NCAA tournament: Duke has the feel of a favorite
Before the season began, Duke was the unanimous preseason No. 1 and the consensus pick to win the national championship.
But as is often the case, madness has run its course over college hoops.
While the Blue Devils’ season has been, to put it lightly, rocky, they’re starting to look like the team many saw back in November. But there are plenty of other dancers with eyes of crashing the Final Four party in Phoenix in a few weeks and, like recent years, no team has truly set itself apart as the favorite to cut down the nets on Monday night, April 3.
The No. 1 seeds are loaded, but if history repeats itself, chances are at least two are going to have a hard time getting far. Over the last 10 NCAA tournaments, just 15 total top seeds have made the Final Four. Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina and Gonzaga all have their hands full with the 2 and 3 seeds in their regions with some potentially explosive matchups.
Here’s a region-by-region breakdown of this year’s tournament:
The winner: Duke
Most likely to be upset: Virginia
Best first-round game: South Carolina vs. Marquette
Marquee player: Jayson Tatum, Fr., F, Duke
Sweet 16 teams: Villanova, UNC-Wilmington, SMU, Duke
Skinny: The committee didn’t do Villanova any favors with this draw, even after giving the Wildcats the top overall seed. Villanova’s road to a title defense can potentially include facing a Wisconsin team that’s considered underseeded and a Duke team that just won the ACC tournament.
Looking for a Cinderella in this region? Check out UNC-Wilmington. The 12th-seeded Seahawks brought back their core from a team that gave Duke a scare last March, and are more than capable of upsetting an inconsistent Virginia team and then potentially Florida.
Don’t sleep on a potential Sweet 16 run for SMU, either. The Mustangs are surging after winning the AAC tournament, and if they can get by what should be a tough first-round game against either Providence or USC, they’ll likely draw a slumping Baylor team.
The winner: Notre Dame
Darkhorse: West Virginia
Most likely to be upset: Maryland
Best first-round game: Northwestern vs. Vanderbilt
Marquee player: Lauri Markkanen, Fr., F, Arizona
Sweet 16 teams: Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Florida State, Arizona
Skinny: Gonzaga isn’t a fluke No. 1 seed. Contrary to popular belief, the Bulldogs have beaten good teams and have dominated for most of this season. Their first Final Four appearance is a legitimate possibility, but they face some tough matchups in the second weekend — particularly Notre Dame.
The Irish, led by Bonzie Colson, have made back-to-back Elite Eight appearances and are primed to break through. They have experience and they can adapt to different styles.
Arizona has added a dangerous dimension after the midseason addition of Allonzo Trier, and the Wildcats are primed for a deep run. Two more teams to watch out for are Northwestern and Princeton. The Wildcats are making their first tourney appearance and have been waiting for their moment, while the Tigers are one of the hottest teams coming into the tournament after going undefeated in the Ivy League.
The winner: Kansas
Darkhorse: Iowa State
Most likely to be upset: Purdue
Best first-round game: Miami vs. Michigan State
Marquee player: Frank Mason, Sr., G, Kansas
Sweet 16 teams: Kansas, Iowa State, Rhode Island, Louisville
Skinny: Kansas has the potential national player of the year in guard Frank Mason, and he’s complemented well by future NBA lottery pick Josh Jackson and backcourt mate Devonte Graham. The Jayhawks are a complete team and motivated to break through to the Final Four for the first time since 2012.
Rhode Island is a low 11 seed but got a favorable draw. The Rams get a Creighton team that lost star point guard Mo Watson, and if they win, could potentially face an Oregon team that just lost senior forward Chris Boucher.
Iowa State is a big-time sleeper, and could creep up on Kansas. The Cyclones are hot after just winning the Big 12 tournament and Monte Morris was a big reason why. Louisville is one of the most balanced teams in the country and it wouldn’t be surprising to see it cut down the nets in this region, either.
The winner: Kentucky
Most likely to be upset: Butler
Best first-round game: Minnesota vs. Middle Tennessee
Marquee player: Lonzo Ball, Fr., G, UCLA
Sweet 16 teams: North Carolina, Minnesota, UCLA, Kentucky
Skinny: This region has the potential for some big-time matchups. North Carolina-Kentucky is a possible regional final while Kentucky-UCLA could be a Sweet 16 game. Kentucky is one of the hottest teams in the country. The Wildcats haven’t lost since Feb. 4 and the backcourt of De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk is electric.
This region isn’t short on point guards. Lonzo Ball can carry UCLA to a Final Four and the Bruins have already proven they can beat Kentucky. But they need to play some defense to stand a chance.
Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are gone, but Wichita State is capable of scaring anybody. The Shockers were underseeded as a 10, and could face Kentucky in the second round. Middle Tennessee, a year after upsetting Michigan State as a 15 seed, is back and could easily pull off another upset over Minnesota.