USA TODAY Sports’ George Schroeder looks at how the Jayhawks and Ducks prevailed to set up their upcoming matchup in the Midwest region of the NCAA tournament.
USA TODAY Sports
And then there were eight.
Kudos to whoever picked Xavier or South Carolina. Seriously.
With all of these teams one step away from the Final Four, the little things can be the difference maker in a trip to Phoenix or a trip back home.
Here’s a look at the biggest keys to victory for each Elite Eight squad.
BRACKET: Track the tournament
If the ‘Zags can play defense like they did on the last possession of their gritty win vs. West Virginia — when the Mountaineers couldn’t hit the rim on a strand of final shot attempts, they’ll be in good shape to get to the Final Four. But Gonzaga’s offense was off its A-game against WVU and will need to come back to life to advance. The main guy the Bulldogs need to step up is All-American point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who went 2-for-10 against WVU.
GAME PREVIEW: Gonzaga vs. Xavier
Trevon Bluiett needs to Trevon Bluiett. In other words, the Musketeers’ main catalyst needs to keep his stellar tournament run going, as he’s averaging 25 points. But the win against Arizona was a collective effort, with big boosts from role players like Sean O’Mara. If Xavier wants to advance, it will need another cohesive showing and to impose its will on Gonzaga just like it did against the Wildcats.
If KU shoots the ball like it did against Purdue, it’s difficult to see any team stopping them. The key is Devonte’ Graham, who had 26 points off five three-pointers in that Purdue game. National player of the year Frank Mason III and ultra-athletic freshman Josh Jackson consistently affect the game on a consistent basis, but when Graham is drilling treys, too, that’s a lot of offense coming all at once.
GAME PREVIEW: Kansas vs. Oregon
Tyler Dorsey’s scoring has been a key factor in getting the Ducks this far, but if they’re going to go further, it’ll be in large part due to coach Dana Altman’s defensive schemes. Altman is a coach who understand’s the game’s momentum as well as any coach, and used an array of different defenses — from 2-3 zone to man-to-man to trapping — to offset a really hot Michigan team’s offense in the Sweet 16. In the Elite Eight against Kansas, getting the offensively-loaded Jayhawks out of their rhythm will be a must.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Sindarius Thornwell has been the best player in this tournament (averaging 26 points a game), so it’s no secret that South Carolina needs a big game from him to go to the Final Four. But what’s gotten this team this far as well is how exceptional the Gamecocks have been on defense, mainly in making teams score tough twos and limiting three-pointers. In the same light, South Carolina has to make shots from beyond the arc to advance. That’s something it didn’t do in a regular-season loss to Florida (Feb. 21) in which it shot 21% from three.
In a perfect world, Florida would ride the momentum of an epic buzzer-beating win to the Final Four. But that momentum could cool off quickly against a gritty South Carolina team. In a Jan. 18 loss to the Gamecocks, Florida went 0-for-17 from three-point land. That was partially a cold shooting night and partially South Carolina’s defense. Facing the conference rival Gamecocks in another clash that figures to be a rock fight, the Gators will need strong shooting from players like Canyon Barry and KeVaughn Allen, who had 25 points in Florida thrilling overtime win against Wisconsin.
USA Today Sports’ Nancy Armour recaps wins by North Carolina and Kentucky on Friday in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
USA TODAY Sports
Kentucky looked impressive against UCLA, thanks in large part to freshman De’Aaron Fox’s 39 points. And that’s an underrated thing the Wildcats do really well: They ride the wave if a teammate is feeling it. Monk, Fox Isaiah Briscoe and Bam Adebayo all have takeover abilities, but it shows superb team chemistry to continually let the offense flow through a guy who’s in the zone. But Kentucky’s defense has been what made UCLA look so pedestrian and what helped it get past a similarly defensive-oriented Wichita State team.
North Carolina Tar Heels
The production of Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson are essential in keying UNC to victory. But so is the small boosts it gets from role players like Luke Maye, who had 16 points and 12 boards against Butler in the Sweet 16. The Tar Heels are the best rebounding team in the country and if it can control the glass behind bigs Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, that will be big in offsetting great guard play by Kentucky, which got a bevy of second-chance points due to UCLA’s poor rebounding in the Sweet 16. The less possessions, the less opportunity for Malik Monk to burn you on a deep three.
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