Six biggest takeaways from Sunday’s Elite Eight games
After a slow first weekend of excitement, the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend stepped up to the plate and cranked a home run. It’s hard to imagine an Elite Eight slate of games producing more entertaining games.
There was plenty of drama in every single game, with many coming down to the final possession. In the end, we’re left with a Final Four of deserving teams, all capable of winning the title in early April.
Sunday’s games played a major part in deciding our eventual champion. Here are six key takeaways from the two great games:
1. Duke’s flaws exposed despite talented roster
The final Elite Eight game on Sunday afternoon confirmed that only one No. 1 seed would play in Minneapolis. Michigan State defeated Duke to advance to the Final Four. The Spartans deserve a ton of praise, which they will receive eventually. But for now, the focus will be on Duke’s shortcomings.
Coach K brought the three best recruits in the country to Durham as part of one of the greatest freshmen classes in the history of college basketball. All three will be lottery picks in June. At their best, the Blue Devils were the best team in the country.
Now these Blue Devils are headed home, not because their top level talent failed in March, but because of the infrastructure around that trio. Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and a hobbled Cam Reddish scored 53 of Duke’s 67 points on Sunday. This Duke team severely lacked the depth and shooting around the trio of stars to maximize its potential.
College basketball’s one-and-done playoff system does no team any favors. Turning the ball over 17 times and shooting 7 of 21 from outside the arc will send any team home, no matter how many draft picks are on the roster.
2. Balance is key to Michigan State’s success
While Duke heads home, Tom Izzo and the Spartans will head to Minneapolis for the ninth Final Four in program history. The Spartans have as good a chance to cut down the nets next week as any of the other remaining teams.
Izzo’s team succeeds with balance. The Spartans lead the nation in assist rate, always finding the right player to take the right shot every time down the floor. Cassius Winston leads the way, but every Spartan is ready and able to share the ball. In the final moments versus Duke, Izzo drew a play that was not intended to end with a Kenny Goins 3-pointer, but when Duke’s defense overhelped elsewhere, Goins was able to knock down the open shot.
Every Michigan State player is able to score as needed, much like last March’s champion Villanova team.
3. Auburn reaches the Final Four for the first time in school history
After losing tow Kentucky twice in the regular season, Auburn overcame a halftime deficit to defeat the Wildcats in overtime on Sunday, moving on to the Final Four for the first time in program history. Following the injury of Chuma Okeke late in Friday’s win over North Carolina, Auburn outlook this March looked far more dire than it had with Okeke healthy. He was a major factor in the Tigers’ wins over Kansas and Carolina.
Without Okeke, Kentucky had a major size and strength advantage in the paint, yet Auburn battled the Wildcat big men well enough to stay in the game. Hot shooting from Bryce Brown answered PJ Washington’s dominance on Kentucky’s offensive end of the floor. Brown sank four threes, fueling the Auburn offense.
Auburn’s defense was ultimately the difference in the game, with 10 steals during the contest.
4. Kentucky done in by turnovers, outside shooting
On the very first night of college basketball this season, Kentucky was laughed off the floor as the Wildcats were hammered by Duke. Big Blue’s defense was non-existent and looked like a real problem for the coming year. As John Calipari’s team matured, Kentucky’s defense sharpened and turned the Wildcats from a talented band of misfits to a real championship contender.
Kentucky’s growth, combined with North Carolina’s loss in the Sweet Sixteen, put a Final Four berth on a silver platter for the Cats. Ultimately, Kentucky couldn’t overcome the mistakes that plagued them all year long. Ten live-ball turnovers led to points for Auburn on the other end, and Kentucky’s 5-21 shooting from long range led to long scoring droughts throughout the game.
5. Big Ten can end its title drought
No Big Ten team has won the national championship since Michigan State cut down the nets all the way back in 2000. The conference, one of America’s best, has had its fair share of chances. The national championship has featured a Big Ten team seven times in the last eighteen years. All seven Big Ten teams lost in the title game.
This isn’t just an isolated issue, either. Those seven title game appearances have been made by six different programs (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State). The Spartans will have a chance to break the streak with two wins in Minneapolis or build the streak with one win and a loss in the final game.
6. Final Four will offer two great games
Auburn and Virginia will make for an interesting clash. The two teams play such differing styles that the game will likely be determined by which team can best adapt on the fly. Virginia wants to play at a glacial pace, with the Hoos averaging the fewest possessions per game in all of Division I. Auburn will look to push the pace in transition, especially off of a steal. The Tigers led the nation in forcing turnovers and ranked second-best in steal rate this season.
The game will be decided in the backcourt, with both teams relying on perimeter play from their guards to create offensively. Whichever teams’ guards can penetrate offensively and contest shots on the defensive end will play for the national title.
Meanwhile, Michigan State and Texas Tech will feature two marvelously coached teams that run set offenses and challenge defenses to react. Both are also top-level defensive teams, equipped to shut down opponents for long stretches. The offense that executes to find and make open shots will advance.
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.