This has been one of the more “normal” NCAA tournaments so far with the top four seeds reaching the Sweet Sixteen in the East region. Although this tournament has lacked buzzer beaters and cinderella stories, college basketball fans are in for a treat with the top talent and competition the rest of the way.
#1 Duke vs. #4 Virginia Tech
Entering the tournament, Duke was the clear cut favorite to cut down the nets in Minneapolis. In its first game against no. 16 North Dakota State, the Blue Devils cruised to a 23-point victory thanks to a huge 30-8 second half run ignited by stars Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. The two freshmen combined for 51 points in their NCAA tournament debut.
In the round of 32, the Blue Devils survived a last second scare against 9th-seeded Central Florida. Duke trailed by three with 33 seconds remaining, but Zion Williamson wasn’t going home. Williamson drove to the basket right into Tacko Fall, the Knights’ 7-foot-6 center, scoring two and drawing Fall’s fifth foul. Williamson missed the free throw, but Barrett corralled the rebound and scored to give the Blue Devils a one-point edge with 8.2 seconds left in the game. Central Florida’s season ended in heartbreak as two shots rimmed out of the basket as time expired. The basketball was inches away from ending Duke’s season.
Yes, Duke was extremely lucky, but this is March and the Blue Devils are still dancing. Duke’s 3-point shooting remains a concern, but Cameron Reddish was 3-for-4 from downtown against UCF and drained one of the most important threes in the final two minutes. Zion Williamson has been an unstoppable force in his first two NCAA tournament games, averaging 28.5 points in the two-game span.
No. 4 Virginia Tech pulled off victories against Saint Louis and Liberty to advance to its first Sweet Sixteen appearance in over 50 years. The Hokies’ accomplished point guard, Justin Robinson, returned from his mid-season injury. Although Robinson was a bit rusty over the weekend, just having him back on the court made a difference for Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech, one of the stronger 3-point shooting teams in the nation, shot over 40% from beyond the arc in its first two games. The Hokies relied on teammates Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to get past Saint Louis in the first round. Despite making just four field goals in the second half, Virginia Tech found its way to the free throw line, connecting on 17 of its 21 attempts after halftime.
Liberty was looking to be the cinderella of this year’s tournament, but Virginia Tech was too good in the final stretch to let that happen. With five minutes in regulation, the Hokies found themselves with a slim five-point lead. As a result of the Hokies’ relentless defense, Liberty missed 13 of its last 16 shots. Virginia Tech’s defense stepped up when it needed to most, which is a great sign moving forward.
Keys to the Game
Remember, the Hokies knocked off the Blue Devils in the regular season. And after Duke’s nail biter with UCF, more and more people believe that the Hokies can pull of the upset. With Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson and Duke’s Zion Williamson, both teams will be at full strength this second time around. Duke has not played to its potential yet, which is a scary thought, but also looked vulnerable against UCF. The Hokies are on a mission to reach its first Final Four in school history.
UCF switched to zone defense against Duke, daring the Blue Devils to launch threes. Every team knows that 3-point shooting is arguably Duke’s biggest weakness. Although Virginia Tech does not have UCF’s size that challenged Duke, the Hokies will force the Blue Devils to shoot from long-range, too. To knock off Duke, Virginia Tech must have a strong shooting night, which they are more than capable of, and cannot let the Blue Devils score in transition.
On the other hand, Duke has Zion Williamson, and no team has been able to figure out a way to slow down the National Player of the Year. Tre Jones and Justin Robinson, two of the ACC’s best point guards, could ultimately be the deciding factor in this game.
#2 Michigan State vs. #3 LSU
For the first 30 minutes of Michigan State’s opening game against Bradley, it looked like the Braves had a chance to be the first bracket-buster of the tournament. The Spartans prevailed thanks to the Cassius Winston—the Big Ten Player of the Year. He scored 26 points and was perfect from the free throw line in crunch time. On a day where shots weren’t falling for the Spartans, it was Michigan State’s elite defense that came up with the necessary stops.
The Spartans followed up with a convincing win against its conference foe, Minnesota. In the regular season, Michigan State defeated Minnesota by 24 points and was just as dominant in the round of 32. The Spartans outrebounded the Gophers, 42-19, and were well balanced with six players scoring nine or more points. Michigan State did commit 22 turnovers, nine more than its season average, which led to 26 Minnesota points. The Spartans must be less reckless with the basketball in its next game with a pesky LSU team.
Aside from that though, Michigan State rolled to a 20-point victory to reach its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2015. It has been a year full of adversity for the shorthanded Spartans, but Tom Izzo’s team is peaking at the right time.
The Tigers entered this tournament in a very precarious position without its head coach, but responded better than anyone thought. LSU had one of the more challenging paths to reach the Sweet 16, pulling off two tight wins over Yale and Maryland. In the five-point victory over the Bulldogs, Skylar Mays— the Tigers’ 6-foot-4 junior—hit four critical free throws in the final 15 seconds to help LSU slip by an underrated Yale team.
In the second round, the Tigers escaped the Terrapins with a 69-67 victory. The Terrapins rallied back from a 15-point deficit in the second half, but the Tigers had the ball in the hands of the right player at the right time. Playmaker Tremont Waters drove past three defenders, banking in a layup, to take the lead with 1.6 seconds left on the clock.
In both games, the Tigers got out to a fast start, but it ended in dramatic fashion. Normally, watching a double-digit lead disappear would shake a team, but LSU fought with its athleticism and shot-makers in the final minutes to win.
Keys to the Game
This is one of the more exciting matchups of the tournament. To beat LSU, Michigan State needs to win the rebounding battle; the Tigers are especially vulnerable on the defensive glass. The Spartans’ role players Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins are each averaging more than seven rebounds per game. Michigan State will also have the best point guard on the court in Cassius Winston, so LSU’s Skylar Mays and Tremont Waters are going to need to play extraordinary defense to prevent Winston from easily driving in the lane or kicking the ball out to open 3-point shooters.
LSU is extremely talented and features a balanced offense that can easily keep up with the high-scoring Spartans. Naz Reid, Skylar Mays and Tremont Waters control the foul line and force opponents to foul them. To advance to the Elite 8, Michigan State must play without fouling. 21.6% of the Tigers’ points per game come from the free throw line.
Final Four Prediction:
As close as Duke’s season was to ending from a tip-in at the buzzer, it is still hard to bet against the Blue Devils. Every time Duke has trailed or been challenged near the end of regulation, Zion Williamson and his teammates have made winning plays. Williamson and Barrett’s will to win is immeasurable. Virginia Tech, LSU and Michigan State have enough athleticism that matches up well with Duke, but at the end of the day Coach K has all the right weapons right at his disposal.
Duke over Michigan State: 78-71