By John Fanta
This weekend’s NCAA Tournament East Regional is way more than just three games at Capital One Arena – it’s THE sporting event of the weekend. That’s not to disrespect the other three regionals, but think about the buzz surrounding this dance floor line-up in DC this weekend – Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Cassius Winston, Tremont Waters, Naz Reid, and even a guy literally named Buzz. That’s right, Buzz Williams has led Virginia Tech to just its second Sweet 16 appearance in program history, and first since 1967!
The Zion Effect is the biggest reason why this is the event of the weekend. It seemed like the freshman could not produce more buzz in national discussions, until Sunday, when his and-1 bucket over UCF’s Tacko Fall started what turned into a four-point trip for the Blue Devils to edge UCF by one.
Taking a deeper dive into the match-ups, this is what you wish for at the beginning of the dance if you’re the ACC, with two conference teams meeting this deep into the tournament, guaranteeing that the conference moves on. That’s just one of a bunch of positive situations for the ACC, with North Carolina, Virginia and Florida State in separate regions and all having an honest chance at the Final Four.
The intrigue of the Duke – Virginia Tech showdown is that they split the regular season series, but there were two pieces missing in the last encounter – Williamson as well as Hokies star Justin Robinson, who missed 12 games due to an injured foot but was cleared just in time for the NCAA Tournament. While he might not be the Robinson at 100 percent strength who was consistently averaging over 13 points to go with five assists per game, the senior did have . 13 points in 29 minutes in Sunday’s Round of 32 win over Liberty.
In the Hokies’ 77-72 victory over Duke on Feb. 26, Virginia Tech outscored the Blue Devils in the paint 26-24 and held them to just 7-of-21 from beyond the arc. The difference Williamson makes knows no limits, but to have beaten the Blue Devils has to give the Hokies a source of extra confidence.
The biggest question heading into the weekend in regards to Duke – Can a team take the brilliant blueprint designed by Johnny Dawkins for UCF to be right in it with Duke and apply it?
While nobody else has a 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall, we saw UCF’s defense give Duke fits by packing the paint and forcing Tre Jones, Jordan Goldwire and others into difficult shots. What that forced Duke into was 1-on-1 basketball throughout much of the late-goings with Williamson just willing them to buckets. It may work in most instances, but Dawkins may have given the Blue Devils the best thing they could have asked for, uncovering some of the things they need to work on if Duke is going to win four more games. Gaining a rhythm on the perimeter has to be something Coach K finds with this group.
For LSU and Michigan State, they both have respective straws that stir the drink in Waters and Winston. For Waters, a sophomore, he’s coming off the biggest moment of his career with the game-winning bucket against Maryland securing the Sweet 16 berth. There’s a bit of an irony for Waters heading into the weekend as well. The New Haven, Connecticut native nearly went to Georgetown, but reopened his recruitment in 2017 after the Hoyas’ firing of John Thompson III. Now, Waters leads his Tigers into the place where he nearly called his college home.
For Sparty, which aims for its third Final Four appearance in a decade, Winston has done it all. The junior point guard averages 18.9 points, 7.5 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. The experience of the All-American gives Michigan State an edge every time they step on the floor, and what he and the Spartans do defensively is at a national championship caliber. That D could play a difference in Friday’s showdown with the Tigers, with Sparty giving up just over 65 points per game and the Tigers at nearly 73 points.
These are just a few things to watch for at Capital One. The list has so much juice to it.
The media crowd will be overflowing, celebrities are expected and the minimum ticket price on Stubhub is $470….at the moment. That’s only going to keep rising, and so will the anticipation in DC.
College Hoops Digest will have extensive coverage of the East Regional at Capital One Arena, with Josh Adams and John Fanta heading down to DC for ncaahoopsdigest.com. Follow on twitter @NCAAHoopsDigest and @John_Fanta.