When the country was drawing up their March Madness brackets, not many would have predicted South Carolina to be in the Elite Eight. Yet this afternoon, the Gamecocks will take on fourth-seeded Florida in their first ever Elite Eight game as they find themselves on the cusp of the vaunted Final Four. Losing in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, South Carolina was not even a lock to make NCAA Tournament at all, but was ultimately chosen as the seventh seed in the East region. Since then, South Carolina has put the nation on notice, cruising by Marquette, downing heavily-favored Duke, and rolling past Baylor, all while masterfully controlling both ends of the floor. Perhaps more people would have seen this coming had they known more about the 6’5” guard from Lancester, South Carolina, SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell.
Thornwell has put on a show in three tournament games, accumulating at least 24 points and six rebounds in each one. But the senior’s game is much more than that. He’s also shown a knack for getting steals and playing rock solid defense, something that has been a staple for the Gamecocks throughout their run.
Those who doubted them have in many ways fueled Thornwell and his South Carolina teammates. “I’ve been an underdog ever since high school,” he says. “No one expected much from me. No one expected much from South Carolina basketball. No one thought we’d beat Duke. People didn’t take us seriously.”
South Carolina isn’t the only team that has surprised people in this tournament. On the other side of the bracket, the Oregon Ducks just reached the Final Four for the first time since 1939 – the inaugural year of the tournament. While the Ducks, who were seeded third in the Midwest region, wouldn’t be considered a major shock to reach the Final Four, they have done it without their excellent shot blocker Chris Boucher, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Someone had to step up for Oregon and as it would turn out, the whole team did in March. But one player who has particularly stood out is the junior forward Jordan Bell. Bell has had a historic tournament, grabbing at least twelve rebounds in each of his four games. Oregon’s win over perennial favorite Kansas may have been where Bell shined brightest. In addition to his 13 boards, Bell blocked eight shots in total, showcasing in ability to go up and down the court and make impact plays on both ends. Seven of his rebounds were of the offensive variety; no other Oregon player had one.
While the Ducks are celebrating up in the Northwest, reaching the Finals Four was just as special for another school in the Northwest. After years of falling just short, Gonzaga is headed to their first Final Four in school history. Among the Bulldogs’ most recognizable players is Przemek Karnowski, the hulking 300-pound center from Poland. Karnowski is an intimidating presence for anybody trying to defend him and is certainly difficult to win a battle against in the post. But Karnowski is also quite athletic and quick with his feet for a man his size. Here’s a cool tidbit about him – Karnowski has played in more victories than any other player in NCAA Division I history.
There are always impact players who fly under the radar throughout the year, and this year’s tournament has no shortage of them. NBA stars such as Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Kawhi Leonard would not have been the first guys that came to mind as future stars until they put on a show in March Madness, and still got drafted lower than they should have. NBA teams in the latter parts of the draft are always looking for a diamond in the rough, and players like Thornwell, Bell, and Karnowski fit that bill.
Thornwell is an especially intriguing player who wasn’t very much on the radar before the tournament. However, he’s shown an ability to be an impact player both offensively and defensively, and the senior would be a major steal for whoever is lucky enough to grab him. Karnowski is a unique physical presence who could provide a valuable role to an NBA team. And while Bell is only a junior and could very likely return to Oregon next year, he should be a major player to watch a year from now.
One of the truly great things about March Madness is that is it allows standout players to get noticed. Thousands of people who don’t watch much college basketball get to see these players. Those standout players who haven’t received a great deal of attention throughout the year get a chance to showcase their skills against the best competition in the country and put NBA scouts on notice. But one of the most satisfying parts of it is when a player like Thornwell, Bell, or Karnowski is able to lead their college to uncharted territory and never-before-reached heights. When that happens, they become immortalized in their school communities forever.
For everyone who’s been waiting for an all-time classic game in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, it’s happened, courtesy of last night’s showdown between Wisconsin (8) and Florida (4). The Sweet Sixteen round saved the best for last, as the final game of the night resulted in an overtime thriller that will likely be remembered as the iconic game of this year’s tournament.
Wisconsin had already opened the nation’s eyes by taking down top-rated Villanova in the Round of 32. That set up a matchup with a dangerous Florida squad who had coasted past their two previous opponents, outscoring them by a combined 41 points. The two prestigious basketball schools went back and forth up until midway through the second half, when the Gators opened up a 12-point lead at one point. Wisconsin slowly crawled back and got a timely steal with 18 seconds left, down by three. With the clock winding down, senior guard Zak Showalter was forced to take a desperation three-pointer. Amidst the heavy defense, Showalter connected on a beautiful running jump shot from behind the arc that sent Madison Square Garden into pandemonium.
In overtime, Florida attempted to stop Wisconsin’s momentum by fouling their worst free throw shooters. Although the Badgers are a very experienced team, they are among Division I’s worst free throw shooting teams, ranking near the bottom 5% on the nation with only a 64.4% success rate on the season. However, the Badgers performed admirably in this area during the overtime period, considering their widespread struggles. The game appeared to be in Wisconsin’s favor until Florida coach Greg White subbed in Canyon Barry, who would provide a major boost. Barry converted a sweet layup with about a minute and a half to play, and later proceeded to make two underhand free throws and authorize one of the highlights of the game.
After Barry’s second successful free throw, Wisconsin’s Khalil Iverson appeared to be wide open on the other end. But Barry flew in out of nowhere to make a sensational block and allow Florida to tie it up. With 24 seconds left, Wisconsin opted to run down the clock. With four seconds remaining, Nigel Hayes made a move to the basket, missing the bucket, but picking up the foul. Hayes is among the Badgers’ best players, but like most of his teammates, free throws are not his strong suit. Yet, with the season on the line, the senior found it within himself to convert both tries and put Florida behind the eight ball.
The man tasked with getting the basket would be Chris Chiozza, a speedy guard with a .312 three point percentage on the season. Chiozza got the inbound and sprinted up to the three point arc. Almost a mirror image of Showalter’s shot to send the game into overtime, Chiozza heaved up a last second shot on the run. As the clock expired, the crowd silenced for a split second, waiting to see if the ball would drop in. It fell straight through the net as the arena once again broke into madness and Florida punched their ticket to an Elite Eight matchup with South Carolina.
This game perfectly exemplifies the nature of March Madness, from the thrilling high stakes nature of each and every game, to the massive exhilaration for one side and devastating heartbreak for the other. Nowhere else in sports do we get such a fast-paced format with as many games of importance as this tournament provides. There are 67 games in total, and each one of them is do or die. There’s no coming back tomorrow, and for many of the players involved, no next season. Not every game is down to the wire, but with so many elimination games played over two and a half weeks, fans are bound to get some treats like last night’s.
For Florida, this game represents an unbelievable high for a program looking to reign again as national champions. KeVaughn Allen exploded for 35 points and will look to lead the Gatos to their sixth Final Four appearance and third NCAA title. Should they win it all, last night’s game will represent one of the most historic games in tournament history. Despite the jubilation felt by one side, there’s always another side in sports. Four of Wisconsin’s five starters are seniors and have now played their last game. Losing a game by the slightest of margins will always have athletes wondering what could have been, but nothing can take away from the fact that the Badgers played one heck of a game. They were part of an all-time classic, and even though they ended up on the wrong side of it, Wisconsin has a lot to be proud of. They played their hearts out last night to cap off an outstanding season. Many fans and media tend to overlook this side of sports, but ultimately all but one team will end up falling short.
If you missed the late night game, go out and find a replay of the fourth quarter and overtime, because reading this description doesn’t do it justice. It’s something you have to see to believe, the type of game that represents why people are so obsessed with March Madness.