The Elite Eight is set after another day of March Madness. Here’s a look at the four biggest takeaways from Friday’s Sweet 16 games:
Auburn makes Final Four-sized statement. Remember when Auburn almost lost to New Mexico State in the first round? That team was nowhere to be seen in a 17-point blowout of top-seeded North Carolina. And now the Tigers are the biggest bracket buster of the NCAAs. The Tigers shot 67 percent from beyond the arc in the second half to finish with 17 3-pointers, seven of them coming from reserves as Auburn got 40 points off the bench. The way that the Tigers’ guards got up and down the court at lightning speed set the tempo, and the barrage of hot shooting staved off any type of momentum UNC could muster. Chuma Okeke (20 points, 11 rebounds) left the game with 8½ minutes to go, but by then the damage had been done. Scoring 97 points on a Final Four-caliber team was a statement that the Midwest Region is now the Tigers’ to lose. In a tourney that’s been all chalk, No. 5 seed Auburn is the refreshing anomaly.
Zion Williamson is not alone. The most exciting player in this NCAA tournament once again dazzled in helping Duke escape another nail-biter — this one over Virginia Tech — finishing with 23 points and delivering a high-flying alley-oop that might qualify as the dunk of the tournament. But one story line that can be put to bed is that Williamson is a one-man team. R.J. Barrett was USA TODAY Sports’ national player of the year for a reason, finishing with 18 points and 11 assists against the Hokies. But it was point guard Tre Jones who came up big, scoring 22 points on 5-for-7 3-point shooting when the previous game’s narrative was how he couldn’t shoot. Even role player Alex O’Connell, who started in place of an injured Cam Reddish, played game-winning defense on Virginia Tech’s last attempt at a 3-pointer. To win without your third-best player (Reddish) proved Duke is much more than Zion.
P.J. Washington makes Kentucky a title contender. Coach John Calipari revealed in a postgame interview that he didn’t even know if his leading scorer would play in Friday’s Elite Eight-clinching win over Houston until the last minute. “We don’t win this game if he doesn’t play,” Calipari said. He’s not kidding. Washington didn’t just return for the Wildcats after missing Kentucky’s first weekend wins over Abilene Christian and Wofford, he came back looking 90 percent (finishing with 16 points) and made plays down the stretch that saved the team’s season. Washington’s bucket with 55 seconds remaining sliced a Houston lead to one, and then his block with 36 seconds left led to a game-winning assist to Tyler Herro for the go-ahead 3-pointer.
Michigan State finds swagger in its youth. After looking shaky in the first round against Bradley and turning the ball over 22 times in the second round against Minnesota, the Spartans looked like the No. 2 seed it was expected to be in dispatching LSU 80-63 thanks to breakout performances from a pair of freshmen — Aaron Henry (20 points) and Gabe Brown (15 points). “They won the game,” All-American point guard Cassius Winston said. A Michigan State team that’s largely relied on its veterans got a big boost from its younger cast, and a 34-20 rebounding edge speaks to how hungry the Spartans are. With Nick Ward’s injury status uncertain, the deeper coach Tom Izzo’s bench is, the better.