Very few things rival the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in terms of emotion, excitement, and euphoria. Those who are not too familiar with the teams or the sport, tune in every year to cheer on a team or set of teams in the hopes of having the best bracket amongst co-workers or friends.
When the tournament tipped off on March 19th, all 68 selected teams narrowed their sights towards the state of Minnesota in the hopes of getting to play at U.S. Bank Stadium where the Final Four is being held this year.
Now, with the first two rounds over the field has been trimmed to 16 teams. With upsets (though few) and nail-biting finishes all tournament long, each team remaining has had to fight for the right to get one step-closer to being crowned the national champion.
This article will discuss each team’s road to the Sweet 16 as well as their outlook for the remainder of the tournament. Each team will be separated and discussed one region at a time.
East Region – (Duke, Michigan State, LSU, Virginia Tech)
Road to the sweet 16
#1 Duke – 85 vs. #16 North Dakota State – 62
As the top overall seed in the tournament, the Blue Devils were supposed to win this game and live up to the lofty expectations placed upon them due to their freshman phenoms Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Cam Reddish. Then again, with Virginia being the top seed last season and then losing to a 16-seed, it has opened the door for any 16 seed to feel confident going forward.
Fortunately for the Blue Devils, that was not the case as they would use a strong second-half and lean on the efforts of Williamson and Barrett. Barrett would lead all scorers with 26 while Williamson was right behind him with 25 total. After the halftime score saw Duke only up by four-points, they would go onto outscore North Dakota State 54-35. Duke advances.
#1 Duke – 77 vs. #9 UCF – 76
This game was not for the faint of heart if you picked Duke to win in your bracket. Brackets were almost busted and UCF was mere inches away from busting several brackets.
Duke would get the lead up to seven with just over seven minutes left, UCF would then go on a tear and use a 15-4 run to take a 74-70 lead. With Barrett giving them the one-point lead with 11-seconds remaining, UCF had one more shot to win it and its best look came off of a put back by Aubrey Dawkins that rolled across the front of the rim and rolled out.
With the pre-game hype being between Williamson and UCF big-man and seven-footer Tacko Fall, all eyes were drawn to this match-up. Williamson would get the upper-hand as he would record a double-double performance with an astounding 32 points. Fall would get three blocks on the game while adding 15 points.
Duke escapes by the skin of their teeth.
Sweet 16 outlook
While UCF gave Duke a run for their money, there is reason to believe that their Sweet 16 match-up against Virginia Tech will be similar.
With this being an ACC duel, it will also be a rematch of their February 26th meeting. In that game, Duke would fall at the feet of the Hokies but keep in mind, they were without Williamson.
With Williamson back in the line-up he will be matched up against Virginia tech’s best player in Kerry Blackshear Jr. If the Blue Devils of Duke can keep getting production out of Barrett and Williamson, they will be in the game but the difference maker will have to be Cam Reddish who has been consistent, but is due to have his breakout performance in this year’s tournament.
If they can avenge their loss against Virginia tech, it will prove how battle-tested this team is and maybe are a team of destiny.
#2 Michigan State
#2 Michigan State – 76 vs. #15 Bradley – 65
Trailing at the half, the Spartans would wake up and go on to escape an early exit in the tournament. They would do so with a strong 26 point performance from junior guard Cassius Winston.
The free-throw line was the deciding factor in this game as well with Michigan State going 25-26 where Bradley would only convert on 12-18 from the charity stripe. Michigan State advances no problem. Well, except for a minor fuse being blown by head coach Tom Izzo.
#2 Michigan State – 70 vs. #10 Minnesota – 50
Izzo’s fiery coaching style carried over into this game as the Spartans would come out of the gates red-hot and use a 31-11 start in the first half to propel them to a dominating second round victory.
Even though Minnesota would force Michigan State into 22 turnovers, their inability to convert those turnovers into points hurt them as they would shoot an abysmal 30.5% from the field. Sparty flexes their muscles and moves on.
Sweet 16 outlook
With these two double-digit victory games for the Spartans, they seem to be growing with confidence. Michigan State is an experienced bunch and only gives serious minutes to one freshman in Aaron Henry. That upperclassman leadership could pay dividends in this tournament.
The one possible achilles heal could be the depth of the Spartans. After Kyle Ahrens went down with a leg injury in the Big Ten Title game, Izzo is limited with his options off the bench. LSU should not be taken lightly in the next round and although they have narrowly escaped both games thus far, it shows the ability they have to hang in games and walk out victorious.
#3 LSU – 79 vs. Yale – 74
After failing to get to the semi-finals of the SEC tournament, the LSU Tigers have returned back to their winning ways and have won their first two games of this year’s March Madness tournament. While it has not been pretty and the margin of victory between both victory totals only seven points, the Tigers are proving to everybody that they are for real.
In the first game of the tournament, they took on Ivy League champion Yale where they would send a message early and head into the locker room with a 16-point lead. Four LSU Tigers would score in double digits and the big-man combo of Kavell Bigby-Williams and Naz Reid would each record double-doubles.
Yale would fight back and get the lead down to three in the waning seconds, but time ran out for them as Skyler Mays calmly buried two free-throws to survive and advance into the next round.
#3 LSU – 69 vs Maryland – 67
LSU caught fire in the first half yet again as they would jump on the Terrapins after the 10 minute mark and see their lead climb to as much as 15 before being cut down to nine points at halftime.
From that point on it was a classic show of grit and toughness by Maryland to fight all the way back and tie the game at 67 with 28 seconds left in regulation following a Jalen Smith corner three. Unfortunately for the Terrapins, they left too much time on the clock for Tremont Waters as he would sink a game-winning lay-up.
TRE WATERS COLD BLOODED pic.twitter.com/aa3Y6ETPrp
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) March 23, 2019
The Tigers would get double digit scoring from four players yet again including 10 points off the bench from freshman Darius Days who played due to foul trouble to Bigby-Williams and Reid.
Outlook in Sweet 16
Both LSU and Duke were pushed to the brink in the second round and I ultimately believe it makes them the favorites to emerge victorious in the Sweet 16. While Michigan State and Virginia Tech have not had their games decided in the last few minutes, the feeling that winning a close game gives a team and the confidence it builds amongst the players is vital.
LSU faces a tough and experienced Michigan State team in the next round but so are the Tigers, especially guard Mays who has been their leading scorer the past two games.
If LSU is to advance to the Elite Eight they will have to win the battle on the boards which is not an easy feat against a tenacious rebounding team like the Spartans who out-rebounded Minnesota 45-19 in the second round.
#4 Virginia Tech
#4 Virginia Tech – 66 vs. #13 Saint Louis – 52
It has been quite the year for Virginia Tech who has seen them achieve several spectacular feats. Them being having earned their highest ranking in school history when they climbed all the way to No. 9 in the nation, beating the ACC powerhouse in Duke, and now a Sweet 16 performance.
Although the moment of reflection is on pause, the Hokies had reason to celebrate as they would take care of business in the first round with a 14-point victory over the No.13 seed Saint Louis Billikens.
The nation’s ninth most efficient three-point shooting team in Virginia Tech only needed four three-pointers on the night and only attempted 10. Meanwhile the Billikens shot themselves out of the game going 4-23 from beyond the arc and didn’t help their cause by only scoring 18 first half points.
The Hokies rolled to a victory in the second half.
#4 Virginia Tech – 67 vs. Liberty – 58
In a game that was controlled by Liberty in the first half and saw them with the three point lead at the break, Virginia Tech tested their toughness by coming out in the second half and played through Blackshear Jr. to propel them to the Sweet 16 as he ended with 19 total points. Liberty began to crumble and once they awakened the Hokies offense, they had no answer to defend them.
Virginia Tech would get a strong double-double performance from Ty Outlaw who inhaled 11 rebounds while adding 11 points. No player on Liberty would crack double digit rebounds but the rebounding battle was so even that Virginia Tech would narrowly get the edge 34-33.
The Hokies advance and achieve only their second Sweet 16 appearance.
Sweet 16 Outlook
While they did beat Duke in their last match-up, Duke was without the nation’s best player in Williamson. That being said, confidence is a big factor and something that the Hokies have on their sides. Who knows if Duke will capitalize after narrowly escaping past UCF. Are they still a bit shook?
One thing that is for sure is that the way to win this game will be to play at their own pace and having Justin Robinson back in the Tournament has made that possible.
Making things difficult for Williamson is easier said than done but if Blackshear Jr. can do what Fall couldn’t do, then the Hokies stand a good chance of marching ahead to the Elite Eight and one step closer to playing at U.S. Bank Stadium.