Rob Dauster

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.

VIDEO: Frank Martin’s touching tribute to his mother will melt your heart

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Frank Martin advanced to the Final Four for the first time in his career on Sunday afternoon, and the South Carolina head coach — who has blazed an unlikely trail to the pinnacle of the college basketball world — thanked the most important person to his success in the most beautiful way imaginable afterwards.

VIDEO: Luke Maye gets standing ovation in class after game-winning shot

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You want to talk dedication to ones studies?

How about this: Luke Maye, just 13 hours after hitting a game-winning shot to beat Kentucky in the Elite 8, got a standing ovation in his Business 101 class at 8 a.m. on Monday morning.

Check out the video:

Luke, you’re a celebrity now. Going to an 8 a.m. class after your weekend heroics is iffy at best, but if you’re going to do it, we need you to start dressing a little better than this.

VIDEO: De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo inconsolable after Elite 8 loss

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Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox, the two freshmen on Kentucky’s roster that aren’t Malik Monk, were sitting next to each other in the locker room following Kentucky’s loss to North Carolina on Sunday night, and the Wildcat stars were inconsolable.

As weird as this may sound, and as tough as that video is to watch at times, I love it. The problem with one-and-done kids is that it, at times, feels like they’re mercenaries, that they are players that are strictly in college because they have to be, because they can’t make millions in the NBA yet.

Fox and Adebayo certainly do fall into that category, but it doesn’t come with the typical shortcomings.

They clearly care about their school, about their teammates and about that loss.

I’ve grown cynical, I guess, and while I’ll readily admit that video was too tough for me to watch in its entirety, it is refreshing to see just how much they care.

Even if they are only making a seven month stop over in Lexington.

VIDEO: Kentucky, UNC fans react to insane finish to Elite 8 game

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The finish last night between No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Kentucky was one of the greatest and most exhilarating endings to a basketball that we’ve seen in the NCAA tournament.

It was capped by Luke Maye answering Malik Monk’s jumper with a jumper of his own, sending the Tar Heels to the Final Four for the second straight season.

That’s a roller coaster of emotions to go through in 10 seconds, and perhaps no one embodies that more than the dude in the No. 11 jersey here:

(Does anyone know him? Can we confirm he’s OK?)

Anyway, that emotion was nothing compared to what the Kentucky team went through. De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo were inconsolable in the locker room after the game:

North Carolina fans, however, were just a little bit happier:

Like his career, Frank Martin has built South Carolina from the ground up

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NEW YORK — It was after he finished watching South Carolina cut down the Madison Square Garden nets, after he had spent the better part of 30 minutes giving interviews on the court, after he was spotted by the CBS cameras, with a fist raised and tears pooling under his eyes, that the enormity of what he had just witnessed hit Darius Rucker.

“Gosh,” he said to everyone and no one in particular as he left the arena floor and made his way through the bowels of the Garden, “I can’t believe that just happened.”

The ‘that’ that Rucker, South Carolina’s most famous and, quite possibly, biggest fan, was referring to was a 77-70, come-from behind win over No. 4 seed Florida that jettisoned the seventh-seeded Gamecocks through the Elite 8 and into the Final Four. Prior to this season, the Gamecocks hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years. They had been to four NCAA tournaments in the previous 43 seasons, and they had never won back-to-back tournament game.

As in not ever.

“We’re in the Garden, watching the Gamecocks play to go to the Final Four,” Rucker said. “If you’d have told me that ten years ago I’d have told you that you were on crack.”

That’s the program that Frank Martin inherited in 2012, when he left Kansas State following a falling out with his athletic director, John Currie. Like South Carolina, Kansas State was hardly considered a destination job when Martin was at the helm, but he was able to build off of a foundation created by Bob Huggins. Martin had been to four NCAA tournaments in five years with Kansas State when he made the decision to leave. Nothing is more important to Martin than loyalty. “He’s always had a core group of people that he’s counted on,” his agent, Bret Just, said, and Currie was not one of those people.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came during the 2012 NCAA tournament. Kansas State was a No. 8 seed, squaring off with No. 1 seed Syracuse when Martin was informed by Currie that Jamar Samuels, one of his best players, would not be allowed to suit up. The school had stumbled upon information that Samuels had received a wire transfer for $200 from his AAU coach, and he was going to be suspended.

And that was that.

Martin was off to South Carolina.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“It was a situation where we had to go,” associate head coach Matt Figger, who has been with Martin for the last decade, said, and it wasn’t exactly the easiest or smartest decision to leave. Most understood why Martin had to make the change that he made — he was offered a hefty raise and he had the chance to leave a place of employment where he did not get along with his boss — but it wasn’t as if Martin was climbing the ladder. If anything, South Carolina was a step backwards, as Martin took over a program with less pedigree and with a significant building job in front of them.

“I didn’t really know until I got into it. It was a much different deal. It looked easier on the surface than what it really was,” Figger said. “The best players transferred. Bruce Ellington, he’s with the 49ers now, he was the one guy that we could trust and he played football half the year. Couple of the guys that were the holdovers, I don’t think they believed in what our vision was. After a year, some of them left.”

“We had to start this from scratch.”

The process was slow in the early stages. Martin replaced Darrin Horn, who had won just 10 games and finished dead last in the SEC in his final season on campus, and didn’t post a .500 record until his third season in Columbia. Even then, that team went just 17-16. He won 15 SEC games in his first three years combined. After a late season swoon cost South Carolina a shot at the 2016 NCAA tournament, there was speculation that another year without a trip to the Big Dance could spell the end of Martin’s time with the Gamecocks.

“It was hard!” Martin’s wife, Anya, said. “You see he’s losing his hair. It’s all turning white. It was tough in the beginning. I had to ask him a couple of times, ‘Why here?’”

The easy answer is that it wasn’t Kansas State, but the truth is more complicated than that.

Martin is not a man that is afraid of a challenge. He’s not intimidated by a job that isn’t easy to do, not when you come from where he’s come from, when you’ve coached on the path that he has coached.

Martin got his first job when he was 12 years old, working at a Dairy Queen to help his mom pay the bills when his dad walked out on them. His coaching career started a year after he graduated high school, when he was just 19 years old.

“I tore my ACL the year before,” Martin said, “and my high school coach asked me to come help him, because the kids in the neighborhood respected me so much.”

He was nothing more than an assistant with the team at Miami Senior High School, helping out when and where he could, when the head coach of the JV team didn’t show up for work one day. Shakey Rodriguez, a legend in the Miami High School basketball community, told Martin he would be coaching that day, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“By his second season,” Martin’s mother, Lourdes, beaming as she held back tears of joy, said, “he was 22-0.”

Even as Martin was coaching, he was still working on the side, most famously as a bouncer in Miami’s nightclub scene. He needed a degree, so he took night classes at Miami-Dade College before enrolling part-time at FIU. His future was capped if he didn’t graduate.

“He made it out,” she added, holding on to her grandson to steady herself as the moment washed over her. “He had many, many jobs, and then God was up there and blessed him.”

Martin would go from the high school ranks to Northeastern, taking a paycut just to get his foot in the door. He spent four years as an assistant and met his wife — “My wife turned me down seven times to go out on a date,” he said. “Seven. Seven. And the day she made the mistake of going out on a date with me, I never let her go.” — before moving on to Cincinnati, where he joined forces with Bob Huggins, spending two seasons with the Bearcats before following Huggins to Kansas State. He replaced Huggins as Kansas State’s head coach a year after joining the program and just seven years after he joined the collegiate coaching ranks. He would take the Wildcats to more NCAA tournaments in his five seasons at the helm than they had been to in the previous two decades combined.

“Frank’s never steered away from a challenge as long as I’ve known him,” Anya said. “He’s overcome any obstacle in his way, just ‘I’m going to make it work.'”

“He’s a builder,” Just said.

And he’s done just that at South Carolina.

“I’m happy as any mom could be,” Lourdes said. “Speechless, but not all the way. I have to talk to him about my air ticket.”

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Martin spoke many times about the dream of leading this team to this moment, but he didn’t always believe that the dream of taking the Gamecocks to the Final Four was a realistic possibility.

“When we beat Duke, Frank said ‘Why not us?’” Figgers said, a motto that had become something of a rallying cry for the Gamecocks during the East Regional. “That’s the first time we really talked about [winning a title].”

The team and the coaching staff weren’t the only ones that never really gave this possibility much thought. College basketball at large — the fans, the media, opposing coaches — all had the same thought: “South Carolina in the Final Four? The same team that put up 86 points in four overtimes against Alabama? Lulz.”

They showed us.

Over and over again.

South Carolina’s star guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the East Region, mentioned in every press conference this weekend that no one paid attention to or respected the program prior to this run. Martin ranted earlier this year about the lack of local media coverage his team gets, particularly when they play on the road.

At this point in the season, most players get burned out of the media attention they get, answering the same questions over and over and over again.

I don’t blame them.

On Sunday evening, after spending 25 minutes up on the dais for a postgame press conference, Thornwell was finally en route back to the locker room to celebrate with his team when he was pulled aside by a television reporter that needed just a couple more minutes of his time.

Thornwell, decked out in a East Regional Champs shirt and hat with the remnants of a net dangling around his neck, didn’t mind.

“You gotta talk a lot,” Thornwell said, “when you win.”