Final pair Final Four berths on line

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Tom Izzo has taken Michigan State to 22 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, advanced to seven Final Fours and won the 2000 NCAA title.

Beating Coach K has been more problematic. Izzo has just one win in 12 tries against Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

He’ll try again on Sunday in the East Regional final.

In the Midwest, SEC rivals Auburn and Kentucky will meet for the third time this season. The Wildcats won the first two meetings.

Midwest Region: No. 5 Auburn vs. No. 2 Kentucky (-4.5, Total: 140.5), 11:20 a.m. Pacific

The Tigers ran past top-seeded North Carolina on Friday, but the win, one of the biggest in Auburn history came with a big cost.

With a little more than eight minutes to play, sophomore power forward Chuma Okeke went down under the basket when his left leg twisted underneath him. Okeke, who was diagnosed on with and ACL tear, scored 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting (3-for-5 from deep), grabbed 11 rebounds and had three assists and two steals in the 97-80 victory.

Okeke had three of Auburn’s 17 3-pointers against the Tar Heels. The Tigers have made 37 shots from distance in their three tournament games but now face a Wildcats team that has limited its tournament opponents to 28.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

In its 80-53 rout of Auburn on Feb. 23, Kentucky limited the Tigers to just 8-for-27 from 3-point range. Auburn attempted just four field goals from inside the arc.

The Wildcats got injured 6-foot-8 forward PJ Washington back for the Sweet 16. Washington scored 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting and provided an emotional lift as Kentucky squandered a 13-point lead and watched Houston go up by three. Washington responded with a jump shot that keyed a 7-0 Wildcats run to close out the game.

The Cougars’ Armani Brooks kept his team in the game with a 6-for-12 performance from deep. The rest of the Cougars were 1-for-8. In a second-round win over Wofford, Kentucky held the Terriers to 8-for-27 on 3-pointers and blanked their star, Fletcher Magee, on his 12 attempts.

In the win over North Carolina, Auburn’s Danjel Purifoy (12 points) nailed three straight 3-pointers to pad the Tigers’ lead. It was the first the former four-star recruit topped 10 points all season. With Okeke out, Purifoy’s role will expand greatly.

“Before his injury a couple years ago … that’s who he was,” head coach Bruce Pearl said, according to AL.com. “He was a starter, he was a real legitimate pro prospect, and a combination of the injury and the NCAA suspension for a year and nine games, that’s enough to really throw you off. But he has continued to work.”

On to Minneapolis: Pearl will certainly have his troops motivated. But Washington having a game under his belt will help the Kentucky offense, and the Wildcats will sell out on defending the deep ball. KENTUCKY

East Region: No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Duke (-2.5, Total: 151.5), 2:05 p.m. Pacific

For as chalky at the 2019 NCAA Tournament has been the East is the only region to produce a 1-vs.-2 final.

While Duke has now escaped two close calls — 77-76 over UCF and 75-73 over Virginia Tech on Friday — Michigan State has rolled to the Elite Eight relatively unchallenged.

The Spartans are one of the better 3-point shooting teams in the country; the Blue Devils, not so much.

Duke is No. 329 nationally in shooting from deep (30.7 percent). But the Blue Devils are good at defending the 3, holding opponents to less than 30 percent, 15th in the country.

Spartans freshman Aaron Henry infamously got an earful for head coach Tom Izzo during Michigan State’s 70-50 win over Minnesota in the second round.

The 6-foot-6 forward got the message.

In the Sweet 16 win over LSU, Henry made 7 of 10 from inside the arc and 2 of 4 from deep. How the Spartans’ own fabulous freshman matches up with the Blue Devils’ Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett will go a long way to deciding the outcome. Nick Ward, a 6-9 junior, and 6-8 sophomore Xavier Tillman will help bolster the interior for Michigan State.

Ward was limited by a hand injury against LSU but expects to play in the Elite Eight.

Duke might not be so lucky.

Freshman Cam Reddish has a recurring knee injury that flared up during warmups on Friday forcing him to miss the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 win over the Hokies.

“It’s kind of swollen, just kind of stiff,” Reddish said. “Obviously, it hurts to move a little bit and to explode off of it. It’s getting better. [Trainer Nick Potter] has been doing an incredible job. Hopefully I’m ready for tomorrow and we’ll just go from there.”

Krzyzewski said Reddish is a “game-time” decision.

On to Minneapolis: Despite the close calls, Duke might just have too much interior athleticism with Williamson and Barrett, and freshman point guard Tre Jones, who will face off against Cassius Winston. The Big Ten player of the year had his best game of the season on Friday. Jones was 5-for-7 from distance and scored 22 points. Perhaps even more importantly, Jones has eight assists and no turnovers. DUKE

Best bet: Reddish plays, Williamson and Barrett have too much athleticism on the inside, and Jones builds on his last outing propelling the Blue Devils to the Final Four. DUKE -2.5

About the Author

Ched Whitney

Ched Whitney has been a journalist in Las Vegas since 1994. He worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 18 years, where he was the paper’s art director for 12. Since becoming a freelancer in 2012, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, AOL, The Seattle Times and UNLV Magazine, among others. ​

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