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Saturday, April 20, 2019

Eight biggest takeaways from Friday’s Sweet Sixteen games

Bruce Pearl

With two rounds of relatively unexciting games last weekend, we were due for some classics in the NCAA Tournament’s second week. Friday did not disappoint. We saw a championship contender lose, two close games, and of course, some Zion Williamson highlight plays.

The chalk nature of the early rounds set up some fantastic showdowns in the Sweet Sixteen, with those great games creating ripple effects that will be felt until a champion is crowned in April.

Here are eight items to focus on from Friday’s action:

1. Defense has been king

This March, with the games slowing down in crunch time, America’s best defensive teams have risen to the occasion. With the complete Elite Eight now set, it’s tempting to find a commonality between those remaining. The eight teams still alive are all great defensive units.

Six of the eight remaining teams rank in the top twelve in the nation in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. Purdue is not far behind, ranked 28th. Auburn brings up the rear of remaining clubs at 43rd in the nation.

This doesn’t mean every game left in the tournament will be a rock fight like Michigan and Texas Tech played on Thursday. Auburn, Duke, and Gonzaga will all attack at a fast pace. Virginia and Kentucky will take things slower. No matter how many possessions happen in each game, the result will be decided on the defensive end.

2. Duke survives again

Just five days after UCF barely missed two shots at the rim to defeat Duke, Virginia Tech suffered a similar fate. On the Hokies’ final possession, Buzz Williams drew up a beautiful baseline out of bounds play leading to a lob pass to Ahmed Hill. As the final second of regulation ticked away, Hill misfired on the alley-oop layup that would have extended the game into overtime.

The Blue Devils will now face Michigan State, fresh off two razor thin victories. If Duke plays similarly on Sunday, Tom Izzo and Michigan State will have a leg-up on the East Region’s Final Four bid.

3. Auburn moves on without Chuma Okeke

Like Michigan State, Auburn’s win did not come without an injury scare. Chuma Okeke had played a magnificent game, scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 rebounds midway through the second half. On a drive to the rim, Okeke’s foot slipped and his knee buckled. He was helped off the court, with North Carolina players quick to offer their condolences.

After the game, Bruce Pearl was in tears discussing Okeke’s injury, indicating the seriousness of the issue. North Carolina was a tough test, but plenty of hurdles still stand in Auburn’s way. Advancing without Okeke will be a challenge. He provided a perfect mix of inside and outside scoring in Bruce Pearl’s high-speed offense.

4. Michigan State looks great in easy win over LSU

Although LSU had been playing excellent basketball without head coach Will Wade on the sideline, the Tigers run ran out of gas against an elite Michigan State team. Interim coach Tony Benford has been up and down in his time at the helm, yet was visibly overmatched by Tom Izzo on Friday night.

The Spartan offense ran like a well-oiled machine, especially early in the game. Michigan State worked the ball to find an open teammate, with freshman Aaron Henry happy to reap the benefits. One week after being the subject of a Tom Izzo tirade and the ensuing fallout, Henry had one of his best games of the season. Henry finished the game with 20 points on an efficient 9-14 shooting night from the field. He also added 8 rebounds and 6 assists.

Henry making a leap into a dangerous weapon for the Spartans late in his freshman season would boost Michigan State’s chances to move on to Minneapolis.

5. Nick Ward’s injury status is something to watch

Michigan State missed Nick Ward in the paint when the junior center broke his hand last month. He missed five games in the regular season before returning for limited minutes in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. His health is key to Michigan State’s title hopes.

It was concerning, therefore, when Ward re-injured that same hand, leaving Friday’s game. Ward had X-rays, which confirmed no additional damage. Michigan State officials announced that Ward had indeed hurt his left hand but had not re-broken the same bone. Instead, he’d bruised a different part of his hand. That was relatively good news for Spartan fans, yet still will hamper Ward moving forward. With that hand going through swelling, pain, and rehabilitation, it’s hard to imagine Ward providing the production Izzo and his team will want from their best big man.

6. Kentucky sneaks past Houston

Although Houston tested the Wildcats, Kentucky advanced to its 34th Elite Eight in school history on Friday night. PJ Washington returned to the lineup and proved to be the difference.

Washington finished the game with 16 points, out-muscling the Houston frontline in the paint. With Houston leading late in the game, Washington fought through contact to convert a crucial bucket to bring Kentucky within striking distance. He also delivered a key block in the final minute.

Across the board, Kentucky’s size was too much for the Cougars. The Wildcats out-rebounded Houston 36-23, including 11 offensive rebounds. That could be the case again Sunday, when Kentucky meets SEC foe Auburn, likely without Chuma Okeke.

7. Title contender North Carolina is first 1 seed to lose

The bracket remained overwhelmingly chalk through five days of play, with top seeds moving on at record rates. Auburn ended that, making North Carolina the first No. 1 seed to be defeated this March.

The Tar Heels ran into an absolute buzzsaw, with Auburn making a barrage of long-range shots. North Carolina’s defense had major issues locating shooters on the 3-point line. Auburn shot 46 percent from outside the arc for the game, including a red hot 2nd half in which the Tigers made 12 of 18 from beyond.

Even at North Carolina’s ultra-fast pace, the Heels could never catch up. Any time Carolina attempted to close the gap, Auburn’s defense answered the call. The Tigers repeatedly met the Tar Heels at the rim, blocking six shots.

8. Tre Jones makes up for Cam Reddish’s absence

Mere minutes before the game began, Duke announced that Cam Reddish would not start due to a knee sprain. Although Duke claimed Reddish was available to play, he did not enter the game. For an already thin Duke team, losing a starter could have proved costly on both ends of the floor.

Instead, Tre Jones stepped up to fill the void left by his fellow freshman. To date, Jones’ season high for 3-pointers made in a game was just two. He hadn’t made more than one 3-point basket in a game since November. On Friday, Jones made five of seven from outside the arc, buoying the Duke offense.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.



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