The folks at Madison Square Garden were drooling at the thought of a Duke-Villanova regional final. Two schools that consider the Garden a home away from home in a No. 1 seed vs. No. 2 seed dream matchup.
Instead, there are four football schools fighting for a berth in basketball’s Final Four.
On Friday night, NCAA East No. 3 seed Baylor (27-7) meets seventh-seeded South Carolina (24-10) at 6:29 p.m., and eighth-seeded Wisconsin plays fourth-seeded Florida (8:59 p.m., approximately).
Baylor is making its fourth regional semifinal appearance since 2010. But 1950 was Baylor’s last trip to the Final Four, the prize at stake for Friday night’s winners.
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South Carolina, on the other hand, won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 1973. They are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since the field expanded to 64.
The Gamecocks came into this NCAA Tournament having lost two straight and five of seven. Now they’re on a roll that includes wins over Marquette in the first round and the stunning upset of Duke on Sunday.
Baylor defeated Southern California 82-78 on Sunday. Starting guard Manu Lecomte, from Belgium, had been scoreless until hitting a go-ahead 3-point and being fouled with 4:40 left. That was the first of his eight straight points in a 45-second span.
“That dude makes huge plays, huge plays. He’s one of those guys, he likes a challenge,” said new North Texas coach Grant McCasland, the former Baylor assistant who recruited Lecomte. “You look at his size and know he’s always had to fight uphill.”
Listed at 5-foot-11, Lecomte is the only player on the Baylor roster shorter than 6-3.
South Carolina is led by Sindarius Thornwell, the Southeastern Conference player of the year — despite a six-game suspension early in the season. The senior had 29 points and 11 rebounds against Marquette and 24 and seven vs. Duke. Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski called him “the best, unheralded, great player in the United States.”
Baylor counters with forward Johnathan Motley, an All-Big 12 pick and potential All-American averaging 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.
Gamecocks coach Frank Martin knows Baylor from his days at Kansas State, where he left in 2012 to take over in Columbia, S.C. Martin went 4-4 against Drew and Baylor in the Big 12. The teams have met twice since Martin came to South Carolina and Baylor won twice, the last time in 2014. Martin said familiarity with Baylor’s matchup zone helps some but more so the Gamecocks benefit from having played zone teams Syracuse and Michigan. South Carolina won both games.
Wisconsin, which many felt was underseeded as a No. 8, comes in having just beaten the overall No. 1 seed, Villanova.
“They had a great year. We never talked about in preparation for Villanova about playing the defending national champions,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “We just talked about playing a really good team and that we were going to have to play really well in order to have a chance in that game.”
Florida lost starting center John Egbunu to a torn ACL on Feb. 14. Egbunu was averaging 7.8 points and 6.6 rebounds and was becoming a real force in the middle for the Gators. Sophomore Kevarrius Hayes was called on to replace Egbunu and since he moved into the starting lineup he has averaged 5.5 points and 5.5 rebounds, establishing himself as one of the SEC’s leading shot blockers.
Baylor vs. South Carolina
6:29 p.m. Friday, TBS