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#pounditFriday, July 23, 2021

5 biggest takeaways from Sunday’s Elite Eight games

UNC Roy Williams

After two weekends of chaos, the dust has settled and only four teams remain in the NCAA Tournament. South Carolina, Gonzaga, Oregon, and North Carolina will meet in the desert of Arizona to determine a champion.

Sunday provided college basketball fans with two chances to see familiar foes tango with a chance to cut down the nets as champions of their respective regions. With those winners joining Saturday’s advancing teams, the stage is set and speculation for next weekend can begin.

Here are the biggest takeaways from Sunday’s Elite Eight games.

1. North Carolina earns shot at redemption

The Tar Heels earned their way into the Final Four with a hard-fought battle over Kentucky in what will be remembered as a classic game. Sophomore forward Luke Maye swished an 18-foot jump shot with less than one second on the clock to bury Big Blue Nation (video here).

For this North Carolina team, reaching the Final Four is only the beginning.

The Heels still feel the burn of Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater that won the championship for Villanova last season. Fighting their way to the Final Four showed Carolina was able to redefine itself without departing seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige. UNC players and fans won’t settle for anything short of a national championship.

This team is built to cut down the nets, with Sunday as the perfect example.

Kentucky’s stars spent much of the game battling foul trouble.

While John Calipari may blame the referees, North Carolina was aggressive on offense and made the Wildcats react. By pushing the tempo, North Carolina imposed its game plan effectively throughout and earned a win over a good Kentucky squad.

The Heels have the athletes, scoring, and style to win two more games in this tournament.

2. Luke Maye has come to play

Perhaps the wildest thing about North Carolina’s run to the Final Four is that Luke Maye has produced like a star.

While Joel Berry and Justin Jackson catch all of the attention, Maye has been a steadying influence and answered the bell every time he’s been asked. He was so effective in the last two weeks, he was named Most Outstanding Player of the South Region.

In the tournament, Maye has averaged 12.5 points, 6 rebounds, and has only recorded 2 turnovers in 4 games of play. Roy Williams isn’t asking Maye to shoulder the load offensively or create for others, only to play within his capabilities and force opponents to respect him as a scoring option. Maye has done so, shooting 7 of 10 from outside the arc this weekend.

No one expected Luke Maye to be a hero for this Carolina team, but when he caught the ball with the clock ticking down Sunday afternoon, based on the way he’s been playing, it came as no surprise that he knocked down the game winner.

3. One blue blood, three party-crashers

North Carolina sits as an outlier among the four teams remaining in the Big Dance.

Of the four schools headed to Phoenix, only the Heels have been to a Final Four since World War II. This marks the first trip to the semifinals for Gonzaga and South Carolina, with Oregon reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1939, when the NCAA Tournament had a whopping eight participants.

For casual fans, this is a bittersweet scenario.

Many may have been sick of Kentucky, Duke, and Kansas as the big names in the field, though bigger names are always certain to pull greater attention and bigger ratings. This year offers a chance to learn the stories of lesser known entities, like South Carolina coach Frank Martin, Gonzaga senior Przemek Karnowski, or Oregon’s Jordan Bell. It’s undeniably exciting that the championship game will feature a tiny mid-major school or a football-obsessed basketball also-ran making a run for the first time.

4. South Carolina’s defense showing its brilliance

South Carolina once again proved why they have advanced this far in the tournament on Sunday, with another show of smothering defense.

The Gamecocks flashed the speed and tenacity that has become their hallmark this season while defeating SEC rival Florida at Madison Square Garden.

Against the suffocating South Carolina defense, the Gators managed just 27 percent shooting from outside the arc and could never get into a rhythm. The Gamecocks forced Florida into 16 turnovers, including an uncharacteristic four giveaways by senior guard Kasey Hill.

Moving on to Phoenix, South Carolina has shown no reason it can’t continue to win.

The Gamecocks’ formula of defensive intensity and smart, decisive offensive attacks can beat any team on a neutral floor. With the remaining games taking place in the much maligned atmosphere of a giant football stadium, the Gamecocks may not be able to score, but they will try to turn Saturday’s game against the Zags into a street brawl. The uglier that game looks, the better chance South Carolina reaches the title game.

5. Pace of Final Four games will completely different

Throughout the tournament, when discussing the Final Four, almost all of the talk revolves around who will survive the first two weeks and find themselves still alive. It is not until the teams and games are set that the concept of match-ups starts to feel realistic.

Gonzaga and South Carolina will play a tough, defensive-minded game.

Of the two teams, Gonzaga definitely has the more effective offensive attack, with a full arsenal of offensive weapons to choose from. The Zags can attack the paint, run in transition, or rain in threes to win. South Carolina’s route to a win is much more defined. The Gamecocks likely only come out on top if they can turn things ugly, with Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier slashing into the paint and drawing fouls at the rim in a low-scoring battle.

North Carolina and Oregon will play at such a different pace than the previous game, it may look like an entirely different sport.

Joel Berry and Justin Jackson will be running and shooting at break-neck speeds, only to be matched by Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Brooks doing the same for the Ducks. In the end, the game could be decided by Jordan Bell’s ability to equalize the North Carolina frontcourt. If he wins the battle in the paint, like he did against Kansas, the Ducks could quack their way into Oregon’s first championship game since 1939.

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.

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