Oregon’s Jordan Bell emerges as the tournament’s most unlikely star

When the NCAA tournament began, most assumed the biggest story lines would include Duke, Lonzo Ball, red-hot Arizona, or Villanova trying to repeat.

Only now all three of those teams plus Ball are gone. And as it turns out, the tournament’s best story might be from a guy who is barely averaging 10 points per game.

America, meet Jordan Bell. The Oregon junior might not be the biggest name in the tournament, but no player (with the possible exception of Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox) has been more important to his team’s success. That was proven as Bell tallied a near triple-double — 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks –in Oregon’s surprising 74-60 Elite Eight win over Kansas on Saturday in the Midwest Regional.

And yes, the game can be considered “surprising.” Kansas entered the evening as the tournament’s hottest team, averaging 96 points in its first three games. The Jayhawks were a seven-point favorite, playing on what was basically a home-court in Kansas City. Oregon meanwhile needed a miss from Michigan’s Derrick Walton Jr. at the buzzer just to get to the Elite Eight. The Ducks had won their last two tournament games by a combined four points.

None of it mattered, because Bell wouldn’t let it matter.

From the beginning, his presence was felt, and you could argue – above everyone else on Oregon’s roster – he was the key to slowing Kansas’ attack. Bell set the tone on the game’s opening possession with a block on the Jayhawks’ Josh Jackson, and from there it seemed like Kansas was rarely comfortable bringing the ball in the paint because of it. A Jayhawks team that shot 49 percent on the season finished at just 31 percent, missing a slew of easy floaters and runners in the lane (Devonte Graham actually had an air-ball from within 10 feet). Meanwhile, Landen Lucas, the Jayhawks’ best big man, never seemed to get comfortable either. He had just three rebounds after averaging nine this season.

More than just the stats though was the timeliness. It seemed like every time Oregon needed a play, Bell came through. With a 10-point lead, a loose ball trickled to him for an “and-one” layup early in the second half. He ended up wide-open for an uncontested dunk to thwart another rally a few minutes later. And it was his rebound off a miss that allowed Tyler Dorsey to hit a 3-pointer to give Oregon a 69-60 lead that essentially iced the game. He added a block on Frank Mason on the other end for good measure.

If anything, this was the continuation of a historic month for Bell. Against Kansas he became the first player since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1983-84 to tally 12 or more rebounds in five straight tournament games. He surpassed the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Blake Griffin and Tim Duncan to get there.

Bell is everything that is great about March. He is the quintessential “out-of-nowhere” story that captivates us every year in the tournament, a kid who wasn’t a household name a week ago to someone that the  nation knows now.

That’s right, Jordan Bell might not be the best player in the 2017 NCAA tournament but he just might the most important.

And Oregon is going to the Final Four in large part because of him.