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March Madness 2017: Discussing the East Region’s road to the Final Four

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After a couple of upsets, all of the sudden every remaining team in the East has a shot to cut down the nets.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-South Carolina vs Marquette
If the Badgers beat Florida, don’t be surprised if they see Sindarius Thornwell on Sunday.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

So that was a fun weekend of basketball, huh?

The Wisconsin Badgers proved that one jerk who thought maybe they weren’t that overseeded wrong on Saturday and everybody fell in love with South Carolina because the Gamecocks took down Duke with a similar alacrity to how they beat down Marquette. And with that, the East Region of the NCAA tournament suddenly has four teams with legitimate cases to cut down the nets and make their way to Arizona.

The Badgers’ path to doing so is pretty simple. They have veteran experience at this stage of the tournament that no other team really does, with a coach that knows how to get past this round. With Bronson Koenig getting hot, they have a shooter who can avoid collapsing zones on Ethan Happ. For the Sweet 16, Happ might prove to be integral to the Badgers’ chances.

Florida Gators

For all the talk about South Carolina’s defensive prowess, the Florida Gators have the best remaining defense in the region according to Ken Pomeroy. To put it another way, they’re 10th nationally in terms of three-point defense and have a disgustingly good defensive assist-to-turnover ratio of 325 assists given up to 507 turnovers forced. Offensively? There’s no real, outlying dominance. Far from me to call them bad or anything, but they’re quite balanced scoring-wise between KeVaughn Allen, Canyon Barry, Devin Robinson, and Kasey Hill. Justin Leon is a three-point threat for them off the bench as well.

But Florida is missing an integral piece. The Gators have not been able to replace John Egbunu’s post presence since he went down with a torn ACL in February. Robinson is their best remaining rebounder, but he’s also listed at 6’8, 178 pounds. He isn’t going to be there consistently in the post. There have been games where the Badgers have struggled to protect the ball. Florida can take advantage of that, but if the Badgers can get clean looks, they can definitely get Happ rolling and advance to the Elite Eight.

The other Sweet 16 matchup has a very similar game narrative to the Badgers and the Gators. A team that made the top 10 before slumping towards the end of the year is facing a team that shocked the Round of 32 with a major upset.

Second Round: Gators chomp Cavaliers (NCAA March Madness/YouTube)

Baylor Bears

The team from Waco has what is probably the most complete starting five left in the tournament. Johnathan Motley is a double-double threat every time he gets out on the floor. With Big 12-leading shot-blocker Jo Acuil helping to protect the rim, they have post presence in spades. Add to that Baylor has three three-point shooters who hit at a rate higher than 40 percent in Manu Lecomte, Allerik Freeman and the threat off the bench in Jake Lindsey, and you have a setup where they can get high-percentage shots inside if everything is clicking on the perimeter.

There is a simple reason why South Carolina can get over on Baylor. The Bears finished last in the Big 12 in turnovers committed. They also slumped to 34-percent shooting from behind the arc in conference play. It’s possible they just hit a wall and they’re getting their game back together, but when you consider South Carolina is literally one missed three-point shot away from holding teams under 30 percent from behind the arc, the opening is there for Baylor to end their year Friday.

Second Round: Baylor holds off USC (NCAA March Madness/YouTube)

South Carolina Gamecocks

In terms of getting turnovers, the Gamecocks are one of the best in turning defense into offense, currently second in the nation with 588. Their assist-to-turnover ratio is even better than Florida’s, as they have only given up 326 assists. I also wasn’t lying when I was talking about their three-point shooting percentage allowed. Overall, teams shoot 40 percent against South Carolina.

South Carolina also has potentially the biggest star left in Sindarius Thornwell. The 6’5 guard is a virtual stat-sheet filler as he’s coming into the Baylor game averaging 21.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.2 steals, and almost a block per game, adding 40.2 percent accuracy from three and 82.8 percent from the line. He’s the threat you can not let get rolling.

Sindarius Thornwell's 24 points leads South Carolina to Sweet 16 (NCAA March Madness/YouTube)

There’s also a reason why this is such a surprise. The Gamecocks are Ken Pomeroy’s 16th-ranked offense still alive in the tournament and that is by a tremendous margin over Wisconsin and its tendency to make bricks from time to time. South Carolina can get to the rim, but P.J. Dozier and Duane Notice are both shaky shooters and as a team it shoots a line of .460/.338/.697. That’s good for 302nd, 241st, and 189th respectively. The Gamecocks are also 299th in offensive field-goal percentage. The defense can carry them through a rockfight, as they do hold a win over Florida when they held the Gators to 0-for-17 from three. A steady team can beat them, but that said, their draw includes two teams who have had turnover issues and a team they already beat. Cinderella may yet cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden.

Second Round: South Carolina defeats Duke (NCAA March Madness/YouTube)

Long story longer? The three games that remain in the East Region have four teams facing off with a legitimate case to get themselves to the Final Four. Somehow, the Badgers just might get a third trip in four seasons.

That’s a long distance traveled from a week ago.

2017 Sweet 16 TV Schedule

Game Date Tip Time (ET) Network Site Commentators
Game Date Tip Time (ET) Network Site Commentators
(3) Oregon Ducks vs. (7) Michigan Wolverines March 23 7:09 p.m. CBS Kansas City Kevin Harlan / Reggie Miller / Dan Bonner / Dana Jacobson
(1) Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. (4) West Virginia Mountaineers March 23 7:39 p.m. TBS San Jose Brian Anderson / Chris Webber / Lewis Johnson
(1) Kansas Jayhawks vs. (4) Purdue Boilermakers March 23 Approx. 9:29 p.m. CBS Kansas City Kevin Harlan / Reggie Miller / Dan Bonner / Dana Jacobson
(11) Xavier Musketeers vs. (2) Arizona Wildcats March 23 Approx. 10:09 p.m. TBS San Jose Brian Anderson / Chris Webber / Lewis Johnson
(1) North Carolina Tar Heels vs. (4) Butler Bulldogs March 24 7:09 p.m. CBS Memphis Jim Nantz / Grant Hill / Bill Raftery / Tracy Wolfson
(3) Baylor Bears vs. (7) South Carolina Gamecocks March 24 7:29 p.m. TBS New York City Verne Lundquist / Jim Spanarkel / Allie LaForce
(3) UCLA Bruins vs. (2) Kentucky Wildcats March 24 Approx. 9:39 p.m. CBS Memphis Jim Nantz / Grant Hill / Bill Raftery / Tracy Wolfson
(8) Wisconsin Badgers vs. (4) Florida Gators March 24 Approx. 9:59 p.m. TBS New York City Verne Lundquist / Jim Spanarkel / Allie LaForce
Christopher Novak