The field has narrowed to eight, but the excitement certainly hasn’t. Here’s what to watch for as we move on from the Sweet 16 to Saturday’s region finals. We’ve included times, channel information and point spreads.
All point spreads taken Friday afternoon from the consensus odds at VegasInsider.com. All times Eastern.
Friday recap | Tournament essentials
West Region final (San Jose)
No. 1 Gonzaga (-8.5) vs. No. 11 Xavier
Time, TV: 6:09 p.m., TBS.
We’re guaranteed to have a first-time Final Four team out of the West Region, as neither the Bulldogs or the Musketeers ever have advanced past the Elite Eight. It’ll be the first time since VCU in 2011 that the national semifinal will feature a first-time participant. For Xavier, all the talk centers on one player who isn’t on the court — star point guard Edmond Sumner, whose season-ending knee injury on Jan. 29 appeared to doom the Musketeers before an impressive turnaround — and one who is in Trevon Bluiett, who was a big presence before Sumner went down (he dropped 40 points on Cincinnati one game before the injury) but now is even more crucial. Bluiett has scored 21, 29 and 25 points on 24-of-46 shooting in Xavier’s three NCAA tournament victories. Gonzaga’s defense — ranked first nationally in points allowed per 100 possessions — hopes to be up to the task of stopping him. It certainly was stout in Thursday’s Sweet 16 win over West Virginia. The Bulldogs held the Mountaineers to 0.86 of a point per possession — in this metric, a significant drop from the 1.12 they averaged for the season — and a season-low 31 percent effective shooting percentage (a metric that takes into account the fact that three-pointers are worth more than two-pointers).
[Fancy Stats: The case for Gonzaga or Xavier to reach the Final Four]
Midwest Region final (Kansas City)
No. 1 Kansas (-6.5) vs. No. 3 Oregon
Time, TV: Approx. 8:49 p.m., TBS.
The Ducks aren’t like Gonzaga or Xavier in that they’ve been to a Final Four and won a national championship before … in 1939, when the tournament had eight teams and included powerhouses such as Brown and Utah State. Nevertheless, Oregon certainly would love to get over the Elite Eight hump for the first time since then. The Ducks have been to three region finals this century — one of them last season — losing those games by an average of 13 points. One of them was in 2002 to Kansas, which obviously is no stranger to deep March runs, having gone to 14 Final Fours (two under Coach Bill Self). The Jayhawks entered this year’s tournament with as much skepticism as a No. 1 seed can garner thanks to some questionable defensive metrics (of the 12 teams remaining in the field as of Friday afternoon, they tied Oregon for 10th in points allowed per 100 possessions, ahead of only Butler) but have simply steamrolled their opponents in three games, winning by 38, 20 and 32. That last victory, on Thursday over Purdue, saw Kansas take a four-point lead with 14:39 to go and extend it to 15 in just four minutes. In doing so, the Jayhawks became the first team since Connecticut in 1995 to score at least 90 points each of its first three NCAA tournament games.
[Fancy Stats: The case for Kansas or Oregon to make the Final Four]
Buzzer-beater elevates Gators
Florida 84, Wisconsin 83
Florida’s Chris Chiozza saw the improbable three-pointer that Wisconsin’s Zak Showalter used to send the contest into overtime, and he raised it a game-winner. Getting the ball with four seconds left and his team down two, Chiozza went the length of the floor before making a lunging three to win it for his Gators.
No. 4 seed Florida advances to the East Region final to face seventh-seeded South Carolina, in an all-SEC matchup nearly as improbable as the heroics to which fans at Madison Square Garden were treated Friday. A tournament that had lacked a signature moment got two in quick succession, and a night that had largely been lacking in drama, with the previous three Sweet 16 games decided by comfortable margins, received a pair of memorable jolts.
Kentucky races past UCLA
Kentucky 86, UCLA 75
In a battle of expected NBA lottery picks, Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox decisively got the better of his more hyped counterpart, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. Fox poured in 39 points, hitting 13 of 20 shots, while helping hold Ball to 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting, although the Bruins’ freshman added eight assists.
[De’Aaron Fox’s record-breaking Sweet 16 placed him among Kentucky’s recent greats]
South Carolina’s run continues
South Carolina 70, Baylor 50
South Carolina proved it could get a tournament win outside of its home state. In fact, the seventh-seeded Gamecocks authored a convincing rout, trouncing third-seeded Baylor at Madison Square Garden.
Having already attained its first tournament wins since 1973, South Carolina is now on the verge of reaching its first-ever Final Four, if it can get past the winner of Friday’s other East Region matchup, between No. 4 Florida and No. 8 Wisconsin.
Gamecocks star Sindarius Thornwell led all players with 24 points, but it was his team’s stifling defense that was the story. Even with a size advantage in the frontcourt, the Bears could never get anything going, hitting just 17 of 55 shots, including three of 12 from three-point range.
Tar Heels blitz Butler
North Carolina 92, Butler 80
In a South Region semifinals group that included North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA, Butler was very much the odd program out, at least in terms of historical prestige. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they also appeared outclassed on the court Friday, as UNC got out to a sizable early lead and coasted to a stress-free win.
The top-seeded tar Heels got a bounce-back game from Joel Berry II, who had struggled in the first two rounds but who posted 26 points against Butler on 8-of-13 shooting. Teammate Justin Jackson added 24 points, while the Bulldogs were led by Andrew Chrabascz’s 21.
Feature photo: Florida’s Chris Chiozza buries an off-balance, running three-pointer at the buzzer to stun Wisconsin and send the Gators to an Elite Eight matchup with South Carolina. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)