We’re halfway through the Sweet 16 and half the Elite Eight is set. There are eight more teams set to tip off tonight that still have the third step in their quest for the title left.
This year, we’ve seen the cream from the regular season rise to the top, and much of our Sweet 16 matchups are titanic battles between the best the sport has to offer. We are going to give you an in-depth breakdown of each game: what you can expect, key matchups and more. For Friday night’s showdowns, here are all the breakdowns:
EAST REGIONAL SEMIFINAL #1
3 LSU vs 2 Michigan State (7:09 p.m., CBS)
How they got here:
Michigan State – defeated 15 Bradley, 76-65 (1st Round), defeated 10 Minnesota, 70-50 (2nd Round)
LSU – defeated 14 Yale, 79-74 (1st Round), defeated 6 Maryland, 69-67 (2nd Round)
What to expect:
LSU likes to play fast and loose, using high ball screens and relying on its athletes to make things happen on the offensive end. The team puts a lot of faith in point guard Tremont Waters to be the playmaker he is, and more times than not, it has worked out. You won’t see anything too complicated from the Tigers, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. LSU’s offense is focused around attacking the rim, with a handful of guards who are lethal going downhill and interior freaks Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams, who can command the paint area with some nastiness when running on all cylinders.
The Spartans also rely heavily on their point guard, Cassius Winston. He has seemingly total awareness at all times, and he does not make bad decisions. If Michigan State needs a bucket, he gets it himself or creates for a teammate. He is the perfect example of a player who makes everyone around him better. Michigan State has more than just him, though. Guard Matt McQuaid has transformed from shooting specialist to an all-around scoring threat and glimpses of a great defender, one of the important pieces to this team’s top 10 defense, according to KenPom. Forwards Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins have come on as valuable alternate inside prescenses for forward Nick Ward, offensively and defensively, and Goins can step out and knock down a jumper.
The Tigers are not a great shooting team with a collective 32.3 percent clip from beyond the arc. Maryland utilized a zone for much of the second half when the two met in the second round, and it allowed the Terps back into the game as LSU settled for bricked jumper after bricked jumper. I wouldn’t expect to see a zone from Michigan State, but the Spartans will likely pack the paint and try to force LSU to beat them with the deep ball. The Tigers will attack the rim as usual, potentially getting Michigan State’s bigs in foul trouble. There will be some inherent mismatches going both ways with Michigan State typically playing a large, more forward-heavy lineup and LSU having more guard depth, which will be something to watch.
Key matchup: Cassius Winston vs Tremont Waters
These are two of the best point guards in the country, and both mean so much to their respective teams. Winston is scoring almost 19 points per game with 7.5 assists per contest to boot, the most for a Michigan State team that toss more than 19 dimes per outing. Waters’s numbers are a bit lower, but many aspects of his game are on par with Winston’s. His size and speed make him so slippery when driving, and there isn’t a moment too big for him. It’s no coincidence that LSU called a high ball screen and let him do his thing on the final play against Maryland, the Terps knew it was coming and still couldn’t stop him.
NBN’s pick: Michigan State 78, LSU 70
LSU is prone to undisciplined mistakes, essentially the opposite of a Tom Izzo-coached team. The Tigers are tanks inside, but all three of the Spartans big men, Ward, Tillman and Goins, rank in the top 10 in the Big Ten in defensive rating and have controlled the paint for much of the year. For 10 minutes in the Maryland game, LSU looked completely lost against the zone before finally adjusting just in time to win. Michigan State is a distinctly better defensive team than Maryland and will do a better job of making the Tigers shoot from outside for longer stretches of the game. LSU will still score. It has too many athletes and offensive firepower not to.
Michigan State is efficient enough offensively to score with the Tigers and can lock it down enough on the defensive end to keep them at arm’s length. That’s not to mention LSU’s defensive issues, which a team like Michigan State will have a field day exploiting. LSU is arguably the more talented team overall, but discipline and coaching will be the difference.
MIDWEST REGIONAL SEMIFINAL #1
5 Auburn vs 1 North Carolina (7:29 p.m., TBS)
How they got here:
North Carolina – defeated 16 Iona, 88-73 (1st Round), defeated 9 Washington, 81-59 (2nd Round)
Auburn – defeated 12 New Mexico State, 78-77 (1st Round), defeated 4 Kansas, 89-75 (2nd Round)
What to expect:
Points. Lots and lots of points.
These are two of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, according to KenPom, and they score in high numbers against really anyone. North Carolina’s style is essentially a track meet and will score against even the best defenses, and it’s definitely going to score against Auburn, which ranks right above LSU as the second-least efficient defense in the Sweet 16 based on KenPom. Guard Coby White usually runs the show for the Heels. He can score himself, putting up 16.1 points per game, or dish to one of his many teammates who run the floor like their life depends on it (and with Roy Williams as their coach, it probably does). Guard Cameron Johnson is one of the best three-point shooters in the country and by far Carolina’s most dangerous deep threat, shooting a ridiculous 46.3 percent from three. The up-tempo style means Carolina gives up points, but it’s still one of the most efficient defensive teams in the country, which requires an incredible amount of communication and team defending to accomplish, particularly at that pace.
Auburn scores plenty itself as one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country. The Tigers have attempted the second-most triples in Division-I and made the third-most at 421. The two-headed attack of guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper have given plenty of opponents fits, with Brown as the scoring guard and Harper as a distributing point who can also put the ball in the basket. Carolina is one of the deepest teams in the country, but the Tigers can give the Heels and run for their money. Auburn gives 10 players 10 minutes or more, which is a great sign for matching up against this North Carolina squad. Although Auburn has collective defensive deficiencies, individuals are good on the defensive end. Forwards Horace Spencer, Chuma Okeke and Anfernee McLemore rank in the top 11 in the SEC in defensive rating, and defending the paint is crucial against North Carolina. But guarding the lane in the half court is much different than doing so in transition constantly.
In Carolina’s losses this season, Johnson shot 29.6 percent (8-of-27) from three, quite the drop off from his normal rate. Auburn would be wise to find him in transition and body him, doing what it can to deny him the ball or at least have a hand in his face. Otherwise, you have to keep the Heels out of the paint when playing them or they will beat you. Carolina is not a great deep shooting team outside of Johnson, so Auburn will aim to make the Heels win through the three. On the other end, Auburn doesn’t have a ton going for it inside offensively, so expect the Heels to do what they can to take away from the perimeter. It can be pretty difficult to eliminate Harper and Brown, so I suspect the Tar Heels will try to take away one of them and make the other single-handedly win the game.
Key matchup: Coby White vs Jared Harper
The show runs through both of these games for both teams. Auburn is going to need more from Harper than Carolina will from White, but if one has a demonstrably better than game than the other, the victory will likely go to whomever showed up. White isn’t the only one who can run Carolina’s break, but he’s by far the best at it, and the offense is working at its best when he’s in the zone. Harper’s size and quickness makes it hard to stop the blow by on the perimeter, and from there he can kick to one of Auburn’s sharpshooters. He needs to be contained to slow down Auburn’s offensive attack.
NBN’s pick: North Carolina 90, Auburn 78
I don’t see Auburn’s defense slowing down Carolina much at all. Neither Harper nor Brown are particularly great defenders, and their heights, 5-foot-11 and 6-foot-3, respectively, are going to have a lot of issues with White and Johnson’s size, who measure at 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-9, respectively. It’ll be tough to contest Johnson’s shot when his release is so much higher, and shooting over Carolina’s perimeter defenders is going to be difficult. Auburn will still score because that’s what it does, but when you play Heels, you have to slow them down at least somewhat to win. I don’t see Auburn doing that.
EAST REGIONAL SEMIFINAL #2
4 Virginia Tech vs 1 Duke (9:39 p.m., CBS)
How they got here:
Duke – defeated 16 North Dakota State, 85-62 (1st Round), defeated 9 UCF, 77-76 (2nd Round)
Virginia Tech – defeated 13 Saint Louis, 66-52 (1st Round), defeated 12 Liberty, 67-58 (2nd Round)
What to expect:
These teams met once during the regular season, and the Hokies won, 77-72. But that game was in Blacksburg, and Duke’s forward Zion Williamson and Virginia Tech’s guard Justin Robinson were both out with injures. Both teams are much different with their respective stars healthy, and fortunately we will see them all on the floor together Friday.
Williamson is a transcendent college player and near impossible to stop or even slow down. He’s scoring 22.5 points per game and shooting 68.4 percent from the field. You don’t need me to tell you how absurd that is. The advanced stats back him up, too, as he’s 11th in Division-I in offensive rating, ninth in defensive rating and ninth in true shooting percentage at 71.5 percent. He does everything for Duke, and the team is unrecognizable with him compared to without. When he isn’t scoring, guard RJ Barrett is. Barrett has been inefficient at times this season, but you can’t deny his natural scoring ability. When he doesn’t settle for jump shots, he is one of the best in the country at getting to the rim. Otherwise, guard Cam Reddish chips in 13.6 points per contest, and guard Tre Jones provides the dimes and vicious defense. His 2 steals per game are second on the team only to Williamson’s 2.1, which is indicative of how aggressively this team defends, constantly attacking passing lanes and putting immense pressure on the ball. For as deadly as Duke’s offense is, it’s defense is even more impressive, and the Blue Devils use it for momentum, to dictate the pace of the game and as a springboard to get their offense going.
With Robinson in the lineup, Virginia Tech has its point guard back, and just in time. This is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, and Robinson’s 41.1 percent mark from deep is important for the Hokies to be running at peak efficiency. He’s also the team’s best distributor, and having him back means his drive and kicks and other passing abilities can find open shooters spotting up on the perimeter, which was a bit more difficult when the point guard was sidelined. Guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker is Tech’s main scorer, and guard Ty Outlaw is one of the most efficient offensive players in the ACC, ranking third in the conference in offensive rating and shooting 45.6 percent from three. He’s one of three Hokies who shoot better than 41 percent from deep, and almost every other player in the rotation can knock one or two down in a game, too. Forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. is the only real interior threat for this perimeter-focused team, but what a threat he is. His 14.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game are vital to Virginia Tech’s success. His wide frame is tough for most defenders to handle, and he can drive the lane and step out for jumpers, too, adding to the mismatch he presents.
Blackshear shot 7-of-11 from the field and scored 23 points in the Feb. 26 win over Duke, playing all 40 minutes of the game. The full game was a testament to the caliber of player Blackshear is, but it also illustrates the hole Williamson left in the lineup when he was out. I suspect he will be on VT’s big man in this one, which will likely slow Blackshear down compared to the outing he had last month. Otherwise, I expect Duke to do what it can to lock down the perimeter, guarding the ball extremely tight and aggressively denying the ball outside the three-point arc. Virginia Tech could take a page from UCF’s playbook and do everything it can to make Duke a perimeter team, electing to focus on Williamson and Barrett and allowing players like guard Jordan Goldwire, Jones and Duke’s other poor shooting guards to have all the space in the world from deep. It nearly worked for the Knights, and VT is a comparative defensive team and capable of pulling it off, too.
Key matchup: Zion Williamson vs Kerry Blackshear Jr.
The Hokies won the regular season meeting because Duke had no answer for Blackshear. Now, the Blue Devils have their tank back, and Blackshear is going to have a much harder time offensively and defensively. He’s a good enough player to still get his, and he can at least slow down Williamson some, perhaps enough for his team to win. If either of these players get in foul trouble, it would be a serious problem of his team and neither team has anyone who can do much to stop the other’s big man or exploit the mismatches as effectively. Duke is going to defense well and use it to generate offense, and Virginia Tech probably going to make and take the three, but whoever gets the best of this matchup is going to win the game.
NBN’s pick: Duke 78, Virginia Tech 75
I suspect a close, back-and-forth game throughout, but in the end I have to give the edge to Williamson and the Blue Devils. Blackshear is a fantastic player, but he was able to take over the February game because there was no one on Duke who could hope to contain him. Now there is, and he’s one of the best defenders in the entire country and has a physical frame that can match Blackshear’s. Robinson being back is important for Virginia Tech and will allow the Hokies to shoot and score with Duke, but Williamson’s defense will be the difference.
MIDWEST REGIONAL SEMIFINAL #2
3 Houston vs 2 Kentucky (9:57 p.m., TBS)
How they got here:
Kentucky – defeated 15 Abilene Christian, 79-44 (1st Round), defeated 7 Wofford, 62-56 (2nd Round)
Houston – defeated 14 Georgia State, 84-55 (1st Round), defeated 11 Ohio State, 74-59 (2nd Round)
What to expect:
The status of Kentucky forward PJ Washington is still in the air, and he would be a big loss for this one. He’s the team’s leading scorer with 14.1 points per game, the second-best three-point shooter on percentages (41.9 percent), cleans up on the glass and is overall Kentucky’s best low-post threat, even more so than forward Reid Travis, who is excellent in his own right. The Wildcats survived Wofford in the second round without Washington, but his skillset help spread the floor and give Kentucky one of its best scoring weapons, not to mention he’s fourth in the SEC in defensive rating and blocks 1.2 shots per outing. This is a difficult game to preview with his availability unknown because of how much his absence or inclusion changes things.
Still, Kentucky is Kentucky and loaded with talent, with or without Washington. The Wildcats were without Washington, and Wofford held guard Tyler Herro in check, but Kentucky still advanced to the Sweet 16, a testament to the number of weapons available to John Calipari. It also speaks to the level of defense this team is capable of, which will be vital when facing a Houston team that lives off its defense. Scoring against the Cougars is going to be difficult whether Washington plays or not, so it’s crucial that EJ Montgomery continues to do his thing on the defensive end that has him ranked at the top of the SEC in defensive rating and pair with Travis as one of the best interior-defending duos still left in this tournament. Guard Ashton Hagans is a distributing point guard, and him, Herro and guard Keldon Johnson make for quite the perimeter defending trio.
Six of the top 15 players in defensive rating in the AAC, one of the strongest defensive conferences in the country, play for Houston, and guard Nate Hinton ranks as the top defender in the league. Houston has allowed 70 or more points only five times this season and is seventh in the country in scoring defense, allowing an average of 61 points per game. Guards Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks carry the brunt of the scoring load, posting 17.1 and 13.2 points per outing, respectively. Those two and guard Galen Robinson Jr. all play the majority of the game, but it’s otherwise a constant rotation of players to maintain freshness. This team goes deep, consistently running with 10 players, an important trait for a team to hold a high defensive intensity for a full 40 minutes.
How these teams will play can fluctuate based upon Washington’s availability, but both teams are going to play sound defense no matter what. Kentucky ranks eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency in KenPom, and Houston is 12th. Although both are top 20 in offensive efficiency, points will be tough to come by in this one. The defenses will make sure of it.
In many ways, both of these teams advanced to this round because of their ability to shut down their second-round opponents’ best offensive weapons. Houston kept Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson in check, while Kentucky held Wofford’s Fletcher Magee to 0-of-12 from beyond the arc. Both of those players were a large part of why Ohio State and Wofford made it out of the first round. That can tell you what kind of game this will be.
Key matchup: Corey Davis Jr vs Tyler Herro
I wouldn’t be surprised if these two don’t go one-on-one too often with Hinton matching Herro’s 6-foot-5 frame and being a better defender than Davis, but they’re the main perimeter scoring options for their respective teams (although Kentucky’s Johnson is right there with Herro). Davis hasn’t scored in single digits since Jan. 27 and scored 20 or better in four of his last six games, including 26 and 21-point showings in the first and second rounds of this tournament.
In Houston’s, 69-57, loss to Cincinnati in the AAC Tournament Championship, Davis went 3-of-13 from the field, though, which seriously harmed Houston’s offense. If Kentucky can slow him down, it’ll be a much more manageable game. On the other hand, Herro was kept in check against Wofford and the Wildcats still won, but his free-throw shooting is overlooked. He shoots 94.3 percent from the charity stripe and hasn’t missed a free throw since Feb. 16. He got to the line four times against the Terriers and made all four. Kentucky won by six. With his virtually-automatic free-throw shooting, it’s a big difference for the Wildcats when he gets to the line. Houston ranks 332nd in the country in fouls committed.
NBN’s pick: Kentucky 61, Houston 58
I expect a first-to-60 battle to the finish, but I give the slight edge to Kentucky because of a more balanced offense and Herro’s free-throw shooting, which could be big with Houston’s propensity for fouling. But Washington’s status could change things dramatically. With him, Kentucky has a clear advantage inside on both sides of the ball. Without him, things become much more even, and Houston won’t have to worry about Washington stepping out to the perimeter for a jump shot, making it easier to pack the paint. I’ll go with Kentucky, but a Houston win is very possible, especially if Washington is sidelined.