

Texas A&M returns home to face Mississippi State on Tuesday.

The Razorbacks host Kentucky on Tuesday.

Kentucky beats Alabama 81-71 behind Washington’s 16 points

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Four straight losses were enough for Kentucky.

PJ Washington scored 16 points, Kevin Knox added 13, and Kentucky beat Alabama 81-71 on Saturday to end a four-game slide.

“They played desperately,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We gave away some games this year and we have to start taking games away from people, which means desperation.”

The Wildcats (18-9, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) displayed a sense of urgency against the Crimson Tide, especially in the rebounding department. The Wildcats held a commanding 44-27 edge on the glass and grabbed 20 offensive boards, resulting in 20 second-chance points for the hosts.

“They were desperate and they had a lot of energy,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said.

Quade Green scored 12 points, Jarred Vanderbilt scored a career-high 11 off the bench with nine rebounds, and Nick Richards added 10 points for the Wildcats.

Vanderbilt played a key role down the stretch for the Wildcats and finished with nine rebounds.

“We came together the last five minutes,” Vanderbilt said. “We made some key plays down the stretch, took care of the ball and we just executed.”

For Kentucky, which hadn’t won since an 83-81 overtime win over Vanderbilt on Jan. 30, fending off the Crimson Tide (17-10, 8-6) wasn’t an easy task. The Wildcats have won six straight over Alabama, including 11 of the past 12 games.

“It felt like we were back to normal and back to where we needed to be,” Washington said. “We just need to keep building from here.”

Alabama, the top defensive team in the conference, forced eight ties and 15 lead changes until the Wildcats gained control midway through the second half to avoid a fifth straight loss. Kentucky led for the final eight minutes.

Knox, Kentucky’s leading scorer, sat out 14 minutes of the first half because of foul trouble, but picked up the scoring load with all of his 13 points in the second half. Knox connected on first field-goal 7/8- a 3-pointer with 13:22 remaining — to ignite the Wildcats’ stagnant offense and spark the team’s impressive finish.

Kentucky led 39-34 at the break amid four ties and 11 lead changes. The Wildcats got most of their scoring off the bench in the opening half with Green and Washington combining for 15 points. Green paved the way with nine and made four of five field goals.

“They just outworked us,” Alabama forward Donata Hall said. “They were a hungry team.”

Hall led Alabama with 16 points, John Petty had 13, Colin Sexton 12 and Alex Reese 10.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats, who have lost three straight road games (Missouri, Texas A&M and Auburn), will attempt to end the slide Tuesday at Arkansas, which lost just one of its first 14 games at home this season. Kentucky, five games behind conference leader Auburn, is out of contention for a fourth consecutive regular-season title, although a top-four finish isn’t out of question.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide, 5-1 against ranked teams this season, including a 76-71 win over No. 10 Auburn on Jan. 17 in Tuscaloosa, will attempt a sweep of the Tigers Wednesday. Alabama will attempt to lock up one of four top spots and a bye during the final two weeks of the regular season. Alabama coach Avery Johnson fell to 0-6 in games against Kentucky.

PELPHREY RETURNS

Former Kentucky forward John Pelphrey, an assistant coach at Alabama, made his return to Rupp Arena. Pelphrey, a former Mr. Basketball at Paintsville High School in 1987, played for the Wildcats from 1988-92 and was a member of the “Unforgettables” squad that lost to Duke in the 1992 East Region finals.

UP NEXT

Kentucky is at Arkansas Tuesday.

Alabama visits No. 10 Auburn Wednesday.

No. 3 Villanova continues reign of dominance over No. 4 Xavier, winning 95-79

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Villanova is not a perfect basketball team.

They have their flaws. Their depth in an issue. Their defense is a bigger issue. Their health seems to be working itself out, but with a rotation that has been as shallow as six guys at time, they are never more than one sprained ankle away from being put in a spot where their starters play too many minutes.

And despite all of that, one thing remains true about this group: They are always capable of putting together a shooting performance that leaves you wondering how in the world they ever lost a game to begin with.

That’s precisely what happened on Saturday in Cincinnati, as the No. 3 Wildcats — having lost two of their last three games to fall a game out of first place in the Big East — went into the Cintas Center and truck-sticked No. 4 Xavier, 95-79. It’s a result we all probably should have seen coming. Villanova has, after all, won four straight Big East regular season titles, and they weren’t about to lay down and let the Musketeers take control of their league. Especially since it’s Xavier. In the 11 games since Xavier and Villanova became conference foes, the Wildcats are now 10-1 with an average winning margin of 17.6 points.

Mikal Bridges led the way, scoring 16 of his 25 points in a first half where he buried four of Villanova’s 11 threes. Their lead ballooned as high as 21 points, and they took a 51-37 lead into halftime. Xavier made their run in the second half, getting as close as 62-59 before Donte DiVincenzo, who finished with 21 points, nine assists and nine boards, helped to spark a surge that put the game away.

The difference-maker here was Villanova’s shooting. They were 11-for-19 from three in the first half. They shot 16-for-34 for the game. In losses to St. John’s and Providence in the last two weeks, the Wildcats struggled from beyond the arc. They were 8-for-33 against St. John’s, just 2-for-17 in the second half, and they shot 3-for-19 from distance at Providence during the week.

And it is also worth noting that they got some terrific play from two of their young, unproven freshman who combined to score 11 straight points during a five-minute second half stretch. Dhamir Cosby-Rountree had two critical buckets as Villanova pulled away late midway through the second half, when he was on the floor for Eric Paschall, who had picked up four fouls. And Collin Gillispie followed that up by banging home a three and scoring on a tough finger-roll over Sean O’Mara that helped hold Xavier at bay. All told, Cosby-Rountree finished with four points, three boards and a block while Gillispie chipped in with 10 points of his own.

Perhaps most impressive in all of this was that Villanova put together this kind of a performance on an afternoon where Jalen Brunson struggled to get into his normal rhythm. He finished with 11 points and eight assists, but shot just 5-for-12 from the floor and 1-for-6 from three. For a player that is having a historically-great season from an efficiency perspective, those are surprising numbers.

What it all adds up to is this: The Wildcats are not yet ready to relinquish control over the Big East regular season title. Xavier is still technically in first place by a half-game — they’re 12-3 while Villanova is 11-3 — but for all intents and purposes, they’re tied. Xavier’s schedule down the stretch is much easier than what Villanova has remaining. Xavier has road trips to Georgetown and DePaul left while Villanova still has to go to Creighton and Seton Hall.

That story is still left to be told.

But the simple fact of the matter is that Xavier had a chance to take a two-game lead on Villanova with two weeks left in the regular season and they couldn’t get the job done.

And if they slip up again in their final three games, they may be left wondering ‘what if?’ all over again.

Duke’s Marvin Bagley III to miss third straight game with knee issue

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Duke announced on Saturday afternoon that star freshman Marvin Bagley III will miss his third straight game with what they have dubbed a mild knee sprain.

Bagley suffered the injury in the first half at North Carolina, and while he played the rest of that game, he sat out wins over Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

Both of those games came in Cameron Indoor Stadium. On Sunday, they’ll be playing on the road against a shorthanded No. 11 Clemson program.

In Bagley’s absence, Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier and Alex O’Connell have played more minutes while Grayson Allen has seemingly rediscovered his confidence. He’s averaging 24 points and six assists in the last two games.