Saturday's Elite Eight: What to know about Gonzaga, UConn, K-State and Florida Atlantic
Half of the Elite Eight is set after a series of regional semifinals highlighted by perhaps the best game of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
That would be No. 3 Kansas State's 98-93 overtime win against Michigan State that included a historic performance by senior point guard Markquis Nowell, who dished out a tournament-record 19 assists.
Also on Thursday, No. 4 Connecticut ran all over No. 8 Arkansas to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since winning the 2014 national championship; No. 9 Florida Atlantic pulled away from No. 4 Tennessee by leaning into the Volunteers' physical style; and No. 3 Gonzaga traded late buckets with No. 2 UCLA and pulled out a last-second win.
These winners will meet Saturday with Final Four berths on the line. Here's what we learned Thursday, what to expect this weekend and the important things you need to know about each team:
No. 3 Gonzaga
One thing to know: Drew Timme has decided Gonzaga won't lose.
The senior and three-time All-America pick has put Gonzaga on his back in tournament play. He's scored at least 20 points in each game and was outstanding in the 79-76 win against the Bruins, scoring 36 points with 13 rebounds for his ninth double-double of the season. Timme's veteran leadership and unstoppable offensive package have been the key reasons why the Bulldogs could win the first national championship in program history despite losing two key starters off last year's team.
But he's not the only scorer Connecticut will have to contend with in the West Region finals. Guard Julian Strawther chipped in 16 points against UCLA, 14 coming in the second half, and made the game-winning 3-pointer with six seconds left. Timme may be the object of the Huskies' undivided attention, but he's not alone.
Key number: 87.3.
This is nothing new: Gonzaga leads the nation in averaging 87.3 points per game. This will be the fifth year in a row the Bulldogs have led Division I in scoring offense.
No. 4 Connecticut
One thing to know: This is the hottest team in the tournament.
There is plenty of competition for that label — you could even make the same case for each of Thursday's winners. But the Huskies have rolled through three tournament opponents in grand style: 87-63 against No. 14 Iona, 70-55 against No. 5 Saint Mary's and then 88-65 against the No. 8 Razorbacks.
UConn started slowly in those wins against Iona and Saint Mary's before dominating the second half. But facing off with an opponent back in the Sweet 16 for the third year in a row, the Huskies put Arkansas into a 34-17 hole and pushed the lead to as many as 29 points in what is likely the team's most complete performance of the season.
While forward Adam Sanogo had another big game with 18 points and eight rebounds, the biggest positive from Thursday's win might've been the play of guard Jordan Hawkins, who led the team with 24 points after scoring a combined 25 points against Iona and Saint Mary's.
Key number: 13.8.
Lifted by these three double-digit tournament wins, the Huskies' scoring margin (13.8 points per game) now ranks fourth in Division I.
No. 3 Kansas State
One thing to know: As Nowell goes, so goes Kansas State.
Nowell is in the midst of a historic three-game run. He had 17 points and 14 assists in the Wildcats' 77-65 win against No. 14 Montana State. Nowell followed that with 27 points and nine assists in a 75-69 win against No. 6 Kentucky. His 20 points and 19 assists against Michigan State will last in program and tournament history.
Florida Atlantic's game plan will focus on stemming Nowell's baseline-to-baseline impact as the orchestrator of Kansas State's offense. That's easier said than done: Nowell hasn't been held below double-digit scoring in a game since December. And while he's the Wildcats' breakout star, the Owls will also have to contend with forward Keyontae Johnson, who had 22 points and six rebounds against the Spartans.
Key number: 34.
The Wildcats won just 34 games in the previous three seasons under former coach Bruce Webber and were picked to finish dead last in the Big 12. Jerome Tang is looking to become the ninth first-year coach to lead a team to the Final Four.
No. 9 Florida Atlantic
One thing to know: This isn't your normal, everyday Cinderella.
Actually, the Owls would prefer you don't view them as a Cinderella story, if you please.
“We’re very, very confident in our abilities and those guys in the locker room,” FAU coach Dusty May said Wednesday. “We’ve never thought of ourselves in that regard just because of the success of our league and our guys being able to do what they did over a 20-game schedule. But we’ll take it."
In the Owls' defense, this is a 34-3 team that just beat Tennessee 62-55 without falling victim to the brutally physical style that stymied Duke in the second round. This is also a team that ranks near the top of Division I in several key offensive categories, including scoring and long-range shooting. Now that they've shown they can win in multiple ways — with a faster tempo or a more bogged-down style, as against the Volunteers — there should be no more doubting these Owls.
Key number: 10-0.
That's the Owls' record this season when sophomore guard Johnell Davis leads the team in scoring, as he did against Tennessee (15 points). He's been the team's leading scorer in each of the past two games and four of the past six.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Saturday Elite Eight: What to know about Gonzaga, UConn, K-State, FAU