The NCAA tournament’s East Regional has gone according to script so far. The top four seeds all advanced past the first weekend and will convene in Washington, D.C. The best game of the tournament thus far came from this region, with Duke winning a thriller over UCF in Columbia, South Carolina, on Sunday. The Blue Devils will face the ACC cohort Virginia Tech Hokies in the Sweet 16, while the Michigan State Spartans will square off with the LSU Tigers. Each of these teams have been ranked in the top ten at one point this season.
Top Four Seeds Set for Battle
This year’s tournament has lacked some of the drama and surprise provided by a slew of early upsets. With the top four seeds still alive in this region, it has made for some heavyweight match-ups in the second weekend. Duke and Michigan State are elite programs, where Final Four appearances are expected as much as cherished. LSU is looking for its fifth trip, and first since 2006. The Hokies are in their third consecutive tournament and seeking their first Elite Eight since 1967. They have never reached a Final Four. Each of the top four seeds in this region has shown the ability to compete and defeat anyone in the nation.
(1)Duke Blue Devils vs (4)Virginia Tech Hokies
Virginia Tech won the regular season meeting at home 77-72. The Blue Devils were of course without star freshman Zion Williamson that night. He will be heavily involved as will Hokie point guard Justin Robinson, who also missed the first match-up. These teams know each other well, so this should be a tense, closely contested affair. Williamson has been on fire in his first NCAA tournament, scoring 57 points on 60 percent shooting through two games. The Hokies are a relentless defensive team, allowing 62 points per game on the season and holding both tournament opponents to under 60.
(2)Michigan State Spartans vs (3)LSU Tigers
This game will likely be all about the finish. Before cruising to a round of 32 victory over the Minnesota Gophers, Tom Izzo’s team had to fight off an opening-round upset attempt. The Spartans used a 20-10 run to close out the Bradley Braves. The Tigers, on the other hand, have stumbled near the end of each of their first weekend victories. Four Skylar Mays free throws were needed to hold off a late rally from the Yale Bulldogs. After squandering another double-digit lead against the Maryland Terrapins, LSU got a Tremont Waters driving lay-up in the final seconds to survive. This match-up between the SEC and Big Ten regular-season champions will be physical and intense. Each of these deeps has a plethora of talented big men to rotate. This will also be a showcase for two of the nation’s best point guards.
Players to Watch
Marques Bolden – Center – Duke Blue Devils
The Blue Devils are deep with star power, with Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, all future NBA lottery picks. If those three freshmen are to reach a Final Four, Bolden, a junior from Texas, will need to step up. He is recovering from a knee issue late in the season but played in both first weekend games. Bolden has seven double-digit scoring games on the season, including the first meeting with the Hokies. His defense will also be key as Tech’s Kerry Blackshear Jr. torched Duke in that contest, posting a double-double.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker – Guard – Virginia Tech Hokies
The sophomore guard has been a go-to scorer for Coach Buzz Williams all season. He has twelve outings of 20 or more points, including three of the last five. The Hokies are a defensive-minded team but will need Alexander-Walker’s scoring punch to keep up with the high powered Blue Devils. With Robinson back in the lineup, he can concentrate more on scoring and less on having to run the offense. He will need to have a big night if they want to make it to the regional final on Sunday.
Cassius Winston – Guard – Michigan State Spartans
The Big Ten’s Player of the Year has been sensational all season. He is averaging 18.5 points and 7.5 assists each night. Winston has carried the Spartans, both getting buckets and running the offense. He relishes the big moment and won’t hesitate to take big shots in pressure situations. Winston has the ability to take over games. His match-up with Waters from LSU will be one of the best individual match-ups of the tournament. If he can outduel his point guard counterpart, his Spartans will be back in the Elite Eight and looking for another Final Four berth.
Skylar Mays – Guard – LSU Tigers
The Tigers have their own veteran guard who isn’t afraid of the big moment. After hitting four clutch free throws to close out Yale, the Baton Rouge native hit a monster three to take a late lead over the Terrapins. His willingness to step up in pressure moments has been evident all season. It is a big reason the Tigers have done so well in close games. Mays brings a grittiness and attitude to a this deep athletic LSU team. He averaged 13.6 points a game, and at 86% shooting, he can salt a game away from the free throw line. The senior doesn’t want his final season to end just yet. He will likely need to hit a few more big shots if the Tigers want to continue advancing.
The East Region’s top four seeds are all together in the nations capitol, and it should be a entertaining weekend of basketball at Capitol One Arena. The night begins with the champions from the SEC and Big Ten battling it out. Then we have a ACC showdown in the night cap. Each team is just two wins away from the Final Four.