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I wrote about Thursday Night’s Sweet 16 games which you read here. As for Friday night though, it’s all about the blue-bloods. Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Michigan St, a combined 21 National Championships, all take center stage for Friday Night’s action. Let’s get right to it.
#2 Michigan State vs. #3 LSU
Time: 7:09 EST TV: CBS Where: Washington, DC
Odds: Michigan St. -6 O/U 149
In their opening round, Michigan St. came up against a Bradley team with upset on their mind. Bradley was able to hit 6 three-pointers in the first half and take a 35-34 lead going in the break. In the 2nd half though it was all Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman though. Tillman recorded 14 of his 16 points in the 2nd half while Big Ten Player of the Year, Winston, recorded 13 of his game-high 26 points in the 2nd half. Able to pull away with minutes to go, the Spartans were able to shoot 25-26 (96.2%) from the charity stripe and hold on to avoid a first-round upset 76-65. In their 2nd round game against Minnesota, it was an all-around contribution as every starter scored at least 9 points. Once again Tillman (14 points) and Winston (13 points) were able to carry the load. The Spartan’s defense was able to put a stranglehold on the Gophers, only allowing 50 points and holding them to an abysmal 2-22 (9.1%) from the 3-point line. They were able to roll to a 70-50 win and advance to their 20th Sweet 16 game.
The big question for LSU coming into the tournament was how they would play without their head coach Will Wade. In their first-round game against Ivy League winner Yale, LSU jumped out of the gates hot and took a commanding 45-29 lead going into halftime. In the 2nd half, Yale found a way to claw its way back into the game before the superb backcourt trio of Tremont Waters (15 points), Skylar Mays (19 points) and Javonte Smart (9 points) put away the game late with some clutch jumpers and free throws. The Tigers then drew a Maryland team that avoided the upset of 11 seed Belmont in their first game. Once again, LSU came out hot and held a 38-23 lead with just 1:36 left to go in the first half. Once again though they saw their lead dwindle away as the Terps played tough defense and forced LSU to put up tough threes that wouldn’t seem to fall. In the last minute, Mays was able to hit a pair of free throws and then nail a three with 40 ticks to go in the game. Maryland answered with a three of their own just 12 seconds later to tie the game. However, LSU put the ball in the hands of their best player and Tremont Waters was able to hit a game-winning layup to secure one of the most memorable moments from the first weekend.
The key to this game is going to be simple. Can LSU stop Cassius Winston and can their bigs avoid being in foul trouble and be able to handle Michigan State down low. LSU has a plethora of guards and if they get hot from three Michigan State could be in real trouble. This is the round where I think Will Wade being out is going to cost the Tigers. They ran out to big leads in their first two games but saw both slowly dwindle away. They looked confused in their offense at times in the 2nd half and that could do them in this game.
For Michigan State, they have to keep getting production from Xavier Tillman. He’s been in that 6th man rotation get a decent amount minutes but has stepped up big for the Spartans in their first two games. The offense will continue to flow through Winston, but they’re going to need someone else whether that’s Tillman again or Matt McQuaid who scored 27 against Michigan in the Big 10 Championship Game.
#1 North Carolina vs. #5 Auburn
Time: 7:29 EST TV: TBS Where: Kansas City, MO
Odds: North Carolina -5 O/U 165
In their first game against a stingy Iona team, the Tar Heels found themselves as a rare #1 seed down 38-33 at the half. With the country turning their TVs to this game UNC was able to erase the doubt and put on an offensive clinic in the 2nd half. In the first 8 minutes of the 2nd half, the Tar Heels opened up to a 27-9 run that propelled them to 55 points in the 2nd half, and an 88-73 win behind Cameron Johnson’s 21 points.
In their 2nd round game UNC was able to leave no doubt against the Pac 12 Regular Season Champions, Washington. They never trailed in the game and behind 20 points from both Luke Maye and Nassir Little were able to coast to an 81-59 win to advance to the 2nd weekend.
Auburn was one of the hottest teams in the country coming into the big dance as SEC Tournament Champions. In their first-round game they drew a very dangerous mid-major team in New Mexico St. What followed was the most exciting first round game we had. It had everything you could want in a first-round game: excitement, drama and a very sweaty Bruce Pearl. Jumping to the last minute of the game the Aggies were able to score a layup to narrow their deficit to 73-68 with 50 ticks to go. After a quick Jared Harper turnover and Auburn foul, the Aggies went 1-2 from the stripe to get it down to 73-69. Another quick turnover for the Tigers led to Trevelin Queen three-pointer to make it a one-point game with 29 to go. After a pair of free throws for both teams, Auburn hit two more to go up 77-73. The Aggies refused to go away hitting a 3 with 8 seconds to go. Then things go really nutty. After a missed free throw and a make, the Aggies were down two with 6 to go. Then on the drive down they pass up on an OPEN layup, kick it out for 3 and gets FOULED with a second to go. THEN, Terrell Brown only makes 1-3 free throws but the Aggies get the rebound with a second to go! They get a wide open look and… airball. The Tigers avoided one of the worst last-minute meltdowns to advance. Looking to avoid any more drama they came out and poured it on the very inconsistent Kansas team. Taking a 51-25 lead into the half, Auburn was able to avoid a meltdown and ride Bryce Brown’s 25 points to an 89-75 victory to advance on.
If you like offense and fast-paced tempo than this is the game for you. No one thought UNC was going to be this good at this point in the year. You have to give credit to Roy Williams for how he has developed his team. They have 4 guys who can give you points and play defense on a nightly basis. Cameron Johnson is an underrated forward who Auburn is going to have to find an answered for. Luke Maye is the glue to this team and is capable of scoring in bunches if he’s on. Nassir Little hasn’t lived up to his lofty potential coming out of high school, but he still has immense talent and can go off when called on as evidenced by his 20 points in the second round. Then Coby White is their freshman point guard who is not your typical Carolina guard, but one who can go iso against anyone in the country. If he’s on the Tar Heels are tough to beat.
On the other side, Auburn has bought into what Bruce Pearl wants to do. They play a tenacious defense and are always in your face. They aren’t afraid to pull up from downtown and can run with anyone in the country. They are led by one of the best backcourts in the country in Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Chuma Okeke has been playing his best basketball lately and the Tigers are going to need him. If Auburn can find a way a way to limit the Tar Heels in transition and hit some big threes they have a chance for an upset here.
#1 Duke vs. #4 Virginia Tech
Time: 9:39 EST TV: CBS Where: Washington, DC
Odds: Duke -7 O/U 144
Duke rolled into the tournament being the heavy favorites to win it all with 3 lottery picks on this star-studded team. In their first-round game against North Dakota St. however, they were sluggish in the first half. They only shot 2-9 from deep, scored the rest of their points in the paint and took only a four-point lead into the half. The offense came alive in the second half though as freshman sensations Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett scored a combined 51 points to roll to an 85-62 victory. In their second game against UCF, we finally got to see 6-7 290 Williamson go against the larger than life 7-6 310 Tacko Fall. The first half saw a lot of offense with Aubrey Dawkins (18 points) and Fall (9 points) combining for 75% of their UCF’s buckets. However, Duke shared the ball among the team and led 44-36 going into the break. Then things started to get really interesting. UCF tied it up after a Dawkins’ dunk with 11:25 to go. From there the game was back and forth until two free throws game UCF a 76-73 lead with 45 left to play. The whole world was anxiously watching to see if Duke could actually be beat and bust brackets everywhere. Then in heroic fashion Zion Williams drove to the bucket, got the layup to go with an and-one, and fouled Tacko Fall out of the game. But then… he missed the free throw to tie it until out of nowhere RJ Barrett got the rebound and laid it in with 11 ticks to go. Then, B.J Taylor drove it to the right side and tried to kiss it off the block but it rolled off. Aubrey Dawkins got the board and attempted to tip it in at the buzzer, but rolled off the rim and Duke escaped to the Sweet 16.
In Florida State’s first game they played St. Louis in the East Region. They jumped out to a big halftime lead as St. Louis couldn’t get anything going from long range and trailed 40-18 at half. St. Louis attempted to claw their way back in the 2nd half but could never get the deficit smaller than 10 points. Tech’s star guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker led the way with a game-high 20 points leading the Hokies to a 66-52 victory. The second round saw them pitted against Cinderella hopeful Liberty who had beat Mississippi St. in the first round. In the first half, Florida St. struggled to convert shots down low and saw them down at the half 32-29. In the second half, Liberty couldn’t get anything going from downtown finishing 3-12 in the half. Florida St. finally hit a couple of threes and finishing down low to give them a lead midway through the 2nd half. The Hokies played tough defense and made their late free throws to fend off Liberty and advance with a 67-58 win.
Duke will get a chance to avenge their loss against Florida St. when they lost 77-72 while Zion Williamson was out with his foot injury. Florida St. knows they have the ability to beat this Duke team, but they’re going to have to play their best game. Florida St. is 8th in the country in 3 point percentage at 39.5%. If they’re going to pull off the upset they’re going to have to make some big shots. Of course they have to find a way to slow down Zion, but if they can limit Duke inside and force them to shoot threes the Seminoles have a chance. They need to play a tough defensive game and see if they can force some Duke turnovers. Duke, on the other hand, is going to have to stay out of foul trouble in this one. They got in foul trouble late in the game against UCF and it showed. Zion can’t do it all by himself and someone will need to step up. I’m looking to RJ Barrett to see if he can take better shots and forcing them on the offensive end. If he plays within himself and can get good looks I think Duke has a good shot to win this. Duke has to box out on the glass and not let the Seminoles get second chances and another shot at a three.
#2 Kentucky vs. #3 Houston
Time: 9:59 EST TV: TBS Where: Kansas City, MO
Odds: Kentucky -3 O/U 135
The big news coming out of the first weekend was that Kentucky’s best player, PJ Washington, would not play the first weekend. The had very little trouble without Washington in their first-round game against Abilene Christian. Kentucky was white-hot out of the game and never trailed in this game. At half they were up 39-13 and on cruise control. The 2nd half was a little more of the same as Abilene could never erase the giant hole they were in. Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson led the way with 25 points as Kentucky advanced easily 79-44 in their first game. In their 2nd round game, Kentucky had a very tough draw in the Wofford Terriers. The Terriers were one of the nation’s best 3 point shooting teams and presented a tough challenge with Washington out. The first half was back and forth as Wofford hit some threes and Kentucky scored down low. The Wildcats took a 28-26 advantage into the break. The 2nd half was more of the same, but the difference was the outstanding defense Kentucky played in the second half. They were able to shutout Fletcher Magee, the NCAA record holder for most 3 pointers, going 0-12 from deep. Wofford didn’t have any late 3 point magic and their run ended short losing 62-56 to the Wildcats.
Houston drew Georgia State in their first-round game. In the first half, Houston was able to hit a couple of threes and dominate the paint to the tune of a 40-31 lead. Then in the 2nd half, Houston’s star guard, Corey Davis Jr., nailed 7 threes and finished with a game-high 26 points. Georgia State was cold from outside and inside, scoring only 24 points in the 2nd half and watched their run end early losing 84-55 to the Cougars. In their second game they drew 11 seed Ohio State who upset Iowa State in their first round game. In the first half they went back and forth, but from 6:00 left in the first to onward Houston never trailed again. The Cougars were able to stop the Buckeye’s runs in the 2nd half and able to pull away late in the game. Davis Jr. once again had a game-high 21 points and Houston was able to advance with a 74-59 win.
The big looming question for Kentucky is if they will get PJ Washington back for the Sweet 16 or not. There seems to be optimism among the fan base but will most likely remain a game-time decision. This is the game where Kentucky will need Washington back if he isn’t then Kentucky is on major upset alert. Houston is not a very big team, but they make up for it in their guard play. Kentucky is going to have to find to way a way to slow down the tandem of Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks. Both guards are shooting 38% from behind the arc and if their shots are falling Kentucky will be in trouble. If however PJ Washington is back, I don’t know if the Cougars will have an answer. Kentucky is long and athletic and needs to play to their strengths. They played excellent defense against a good shooting Wofford team and will need more of the same in this game. I ultimately think if PJ Washington is out, then this game becomes a coin flip. With Washington, I think Kentucky will ultimately be too long and athletic for Houston.