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Sweet 16: Will Michigan State, UNC or Kentucky Duke It Out?

The Midwest and East regionals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament feature some of the nation’s top programs. The teams that make it to the Final Four will have earned the right. Here’s a look at the matchups.

East

DES MOINES, IOWA - MARCH 23: Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans reacts against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the second half in the second round game of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 23, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

No. 3 LSU vs. No. 2 Michigan State

You look at Michigan State and wonder how its managed to get this far. The Spartans have been hammered by injuries, the latest to Joshua Langford, but have managed to push past them and move to within two wins from another Final Four. Michigan State’s steadfast nature is exemplified by its dominance of Michigan, which it has defeated three times this season. But it’s not like the cupboard is empty. Cassius Winston is one of the best point guards in the nation. Add Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins and you have the nucleus of an elite team.

It will be interesting to see who wins the battle of wills between Winston and LSU’s Tremont Waters. And whether the Tigers, who won the SEC regular season title, can rebound with the physical Spartans or take advantage of their occasional lackadaisical approach handling the ball. Either way, Waters will get a lot of help from Skylar Mays. Still, the big story about this team has been the absence of suspended coach Will Wade and how well assistant Tony Benford has managed things in his absence.

No. 4 Virginia Tech vs. No. 1 Duke

The Blue Devils literally survived Sunday’s dramatic second-round game with inspired Central Florida. That might not have been the case had Zion Williamson, the best player in the nation, not taken it straight at 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall in the final few seconds. That’s not to say Duke is lucky to be here. Not only is it persistent and physical, it has three of the best players (Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish) in the nation, all possible lottery picks, and if every cylinder is pumping in unison, it’s hard to envision anyone beating it. What can hurt them is their abysmal three-point shooting. They make only 30.9 percent, which is 329th nationally.

Let’s not forget that Virginia Tech defeated Duke on Feb. 26. But the Blue Devils didn’t have Williamson that day – he was nursing the knee he injured when his Nike exploded. And Barrett wasn’t feeling well, either. But let’s not totally diminish what the Hokies did and are capable of doing. They have a damn good team and when Justin Robinson is healthy (he’d been out since late January with a foot injury) one that beat anyone in the country. Unlike Duke, the Hokies are excellent perimeter shooters.

Midwest

No. 5 Auburn vs. No. 1 North Carolina

Many brackets which didn’t pick Duke to win the national championship turned to North Carolina instead. Perhaps it’s because of ACC bias or the fact three conference teams are No. 1 seeds. Or maybe it’s just because the Tar Heels have the tools to win six games. No one in the tournament pounds the glass or runs transition offense as well. Look at who they have: Kenny Williams, Cameron Johnson, Luke Maye, Coby White, Garrison Brooks. All solid and skilled.

If Auburn, which won the SEC Tournament, wins it might be because they gambled on their ability to make three-pointers (38.2 percent). They shoot more of them than anyone in the Sweet 16. Six of their players have hit at least 30 this season. They once were ranked as high as No. 7 and they beat Kansas in the second round, so they are not afraid of legendary competition. The backcourt of Jared Harper, Bryce Brown and Samir Doughty is very good.

kentucky vs florida blocked shot

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

No. 3 Houston vs. No. 2 Kentucky

We likely won’t know until game time whether PJ Washington will play or how effective he will be. But it’s clear the Wildcats will need their star more against Houston than they did against Wofford. But while we’re on the subject of Wofford, let’s admit if they shot the ball a little better, or Kentucky’s perimeter defense wasn’t so staunch — Terriers star Fletcher McGee was 0-for-12 from three — it probably would have been in this game instead. Kentucky looked ready to be beaten in their second-round game.

Houston dominated the so-so American Athletic Conference, beating up on patsy teams like UConn, Tulane and East Carolina. But Kelvin Sampson is as experienced and successful as any coach in the tournament and his team, which has won 33 games, plays with a ferociousness that has turned it into the nation’s leader in field goal percentage defense. But beating Georgia State and Ohio State really doesn’t give you a very good feel for how they may handle the Wildcats. Their best players are Corey Davis, Jr., and Reid Travis.

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