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#pounditFriday, July 23, 2021

5 biggest takeaways from Friday’s Sweet 16 games

De'Aaron Fox

It took 60 games for this year’s edition of March Madness to live up to its nickname, with our first overtime and first buzzer-beater coming on the sixth day of NCAA Tournament play.

Friday saw one of the wildest games of the tournament thus far, some of the biggest programs in action, and some of the best players in the nation showed their value.

Only eight teams remain, but plenty of madness is still to come in the Big Dance. Here are the five biggest takeaways from Friday’s Sweet 16 action.

1.) SEC is making a statement and guaranteed a Final Four team

Florida capped off Friday night with a heart-thumping, nail-biting victory over Wisconsin in overtime, which came on a miracle running 3-pointer by Chris Chiozza (video here). The Gators controlled the game for most of the second half before collapsing down the stretch. They needed a wild comeback in overtime, including a game-saving block at the rim by Canyon Barry.

Now the Gators advance to play SEC foe South Carolina in the Elite Eight, with the conference guaranteed a spot in the Final Four. The two teams lost a combined 10 games in the SEC, which was ranked as the fifth-best conference per KenPom. Yet we sit two days away from one of the two playing in a national semifinal game. During conference play, the two split meetings, with each winning at home. As we’ve seen in the first three rounds of play, both will play hard-nosed, fast-moving defense all over the court, with the team more capable of finding good quality shots likely to move on.

The only team to finish ahead of Florida and South Carolina in the SEC standings, Kentucky, is also still alive across the bracket. No other conference has more than one team still alive.

Tournament play is not the perfect indicator of conference success, but maybe we should think twice before knocking the SEC next season.

2.) North Carolina answers Kansas’ big night

After Kansas fired on all cylinders Thursday night and coasted to an easy victory over Purdue, the Jayhawks appeared to be the clear favorites remaining in the field. North Carolina witnessed what Kansas did and promptly responded.

The Tar Heels faced a potentially tricky match-up, with a slower, skilled Butler team prepared to toss Carolina a curveball. From the moment the ball was tipped however, the Bulldogs never stood a chance. Immediately North Carolina’s athletic advantage was clear, and with the Heels hitting shots from all over the floor, Butler fell behind quickly. North Carolina dominated on the glass, out-rebounding Butler 38-26 for the game.

Moving forward, it is tempting to look forward to a North Carolina-Kansas semifinal in Phoenix. Prepping for that game would be getting ahead of ourselves, but the last two nights have confirmed that Kansas and Carolina are not only the two biggest threats to reach the Final Four, but also to cut down the nets as national champions.

3.) Kentucky’s guards are too much to handle

Of course, the biggest obstacle to a North Carolina showdown with Kansas is the presence of a talented, charging Kentucky team. The Wildcats outlasted UCLA in Memphis Friday night, shutting down the Bruins’ high-octane offense.

Kentucky was paced by its excellent all-freshman backcourt featuring De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Fox was extraordinary, posting 39 points and 4 assists, while Monk added 21 points of his own. The two freshman stars attacked UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford, making the Bruin defenders work non-stop defensively.

At this point, you can count the number of players who have been better than Kentucky’s freshman tandem in the tournament on one hand. With two of the best players on the floor in every game they play, the Wildcats know exactly how difficult it is for teams to find a way to beat them.

4.) South Carolina’s defense is elite enough to really make noise in this tournament

When South Carolina upset Duke in a quasi-home game, the Gamecocks looked like a team capable of winning games in March, but certainly showed the limitations that held them back in the regular season.

Friday night, South Carolina showed the Duke win was not a fluke.

Frank Martin’s team showcased why they rank in the top five nationally in defensive efficiency.

Baylor’s playmakers could barely breathe, let alone find scoring opportunities against a smothering man-to-man defense from South Carolina. The Bears managed just .76 points per possession, easily Baylor’s lowest mark of the season.

In March, with teams playing unfamiliar opponents, on neutral courts, and with the spotlight on every dribble, defense is only of the most valuable tools in a team’s arsenal. South Carolina is so adept at locking down opponents, the Gamecocks are capable of beating anyone on any given night.

5.) UCLA faces an uncertain future

After a loss in the Sweet 16, the UCLA program finds itself at a crossroads.

Head coach Steve Alford is a rumored candidate to take over at his alma mater, Indiana, though he said after the game he was going to remain at UCLA.

In addition to possible coaching changes, the UCLA roster expects to turnover quite a bit as well.

Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will graduate this offseason. Lonzo Ball has already declared for the NBA Draft, with fellow freshman TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu potentially joining him.

The Bruins currently have a top-ranked recruiting class coming in, but they could be looking at bringing in a new coach and assimilating a nearly entirely new rotation next season.

After a wonderful season in Westwood, the future looks a little cloudier after bowing out in the Sweet 16.

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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