March Madness: ACCMBB in the Sweet Sixteen

Special to, by Max Skinner and Jacob Dennis

ADDITIONAL COVERAGE: Thursday Recap | Friday Recap | Louisville/NC State Game Graphic | Duke Game Graphic |  Notre Dame Game Graphic | North Carolina Game Graphic | Stronger Than Ever, ACC Forges Ahead | #ACCMBB Social Hub | Practice Day Press Conferences


Duke Blue Devils (1 seed, South region)
The freshmen-led Duke Blue Devils are back in another regional final, this time on the strength of Justise Winslow.  Friday’s Sweet 16 game, which was playing in Winslow’s hometown of Houston, was close for much of the night, but Utah simply couldn’t pull even with a more talented Duke squad.  Winslow finished with game-highs in points and rebounds.

Big Man on Campus:
Winslow’s 21 points were the freshman’s most since a 23-point outburst against Syracuse on Feb. 28.  He also grabbed double-digit rebounds, a feat he has accomplished four games in a row but just eight times the entire season.  The talented forward,
who also had two blocks and a steal to his name Friday, is yet another dimension to Duke’s offense that seems nearly unstoppable.  The baffling aspect of the Devils’ Sweet 16 performance is that the team received nowhere close to the expected production from Jahlil Okafor.  On nights when Winslow, Okafor and Tyus Jones are all clicking, Duke is capable of beating any team in the country.

X-Factor: Winslow’s fellow freshman Tyus Jones was also impressive, recording 15 points and two steals, including 9-of-10 from the foul line.  On a night when Jones recorded just three made field goals, the talented guard still found a way to ultimately leave his mark on the game and solidify a Duke win.  Despite not making a 3-point basket, Jones still exceeded his season scoring average by nearly four points.

Stat of the Game: Duke will be making its 20th appearance in an NCAA tournament regional final.  Coach K has led the Blue Devils to a whopping 14 of those appearances, the most by any active collegiate coach.

Preview: Duke will face one of the nation’s best offensive teams in Gonzaga in the Elite 8.  The Zags have possibly the best team in school history, ranking in the Top 10 of three major offensive categories.  Gonzaga averages: 52.4% shooting per game (1st), 16.5 assists per game (6th) and 79.1 points per game (10th).  Led by Kentucky-transfer Kyle Wiltjer, the Zags will undoubtedly test Duke’s defense, but Gonzaga hasn’t had to defend a team as offensively versatile as the Devils.  Duke ranks third and fourth in the country, respectively, in field goal percentage and points per game.  The Devils definitely have the edge, but expect high offensive outputs all around when the two teams square off with a spot in Indianapolis on the line.

How They Got There: Def. Robert Morris 85-56, Def. San Diego State 68-49, Def. Utah 63-57


Notre Dame Fighting Irish (3 seed, Midwest)

Notre Dame demolished Wichita State in the second half of a surprisingly easy 81-70 victory Thursday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal. Behind a balanced scoring attack, the Fighting Irish advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in 36 years.

The Irish (32-5) shot 75 percent (18 of 24) in the second half, overwhelming the no. 7 seed Shockers.

Big Man on Campus: Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton, played with as much intensity and grit as you can imagine. You can just tell that this kid does not want to go home. The senior shot 58 percent (7 of 12) and finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 blocks. Connaughton also played the entire game, justifying his will to win.

X-Factor: You could make a case for any of Notre Dame’s starting five, but Demetrius Jackson stood out. The sophomore guard shot 70 percent (7 of 10) from the field, 80 percent from 3-point land, and finished the game with 20 points. This kid continues to drive to the hoop at an elite level.

Stat of the Game: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Jerian Grant became the first Notre Dame player to reach double-digit assists (11) in an NCAA Tournament game.

Preview: Guess who Irish fans? You get to face the mighty Kentucky Wildcats. Kentucky (37-0) absolutely obliterated West Virginia on Thursday night, 78-39. We all know that Kentucky has size, athleticism and sheer talent. What we don’t know, however, is whether or not the Wildcats can match Notre Dame’s heart.

The Irish can’t get caught up in all the hoopla that is Kentucky basketball. Notre Dame’s biggest challenge will be rebounding against a taller Wildcats team. The Irish seniors will need to step up, be leaders, and calm the storm. Regardless of hype, this will be a fun game to watch.

How They Got There: Def. Northeastern 69-65 | Def. Butler 67-64 OT | Def. Wichita State 81-70


Louisville Cardinals (4 seed, East Region)

Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier led a tremendous all-around effort from Louisville Friday night, as the Cards outscored NC State by 12 in the second half to oust the Pack from the NCAA Tournament.  Rick Pitino’s squad dominated the paint en route to clinching an Elite 8 berth, while also avenging a loss to NC State earlier in the season.

Big Man on Campus: Montrezl Harrell was the dominant force behind Louisville’s win, as the junior forward finished a terrific night with 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists and a block.  After finishing with just seven points on 1-of-5 shooting in Louisville’s Feb. 14 loss to NC State, Harrell shot a sparkling 75% (9-of-12) from the floor on Friday.  The Cards’ talented post player even dipped deep into his repertoire to knock down a couple of mid-range jump shots, while also shooting 6-of-7 from the free throw line.  It was an all-around dominant performance from Harrell-a performance that will need to be duplicated in the Elite 8 if Louisville is to earn a spot in the Final 4.

X-Factor: Terry Rozier was nearly as terrific as Harrell, and his final stat line was indicative of his dominance.  The sophomore guard finished with 17 points, recording four assists to just one turnover.  But he also grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds, seven more than any other player on the court.  His finishing ability wreaked havoc on NC State down the stretch, and his speed routinely broke down the Pack’s half-court defense.  Rozier is one of those game-changing players that has the potential to carry the Cards to Indianapolis.

Stat of the Game: With his team’s victory over NC State, Rick Pitino now holds a 12-1 record in 13 Sweet 16 appearances.  That mark is the best record of any coach with six or more appearances in the round.

Preview: The Cardinals have hit their stride at the perfect time, and the dismissal of Chris Jones seems to continue to get pushed further and further back in the minds of Pitino’s team.  But Louisville will face Michigan State in the Elite 8, a team that has mastered the art of playing well in March.  Led by Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson, Michigan State is playing as well as any team in the country.  It is expected that Montrezl Harrell will have another solid game inside, but the team will need to duplicate its performance on defense to beat the Spartans.  Michigan State shares the ball as well as anyone, as the team’s 17.1 assists per game ranks fourth in the country.

How They Got There: Def. UC Irvine 57-55, Def. Northern Iowa 66-53, Def. NC State 75-65



NC State Wolfpack (8 seed, East Region)

An improbable run to the Sweet 16 ended Friday night for NC State, as the Wolfpack faded away in the second half and ultimately lost 75-65 to conference foe Louisville.  Despite ultimately losing, Trevor Lacey had yet another stellar performance, including a sizzling start to the opening 20 minutes that staked the Pack to a slim 33-31 halftime lead.

Big Man on Campus: Lacey posted team-highs (or tie) in points, offensive rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.  He hit several big shots in the first half to keep the Wolfpack close, and also turned the ball over just one time.  Lacey finishes 2015 averaging nearly 16 points of game.  He did, however, exceed that mark twice in the tournament, scoring 17 against top-seeded Villanova before his 18-point mark Friday night.

X-Factor:  State desperately missed a strong performance from Cat Barber.  The sophomore guard was a major catalyst in his team’s upset win over top-seeded Villanova, but he managed to shoot just 3-of-14 against Louisville on Friday.  He briefly got on track early in the second half, propelling his team to an eight point lead before the Cardinals took over.  Barber finished with eight points.

Stats of the Game: Louisville, led by Montrezl Harrell, scored 40 paint points Friday night, the second most that NC State has allowed this season.  The Wolfpack allowed Duke to score 46 points in the paint in Greensboro at the ACC Tournament on March 12, another game that State lost.

Preview: With the loss, NC State’s season is over, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t positives to be garnered from the Pack’s stellar 2015 season.  State won 22 games, had a winning record in arguably the most difficult conference in the country and the team made a deep run in March.  Winning games in the NCAA tournament has an impact on recruiting that cannot be understated.

How They Got There: Def. LSU 66-65, Def. Villanova 71-68, L vs. Louisville 75-65


North Carolina Tar Heels  (4 seed, West region)

North Carolina’s seesaw of a season came to dissatisfying end at the hands of no. 1 seed Wisconsin on Thursday night, 79-72.

Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson each scored 15 points for the fourth-seeded Heels. Carolina got within one point with 4:21 remaining, but faltered near the end of the game. As Roy Williams alluded to, the Heels had some costly fundamental lapses in the home stretch of the game.  

Marcus Paige hit consecutive 3-pointers that drew Carolina within one with 54 seconds left. However, Wisconsin (34-3) made all eight of its final free throws, which ended up being the difference.

What’s Next: From an emotional standpoint, 2014-15 was a whirlwind of a season for the Tar Heels. In early February, UNC lost their most legendary public figure in the late Dean Smith. Carolina also had to play under the shadow of inevitable sanctions, linking back to academic fraud a decade ago.

Regardless of hardships, the UNC men’s basketball team persevered and had quite a successful season. Don’t hang your heads Tar Heel fans, the vast majority of your team will be back next season. Games like the one with Wisconsin will only further help UNC in terms of experience.