The most exciting four days in sports have come to an end, and now we are set for the business end of the NCAA tournament. While there was certainly chaos across the entire field, the Midwest region was mostly unscathed in those regards. The 3rd seeded Michigan State Spartans were upset by the 11 seeded Syracuse Orange, but the top two seeds remain standing. The Kansas Jayhawks and Duke Blue Devils could still be on a collision course to battle for a spot in the Final Four. They will have to get past the color orange to do so. Duke will meet fellow ACC member Syracuse in the Sweet 16, and Kansas will try to advance past the Clemson Tigers.
These four teams will square off in Omaha on Friday and Sunday, and whomever can win two straight games this weekend will be headed to the Final Four. Three of these teams will be quite used to this scenario, with the outlier being a Clemson program who has never made a Final Four. Each of the teams Sweet 16 in the Midwest were impressive over the first weekend.
NCAA Tournament: Storylines From Round Two of the Midwest Region
(1) Kansas Jayhawks
The Big 12 Champions were able to coast through the first two rounds last weekend. After a slow start in their opener, they took the lead over Penn as halftime approached and never looked back. Devonte’ Graham scored 29 points and the Jayhawks led by double digits most of the second half before winning 76-60. They only trailed for a few possessions in the round of 32 against Seton Hall. Malik Newman’s 28 points led the way as Kansas held a pesky Pirates squad at bay.
The top seed in the Midwest will now look to advance past the Sweet 16 and Clemson on Friday. Sophomore center Udoka Azubuike missed the opening round game, but returned to the lineup to score 10 points against Seton Hall. The Jayhawks will need him to be as close to 100 percent as possible, as his inside presence helps their offense balance out. Newman continued his strong play from the Big 12 tournament with 38 points over his first two NCAA tournament games. Newman and Graham will need to at their best against Clemson’s strong perimeter defenders. Staying aggressive and not settling for long jumpers will be key against the Tigers.
(5) Clemson Tigers
While most of the publicity went to lower seeds and their upsets or the few higher seed that did escape, Coach Brad Brownell’s team may have been one of the most impressive last weekend. After outlasting New Mexico State in the opener, the Tigers blasted SEC Champion Auburn in the round of 32. Gabe Devoe scored 22 points in each victory as Clemson’s guards dominated. They built a 41 point lead at one point over Auburn. The Tigers played possibly their best offense of the year, while suffocating their SEC foe on defense.
Clemson is in their first Sweet 16 since 1997, and their reward is the top seeded Jayhawks. The Tigers should not be intimidated though, as they routinely face powerhouse programs such as Duke, UNC and Louisville in ACC play. The question will be can the Tigers stifle Kansas the same way they did Auburn. Coach Brownell’s veteran team is so connected on defense. His guards, led by Sheldon Mitchell, harass opponents and close off driving lanes extremely well. Center Elijah Thomas lies in wait inside the paint to back up his guards if they do get beat.
Clemson forces teams to run their sets patiently and move the ball in order to score. If teams get impatient and begin to settle for long jumpers, then they play right into what the Tigers want. Offensively the Clemson played as well as they have all season. They will look to carry their hot shooting and crisp ball movement over to their Sweet 16 match-up.
(2) Duke Blue Devils
Coach K has seen his team go through some ups and downs this season, but they were dominant during their first two NCAA tournament games. They beat both Iona and Rhode Island by more than 20 points. The Blue Devils had four players in double figures in their opener, and all five starters scored in double figures in the round of 32 victory. Freshman sensation Marvin Bagley III had 22 points in each contest. They shot over 50 percent each game and hit 23 three’s during the opening weekend.
Duke struggled to defend early in the year, but has now settled into their zone defense. Their length on the perimeter and size around the rim have allowed them to find a groove on the defensive end. Now they are set to face a familiar foe in conference rival Syracuse. This will be one of the rare games in which both teams will rely solely on their zone defense. Duke’s multitude of weapons on the offensive end should give them the edge. Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. will need to make shots from the outside. Then they can open up the Syracuse zone to make room for Bagley III and fellow freshman Wendell Carter Jr..
(11) Syracuse Orange
Since the First Four games were introduced in Dayton, one of those surviving teams has made some noise in the main tournament bracket. Syracuse is this year’s example. They first outlasted Arizona State in Dayton. The Orange then stifled TCU and Michigan State on their way to the Sweet 16. Coach Jim Boehiem’s team is allowing just 53.6 points per game through three outings in the tournament. Their highest point total was only 60, so the scoring issues that put them on the bubble in the first place still remain.
Tyus Battle and Frank Howard combined for 30 points in the upset over 3 seeded Michigan State. Battle averaged 19.3 points a game this season. The Orange are not a deep team. They played only seven players in round one and eight guys in the round of 32. Making shots and keeping their big men out of foul trouble will be key if they want to upset Duke. They lost 60-44 in the regular season meeting in Durham.
Midwest Region, Sweet 16 Have ACC Feel
The ACC has had an up and down NCAA tournament in terms of results. High seeds like North Carolina and Virginia fell in embarrassing fashion. Only four of the nine teams that made the field advanced to the Sweet 16. Three of those four teams are in the Midwest region. At least one ACC team will play for a berth in the Final Four. Clemson will look to stay on a roll, but it will not be easy against a veteran Kansas team. Syracuse and Duke will renew ACC pleasantries for the other Elite Eight spot.