After 52 games in 6 days, the NCAA Tournament is in full swing and the second weekend is set to begin. For the first time in a decade, the Sweet Sixteen includes the top three seeds in each region. But just like always, every team left has a story to tell…
1 Duke vs 4 Virginia Tech
Unforgettable. Of the 48 games that took place Thursday-Sunday, one will be remembered forever. With Coach K facing his former player and assistant coach Johnny Dawkins, and with his team facing Dawkins’s son Aubrey and 9th-seeded UCF, the Blue Devils survived and advanced in the truest sense, winning 77-76 after a point-blank tip-in by Dawkins—who finished with 32 points—rolled off the rim in soul-crushing fashion.
If you thought THAT was hard…The Hokies labored to victories against 13th-seeded Saint Louis and 12th-seeded Liberty. The double-digit honeymoon will come to an end when Virginia Tech meets No. 1 overall seed Duke. The silver lining? Duke is a familiar foe, and the Hokies beat the Blue Devils 77-72—albeit without Zion Williamson—in their only meeting in late February.
2 Michigan St. vs 3 LSU
Our point guard is better than yours. In this tournament, every Spartans opponent will face one major obstacle: they don’t have Cassius Winston, and Michigan State does.
Backup Head Coach. Sometimes starting players are injured and matchups can be exploited as a result. But what happens when a team is down to their backup head coach—like LSU’s Tony Benford, who took the helm after Will Wade was placed on leave following implications of paying a recruit—and they’re matched up against Tom Izzo?
If any team is equipped, it’s the Tigers. Their coach being caught on wiretap discussing payments wasn’t even their biggest obstacle this season. Junior forward Wayde Sims was shot and killed following a party in Baton Rouge in September. And for Benford there’s a precedent: Exactly 30 years ago, after Michigan Coach Bill Frieder was given the boot just before the tournament, interim coach Steve Fisher took over and led the Wolverines to the national championship.
1 Virginia vs 12 Oregon
Rewriting history. NCAA Men’s Basketball history is full of stories of memorable wins by unlikely teams. These stories all, of course, could also be told as stories of memorable losses, and many of them would be told by the University of Virginia. Chaminade, NC State, and UMBC all have unlikely wins against the Cavaliers as part of their now indelible folklore. Now the question is: Can these Cavaliers drown out all of those losses with one loud win?
Secret stuff. On February 23rd, the Ducks were 16-12. Since then, the Ducks are unbeaten, and, inexplicably have looked unbeatable. Oregon entered the Pac-12 tournament as the 6-seed and defeated Washington by 20 in the championship game. They entered the South Region as the 12-seed. Is it too late to change that?
Oregon, behind Coach Dana Altman and point guard Payton Pritchard, are also now 6-1 in their last 7 NCAA tournament games.
2 Tennessee vs 3 Purdue
Coach Admiral Schofield. On the bench with foul trouble for the final minutes of regulation and overtime, Schofield never affected the game more. His direction from the sideline and motivation in the huddle saw the Vols and fellow senior Grant Williams execute flawlessly in overtime and escape with a win.
A win is a win is a win? The Boilermakers are fresh off eliminating Villanova, the defending national champions. The last team to win the NCAA Tournament after defeating the defending national champs was Arizona in 1997. And they did it by denying Kentucky a second straight title with a victory over the Wildcats in the championship game.
1 Gonzaga vs 4 Florida St.
Reaching the summit. The ascension of the Gonzaga Men’s Basketball team is nearly complete. At one time a perennial Cinderella candidate, Gonzaga has become a premier program; 2019 is their third time as a No. 1 seed since 2013. But even with their sustained success, the Zags have only been to one Final Four, losing to North Carolina in the championship game in 2017. For Gonzaga to enter the realm of NCAA elite programs, they need to do what the Dukes, and UNCs, and Villanovas and Kentuckys always seem to be doing: Finish the job.
One small step for these Bulldogs will mean one giant leap for Gonzaga.
Ice water. Florida State is coming off their second-largest margin of victory of the year, a 28 point drubbing of Ja Morant and Murray State. Likely to face a much tougher challenge against 1-seed Gonzaga, the Seminoles have a stat to hang their hats on: Leonard Hamilton and Co. are 14-4 this season in games decided by ten points or less.
2 Michigan vs 3 Texas Tech
Final Four pheromones. In John Beilein’s regular rotation are 6 players who played a total of 107 minutes in last season’s Championship game loss to Villanova. Experience much?
Chris Beard. If you don’t know who Texas Tech Men’s Basketball Head Coach Chris Beard is, you’d better ask somebody. Beard has won the last two Big 12 Coach of the Year Awards, and prior to that was the 2016 Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year at Arkansas-Little Rock and the 2015 Lone Star Conference Coach of the Year at Angelo State. For Beard, the Red Raiders job brought him full-circle; he spent 2001-11 on Bobby Knight and then Pat Knight’s coaching staff in Lubbock.
1 North Carolina vs 5 Auburn
“Big” Nasir Little. Little, a huge talent who has underwhelmed at times in his freshman season, has turned into the player the Tar Heels expected to see. In two games, Little has scored 38 points in 38 minutes off the bench, including 11 straight for Carolina in a devastating second-half run against Washington.
Do it for Chuck. With their most famous basketball alumnus Charles Barkley as a fixture in the TV studio, fans have been treated to Sir Charles rooting openly and enthusiastically for the Tigers. As much as fans appreciate and deserve unbiased sports reporting, the exception is when it comes to alma maters, and its refreshing to see such genuine fandom from guys who usually have to stay impartial.
Barkley’s Tigers will now face (fellow analyst) Kenny Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels; the scene in the studio should be something to behold. The game should be pretty good, too.
2 Kentucky vs 3 Houston
Will he or won’t he? All eyes in Big Blue Nation are focused not on what’s taken place on the floor for John Calipari and the Wildcats but rather on the news coming from off the court. Kentucky has been without star forward P.J. Washington. Washington is the Wildcats leading scorer and rebounder, and has missed games against Abilene Christian and Wofford with a foot injury.
Without Washington, Coach Cal has been left with just eight players in rotation. And while this may seem like a deficiency, wouldn’t you take your chances with any eight guys recruited by John Calipari?
Texas two-step. Houston has gone 33-3 while having just two players average in double figures scoring. Guard Corey Davis led the Cougars with 17.1 PPG and fellow guard Armoni Brooks added just over 13 PPG. It may be up to someone else to come up big for Kelvin Sampson, as Kentucky’s defensive strength is on the perimeter, namely in the form of SEC Defensive Player of the Year Ashton Hagans.
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