NCAA Tournament 2019: Friday's Sweet 16 Winners and Losers
The enduring image from the Sweet 16 will be that of Virginia Tech's Ahmed Hill lying on the ground having just missed an open layup that would have taken Duke to overtime. There is always heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, but this was on a different level.
As for lesser heartbreaks, a gritty Houston team came up just a possession or two short against Kentucky, LSU's frontcourt dropped the ball and Auburn's Chuma Okeke suffered an apparent season-ending knee injury during his team's rout of North Carolina.
When the final buzzers sounded, familiar names Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky all advanced to the Elite Eight, while North Carolina went home.
Auburn beat North Carolina and is a winner for that reason, which is obvious. But to understand how big of a win this really was, you have to recognize that Auburn has one Elite Eight appearance in its entire basketball history, and it happened 33 years ago.
This was only the fifth Sweet 16 and ninth second-round appearance in school history. This year was just Auburn's 10th NCAA tournament appearance, and the Tigers entered it as a No. 5 seed.
In other words, this was the biggest win in school history. Second-biggest at worst.
The Tigers beat North Carolina by jumping out to a double-digit lead and then going against tendency by slowing down, turning it into a half-court game, and executing at a high level.
The Tigers lost nine games during the regular season, but the last two games they've looked close to unbeatable.
Loser: Roy Williams
Back when Roy Williams was at Kansas, he had a reputation for not being able to win the Big One. In the 16 years since he took the job at North Carolina, he has obliterated that reputation, winning three national championships.
Friday's Sweet 16 loss to Auburn doesn't do any damage to Williams' reputation, but it did look familiar to those who have closely followed his career. Roy runs a system, and that system works extremely well about 80 percent of the time. But the Tar Heels looked shocked and discombobulated by an Auburn team that spent the night deftly switching from running and gunning to slowing it down.
UNC gave up 97 points in a Sweet 16 game, and Roy is left to go spit in a river.
Winner: Tom Izzo
After smashing LSU by 17 points on Friday, Michigan State will play in its fourth Elite Eight this decade. It amplifies coach Tom Izzo's reputation for March Madness reliability while providing a nice opportunity to reflect on just how great he's been.
The last time an Izzo team failed to make the NCAA tournament was in 1997, which happened to be the year Izzo recruited the class that would eventually win his first championship—the school's second—three years later.
Since then, Michigan State has reached the Elite Eight ten times, making for a rate of once every 2.2 years. That's pretty good, but there have also been seven Final Fours in that time and one national runner-up finish.
There isn't much new to be said about Izzo at this point. A Michigan State tournament win is rarely a surprise, even if it wasn't necessarily expected. And that's what makes Izzo one of the best.
Loser: LSU's Frontcourt
As a team, LSU shot 39 percent from the floor in a 17-point loss to Michigan State on Friday. Nobody in the starting lineup made even half their shots.
But the biggest offenders were big men Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams. Combined, they shot 9-of-24 from the field. If you're shooting threes, that's not too bad of a night (although Reid also went 0-of-5 from deep). If you're mostly playing in the paint, however, that's a pretty fast way to get beat.
The Tigers didn't get much out of their bench, either. Three players scored four points apiece. But to beat a hard-nosed Michigan State, you're generally going to need your big men to bring it, and LSU's didn't.
Winner: Chuma Okeke
Chuma Okeke was the best player on the floor against North Carolina on Friday night. He had 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting with 11 rebounds, two steals, two assists and a blocked shot.
It was one of the most important performances in the history of Auburn basketball, and it ended with an apparent knee injury that had Auburn coach Bruce Pearl in tears moments after the game.
Auburn marches on, but Okeke's season appears to be over. If that's the case, he went out a winner.
Loser: Ahmed Hill
The last play of Virginia Tech's season was one of those moments that makes your heart hurt for a player, like when an NFL kicker misses the big kick. Despite contributing 17 points, four rebounds and three assists, Ahmed Hill is going to spend the rest of his life replaying the wide-open layup he missed that would have sent the game into overtime.
Trailing by two in the final seconds, Virginia Tech put up two air balls on its final possession—both of them threes—but got the ball back with 1.1 seconds left, inbounding from the baseline.
Coach Buzz Williams drew up an inbounds play that the team executed flawlessly. Hill curled around, made the catch on a lob pass, and just had to drop it in, like he's done a million times in his life.
He left it short, and fell to the ground with his arms extended in disbelief and heartbreak. It was his last college game.
The story of Duke's season has been (a) Zion Williamson and (b) whether this team of freshmen could survive a long season and an unpredictable tournament.
They haven't fully answered that question, winning their past two games by three points total, but so far Duke has responded to every challenge like a more experienced team would.
Teams led by freshman stars are hardly a new thing in college basketball. Kentucky popularized it, and this season Duke finally joined in. Without Williamson, who was injured, Duke lost to North Carolina twice and looked generally beatable.
But, with Williamson, the Blue Devils have not only the best player in the country, but one of the hardest-playing and most reliable. He had 23 points on 14 shots Friday night. Throw in RJ Barrett's 18 and 22 from Tre Jones and Duke couldn't be stopped on offense—even with Cam Reddish out due to a leg injury.
Loser: Virginia Tech's Strategy on Tre Jones
You can't blame Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams for his strategy on Tre Jones. The Hokies' decision to focus defensive attention elsewhere at the expense of letting Jones shoot threes was rooted in probability.
Jones is a 23 percent three-point shooter who entered Friday's game 1-of-10 from the arc in the NCAA tournament. He hadn't made more than one three in a game since November.
The plan for Virginia Tech was obvious: Make Jones beat you.
And that's exactly what happened.
Well, sort of. Zion Williamson was pretty good too—but that's to be expected. Jones going 5-of-7 from three (8-of-14 from the field) was the extra boost Duke needed to take out a Virginia Tech team that just wouldn't go away.
All things considered, it's probably still a smart move to guard Duke that way. It just didn't work on Friday.
Winner: Tyler Herro
Herro became a hero Friday night for Kentucky, hitting a clutch three that gave his team a lead in the final minute and the two free throws that sealed it.
The freshman scored 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting. He was the only Kentucky starter that scored more than seven points (PJ Washington scored 16 off the bench), helping the Wildcats overcome a 3-of-12 shooting night from Keldon Johnson, the only other Kentucky starter who attempted more than two field goals.
Herro is the second-leading scorer on a highly balanced Kentucky team. He got off to a rough start with his shot this year—as freshmen often do—but he's clearly found his stroke now.