Stand up if you had South Carolina, Gonzaga, Oregon, and North Carolina in the Final Four.
Surprisingly, there are more people standing than you may think. According to ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, 657 out of 18,797,085 brackets had these four teams in Phoenix (most undoubtedly from the Palmetto State). And while that’s only .0035 % of brackets, it is still 657 more brackets than expected. With a plethora of excitement in the past and more madness in the future, Here’s what we learned from the second weekend:
Sindarius Thornwell is the best player in the tournament
Before the replies start flooding in about Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, or Malik Monk, let’s get this straight–those guys will go on to be NBA stars, there is no question about that. But Thornwell has elevated his game to new heights, averaging 25.8 PPG and 7.5 RPG thus far in the tournament, and has been the undisputed leader for this physical, defensive-minded Gamecocks squad. Don’t let the fact that South Carolina is a 6.5 point underdog fool you–this team will be ready to play come Saturday.
Bizarre Final Four
This is one of the strangest Final Four groups in recent memory–not in terms of seeding; two one seeds and a three seed are fairly normal, and although a seven seed sticks out, it’s actually becoming somewhat of the bracket norm–the last five Final Fours have featured a seven seed or lower (Wichita State-2013, Kentucky and UConn-2014, Michigan State-2015, Syracuse-2016, South Carolina-2017). But where this bracket strays from the path is who finds themselves in Glendale. North Carolina is a frequent visitor, but this is the first time in history that someone can say “South Carolina is in the Final Four” or “Gonzaga is in the Final Four”, and unless you were watching basketball in 1939, this is the first time someone can say “Oregon is in the Final Four.” Look for two fantastic games Saturday night.
Drive to the hole!
Steph Curry has changed the game of basketball. And as the greatest three point shooter ever, he’s started a trend–he’s given players the illusion that they are as good as he is, when in reality, they are not, and can be evidenced through three games this weekend. In the Michigan-Oregon game, Derrick Walton caught the in-bounds pass with ten seconds left, down by one. Now if there’s anyone John Beilein wanted taking that shot, it’s Walton, so they got that part right. But down one, why a three? Why not drive to the hole and possibly get a foul (Walton is an excellent free throw shooter)? Tough way to exit for a Michigan team that appeared destined for the Final Four.
Fast forward to Arizona-Xavier. There was no way anyone but Allonzo Trier was taking Arizona’s final shot, but a step-back contested three was not the answer for a Wildcat team only down two. Trier scored 15 points in a row for Arizona–Xavier was in no position to prevent a layup with the clock winding down. There’s no problem going for the win, but if going for the win requires a low percentage shot, proceed with caution.
Finally, we venture over to the debacle that was West Virginia-Gonzaga. Yes, the Mountaineers were down three. But with 30 seconds left, there’s plenty of time to get an easy two and foul. Instead, what followed was one of the worst final possessions in tournament history. The ball did not enter inside the arc once, except when it was rebounded and then kicked back out to the perimeter. Of the three games, this one resembles the “Steph Curry” style the most. Mr. Carter, you’re a fantastic player, but two fading away threes are not what the Huggy Bear ordered.
To all the young players out there, if you are going to take the fade-away step-back buzzer beater down by one, enjoy the glory if it falls, but be ready to face the critics if it comes up short.
Best senior class in Wisconsin History
Wisconsin fans can finally say they know how Marcus Paige and the North Carolina Tar Heels felt in the National Championship last April. This time it was Zak Showalter with the miraculous shot, followed by an awesome Discount Double Check, only to be overshadowed by a Florida buzzer beater in overtime. For Wisconsin fans around the country, this loss can be rivaled by few, possibly only behind the first Final Four meeting between Wisconsin and Kentucky and the championship loss to Duke.
But it was not in vain.
This group of seniors will live on long after they depart from Madison. They have given this program more than it could possibly ask for, and shaped a bright future. In this day and age, a large portion of the successful schools have players that only play a season or two.
Hayes, Brown, Showalter, and Koenig won 115 games. Most players dream of making it to the tournament and playing in the Sweet 16. These seniors have 13 tournament wins and never finished worse than the Sweet 16. And most schools have not yet made it to the Final Four.
These guys have played in two.
Don’t be sad that it’s over, be grateful for all the Madness this group brought, all the drama and angst, every buzzer beater and big win, because we may not see a group like this again for quite some time. So, to the Class of 2017, there’s only one thing left to say – thank you.