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This is an NCAA tournament that could use a big finish

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Guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (10) and Kansas will attempt to advance to the Final Four on Saturday when the Jayhawks take on Oregon in the Midwest Regional final. (Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)
(Tony Gutierrez / AP)

Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk was 17 when he moved from Cherkasy, Ukraine, to enroll at Kansas, the school currently rampaging through the NCAA tournament. Initially, he couldn’t understand a word his teammates said.

Three years later, the Jayhawks’ starting forward has learned to appreciate Applebee’s, the comedic stylings of Kevin Hart and the charms of his midsized Kansas town. His English is excellent. But idioms can still be a source of trouble. They can also, inadvertently, be a source of profundity, as when he described the feeling that takes over Kansas in such moments as an overwhelming second half against Purdue.

“We feel blood,” he said.

Kansas is beyond merely smelling blood. The Jayhawks have won their first three tournament games, against UC Davis, Michigan State and Purdue, by an average of 30 points.

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Eight teams now remain in the tournament, and none has come close to matching the dominance of Kansas.

“When we play on both ends of the floor like we have throughout this tournament, I do not think there’s a team that can play with us,” forward Josh Jackson said.

He added: “It’s really kind of unfair sometimes.”

Kansas’ romp to the regional semifinals has mimicked the tournament at large. A spectacle, to be sure. Just not very dramatic.

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The low seeds have belatedly begun a small uprising. But the finishes have been lacking. There have been close games but few captivating endings.

So far, no game has produced a buzzer-beater — not even a game-winning field goal in the final 30 seconds. Instead, there has been a contest of hot potato: Team that messes up last loses.

USC defeated Southern Methodist… thanks to a missed free throw. Oregon defeated Michigan… on a missed shot. Wichita State lost to Kentucky and West Virginia lost to Gonzaga… on an abysmal final possession.

It has been a letdown of sorts after a topsy-turvy tournament last season.

“Everyone is hoping for buzzer-beaters in March all the time, and that’s exciting, don’t get me wrong,” Oregon guard Dylan Ennis said. “But teams will come out to play hard, and if you’re not playing hard, you can really lose by a lot.”

Sometimes, though, the tournament can unofficially begin at the last stop before the Final Four.

“I think it’s the hardest game in the tournament,” said Kansas Coach Bill Self, whose team was eliminated by Villanova in the regional final last season.

This year’s questions have become: Can anyone provide the drama? And is any capable of giving it to Kansas?

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Oregon, Kansas’ opponent in the Midwest Regional final, is comfortable in the role of the challenger. Pac-12 coaches have long complained that the league is ignored, stuck on the Pac-12 Networks with its distribution issues. Judging by Kansas’ viewing habits, the coaches have a point.

When surveyed, every Kansas player politely replied that they’d watched many Pac-12 games throughout the season. When pressed, almost none could name any specific contests.

“I don’t remember,” guard Frank Mason III said.

Mykhailiuk remembered one: UCLA at. Kentucky. It aired on CBS.

Oregon is used to being overlooked. The Ducks made the regional finals last season but were ranked as high as No. 21 before defeating UCLA in December. Now, they’ll again carry the mantle for the conference.

“We’re not going to go out there and prove anybody wrong,” Ennis said. “We just want to prove ourselves right.”

Other regions are set up for more dramatic conclusions. In the East, South Carolina could reach its first Final Four, unless Wisconsin or Florida plays spoiler.

The West Regional is guaranteed novelty at least, if not drama. Xavier has reached the regional semifinal or later five times in the past 10 years. It has never reached a Final Four. Gonzaga has become a solid program with 19 straight NCAA tournament appearances. It’s still waiting on its first Final Four.

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But the most promising is the South. The region could reshape the conference pecking order. The vaunted Atlantic Coast Conference has just one team remaining, North Carolina.

“I mean, it’s how you want to look at it, but I still think that we have the best teams in the nation,” North Carolina’s Joel Berry II said.

The region also pits two of the most storied programs in basketball, in the Tar Heels and Kentucky. These teams played in December, and it produced one of the best games in years. Kentucky won when Malik Monk hit a game-winning three-pointer with less than 20 seconds left.

It was a finish that felt like it belonged in the tournament. Just maybe not this year’s tournament.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand


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