The round of 16 has come and gone, and with it, the part of the NCAA tournament where we’re blessed with multiple games happening at the same time. But weep not, fellow hoop heads. The next two days and the three games that will follow those are all shaping up to be pretty stellar.
Before we get to that, let’s relive all of the best and worst from what wound up being a highly eventful Friday night of Sweet 16 play.
(1) Duke 75, (4) Virginia Tech 73 (East)
The march to the Elite Eight was supposed to be the easy part for Duke. Instead, the Blue Devils have struggled for a half with a 16-seed, and the been pushed to the final shot by both Central Florida and Virginia Tech.
The Hokies, who won the regular season meeting between these two in late February, executed Buzz Williams’ game plan to near perfection. They out-toughed Duke in the paint, they rode the offensive brilliance of Kerry Blackshear and Justin Robinson, and they forced the Blue Devils into shooting 6-of-20 from three (five of those coming from one surprising source, but more on that later).
In the end, Virginia Tech came up inches short of getting five extra minutes to take down the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.
DUKE HANGS ON AGAIN! #MarchMadness | #Sweet16 pic.twitter.com/2mz1EROJ4U— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 30, 2019
Also, Zion Williamson did a bunch of unreal stuff that furthered my suspicion that he might be an alien, but you already knew that. The unreal stuff, not the alien stuff. Maybe both.
Team That Won It Best
At some point in the last three weeks, Auburn transitioned out of nowhere from underachieving team destined for a first weekend exit, to the f—ing Playoff Warriors. The common thought heading into this weekend was that the Tigers would have to come back to earth at some point. Some point wasn’t Friday night.
Auburn rained 17 three-pointers on North Carolina and shot 54.5 percent from the field in a 97-80 thrashing of the top-seeded Tar Heels. The 17-point margin of victory was the largest ever by an SEC team over a No. 1 seed.
@AuburnMBB poured in 17 threes in the W over North Carolina! #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/Tt6WgiOCM3— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 30, 2019
Just 18 months ago, Auburn was picked to finish ninth in the SEC and appeared to be on the verge of firing Bruce Pearl in the middle of the season. Now the Tigers are in the Elite Eight for just the second time in program history, and one win away from their first trip to the Final Four.
One piece of history that bodes well for Auburn: A regional final pitting a 2-seed against a 5-seed (which will be the case when the Tigers play Kentucky on Sunday) has only happened three times. The 5-seed has won all three of those games (Mississippi State over Cincinnati in 1996, Michigan State over Kentucky in 2005, and Butler over Kansas State in 2010).
A second piece of history that is less encouraging: Every seed line from 1-8 has produced at least one national champion, except for the 5-seed line. No. 5 seeds have made it to the national title game three times, but have never been able to be the last team standing.
I’d love to have the biggest disappointment come from a game other than the one we just discussed, but the Tar Heels being the first No. 1 seed to fall and doing so in an extremely graceless fashion make that impossible.
This was UNC’s most lopsided loss in the NCAA tournament since ... well, since they lost to Texas A&M by 21 last season. So not that long ago. But it was still bad. Really bad.
5 Friday Cheers
1. Tyler Herro
We need to finally talk about Kentucky-Houston, which made staying up past midnight on the East Coast to watch basketball feel infinitely less like a chore than Thursday night’s late tips did.
The biggest reason for that was a late flurry from both the Wildcats and the Cougars which culminated in this sequence where Tyler Herro put UK in front for good.
PJ WASHINGTON BLOCKS. TYLER HERRO DROPS.— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 30, 2019
Kentucky up two. pic.twitter.com/7yYtNJr4zQ
Moments later, Herro — who has firmly established himself as one of the most clutch players in the country — calmly buried a pair of free-throws that put the game on ice. A million awful headlines using his last name as a pun immediately followed.
2. Aaron Henry
The most uneventful game of the evening was the first one to tip-off. LSU made a nice run to start the second half, but for the most part, Michigan State always appeared to be in firm control of this East Region semifinal.
A big part of the reason for that was the play of freshman Aaron Henry, a super talented forward that Spartan fans have been not so patiently waiting all season to see break out. Naturally, that predicted quantum leap finally happened in Sparty’s most important game of the year, as Henry produced 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists in a dominant 80-63 win.
The last player with least 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists in a Sweet 16 game? Duke’s Grant Hill, all the way back in 1994.
3. The Zion block
This is not a thing that human beings are supposed to be able to do.
Zion got UP for the rejection! #MarchMadness | @DukeMbb pic.twitter.com/73w96FdKZi— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 30, 2019
And if you say that’s a goaltend, you’re a fed. Don’t be a fed.
4. Tre Jones
In recent weeks, Duke opponents have started employing a defense that could best be described as the “don’t guard Tre Jones on the perimeter” defense. Jones’ defender has played well off of him, instead choosing to use his time and effort to help cut off the drives of guys like Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. See, it wasn’t just a clever name.
Virginia Tech was the latest to employ this technique, and the first to see it blow up in their face. Jones hadn’t made more than one three-pointer in a game since Nov. 19. He made five on Friday night, and only missed two.
The outside shot opened up the floor for the Blue Devil offense to operate, and Jones and company took full advantage. In addition to his five treys and 22 points, Jones also finished with eight assists against zero turnovers. All that offensive production that was much-needed on a night where starting guard Cam Reddish was sidelined because of a knee injury.
Keep being YOU! @Tre3Jones you know how we rockin— Tyus Jones (@1Tyus) March 30, 2019
You just can’t hold those Jones brothers down in March.
5. Charles Barkley getting bragging rights over Kenny Smith
I don’t care what anyone says, we need more biased coverage of the NCAA tournament.
Just as long as it’s openly biased.
5 Friday Jeers
1. Duke and North Carolina not being able to make tournament runs together
When the bracket was first revealed two Sundays ago, there was immediately a healthy dose of speculation that arch-rivals Duke and North Carolina could meet in the national championship game. Famously, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels have never played in the NCAA tournament, a lifelong streak that will now last until at least 2020.
Never playing in the tournament despite being two of the most storied programs in all of college basketball is odd enough, but the March trend the two programs have produced over the last two decades plus is even stranger.
Despite the sustained success of both programs, Duke and North Carolina haven’t played in a regional final in the same year since all the way back in 1998. That’s 21 straight years without an Elite Eight featuring both the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels. That’s madness.
To shine an even brighter light on the absurdity at play here, let’s look at things since Roy Williams took over at North Carolina in 2003-04. Over that span, Duke and North Carolina have made a combined 14 Elite Eight appearances — UNC eight times and Duke (thanks to Friday’s win over Virginia Tech) six times. There hasn’t been one instance of overlap. Not one.
Forget the Tobacco Road powerhouses actually playing one another in the tournament, let’s just get to a point where they’re both playing past the Sweet 16 in the same year.
One final note here: Duke and North Carolina haven’t lost in the tournament on the same day in 40 years. We were one made shot away from that streak screeching to a halt Friday night.
2. Duke’s late-game rim witchcraft
Eventually Duke’s strategy of not defending the rim in the final seconds of a one possession game has to bite them, right? Right? Yeah, probably not.
This from last weekend against Central Florida was bad.
Aubrey Dawkins : Career-high 32 points on 12-18 shooting, 5-7 from 3, 3-3 from the FT line, 4 assists, 3 steals & played all 40 minutes (Potential game-winning tip-in rolled around the rim & out as time expired) pic.twitter.com/ytb9UXihXv— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life25) March 25, 2019
This from Friday night was even worse.
Ahmed Hill missed lob from close pic.twitter.com/wXfTN3EZLq— Ⓜ️arcusD (@_MarcusD3_) March 30, 2019
Perhaps Ahmed Hill didn’t realize that a half-second had been added to the game clock before that final set and that he didn’t need to get the ball off his fingertips that quickly. Or maybe he didn’t realize that there was as much room between himself and Zion Williamson as there was.
Or maybe it really was a product of the most obvious answer: Late-game rim witchcraft.
Honestly, it’s the worst kind of witchcraft.
3. Chuma Okeke’s injury
Auburn’s sophomore standout went down with a scary knee injury about midway through the second half of his team’s win over North Carolina. Despite not returning to the game, Okeke finished as the Tigers’ leader in both points (20) and rebounds (11).
He also got to stamp the bracket in the locker room after the game.
Chuma Okeke gets the honor of officially stamping the bracket #MarchMadness | @AuburnMBB pic.twitter.com/CLq3WeMj2x— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 30, 2019
It was encouraging to see Okeke walking off the court and being able to put a decent amount of weight on that injured left knee. Even so, it seems more likely than not that he won’t be able to give it a go when the Tigers face Kentucky on Sunday.
The loss of a guy who has scored in double figures in all three tournament games and produced double-doubles in two of his last four outings would obviously be a big blow to AU’s Final Four chances.
4. Cam Reddish’s knee injury
Reddish reportedly banged up his left knee late in Duke’s Thursday practice. The staff was hoping that a healthy regiment of icing and stretching would have him ready to go on Friday night, but that wasn’t the case. During his postgame press conference, Mike Krzyzewski said he didn’t have an update on Reddish’s status for Sunday’s showdown against Michigan State.
If Duke doesn’t win the national title, you’d at least like to see them be beaten by someone who takes them down at full strength. Get healthy, Cam.
5. P.J. Washington truthers
The speculation and the rumors surrounding P.J. Washington’s injured foot were flying at a fever pitch all week long in Kentucky. A lot of that was because John Calipari remained purposefully coy on the subject, and Washington himself gave no updates outside of a brief social media post that showed him walking effortlessly on Wednesday.
Any talk that Washington wouldn’t be his old self or that he might not play in the tournament again was put to bed in an emphatic fashion Friday evening. The First Team All-SEC big man showed zero signs of any injury at all, scoring 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting over 26 minutes of floor time.
Hear from John Calipari & PJ Washington after @KentuckyMBB gets the win over Houston to send them to the #Elite8. #MarchMadness | #Sweet16 pic.twitter.com/Gf0r8CiWfB— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 30, 2019
The greatest lie the injured Wildcat ever pulled was convincing the world that he actually existed.
PJ walking on to the court tonight... pic.twitter.com/KvsbEjGfJl— Craig O'Connell (@CraigOConnell) March 29, 2019
3 Best Dunks
This was the worst night of the tournament for (non-Zion) dunks, so I’m going to fully cop out and go with this Zion highlight video where he dunks approximately 27 times against Virginia Tech.
3 Best Images
1. Might as well jump.
2. The evidence here appears to indicate that Bryce Brown just made a three.
Auburn knocked down 17 of them.
3. All eyes on No. 1.
3 Best Quotes
1. “Better.” —Mike Krzyzewski when asked how Duke would typically defend Virginia Tech’s final play
2. “Three games away. That’s the bottom line. I want to lead my guys to a national championship.” —Auburn G Bryce Brown
3. “I’ll never use that halftime talk again, because it sure as dickens didn’t work.” —Roy Williams
Full Elite Eight Schedule
These next two days have the potential to be special. Here’s the lineup.
All times EST
West Region final: (1) Gonzaga vs. (3) Texas Tech: 6:09 p.m., TBS
South Region final: (1) Virginia vs. (3) Purdue: 8:49 p.m., TBS
Midwest Region final: (2) Kentucky vs. (5) Auburn: 2:20 p.m., CBS
East Region final (1) Duke vs. (2) Michigan State: 5:05 p.m., CBS