Texas Tech and Houston were two of 16 teams to survive the first weekend of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament with a pair of relatively comfortable wins in the first two rounds.
In a surprising twist, brackets across the country remain mostly intact entering the Sweet Sixteen. All of the remaining teams are ranked as a five-seed or higher with the exception of Oregon, who advanced as a 12-seed with wins over Wisconsin and U.C. Irvine.
The Red Raiders were given the West Region’s three seed on Selection Sunday and began the tournament with a 72-57 win over Northern Kentucky in the opening round. Tech led by just four at halftime but pulled away down the stretch thanks to the dominance of sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, who led the team in scoring in both matchups.
Culver followed up his 29-point showcase against Northern Kentucky with 16 against six-seeded Buffalo. But it was Tech’s defense that stole the show in the 78-58 win in the second round. Senior center Norense Odiase recorded a season high 15 rebounds to go with Culver’s 10 boards and three blocked shots.
Each starter recorded double-digit points for the Red Raiders to cap an impressive performance in the first two rounds. It is the first time the school has ever qualified for back-to-back Sweet Sixteen appearances.
The only thing standing between Tech and a trip to the Elite Eight is the two-seeded Michigan Wolverines. Michigan also boasts one of the strongest defenses in the country and held both opponents to under 60 points in a pair of lopsided victories on Thursday and Saturday.
While I ultimately selected Michigan to advance to the Elite Eight in my bracket, this Sweet Sixteen matchup is one of the hardest to predict in the entire tournament. It may also end up being one of the lower scoring affairs we see.
The game is set to tipoff around 8:40 p.m. on Thursday. The winner will advance to meet either Florida State or Gonzaga on Saturday.
While Tech fans saw the Red Raiders advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the second straight season, Houston fans celebrated their first trip past the second round in 35 years with Sunday’s 74-59 win over Ohio State.
The Cougars locked up a three seed in the Midwest Region after winning over 30 games this season and kept both Georgia State and the Buckeyes at bay on opening weekend. Senior guard Corey Davis Jr. totaled a combined 47 points in both games to lead all Cougars in scoring.
Ohio State hung around for much of the game but were ultimately crushed by Houston’s depth and athleticism. The Cougars made their move when the Buckeyes went cold from beyond the three-point line and never looked back. Houston will advance to their first true test on Friday night in the form of the Kentucky Wildcats.
It may have had more to do with my disdain for John Calipari and the Wildcats, but I picked the Cougars to defeat Kentucky and advance to the Elite Eight nonetheless. Ultimately, it could come down to whether or not forward P.J. Washington suits up. Kentucky’s star sophomore has missed the first two games of the tournament with a sprained foot and his absence was apparent. In fact, it almost led to Kentucky’s demise in a tight second round victory over Wofford. His status for the matchup is still unclear as of Tuesday.
Whether Washington is in or out, this Sweet Sixteen matchup will also come down to defense. Both teams hold their opponents to about 60 points on average. Kentucky held Abilene Christian to 44 points and Wofford to 56 in the first two rounds. The winner will advance to the Elite Eight to meet either North Carolina or Auburn.
Despite the tournament’s lack of upsets, the University of Central Florida reminded us that anything can (almost) happen. UCF had two chances to stun freshman superstar Zion Williamson and the Duke Blue Devils on Sunday.
Williamson and fellow freshman phenoms R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish trailed the nine-seeded Knights by three with less than 30 seconds to play. Instead of attempting to tie the game, Williamson took the ball to the hoop himself and converted a freakish layup while taking a foul.
This was the fifth and final foul on UCF center Tacko Fall, who is one of the tallest living people in the world at 7’6. Fall obviously gave the Knights an advantage on the boards while he was on the court, but missed much of the game due to foul trouble.
The critical foul sent Williamson to the free-throw line and Fall to the bench for good. Williamson missed the shot, but Barrett abruptly pounced on the rebound and put it in to complete a four-point play and ultimately send Duke to the Sweet Sixteen.
Trailing by one with one last chance, Aubrey Dawkins of UCF found himself in a perfect position to lay in an offensive rebound at the buzzer. He did everything right, but his put-back rolled along the front of the rim and refused to fall through.
As excruciating as it may have been for the Knights and Duke haters worldwide, it was undoubtedly the best game of the tournament so far. If nothing else, it reminded us that every team is mortal despite the success of the top seeds in this tournament. Any team, even one with three of the projected top-10 picks in the NBA Draft, can go down on any given night.
Duke remains alive and well as the most lethal group in the tournament out of the East Region. The Blue Devils will meet either Michigan State or LSU in the Elite Eight if they can get by conference rival Virginia Tech on Friday night.
In the South Region, the Iowa Hawkeyes nearly pulled off a 25-point comeback win over two-seeded Tennessee in the second round. The 10-seeded Hawkeyes outscored the Volunteers by 21 points in the second half to force overtime. Tennessee then came back to life in the extra period and scored the first seven points to bury Iowa’s upset bid.
The Vols experienced a similar problem against Colgate in the first round. They tend to look untouchable in the first half of play before cratering in the second. This was fine against a 15 seed, but almost ended their season against Iowa.
Tennessee is a stronger team than Purdue, who they will face in the Sweet 16, but will see their season end if they only come to play for one half. The Boilermakers are led by junior guard Carson Edwards, who exploded for 42 points in the team’s blowout victory over the defending champion Villanova Wildcats in the second round.
In the upper half of the South Region, top-seeded Virginia can advance to the Elite Eight with a win over Oregon. Virginia will be heavily favored over the Ducks, who were not expected to make it out of the first round.
While Houston and Kentucky fight for an Elite Eight spot in the bottom portion of the Midwest Region, college basketball powerhouse North Carolina will meet Auburn in the upper portion.
If you like scoring, this is the matchup to watch. Auburn’s high-octane offense has led them to an SEC Tournament Championship and a dominant victory over Kansas in the second round on Saturday.
The problem for Bruce Pearl’s Tigers is that no team runs the floor better than the top-ranked Tar Heels. North Carolina may have the best team in the country outside of Duke with senior leaders Cam Johnson and Luke Maye along with freshman sensation Coby White. Auburn will need to bring it all to dethrone a team that has participated in two of the last three Final Fours.
All of the Sweet Sixteen matchups will take place on Thursday and Friday followed by the Elite Eight on Saturday and Sunday. The host cities for the weekend are Anaheim, Louisville, Kansas City and Washington D.C. The Final Four will take place in Minneapolis on April 6 followed by the National Championship on April 8.