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Final Four is set after memorable Elite Eight

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The 2019 Final Four is set for next weekend in Minneapolis as the second weekend of the NCAA tournament was a memorable one.

After four memorable Elite Eight games, No. 1 seed Virginia will face No. 5 seed Auburn in one national semifinal with No. 2 seed Michigan State battling No. 3 seed Texas Tech in the other Final Four game on Saturday.

Falling in last season’s NCAA tournament to No. 16 seed UMBC, the Cavaliers figured things out to make the Final Four with a memorable overtime win in the South Region over No. 3 seed Purdue. Despite 42 points from Boilermaker junior guard Carsen Edwards, Virginia outlasted his 10 three-pointers with a flurry of their own from Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. And with the team needing a buzzer-beating bucket just to force overtime, big man Mamadi Diakite came through.

Virginia’s win will go down as one of the better Elite Eight games of the decade as Edwards became a March hero while the Cavaliers finally overcame some NCAA tournament demons.

Also winning an overtime game in the Midwest Region was No. 5 seed Auburn as they outlasted SEC rival Kentucky. Playing without Sweet 16 star Chuma Okeke, who suffered a torn ACL on Friday, the Tigers rallied in the second half to beat the Wildcats behind Bryce Brown and Jared Harper to make their first Final Four in school history. The Wildcats’ great season ends behind a strong game from P.J. Washington as he overcame a foot injury last week to end a memorable sophomore season with 28 points and 13 rebounds.

Texas Tech advanced to its first Final Four in school history as well with a win over No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Saturday. In a close Elite Eight matchup in the West Region, the Red Raiders held off the Bulldogs with shot-making from Jarrett Culver and Matt Mooney while Gonzaga was held to 7-for-26 three-point shooting. Rui Hachimura (22 points) and Brandon Clarke (18 points) both had strong games while Josh Perkins (16 points) committed a late out-of-bounds foul that sealed the game for the Red Raiders.

The final Elite Eight thriller saw No. 2 seed Michigan State outlast No. 1 seed Duke in the East Region. Cassius Winston (20 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks) and Xavier Tillman (19 points, nine rebounds) both had big games for the Spartans as they limited turnovers to shock the No. 1 overall seed. The loss likely ends the college career of freshmen Zion Williamson (24 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks, three steals) and R.J. Barrett (21 points, six assists) as the Blue Devils fall short of the Final Four when many considered them a title favorite.

Between the four great games, two overtime thrillers, a buzzer-beater to force overtime and some big star performances, this makes a strong case for the best Elite Eight ever. We had a jaw-dropping Edwards performance in a losing effort, two blueblood programs (Duke and Kentucky) getting upset in close games and the final college game of the sport’s biggest star of the decade (Zion).

And that doesn’t even include Auburn and Texas Tech making the first Final Four in school history, Izzo’s finest coaching job and Winston’s heroics and Goins’ big shot. Virginia overcoming a shaky reputation and the Tigers overcoming the loss of Okeke to injury.

The first weekend might have been mostly chalk. The second weekend of the 2019 NCAA tournament was a great one as it culminated in memorable Elite Eight games and stars coming through in the clutch. It’s led to some unexpected Final Four matchups, but at least college hoops fans have plenty to talk about this week after some ridiculous games.

Saturday’s Elite 8 Recap: Half of Final Four set as Texas Tech makes its first trip while Virginia tops Purdue in a classic

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Carsen Edwards, Purdue

There will be a team crowned in Minneapolis in just over a week, but the player this tournament belongs to won’t be there. Carsen Edwards was an absolute terror through four of some of the most impressive performances the NCAA tournament has even seen, including Saturday’s 80-75 loss to Virginia in the Elite 8.  The junior guard scored 42 points, matching a career high, on 14 of 25 shooting (8 of 13 in the second half) as the only Boilermaker to score more than seven points. It was a phenomenal performance only matched by the tremendous tournament Edwards put together.

Edwards’ 139 points were the most in four tourney games since 2000, passing Steph Curry’s record. His 28 made 3s are the most in tournament history and he’s the only player to ever have two games with nine or more made 3s in the Dance. He averaged 34.8 points. It was a historic and legendary performance. Purdue won’t be cutting down nets in a week, but the 2019 tournament is Edwards’.

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

TEAM OF THE DAY: Virginia Cavaliers

Virginia had to withstand an all-time great performance from Edwards and get a a buzzer-beater (see below), but they’re going to the Final Four for the first time under Tony Bennett and the first time overall since 1984.

The Cavs have had amazing regular-season success under Bennett, and have had disappointment after disappointment in the tournament, so finally reaching the sport’s pinnacle gets them this spot. Getting to the Final Four a year removed from becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16, that’s just a great story.

One worth a cheers and a toast.

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Mamadi Diakite, Virginia

You send an Elite 8 game into overtime, where eventually your team earns its way to the Final Four, you get this headline. So congrats to Mamadi Diakite on that. The onions here, though, probably belong to Kihei Clark, who corralled the rebound in the backcourt and instead of hoisting a prayer to win it from halfcourt, trusted in his own sense of time and his teammates’ ability to fire the ball up to Diakite as time wound down. That’s no small feat.

WTF OF THE DAY: Gonzaga’s offense

This isn’t a WTF so much as it is the Alonzo Mourning GIF:

The Zags have the country’s best offense, but Texas Tech has its best defense. I don’t know which was the unstoppable force and which was the immovable object, but Texas Tech was the victor.

Chris Beard has built something special in Lubbock, and the key to it all is that defense, which has put the Red Raiders in the Final Four after losing four of its top five scorers from last year’s Elite 8 team and being picked by the Big 12’s coaches to finish seventh in the league.

Gonzaga shot 42.4 percent from the field and 26.9 percent from 3. The Bulldogs made just 12 of 33 shots overall and 3 of 15 from deep in the second half. That’s the best offense in the nation turned not pedestrian but actually bad. That’ll make you shake your head in disbelief until you remember it was Texas Tech’s defense doing, and that’ll have you nodding in respect.

FINAL THOUGHT

Take all your “Boring Tournament” takes and throw them into the ocean. What a beautiful, glorious, thrilling, awesome and wonderful night of basketball.

Sure, this tournament has been bereft of true Cinderellas, but that means you get heavyweight fights in the Elite 8, like we saw Saturday. These were two great games played by four great teams and programs.

You had Virginia, as consistently excellent as a program comes looking to get to Bennett’s first Final Four while exorcising UMBC. Then there’s Gonzaga, a premier program trying to win its first national title. Purdue has Edwards. Texas Tech has Beard and Jarrett Culver.

What a lineup. What a night. What great basketball.

Sunday will have a lot to live up to, but with Auburn/Kentucky and Michigan State/Duke, there’s a decent chance it does. Hell, it might even surpass it. Maybe it’s fine Cinderella didn’t get invited to the dance. Everyone’s having a good time without her. Glass slippers are impractical, anyway.

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No. 3 Texas Tech topples No. 1 Gonzaga to reach Final Four

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There are two things that are immediately striking about Lubbock, Texas when a visitor walks out of Preston E. Smith International Airport during basketball season. The ground is flat, and, whether it’s grass or dirt, very brown.

Tumbleweeds literally blow across the highways as you make your approach into town, passing by old storefronts, run-down body shops and mostly wide open spaces. Oil derricks move as metronomes, keeping time in a place that in some spots has been largely forgotten by it. Way out in west Texas and five hours from anywhere, Lubbock is neither a destination nor hardly on the way to anywhere.

It’s also now home to a likely top-five NBA draft pick, the coaching profession’s newest star and, as of Saturday, a Final Four basketball team.

Texas Tech, powered by Chris Beard’s defense, Jarret Culver’s brilliance and a patched-together cast of supporting characters, has gone from the middle of nowhere to the center of the college basketball universe after a 75-69 win in the West region final Saturday against No. 1 seed Gonzaga.

“Texas Tech is going to the Final Four,” Chris Beard said after the game. “Texas Tech is going to the Final Four. Some of you look surprised.”

Who wouldn’t be, see this stunning story of a coach and a program that have emerged from obscurity to the sport’s pinnacle in such a short amount of time?

Beard was on Bob Knight’s staff the last time things were rolling at United Supermarkets Arena – which amazingly enough is located on Indiana Avenue in Lubbock – more than a decade ago when the Red Raiders went to four NCAA tournaments and a Sweet 16. When Pat Knight’s tenure ended there, though, so did it for Beard, who would then embark on a coaching vagabond’s journey with stops in the ABA, Division III, Division II and then at Arkansas-Little Rock.

Texas Tech’s success may have been UNLV’s if Memphis wouldn’t have pulled Tubby Smith out of Lubbock in 2016, which resulted in the Red Raiders calling Beard home after he had taken the Runnin’ Rebels’ job just a couple weeks earlier.

After an 18-14 season in Year 1, Beard had the Red Raiders on the cusp of a Final Four last year, with Keenan Evans becoming a Tech legend as he played through a broken toe and Zhaire Smith solidifying himself as an NBA lottery pick during an Elite 8 run.

The top four scorers off that team departed, making 2018-19 looking so much like a rebuilding year the Big 12’s coaches picked Texas Tech to finish seventh in their preseason poll.

Texas Tech, though, still had Culver, a 6-foot-6 offensive machine hailing from Coronado High School right there in Lubbock. Beard added graduate transfers Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens from South Dakota and St. John’s, respectively, and would ask a host of bench players to move into big roles.

That one star, a collection of newcomers and a bunch of guys Big 12 coaches probably couldn’t even pick out of a lineup helped end Kansas’ 14-year conference title streak and are now on the sport’s biggest stage.

“This is my fifth year in college. Your hard work all of the time doesn’t pay off right then and there,” Owens told reporters after the game Saturday, “but, you know, I believe myself and Matt included we stayed the course and kept working at it and working at it and we got a program where everybody was grinders, especially our head coach who believed in us and was willing to push us and push us to the next level that he knew we had.

“That just speaks to this program.”

So, too, did Texas Tech’s performance against the Bulldogs.

Gonzaga has been an offensive machine all season long. The nation’s most efficient offense, the Bulldogs shoot 36.3 percent from deep and 64.1 percent on 2s. They almost never turn it over. They have versatile and talented bigs in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, a pair likely to be both All-Americans and lottery picks, and experience, skilled guards in Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell, Jr.

They’re a juggernaut. Or at least they were until Texas Tech completely immobilized them.

Gonzaga shot 42.4 percent from the floor for the game and 26.9 percent from 3-point range. They converted only 36.4 percent of their shots after halftime, including a brutal 3 of 15 mark from distance. They turned it over 16 times.

“That defense is real,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, “and it definitely impacted us tonight. They took a lot of balls from us when we had the ball in a great position for us, where I’m feeling, yes! And then we just lost it.

“It’s tough. It’s real.”

On a night when Culver, the unquestioned focal point of the Texas Tech offense, struggled on 5 of 19 shooting, that tough, real defense – along with 17 points from Mooney and 12 from Davide Moretti – put Texas Tech into the Final Four.

“For our program, for our city, for us personally, for our family, our friends, it’s huge,” senior Norense Odiase said. “The battles we’ve been through, the struggles, man. It’s huge. It means the world to work so hard and it pay off. It definitely hasn’t hit me. Hasn’t hit us. I don’t think, yet. But it’s huge for all of us.”

So the Red Raiders head back to home with snippets of net in their luggage and their season still alive. They’ll leave the airport and head back to campus, where the flat streets they’ll travel betray how high they’ve come, but allow them to look well out into the horizon, where Minneapolis and rarified air await.

Gonzaga reaches Elite 8 with win against Florida State

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Duke may have the best cadre of NBA talent. Virginia may be more disciplined. North Carolina may have more tradition.

The three No. 1 seeds that are not Gonzaga all have something the Bulldogs don’t. That’s not all they have in common, though.

None are as good, consistently high-level as the ‘Zags.

All of Gonzaga’s powers were on display Thursday as they got up big and then held No. 4 Florida State at bay in a Sweet 16 matchup in Anaheim to claim a 72-58 victory at the Honda Center to move a game away from the program’s second Final Four in three years.

Gonzaga has a brilliant chance to do what that 2017 group couldn’t.

Win a national championship.

With two likely-lottery picks in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke wreaking havoc on both ends of the floor, dynamic guards like Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell, Jr. and high-level role players like Geno Crandall, Corey Kispert and Killian Tillie (an NBA prospect in his own right demoted due to injury), Gonzaga has the talent, experience and versatility to be the class of the country.

It’s certainly not breaking news, but it’s worth a reminder after a loss to St. Mary’s in the WCC title game brought back the old questions about how built the Zags were for the Big Dance.

It’s hard to picture something constructed in a better position to thrive in March.

Clarke is a two-way force of nature who has become one of the country’s premier players. He scores (15 points), rebounds (12 boards), protects the rim (5 blocks) and can defend in space. He’s basically Zion Williamson West with less-cool-but-pretty-cool dunks (and highest-end NBA potential).

Hachimura, who had 17 points and four rebounds, has been the better NBA prospect of the two, but that’s maybe debatable now. Not because of anything Hachimura has done, though. He’s still a lotto pick. He and Clarke are an incredible duo.

They aren’t alone, though, and it was clear in Gonzaga’s control of the Seminoles, who trailed for all but 11 seconds of the game.

The Bulldogs led by as many as 14 in the first half, but Florida State trimmed it to four in the final minutes of the game before ultimately stopping short of completing the comeback . That’s when Gonzaga ripped off seven-straight points to finish the game. The talent, the experience and let’s not forget Mark Few is pretty good at this coaching thing, too. 

Everyone knows Gonzaga is good, but just look at not only what they did to Florida State, but how they got contributions from up and down the lineup. Norvell had 15 points. Perkins had 14 points and five assists. Kispert added seven points while Tillie and Crandall gave boosts off the bench.

Trent Forrest was the only Seminole player to notch double figures, finishing with 20 points on 8 of 11 shooting.

Gonzaga basketball may as well go dormant for two months in the winter during WCC play, but don’t forget this is the team that topped Duke – without Tillie – to win the Maui Invitational. This is the program that hung with the Tar Heels until the end in the 2017 title game.

They’re not Duke, Virginia, North Carolina or any other team left in the field.

They’re better.

WATCH: Terance Mann, Brandon Clarke throw down Sweet slams

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It’s going to be hard for there to be a better pair of dunks Thursday – or maybe the rest of the week – then the pair that Terance Mann and Brandon Clarke threw down in quick succession in a Sweet 16 matchup between Florida State and Gonzaga.

First, was Mann, going coast-to-coast, looking like he was going to lay it in and then remembering that dunking is way cooler so doing that instead.

Next came Clarke in transition, throwing doing down a tip-dunk that just Mann look like a guy that should just do layups.

 

2019 NCAA Tournament: The guards you need to know

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The saying goes, it’s guards that win games in the NCAA tournament, and the history is there to back it up. Whether it’s a point guard making his teammates better (Tyus Jones, Duke) or dominating play (Kemba Walker, UConn). There will be a whole host of guards, some we know and some we don’t, that’ll make a huge difference over the next month.

Here we’ll take a look at a group that maybe aren’t quite as well known as the country’s absolute top-tier. So you won’t find R.J. Barrett or Cassius Winston or Carsen Edwards or Ja Morant here. You will, however, find a group that can make or break a bracket.

Markus Howard, Marquette

It’s a bit surprising that Howard hasn’t broken through as a major star in college basketball given he’s a 5-foot-11, sweet-shooting guard who absolutely fills it up. He’s a high-volume guy with one of the highest usage rates in the country while still shooting 40.8 percent from 3-point range en route to averaging 25 points per game. Howard is certainly no secret to those who follow college basketball closely, but given how celebrated 3-point shooters are in this day and age, Howard, truly one of the country’s elite in that department, seems broadly under-appreciated. His shooting is potent enough to put the Golden Eagles on a run, even if they’re entering the tournament on a downward trajectory.

Josh Perkins, Gonzaga

There have been plenty of questions about Perkins on these pages but he’s largely answered the bell this season for the Zags. He’s averaged 11 points with an assist-to-turnover ratio great than 3:1. He’s shooting 36.8 percent from 3-point range. He’s run the point for one of the best and most successful teams in the country. But…there are still a couple of red flags. Perkins had four turnovers and was 4 of 14 (0-3 from 3) in the Zags’ loss in the WCC title game to St. Mary’s, and in Gonzaga’s last loss before that, all the way back in December, he had six turnovers against North Carolina. He had nine assists in a loss to Tennessee, but was also 0-6 from the field. There might be some that say Killian Tillie is Gonzaga’s x-factor, but with how good they are already in the frontcourt, I still think Perkins remains the guy that can swing the pendulum the most in either direction for the West’s No. 1 seed.

Sam Merrill, Utah State

Merrill has been the best player you haven’t heard of this season. He’s averaging 21.2 points, 4.2 assists and 4.0 boards for a Utah State team that won the Mountain West tournament. He’s averaging 27.2 points over the last five games, in which the Aggies beat Nevada to lock up an at-large bid and then rolled through the field to win their league’s automatic bid. He’s terrific.

Lindell Wigginton, Iowa State

An foot injury sidelined Wigginton for most of November and December, and the former five-star prospect has been coming off the bench for an up-and-down Iowa State team since returning. A year after being the Cyclones’ best and perhaps only scoring option, Wigginton now finds himself a part of a more balanced attack that actually features another player – Virginia transfer Marial Shayok – more than him. Still, he’s a 38 percent 3-point shooter with high-level athleticism, and his ability to score in bunches could be the catalyst that keeps the Cyclones hot after their Big 12 tournament championship.

Fletcher Magee, Wofford

The Terrier senior has a chance to become a Big Dance darling thanks to his 41.3 percent shooting from 3-point range and his prowess for big-scoring games ( he’s averaged 20-plus for two years). Wofford became something of a national novelty as they cracked the Top 25 for the first time in school history, but here’s guessing Magee shows why the Terriers weren’t just a collecting wins in the Southern Conference – they’re actually a serious threat over the next few weeks.

Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s

If St. John’s is going to storm out of the First Four and make a dent in coach Chris Mullin’s first NCAA tournament with his alma mater, Ponds is going to be what’s powering it. The 6-foot-1 Brooklyn native is averaging just under 20 ppg with 5.2 assists and 2.6 steals per game as well. Ponds is a threat to go for 30-plus every time he steps on the floor.

C.J. Massinburg, Buffalo

It’s hard to live up to the hype when you drop 43 in an overtime win at West Virginia in the season’s first week, but the Bulls’ senior has been really good all season. Massinburg is a statsheet stuffer with 18.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3 assists per game while shooting nearly 40 percent from 3 and 46.4 percent overall. It’s not going to be surprising at all to see Buffalo outperform its six seed with its senior guard leading the way.

BJ Taylor, UCF

The Orlando native has starred for the hometown Knights as they’ve secured their first NCAA tournament berth since 2005.  The 6-foot-2 guard is averaging 16 points and 3.3 assists per game. He converts at a 36.8 percent clip from 3-point range.