And then there were six.
Let’s touch on some key storylines and matchups ahead of Sunday's two remaining regional finals.
► Florida vs. South Carolina
-Can South Carolina’s supporting cast stay hot?
Florida and South Carolina split decisions this season. In those games, Sindarius Thornwell was Sindarius Thornwell – he averaged 21.5 points on 48 percent shooting. The Gamecocks’ winning formula is simple: play championship-caliber defense, and have the best player on the court. Florida has some dudes, but Thornwell is the best player in this game.
Devin Robinson is no defensive slouch, though. He matches Thornwell’s athleticism and strength, if not his craftiness. But if you’re Florida, you can’t count on stopping Thornwell – he’s too good, and too consistent. What you can try to do is stifle the Gamecocks’ role players, who are be performing at a higher level in the tournament than they have all season.
Duane Notice is shooting 39.6 percent on the year. He’s made 54 percent of his shots in the tournament. P.J. Dozier: 40 percent compared to 50 percent. Chris Silva: 13 points per game compared to 10 on the season. Florida’s defense ranks fourth; Marquette and Duke are nowhere near the Gators’ level, while Baylor ranks 16th. We’ll see if Mike White can scheme to frustrate these guys.
Which KeVaughn Allen shows up?
Allen scored 35 points against Wisconsin. In his first two tournament games, he scored 11. Total.
South Carolina has no shortage of guys it can throw at Allen. That’s why Frank Martin’s team is here. Allen is supremely talented, but volatile; he averaged 13.5 points against the Gators this year. Twenty-six of those came in Florida’s win. How’d he play in the loss? You do the math.
There’s not really a rhyme or reason to Allen’s offensive outbursts in comparison to his duds, so no need to go all Xs and Os on him. Wisconsin defended him just fine. Just know that if Allen hits his first few shots, it’s a good sign for Florida. If he doesn’t, the Gamecocks could be headed to Phoenix.
► Kentucky vs. North Carolina
Can Malik Monk go bonkers again?
North Carolina and Kentucky were responsible for the best game of the regular season. In an Elite Eight setting, this is as good as it gets.
The Wildcats just manhandled a national title contender in UCLA and beat the Tar Heels the first time around. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it took 47 points from Monk to upend the Heels in December; Joel Berry and Justin Jackson were magnificent for UNC, but what's more repeatable? Monk nearly dropping a 50 burger or Berry and Jackson combining for 57?Neither, honestly, but the latter seems a tad more realistic. Carolina also played without Theo Pinson, who will likely get the first crack at guarding Monk, in that game. Since then, things of changed: De’Aaron Fox is peaking, Dominique Hawkins has become a 3-and-D factor, and Bam Adebayo is a far better player now than he was a few months ago.
But for Kentucky to win, Monk needs to be special. Maybe not 47 points special. But special. Monk had a nice outing against UCLA, so he’s gaining momentum in the midst of what’s been a rough shooting month. When he’s rolling, there’s little you can do to stop him. That said, Pinson, a 6-6 athlete with long arms and lateral quickness, fits the profile of someone who could do it. It’s rare for someone who averages 5.8 points per game to be this important in an Elite Eight matchup of bluebloods, but such is life.
Who does Kentucky throw at Justin Jackson?
Kentucky’s perimeter defense was awesome against UCLA. The Bruins went 9-for-23 from 3-point range, which is fine, but clean looks were rare. Fox, Monk, Hawkins and Isaiah Briscoe closed out on shooters with vigor; with Adebayo patrolling the paint behind them and UCLA guards reluctant to slash, it was the right strategy.
But for as talented as UCLA is, it doesn’t have a guy like Jackson, a 6-8, do-it-all stud who can score in just about any conceivable way. Butler, which starts three guards 6-4 or shorter, had no shot against the Carolina junior; Jackson had 24 points on Friday on 9-of-18 shooting. He eviscerated them on canny cuts to the rim and post-ups that were downright cruel.
Kentucky’s perimeter guys are more athletic than Butler’s, but they’re of similar size. Jackson’s newfound 3-point proficiency has made him a matchup menace; duck under a screen against him these days, and he’s firing without hesitation. Briscoe got the Jackson assignment in December – it didn’t go so well. No. 44 in baby blue scored 34 points on 17 shots. At the same time, Briscoe is Kentucky’s best perimeter defender – unless Calipari wants to get cute and stick Fox on him.
Then again, asking Fox to run the offense and guard Jackson feels like a bit much. Kentucky better hope Jackson just doesn’t have it on Sunday.