The Sweet 16 will kick off on Thursday, and the beautiful thing about the final four rounds of this year’s NCAA tournament is that we are guaranteed to have 15 games that will feature dynamite matchups.
There’s an argument to be made that the top 15 teams in the country are still alive, with the 16th being the hottest team in all of college basketball.
With that in mind, we are going to dive into every team left, region by region, and give you the biggest question that needs to be answered if they are going to have a chance to win the national title.
DUKE: Was UCF a matchup blip or a sign of things to come?
Duke was supposed to lose to UCF.
Everything that needed to happen for the Blue Devils to lose happened. Aubrey Dawkins turned into Kobe Bryant for 40 minutes at the same time that the Knights were able to scheme and execute a defense that specifically and uniquely worked against this Duke team. They stuck 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall — who was technically matched up man-to-man with Tre Jones — directly in front of the rim and dared Duke to beat them from the perimeter.
If Dawkins’ potential game-winning tip rolls a different direction off the rim, or if he happened to catch an alley-oop that was thrown to him with two minutes left, UCF is in the Sweet 16.
They aren’t, and we are left to ponder whether or not that result was strictly a result of the things UCF is uniquely capable of doing or if this Duke team’s inability to shoot from the perimeter means that they are destined to lose before reaching Minneapolis.
And for my money, it’s probably the former.
The way that game played out on Sunday had everything to do with UCF, how well they played and how well they were coached. Virginia Tech, LSU and Michigan State are not going to be able to do the same things that UCF did mostly because they don’t have one of the 40 tallest human beings on the planet available to them.
That doesn’t mean that Duke cannot be beaten.
Virginia Tech already has a win over Duke this season and that came without their best player, Justin Robinson, in the lineup. There aren’t five teams left in the tournament that have more talent than LSU does. Michigan State is Michigan State, and there’s a reason that the month in between February and April is known as Izzo.
Duke is the most talented team in the country that happens to have some exploitable flaws. Just because UCF was able to take advantage of them doesn’t guarantee that anyone else will be able to as well.
MICHIGAN STATE: Will Cassius Winston ever actually get run into the ground?
There is not a player in the country that handles a bigger workload than Cassius Winston does for Michigan State.
He plays a ton of minutes. Michigan State runs him through ball-screens on seemingly every halfcourt possession. Without him, Tom Izzo doesn’t really have anyone that can create for themselves. The truth is that Michigan State is going to go as far as Cassius Winston is going to be able to take them.
And for me, the question that needs to be answered is whether or not Winston has the legs to be able to make that run as far as Michigan State wants to go.
The college basketball season is long. Michigan State started in late September. It’s now late March. Winston has been logging nearly 40 minutes in every big game the Spartans have played. He and his team looked gassed playing 39 minutes against Bradley last Wednesday, likely the hangover from winning three games in three days to take home the Big Ten tournament title.
He’ll need to be ready to go if Michigan State is going to make it to the final weekend of the season.
LSU: Can LSU solve their second half struggles?
Tony Benford has been the acting head coach for LSU for four games now. One of them came against Vanderbilt in the final game of the regular season against a Commodore team that has already quit on the season. In the other three games — against Florida in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Yale and in the second round of the NCAA tournament against Maryland — LSU churned out really, really impressive first half performances before going in the tank in the second half.
Against the Gators, LSU blew a ten point halftime lead and ended up losing in regulation. Against Yale, the Tigers were up by as many as 18 points in the second half before Yale was able to cut the lead to a single possession in the final minute. And against Maryland, LSU led by 15 points with 16 minutes left but still needed a Tremont Waters layup with 1.6 seconds left to earn them the win.
At some point, their inability to close out games — their inconsistency when it comes to making second half adjustments — is going to come back to haunt them, and with, potentially, two Hall of Fame head coaches standing between them and the Final Four, it may happen sooner rather than later.
VIRGINIA TECH: Is Justin Robinson 100%?
This one isn’t difficult to figure out.
With a healthy Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech was a top ten team in January. Without a healthy Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech went 7-5 in February.
What makes him so important to the Hokies is two-fold. For starters, he is their best point guard, they best playmaker and their leader. He thrives in the ball-screen actions that Buzz Williams loves putting him in and he’s also a 40 percent three-point shooter.
But more importantly, Robinson’s return means that Nickeil Alexander-Walker — who is actually the most talented player on this Hokie roster — can play off the ball as a secondary ball-handler, where he is actually the most effective.
Robinson looked great in the second half in Virginia Tech’s win over Liberty.