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.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.