WASHINGTON (AP) — Zion Williamson went to Duke for its winning history. Kerry Blackshear went to Virginia Tech to create one.
Tom Izzo feels the need to explain why Michigan State hadn’t been in the Sweet 16 in four years. Tony Benford is excited LSU is back for the first time in 13 years.
The teams left in the NCAA Tournament’s East Region are the top four seeds but come together with very different reputations and expectations. Top-seeded Duke and second-seeded Michigan State are college basketball blue bloods expected to reach the Final Four and compete for national titles every season, while third-seeded LSU and fourth-seeded Virginia Tech are relative newcomers to this stage trying to overshadow spring football back on campus.
“You get to a Sweet 16 — a lot of coaches coaching never get to it, and a lot of players playing never get to it,” Benford said Thursday. “This is rare.”
It’s rarer for some than it is for others.
When LSU faces Michigan State on Friday, it’ll be the Tigers’ first game beyond the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend since 2006. The Spartans have made eight Sweet 16, four Elite Eight and three Final Four appearances in that time.
When Virginia Tech faces Duke in the nightcap, it’ll be the Hokies’ first Sweet 16 game since the field expanded in 1985 to the current format. Duke has been in the Sweet 16 eight times in the past 11 years and won the national title twice since 2010.
“Each and every person came in here to this program to help build a house,” Blackshear said. “We still got a lot more to go. We still got more games to play. Hopefully we come out on top of this game and we continue to build something with this program.”
These are four programs in very different spots at the moment. Virginia Tech is still in the stages of building an ACC powerhouse, LSU is in the midst of an FBI corruption investigation and head coach Will Wade has been suspended indefinitely, and Michigan State is trying to reach Duke’s gold standard of turning March Madness into consistent April cameos.
Izzo credited Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski for having arguably the most consistent program in the country. Izzo has a national title on his resume, too, and so many deep NCAA Tournament runs have ratcheted up the expectations at Michigan State, too.
“Those expectations are a privilege and an honor to have,” Izzo said. “You work all your life to get your program to the point where people are expecting you to be some certain places. And, yeah, you have to deal with it with your (players), and you have to tell them that you don’t win because you show up. You win because you earn the win.”
Overall No. 1 seed Duke earned this Sweet 16 appearance by surviving a second-round scare from ninth-seeded UCF. Williamson said during that game Krzyzewski kept telling players this is what the NCAA Tournament is all about.
“That’s just March Madness,” said Williamson, who will be playing his sixth game back from his right knee injury. “I think we should know based on the history of March Madness that doesn’t matter what the ranking is. The game is completely different. It’s different stakes now.”
Williamson, fellow freshman star R.J. Barrett and the Blue Devils have had to deal with being the team Krzyzewski said everyone feels they have to beat to win. Virginia Tech already beat Duke once, though without point guard Justin Robinson and while Williamson was out, though that’s enough for a jolt of confidence.
“Three out of four years here at Virginia Tech we’ve beaten Duke,” Robinson said. “So I don’t think we’re excited for the moment. I think it’s just another game for us. And I think we’re going to be ready for whatever is going to come for us to end the game.”
LSU players don’t want to think about what’s to come beyond this season given questions about Wade and the recruitment of guard Javonte Smart . So they’re trying to stay focused on a matchup of two of the nation’s two best point guards in Tremont Waters versus Michigan State’s Cassius Winston while playing the role of the underdog who belongs in elite company.
“I feel like we’re just as good as every team here,” guard Marlon Taylor said. “We’re not up and coming. We’ve been doing this the whole season, people are just now noticing us.”