5 biggest takeaways from Saturday’s Elite Eight action
Saturday’s games marked the first which featured a truly brighter spotlight for the teams playing.
The Elite Eight, unlike the three rounds prior, only has one game played and televised at each interval. The entire college basketball world first focused its attention on San Jose, and then to Kansas City to see two teams advance to the Final Four.
Under a brighter light, flaws and successes stand out even brighter and show what can be expected as the tournament turns up the intensity. Here are five big things we saw.
1.) Gonzaga shouldn’t be satisfied with reaching the Final Four
For the first time in program history, Gonzaga is headed to the Final Four after beating 11 seed Xavier in the West Region final. For a school of Gonzaga’s size, with no football program and situated in the West Coast Conference, it is a huge achievement. No WCC team has played in the Final Four since Bill Russell was at San Francisco in 1957. Without a doubt, this is a milestone for the Gonzaga program.
But for this team, in this tournament, Gonzaga’s journey has no reason to stop now.
The Zags have been atop Ken Pomeroy’s rankings for the last two months, as they finished the regular season 29-1. Gonzaga features a top-15 offense in the country and the top-ranked defense in all the land.
With stars like Nigel Williams, Johnathan Williams, and Jordan Mathews, among a host of other scoring options, the Zags have so many ways to attack and win. Both of Mark Few’s centers, Zach Collins and Przemek Karnowski, battled foul trouble Saturday, but Gonzaga went smaller and found success in transition.
These Bulldogs are a cut above the Gonzaga teams of the past and capable of winning it all.
2.) Mid-majors crash the party again
The Zags are the sixth mid-major team to reach the third weekend of tournament play in the last 10 years.
The blue bloods and major programs have always reigned over college basketball, but the little guys have made enough noise to challenge the establishment.
With “major mid-majors” like Gonzaga, Wichita State, and VCU roaming the landscape, there could be shifts in future years. Power conference also-rans have long received better treatment from the NCAA Selection Committee, but as mid-majors continue to prove themselves in tournament play, the committee could adjust their approach moving forward.
At the top of the bracket, after Gonzaga and Wichita State both squandered top seeds in recent years, the Bulldogs winning their region could speak volumes for mid-majors fighting for a number one seed in future years.
3). Oregon has been a sleeping giant
After beating Kansas — in Kansas City no less — the Oregon Ducks cut down the nets as champions of the Midwest Region. Following the game, Ducks players Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey used their postgame interview to call out to the sleeping East Coasters who doubted Oregon all season.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 26, 2017
There is absolutely some truth to that sentiment. Since Dillon Brooks returned from injury early this season, Oregon has been firing on all cylinders. The Ducks are 25-3 since December 1, losing at Colorado, at UCLA, and against Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament.
The Ducks feature four scoring options on one end of the floor and smother teams at the rim on the other, leading the nation in blocked shots.
No matter the situation or opponent, Dana Altman’s team has proven themselves to have the answer.
4). Jordan Bell is a monster
Oregon’s man in the middle was an absolute beast against Kansas.
With his frontcourt mate, Chris Boucher, out with a torn ACL, Bell picked up all of the slack and produced everything Oregon needed on Saturday night.
Bell finished the game with 11 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, and a ridiculous 8 blocked shots. Defensively, he was everywhere in the paint for Oregon, blocking shots, altering others, and cleaning the glass. On offense, he grabbed seven offensive rebounds, including one in the game’s final minutes that sealed the victory for the Ducks.
In the Final Four, Bell will bring an energy and enthusiasm that his opponents will have to match. If they don’t, like Kansas did for much of Saturday night, Bell will beat them to 50-50 balls and put Oregon in a position to win.
5). Kansas’ comeback magic came to an end
The Jayhawks have now been a one or two seed five years in a row without reaching the Final Four. It’s a scary trend for Bill Self’s program that any Jayhawk fan would have hoped could end this season with the Midwest Region playing in nearby Kansas City.
This season’s Jayhawks team flashed the flaws that would eventually cause its demise.
Since Jan. 1, Kansas played in 10 games that were decided by 5 points or less, with the Jayhawks stealing victory in 8 of those close games. That sample includes a win over Kansas State that should have been nullified by a travel call; a wild double-digit comeback over West Virginia; and two instances of Baylor folding down the stretch.
The Jayhawks relied on 3-point shooting this season, as an exclamation point with the lead or as a turbo boost during their many comebacks. Against Oregon, the well went dry and Frank Mason, Josh Jackson, and Devonte Graham could not find the answer elsewhere on the floor.
41% 3pt shooting team goes 5-of-25 in the Elite Eight. Variance hurts.
— Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) March 26, 2017
Josh Jackson heads to the NBA Draft, with Frank Mason and Landen Lucas set to graduate. Meanwhile in Lawrence, Bill Self remains with questions lingering about his work at Kansas.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about college basketball and the NBA at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.