Everyone thought it would be a Duke-Villanova East Regional Final at Madison Square Garden. However, with the two top seeds going down in the first weekend of NCAA tournament play, the East will yield a Final Four party-crasher. Will it be the SEC’s South Carolina Gamecocks or the Big 12’s Baylor Bears? Will the Big Ten’s Wisconsin Badgers or another SEC powerhouse, Florida, move on? A trip to the East Regional Final will be on the line Friday night. Tipoff for the first game is at 7:29 p.m. ET on TBS, with the second game scheduled to begin at 9:59.
No. 3 Baylor seed vs. No. 7 seed South Carolina
The Gamecocks are fresh off a historic upset of the No. 2 seed Duke Blue Devils. South Carolina finished off Duke 88–81 with a second-half run of 65 points—26 in the paint and 10 on the fast break. The Gamecocks proved to be the tougher, more defensive team, forcing Duke into 18 turnovers and earning a spot in the Sweet 16.
They face Baylor, who beat No. 11 seed USC 82–78. Rebounding was a key to this game, and Baylor outrebounded the Trojans 34–23. USC led for a good stretch of the game, but Baylor's Manu Lecomte gave the Bears the spark they needed to hold on for the win.
The Gamecocks have some powerful weapons in their lineup. Against Duke, Sindarius Thornwell was a total beast. The 2017 SEC player of the year finished the game with 22 points, six rebounds, and five assists. Fellow guard Duane Notice added 17 points. Forward Chris Silva went for a double double with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Senior standout Thornwell is playing better than anyone in the Sweet 16 field. When asked what a difficult match up Thornwell would be, Baylor senior and longtime friend Ishmail Wainright said, “The whole team will be defending him. He's a great player. I've known him since high school. We had our battles; he's a close friend. He can do everything.”
Added Wainright, “They do a great job feeding him the ball in his spots that he likes the ball. Coach has broken down every made shot that he's had, and I mean—we have all watched at least about three hours of film on just Sindarius.”
As for Baylor’s chances, the Bears’ height, length, and speed could be a major factor in this matchup. Baylor’s 6’10” junior forward Jonathan Motley has been a star this year. He is averaging 17 points and almost 10 rebounds a game.
Guard Manu Lecomte, who is from Belgium, will be another key to this game. He promised, as he did with USC, he would “take over the game again” if given the opportunity. The Bears have a deep bench, and are they one of the best rebounding teams in the county.
The upperclassmen must step up on both teams. Baylor will have to rely on its deep bench and athleticism to advance to the Elite Eight. The Gamecocks must continue their stellar defensive effort and hope that their upset streak continues. It is March Madness, after all.
No. 4 seed Florida vs. No. 8 seed Wisconsin
The Gators dismantled Virginia in the second round of the tournament, holding the Cavaliers to 39 points. Florida had an up-and-down season, going from a high of a nine-game winning streak (including a huge Kentucky beatdown) to a low of a heartbreaking injury to their big man, John Egbunu, and early exit from the SEC tournament.
The Gators will take on Wisconsin in the second game in New York City. The Badgers knocked off the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, Villanova. The Wildcats had no answer for senior Nigel Hayes, who scored 19 points, pulled down eight rebounds, and hit the game-winner.
The Badgers are a seriously poised and experienced team. They are taking their fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet 16. That means this is nothing new for seniors Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes, Zak Showalter, and Vitto Brown. Sophomore forward Ethan Happ has come on strong in the tournament and could be a problem for the Gators. He is averaging 11 points and eight rebounds in the postseason.
When coach Greg Gard was asked about Wisconsin’s repeated success and the importance of the team’s senior leaders, he said, “We have relied on upperclassmen leadership. Sometimes you have star power in that upperclassmen leadership; sometimes it's just a matter of guys who have had experience.”
Continued Gard, “I don't try to overstimulate this time of year in terms of what we're going into or what’s at stake. They understand. They grow up around it. They watched it their whole lives. They have been in it before. I don't need to throw fuel on the fire, so to speak, of what this time of year’s about. Let them enjoy it, play well, and try to continue to march on.”
The Gators know all too well that Wisconsin will come at them with not only experience, but also defense and depth. One player they will be relying on to counter that attack is Devin Robinson. Robinson is taking his star turn, and in the past two games, he is averaging 19 points and 9.5 rebounds after averaging 10.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game this season. This athletic and quick 6’8” junior with a 7’1” wingspan will be difficult for the Badgers to guard.
The Gators are a deep team with double digit scorers like KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry. But their stellar defense may be even more of an asset. As junior guard Kasey Hill put it, “Just got to stick to playing our defense and that's about it. I think that takes care of everything else.”
Photographs by (from top): Frank Mattia/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images (Thornwell); David Stacy/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images (Lecomte); Max Bonnstetter (Robinson)