The Gamecocks sure picked the right time for their most prolific offensive game of the season. After being held to 53 points by Alabama to flame out in the SEC Tournament, they beat that mark by 40 in a 93-73 rout of Marquette that helped pick up the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1973. This is a program that lost as a No. 2 seed in ’97, only the third time that had happened, before falling as a No. 3 the next season. The crowning moment in program history would be winning an NIT title. So, yes, eliminating Duke in an NCAA Tournament would indeed become South Carolina basketball’s crowning achievement.
Can they do it? Well, the location definitely helps. Greenville is just 100 miles form Columbia and will also be filled with Tar Heels eager to join in on wishing rival Duke the worst possible outccome. Whether UNC handles business against Arkansas or suffers a stunning defeat, its fans will stick around and root against the Blue Devils. They’ll be cheering Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year, who became the first Gamecock with 20 points and 10 boards in an NCAA Tournament since the legendary Alex English accomplished the feat in ’73. He went for 29 and 11, adding three steals, but won’t be able to lead South Carolina to a win over Duke unless he gets help from PJ Dozier and Duane Notice, the team’s other double-digit scorers and most prolific 3-point shooters.
Duke continued its late surge with an 87-65 win over Troy, knocking down first-half 3-pointers and never looking back, even earning the cover after the Trojans threatened to wind up within 20. Grayson Allen continued his inspired play off the bench, scoring 21 points and embracing boos that are sure to be magnified tonight. Luke Kennard shot just 3-for-12 and saw his streak of 19 games scoring in double-figures end, so Duke’s dominant performance is even more impressive since they coasted on an off night from their leading scorer.
The Blue Devils were a preseason No. 1 in the eyes of most due to who they had returning and coming on board in recruiting. In addition to Tatum, center Harry Giles was also part of a standout class, but his best contributions haven’t come until recently since he’s been progressing slowly after tearing both of his ACLs. With him now a productive part of the rotation, Mike Krzyzewski has the most talented top-seven in the college game since all are likely to play in the NBA in some capacity. Oddsmakers initially had Duke as the betting favorite for this NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday despite them being placed in the same East region as No. 1 overall seed Villanova, whose elimination at the hands of Wisconsin on Saturday really opens the bracket up for the Blue Devils.
— South Carolina thrives due to its defense and has seen the under go on a 4-1-1 run since Feb. 18 prior to the explosion against Marquette. Nine of the Gamecocks’ first 11 came in below the posted total.
— Duke defeated its lone SEC opponent this season, handling Florida 84-74 on Dec. 6. The Blue Devils went 2-0 against Clemson, but never played in South Carolina this season until taking the floor against Troy on Friday night. Its last two games have gone under the posted total.
South Region (Sacramento, CA)
No. 6 Cincinnati Bearcats vs. No. 3 UCLA Bruins (TBS, 9:40 p.m. ET)
Opening Odds: UCLA -4,154
The Bearcats rebounded from its loss to SMU in the American Athletic Conference tournament final by dominating Kansas State in a physical game where they were able to find offense more easily than they usually do. In all five of their losses, it was their offense that betrayed them, as they’ve averaged just 57.6 points in those games.
Senior point guard Troy Caupain has been the engine for the the Bearcats for years and must be aggressive and assertive since few of his teammates can create their own offense outside of putbacks. On that note, it will be on the more versatile Gary Clark to help teammate Kyle Washington get some breathing room inside by stepping out to draw defenders away from the paint. Cincinnati shot 62 percent from the field as Caupain, Washington and Clark combined to shoot 18-for-26 (69.2 pct) in scoring 54 of the team’s 75 points. Sixth man Jarron Cumberland, an x-factor who has averaged 8.1 points as a freshman, added nine and will be invaluable to the cause against UCLA.
The Bruins lead the nation in scoring and padded that edge by scoring 97 in a 17-point win against 14th-seeded Kent State, who actually pulled out the cover late. Anyone on the East coast who hadn’t bothered to check out what all the hype over UCLA’s freshman was about got an eyeful with TJ Leaf scoring a team-high 23 points and point guard Lonzo Ball adding 15 points and three assists. Ball set a record for most assists in a single season, increasing his tally to 257, but did get banged up during a hard fall where he injured his hip late in the first half. That should be worth watching since the Bearcats will hound them and make sure he’s not out there playing hurt.
Rebounding will be huge for UCLA against the physical Bearcats, so it is hoping that freshamn Ike Anigbogu can play after missing the Troy contest. Although the Bruins have quality bodies up front, none can be described as a banger equipped to deal with Cincinnati, with Anigbobu being the closest thing to a bruiser they’ve got.
— Cincinnati has covered in five of its last six games and has seen the over go 3-0-1 over its last four games despite surrendering an average of 66 points. This will be the Bearcats’ first game of the season against a Pac-12 foe.
— UCLA is on a run of failed covers in four consecutive games and would tie its longest run of the season if it fails to over this number. The Bruins had cashed in nine straight games in the early non-conference portion of their schedule, but books have adjusted to their tempo and dominance.