Raise your hand if you thought the South Carolina Gamecocks and Florida Gators would be participating in the Elite Eight this year. If your hand is raised you deserve a medal. While both of these teams have had incredible productive regular seasons, no one would have predicted them to square off with a trip the final four on Sunday night.
But that’s exactly what’s going to happen when the Gamecocks and Gators take the court at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night after two very different games. Joining them on the other side is a class blue blood battle between the number one and number two seed in the region when the Kentucky Wildcats take on the North Carolina Tar Heels. Both teams have a jam-packed resume of college success and expect to be in this situation every single year so it comes as no surprise to see them take the court on Sunday.
Yet surprises are what March Madness is all about, and that’s why we’re thrilled to break down two very different but equally exciting matchup to get you set for this year’s Elite Eight. As always there’s money to be made in each game and we want you to be as informed as you can.
Let’s get to it.
#7 South Carolina Gamecocks vs. #4 Florida Gators
South Carolina (+3.5) vs. Florida (-3.5)
Ignore the seeding when you take a look at this game. Both teams are outside the top three and yet here they are ready to battle with a trip to the Final Four on the line and well within reach. South Carolina comes into the game after dominating their matchup against Baylor so badly that they got to dribble the clock out for the last two minutes. The Gamecocks we’re up so big they just let Baylor get the ball back as the clock expired each time down the floor.
The Bears weren’t expected to make it far in this tournament after cooling off during the second half of the regular season but the way the #7 seeded Gamecocks dismantled them it’s hardly fair to say South Carolina got by with a lucky draw. After all, this is the same team that sent Duke packing in the round before and a 70-50 win over any team, let alone Baylor is nothing to scoff at.
Just 0.3 percent of ESPN brackets had South Carolina in the Elite Eight and we have a pretty good feeling most of those brackets reside with diehard Gamecocks fans. Either way, they’re here and they’re ready to battle for a trip to the Final Four with a seriously good team led by Sindarius Thornwell. The SEC player of the year was at it again in the win against Baylor with a team high 24 points. He also added six rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals to his boxscore and was a force all over the court.
During the year the senior had averages of 21.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.2 steals a game and its easy to see why he locked up the SEC Player of the Year award. While many people knocked the award for saying the SEC was weaker than its been in the past, it’s not hard to put that notion to bed as well with South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky three of the eight teams left in the tournament.
This is the first tip to the Elite Eight in the school’s history and Thornwell and the rest of his teammates aren’t about to let the moment pass them by. South Carolina employs a tenacious defense and has energy and athleticism at almost every position. They double team and send help all across the floor and limited Baylor to just 50 points on the night.
The Gators play a frantic style as well though and the energy should be through the roof when these two meet. It’s hard to recreate the atmosphere surrounding the ending to the Wisconsin and Florida game after two of the greatest shots this tournament has ever seen but the Gators will try. Chris Chiozza hit a buzzer-beater three in overtime to lift the Gators past the Badgers after Wisconsin almost broke their hearts with a last second three of their own to force overtime in the first place.
Florida is a tough team that should have nothing taken away from them but they have had arguably the easiest path to the Elite Eight. The Gators have beat East Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin and avoided the powerhouse schools. The Badgers did upset Villanova but that seemed to have more to do with how poorly the Wildcats played than a dominating performance from Wisconsin. Still, Florida has all the tools necessary to pull off a big win and they’ve been a dominant team all season long.
The Gators aren’t led by one player in particular as three different players all average double digit points but KeVaughn Allen leads the team with 14.1. He also plays strong defense with 1.3 steals a game but it truly is a team effort when it comes to the Gators. Seven different players all average at least 20 minutes of playing time with two more cracking the ten minute mark. That’s a sign of a team that is deep, balanced, and can keep coming at you.
Sindarius Thornwell against Devin Robinson. It will likely take more than one player to lock down the SEC player of the year but Robinson has the best chance with his length. He’s averaging 6.3 boards this season to go along with 0.8 blocks and is a rangy defender capable of keeping up with Thornwell. With the variety of moves and shooting tough that Thornwell has it could be a long night for Robinson, but he has a long list of teammates ready to help him out.
The Gators are deep, athletic, energetic and have survived some seriously close games with some of the best play down the stretch we’ve seen in this tournament. With that being said, they don’t have a player like Thornwell and there’s a reason he won SEC player of the year over people like Malik Monk. He’s just that good. We’ll take the best player on the court any day and roll with the magic of the Gamecocks. Take South Carolina on the spread.
#2 Kentucky Wildcats vs. #1 North Carolina Tar Heels
Kentucky (+2.5) vs. North Carolina (-2.5)
Buckle up for the game of the tournament so far. While we’ve had some incredible games already and some wild finishes (hello Wisconsin and Florida) we’ve yet to see two dominant teams play right down to the wire. Kentucky and UCLA was supposed to be that game but the Wildcats made quick work of the Bruins in the second half and put an end to UCLA’s run. Now Kentucky will get to take on a team that has looked like arguably the most dominant squad in the tournament when they square off against the Tar Heels and we can’t wait.
The two teams will get set to tip off at the FedEx Forum in Memphis Tennessee on Sunday just after 5 p.m. Eastern Time and it will be a rematch of arguably the best game of the regular season in all of college basketball.
UNC had a scare earlier in the tournament when they feel behind five to scrappy Arkansas team late in the game but have rallied since then to lead from start to finish against everyone else. The Tar Heels were up 30-13 on the Razorbacks before falling behind by five with just a few minutes left in the game.
The team rallied to avoid an upset scare and have been playing with a more focused energy since then. They jumped out to a big 30-14 lead against Butler and never let the Bulldogs back in it no matter how desperate they got. An upset scare can go a long way in jumpstarting a team back to their dominant selves and that certainly seems to be the case with this Tar Heels team.
The Tar Heels have talent all over the court but had another player emerge to give them a boost against butler when sophomore Luke Maye scored a career high 16 points and grabbed 12 boards off the bench. Justin Jackson and Joel Berry picked their play back up and the two combined for 50 points with some good shooting numbers after struggling a bit with their strokes earlier in the tournament.
As for Kentucky, the Wildcats overpowered the Bruins in their Sweet 16 matchup with an 86-75 win. They increased their winning streak to 14 games and any questions about their lack of experience have been thrown out the window as they continue to play like a well-oiled machine. The Wildcats held the normally dominant offensive Bruins to their second lowest scoring total of the season and were led by De’Aaron Fox who turned in the best performance of the tournament with 39 points as he continually attacked Lonzo Ball.
It’s the highest point total a Kentucky player has reached in the tournament in over 15 years and Fox didn’t just score. He was nasty on defense, limiting the efficient Ball to just 10 points all night.
Malik Monk who has been Kentucky’s leading scorer all season long added 21 points go his won and connected on four triples to help blow the lead wide open. The Wildcats were the SEC champions for the their straight year and rank 10th in points per game at 85.22. In fact, this Kentucky team is so balanced that they rank in the top 20 in the country in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, average possession length and turnover percentage.
It feels like there’s nothing this team isn’t good at and as long as they stay level-headed and listen to their coach they can beat anyone in the country.
If Kentucky plans on taking their game to the next level they’re going to need more production out of Bam Adebayo. The freshman forward is averaging 13.0 points, 8.0 boards and 1.5 blocks a game this season but in the win over UCLA he was eerily quiet with just two points and four rebounds in a whopping 37 minutes.
UNC has a ton of pie in the paint and Adebayo will need to bring his A game in order to content with the length of the Tar Heels.
Malik Monk against Justin Jackson. Kentucky struggles a bit from outside where they shoot just 35.2 percent this season. That mark ranks 165th in the country and they will need Monk to be huge from deep again if they want to rack up the points. Monk launches 3.5 threes more than anyone else on the team but will have to contend with the length of Jackson. UNC’s star is a rangy defender capable of guarding numerous positions and will likely be asked to jump out on a few of Monk’s deep shots.
Kentucky won their first meeting this season 103-100 in one of the most memorable matchup of the entire regular season. The Wildcats can’t just rely on that outcome though with how well the Tar Heels have played in this tournament. Take North Carolina on the spread and watch Justin Jackson take over the game again.
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