The first weekend of the 2019 NCAA Tournament is behind us. The Sweet 16 is set and we’ve been served one of the chalkiest brackets in years. With that in mind, here’s a look at the biggest winners from the tournament’s first action-packed weekend.
After getting shafted with a horrible draw in this year’s tournament, Michigan State managed to advance to the Sweet 16, despite some rough patches in Thursday’s opening round.
The Spartans trailed Bradley 35-34 at the break and the Braves looked like they could pull off the upset for much of the second half. Thanks to point guard Cassius Winston, Michigan State wound up finding its footing and pulling out the win, 76-65. In the second round, Sparty blitzed Minnesota and cruised to a 70-50 win.
Tom Izzo’s team hadn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2015 and was unceremoniously bounced by Syracuse in the second round last season. The program got a much-needed boost by getting over the hump and returning to the Sweet 16. Now they’ll face a beatable LSU team with a likely Elite Eight matchup with Duke looming on the horizon.
No one talks about Leonard Hamilton when mentioning the best college basketball coaches in America, but the 70-year-old North Carolina native is starting to make that impossible. He’s been Florida State’s coach since 2002, and — while it’s taken a long time — has finally molded the program into a emerging power.
Despite a roster without lottery-pick talent, Hamilton has his team ranked 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency and 29th in adjusted offensive efficiency. All of that was on display as the Seminoles knocked off Vermont, 76-69, and smoked Murray State, 90-62, over the weekend.
The Seminoles are in the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row, after making an Elite Eight run last season. At 29-7 overall and 13-5 in the ACC, this is a truly outstanding team. After losing four of their first five ACC games, the Seminoles went on a roll. They won 14 of their next 15 games, and have now won 16 of 18 dating back to January 20.
Ja Morant debuted in this year’s tournament with a near-flawless performance. The sophomore guard had a triple-double, with 17 points, 11 rebounds and 16 assists as his Murray State squad upset Marquette, 83-64.
While Morant and the Racers saw their tournament end with a 90-62 loss to Florida State, he certainly left his impression on the college basketball world. Incidentally, against the Seminoles, Morant scored 28 points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists. He was stellar.
Morant is almost certainly headed to the NBA, will be a lottery pick, and could go in the top five.
Tony Bennett’s team needed this past weekend. Badly. After becoming the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed last year, a failure in the first two games of this year’s tournament would have been devastating to Virginia’s program. Instead, they survived and advanced…but it wasn’t easy.
The Cavaliers trailed 16-seed Gardner-Webb by 14 points in the first half of their opening-round matchup, but wound up putting the pedal to the floor after the break. They won going away, 71-56. The Cavs also got a solid 63-51 win over Oklahoma in the second round.
Virginia’s reward for making it through the first weekend? A date with Oregon Thursday night. The Ducks might be the hottest team in the country right now and that should be a dog fight. But after losing in the opening round a year ago, just getting to the Sweet 16 has been a huge win for Bennett & Co.
Auburn’s veteran guards
Auburn enters the Sweet 16 after one of the most impressive performances in the tournament so far. In a dominant 89-75 win over Kansas in the second round, veteran guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combined to score 43 points, make nine 3-pointers and dish out eight assists, all while turning the ball over just two times. It was an outstanding showing by the explosive duo.
All year it has felt like the Tigers were a half-step slower than their true ability. Over the last few weeks they have hit their stride, winning 10 in a row and 12 of 13. While Chuma Okeke and Anfernee McLemore are key players for Auburn, Harper and Brown make the team go.
Brown, a senior, and Harper, a junior, are both scoring guards with lethal 3-point shots. The best part about them is that if one has an off-game, the other can go nuclear and make up for it. And if they’re both on at the same time, there’s virtually no stopping Bruce Pearl’s team.
If that pair isn’t enough for you, juniors Samir Doughty and J'Von McCormick and senior Malik Dunbar can all shoot it off the bench. McCormick dropped 16 points in 17 minutes against New Mexico State in the opening round of this year’s tournament.
Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup with North Carolina should be drool-inducing for anyone who likes up-tempo guard play.
What more can you say about Zion Williamson? Even avowed Duke haters (myself included) have to admit how incredible he is. He did nothing to deter that kind of talk in his first two NCAA tournament games.
In an opening round win over North Dakota State, Williamson had 25 points (on 12-of-16 shooting from the field), with three rebounds and a steal in 30 minutes. In a nail-biting 77-76 second round win over UCF, Williamson finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and a steal in 40 minutes. He’s clearly been the tournament’s best player so far and it’s not particularly close.
Williamson will almost surely be the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and he showed why over the weekend. He flat-out dominated. He’s unguardable once he gets his jump shot working. The tournament was made for guys like Zion to show out and take their stardom to another level. He did that this weekend.