(1) Duke vs. (4) Virginia Tech
Initial Thoughts: The fact that I’m not writing a UCF vs. Virginia Tech preview is still a little crazy, because the Golden Knights absolutely should have won that game Sunday. Both BJ Taylor’s shot and Aubrey Dawkins’s tip seemed destined to drop…until they didn’t. So many little things had to go right for the Blue Devils down the stretch, and while Duke made some plays to win (specifically Reddish’s three with 1:40 left and Zion’s late and-1 against Tacko), it’s impossible to not think UCF let that one slip away a little bit.
On the other hand, Virginia Tech took care of business in Round 1 (whipped St. Louis by 14 and it was never that close) and got through Round 2 (beat Liberty by 9) to more comfortably arrive in Washington, DC. Justin Robinson came off the bench and looked healthy, particularly against the Flames, and he’ll be ready for 30+ minutes on Friday. As I mentioned in my first round preview, Robinson allows Nickeil Alexander-Walker to play more as a secondary creator, and that’s crucial against Tre Jones’s dogged on-ball defense.
Duke on Offense: Following that near-loss to UCF, much has been made about the Golden Knights providing a blueprint on how to defend Duke. Of course, no one else has a 7’6 monster with which to challenge Zion at the rim, but the more important note from that matchup was just how little attention the UCF defense paid to Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire. For extended stretches in the second half, UCF defended Jones with the 7’6 Tacko Fall, repeatedly daring him to shoot:
Jones went a dismal 1/8 from deep, continuously lobbing bricks at the rim and driving Duke fans and bettors alike into the depths of despair. Goldwire was equally ignored, with UCF basically giving him the Michael Jordan-to-Muggsy Bogues treatment (see #1 on that list) on the perimeter. He also hit one in this game (1/3), but he rarely even glances at the rim, so opponents’ ability to play five-on-three defensively gives them a prayer of limiting Barrett and Williamson in the paint. Alex O’Connell and Jack White were both DNP-CKDs on Sunday (Did Not Play - Coach K’s Doghouse) , but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get some run if the Devils are proving to be especially bricky Friday.
Fortunately for Virginia Tech, it won’t take many adjustments to properly prepare its defense for this one. Largely due to a lack of size and depth, the Hokies’ scheme is set up to allow threes, sagging off of the perimeter to block off driving lanes and double-team the post. Only Monmouth gives up a higher share of threes in the country, and if VT can turn Jones, Goldwire, and even Zion and Barrett into jump shooters, the Devils’ offense because far more pedestrian.
Perhaps the biggest problem in this one will be Duke on the offensive glass. The Hokies limited the Devils to just seven offensive rebounds in their last meeting, but Zion introduces a wholly unique element. UCF was able to battle on the boards with the 6’11, 240-lb. Collin Smith playing the four, but Virginia Tech’s Ty Outlaw (6’6, 220) and Isaiah Wilkins (6’3, 230) may struggle to hold up against the Zi-Onslaught on the boards.
Finally, VT has a tremendous transition defense, but they’ll need to be especially focused on getting back in this one, especially given how many perimeter shots they’re likely to take themselves (long rebounds against Duke can be instantaneous two points the other way).
Virginia Tech on Offense: Virginia Tech’s offense is a thing of beauty – turns out that when you space the floor with a plethora of shooters around multiple offensive creators, both perimeter and post, you become extremely fun to watch! Robinson’s return only increases the Hokies’ potency, as his combination of shooting, driving, and dishing fits into Buzz Williams’s system perfectly.
Duke often has issues guarding VT due to this spacing and multi-dimensional attack. Recent Krzszewski teams have struggled stopping the ball, often leading Coach K to resort to a 2-3 zone (last year’s total shift was the most obvious example), and Robinson and Alexander-Walker are two tremendous linchpins. Jones is a terror, but he can only guard one of them, meaning Cam Reddish or Barrett will need to demonstrate the ability to stop dribble drives. Zion is the ultimate destroyer on defense due to his ability to cover so much ground in a hurry, but being stuck on a shooter like Outlaw, Wilkins, or Ahmed Hill will make helping off a crime punishable by buried three.
Along with the Hokies’ ability to drive, Kerry Blackshear will be a monster factor in this one. He dominated the Javin DeLaurier/Marques Bolden duo to the tune of 23 points and 10 rebounds on 7/11 shooting (7/9 from two) and 9/11 from the free throw line, using his deft combination of footwork, strength, and touch to cut up the Devils’interior defense. Zion’s return may help as a weak-side shot-blocker (or even playing the five at times), but that also risks foul trouble against the crafty post man. Bolden only played nine minutes in the Sunday win over UCF, but I’d expect to see a lot more of him in this one as K hopes to wear Blackshear down.
Along with the Hokies’ ability to drive, Kerry Blackshear will be a monster factor in this one. He dominated the DeLaurier/Bolden duo to the tune of 23 points and 10 rebounds on 7/11 shooting (7/9 from two) and 9/11 from the free throw line, using his deft combination of footwork, strength, and touch to cut up the Devils’interior defense. Zion’s return may help as a weakside shot-blocker
Key Factor(s): Blackshear played all 40 minutes in Virginia Tech’s win over Duke in late February, a massive effort from the only player even remotely resembling a big man. If he’s able to stay on the floor for most or all of the game, VT has a fighting chance. Any early foul trouble would be disastrous, though, so he needs to play smart and understand that conceding a lay-up or two will be worth having him on the floor in the long run. Of course, with Zion back, that becomes much more difficult: he’s a violent rim-attacker, one who initiates contact and forces referees to make decisions, putting more even pressure on Blackshear to play smart at the tin.
Final Predictions: From a pure handicapping perspective, this line is pretty low. Only a month ago, Duke was a 4-point favorite on the road in Blacksburg; given that homecourt is worth around 3 (maaaaybe 3.5), that implies Duke -7 or -7.5 on a neutral court. Of course, that was without Zion, and he’s worth as much to the spread as any player in recent memory (something like 6-7 points). Robinson being back shouldn’t directly offset that, so I would honestly have expected to see something like -10. Duke’s vulnerability shown against UCF and Virginia Tech’s generally excellent play down the stretch has evidently narrowed that gap, though.
While I do feel the line is slightly low, I love the matchup for the Hokies. They should be able to slow Duke down and make them a half-court, jump-shooting team, by far the best way to slow the Devils’ offensive avalanche. If they can also figure out how to keep Zion & Co. off the offensive glass, they’ll really be in business defensively. On the other end, they can do as they did on February 26th – spread the floor, attack driving gaps, and use Blackshear’s ever-evolving offensive skill as a weapon.
Ultimately, though, the return of Zion and his late game ferocity make me lean to the Devils outright. I don’t think Robinson and Alexander-Walker will be able to match him (and Barrett) play-for-play down the stretch, and Duke will survive another game effort from a difficult opponent. Duke, 71-69.
SU Pick: Duke
ATS Pick: Virginia Tech +7.5
O/U Pick: Under 144.5
(2) Michigan St. vs. (3) LSU
Initial Thoughts: After a sluggish start in the Round of 64 (trailed at the half to 15 seed Bradley and never really pulled away), Sparty continued its dominance of Big Ten teams not named Indiana this year, trouncing the Jordan Murphy-less Golden Gophers on Saturday afternoon. LSU, meanwhile, was a team of two halves. The Tigers dismantled both Yale and Maryland in over the first 20+ minutes, building leads of 18 and 15, respectively, in each game. Both times, though, they allowed their foe to claw back as the LSU offense became stuck in the mud for much of the second half. Tremont Waters saved the Tigers from overtime in the second round, but it took a ludicrous Yale cold streak (missed 21 of 22 threes at one point) to let LSU sneak by. So do you feel encouraged by the Tigers’ ability to generate a big lead? Or discouraged by their lack of a killer instinct to ice the game?
Michigan St. on Offense: LSU, meet Cassius Winston, the All-American engine of the high-powered Spartan offense. Winston is the maestro of Michigan State’s most important sources of offense: pushing in transition, slash-and-kick driving, and the old fashioned pick-and-roll. The Tigers will likely rotate defenders on him; Benford can go with the speedy and pesky Waters at times, or switch to the bigger, stronger, more experienced Skylar Mays for a change of pace. Winston has seen it all in the Big Ten, though, so don’t expect him to be too phased by the LSU defense. It’s worth noting that LSU defends PnR ball-handlers in the 92nd percentile nationally, but Tony Benford’s team could be vulnerable on the break given his big men’s propensity for attacking the boards.
The battle between big men here will be crucial. Michigan State’s bigs will run the floor as soon as a rebound is secured, so expect a couple quick strike lay-ups as the Tiger post men trail the play (likely spotted by a Winston pinpoint pass, obviously). Naz Reid, Kavell Bigby-Williams, Emmitt Williams, and Darius Days will need to find a balance between crashing the glass and busting their butts back to deter the Sparty transition attack.
LSU won’t be the only team crashing the heck out of the offensive glass, though. Tom Izzo teams pride themselves on their glasswork, and this bunch is excellent: Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman, and Kenny Goins are all high-effort glass-eaters, and LSU’s bigs are much more of the “out-jump opponent” variety than the “establish perfect inside position” one. The Spartans will no doubt take advantage of this; their offensive rebounding rate is 24th in the country, while LSU, despite its wealth of size, is a measly 266th nationally in defensive rebound rate. This is also because the Tiger guards are all eagerly leaking out into transition, reliant on Reid & Co. to lock down the glass. LSU just gave up 14 offensive boards to a similarly ferocious Big Ten frontcourt for Maryland; expect to see a few easy put-backs and open threes via kick-out in this one.
LSU on Offense: In many ways, LSU is a mirror of Michigan State’s offense: one high-usage, ball-dominant point guard running the show (Waters), some shooting and athleticism sprinkled on the wing (Mays, Javonte Smart, Marlon Taylor), and a cadre of monstrous bigs who attack repeatedly in the post and via the offensive glass.
Overwhelming Michigan State with bodies is nearly impossible; they’ll simply wall you out of the paint and force you to make jumpers over strong closeouts. To beat the Spartans’ phalanx, LSU will need to hit jumpers, something they’re largely ill-equipped to do. Minnesota, a poor perimeter shooting team, had its transcendent shooting performance against Louisville in Round 1 and were then totally stumped by Michigan State. LSU made only 32.0% of its threes this year, 290th in the country, a bad sign when facing this defensive alignment.
Plus, Michigan State has one of the best perimeter defenders in the country in Matt McQuaid, a tireless bulldog who will chase Waters anywhere and everywhere. He defended Purdue All-American guard Carsen Edwards as well as anyone in the country, helping hold him to just 12.5ppg on 20% shooting, including 5/24 from deep over two meetings (those numbers are incredible). Quick example:
It might seem simple, but McQuaid is terrific at staying alert throughout possessions, forcing deep catches well beyond the line, refusing to be screened (on or off the ball), and challenging every shot with his length, of which he’ll have plenty against the smaller Waters. Izzo will hope he can simply glue McQuaid to Waters’s hip and worry about the rest of the defense.
The largest worry, like on the other side of the ball, may be the offensive glass. Michigan State is a good defensive rebounding team, but not an elite one, and this LSU frontline is no joke. Izzo will be drilling this daily in practice leading up to the game, but even the best effort and position can still cough up a few second chance buckets to Bigby-Willams and Williams (#10 and #15, respectively, in the entire country in individual O-reb rate).
Key Factor(s): Let’s keep this one simple. On one bench, we have Tom Izzo, a renowned March guru who is 6-3 in the Sweet 16 over the last 18 years. His teams are widely known for playing disciplined, physical basketball, showcasing intelligent shot selection and sharp defensive rotations. On the other side, we have Tony Benford, who ran North Texas into the ground over five seasons in Denton (went 8-22, 2-16 in his final season in 2016-17) and who hid under his chair when Mark Turgeon threw out *gasp* a zone defense in the second half Saturday. Okay, perhaps I’m being overly dramatic. The Tigers were still coached by Will Wade all season and have two heady guards handling the ball in Waters and Mays. Still, though, I trust Izzo to make key adjustments at halftime and down the stretch of this one.
Final Predictions: I don’t trust LSU to diligently stick with shooters like Matt McQuaid and Goins, and you can only win so many rebounding battles against this hardened Sparty frontline simply via athleticism. The Tiger big men are too talented to get totally punked in the lane for a full game, but I expect them to show more cracks in the armor than steady Sparty, and Michigan State should be able to extend the lead in the second half of this one. Total-wise, I think Izzo intelligently slows this one down at times (trusting Winston to push selectively), and the tempo isn’t quite there to hit the over, but I’m not confident in that. Sparty, 77-68.