by Paul West
After a Championship Week in which top seeds had a rough time (winning only two of the first eleven of the week’s tournaments) and there weren’t any widely lamented snubs, this year’s March Madness feels both wide open and top-heavy. The East might be the most top-heavy region, with a few teams that struggled down the stretch.
1 Duke vs 16 North Dakota State
The Duke Blue Devils are on the short list of most likely to win it all. Zion Williamson is not already a basketball household name; he’s a video game come to life, with composure and playmaking smarts on top of it. Tre Jones is an athletic, savvy finisher who can also shut down his assignment on defense. Four freshmen led one of the best comebacks in history against Louisville on February 12th; and on February 16th, freshman RJ Barrett put up the fourth triple-double in Duke history in a 94-78 shellacking of then top-ranked Tennessee. Barrett leads the Blue Devils with 22.9 points a game, and when they’re clicking, they’re almost certainly the best team in the nation. Of course, when Williamson missed several games due to the now-infamous shoe blowout and subsequent knee injury…the result was disappointing, when you consider this roster’s wealth of talent. It begs the question: what happens if Zion has an off day, or perhaps gets in foul trouble? Duke is still a young team, despite being in arguably the weakest quadrant, they’ll have to stay at the top of their game to make it to Dayton. The North Dakota State Bison finished third in the Summit League, but won their conference tournament to make it as a 13-loss team. 5’11” junior Vinnie Shahid leads them in points and assists, and 6’10” forward Rocky Kreuser averages a block a game and can get up and rock the rim. Unfortunately, their run will likely end here. Pick: Duke
2 Michigan St vs 15 Bradley
The Michigan State Spartans won a thrilling Big Ten final against the Michigan Wolverines, and were widely expected to be a 1 seed. They’re balanced; they score; they rebound; they defend; they’re led by Cassius Winston, one of the best floor leaders in the draw and the Big Ten Player of the Year; and coach Tom Izzo knows how to prepare a team for the spotlight. They’re in the weakest region in the draw, and if they can avoid looking ahead in the schedule, they’re Elite Eight bound. The Bradley Braves came from down to beat Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Conference final, bringing their record to 20-14 and winning a spot in a region with several other so-called bid thieves. They’re up against one of the best teams in the draw, and will have to maximize the effect of their slowed-down pace to stop the streaking Spartans. Pick: Michigan State
3 LSU vs. 14 Yale
The LSU Tigers won the SEC regular season title, then lost head coach Will Wade to a tampering scandal of some enormity–then lost the conference quarterfinal to Florida, on an Andrew Nembhard buzzer-beater, after losing a ten-point halftime lead. Sophomore guard Tremont Waters is only listed at 5’11”, but he plays big, leading the Tigers in points and rebounds; 6’10” freshman Naz Reid is explosive inside and can get hot from deep. Their athleticism and defense keep in games, and they’ve played a ton of close ones this season. The Yale Bulldogs beat Harvard to win the Ivy League Tournament, after taking first place in the regular season. They hit their free throws, they like to run the floor, and they score an impressive 80 points a game. 6’6″ junior Miye Oni leads them with 17.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game (along with 3.5 assists), and senior guard Alex Copeland dropped 25 in a thrilling tournament final. The Bulldogs have the stuff to keep it close if the Tigers get frazzled, and if this one’s close, both teams have the stuff to put a game away. Pick: LSU
4 Virginia Tech vs 13 Saint Louis
Despite playing with a short bench and losing Terry Blackshear to fouls near the end of regulation, the Virginia Tech Hokies lost a tough early March overtime game at Florida State, deciding the fourth double-bye in the ACC Tournament. They then lost another close one to the Seminoles in the tournament, but still have a well-deserved 4 seed. The Hokies shoot the three and defend well, Blackshear is one of the best talents in the ACC, and coach Buzz Williams has a ton of tournament experience. The Saint Louis Billikens came in sixth in the Atlantic 10, but played their way in by winning their conference tournament–capped with a 15-point comeback in the title game, against St. Bonaventure. They’re a low-scoring, defensively stingy team will have to control the pace and keep the Hokies from running the floor. One factor that will matter if the game is close: the Billikens shoot a ghastly 59.8 from the free throw line, as a team. Pick: Virginia Tech
5 Mississippi State vs 12 Liberty
The Mississippi State Bulldogs came in sixth in the SEC, and come in having lost three of their last five games. It’s their first tournament berth since 2009, and they’re in a region with a strange preponderance of teams who finished near the middle of their standings. The Liberty Flames took first place in the ASun Conference, then beat Lipscomb 74-68 to win the ASun Tournament. 6’8″ senior Scotty James is their leading scorer with just 13.1 a game, but he also pulls down 8.8 rebounds a game and he served as the Flames’ spark down the stretch against Lipscomb. This game will come down to whether Liberty keep the Bulldogs from getting out in the transition, and which team gets hot from deep–they both shoot the three-pointer well. Pick: Mississippi State
6 Maryland vs. 11 Belmont
One of the younger teams in the field, the Maryland Terrapins struggled with turnovers for most of the season. 6ft junior guard Anthony Cowan leads them in points and assists, and he might have to take over if the Terps–who’ve lost three of four, and four of their last seven–are going to avoid an early exit. The Belmont Bears beat Temple 81-70 in their play-in game, for the first tournament win in school history and an 11 seed on Thursday. Belmont can really score, led by 6’8″ senior guard Dylan Windler–averages 21.4 points and 10.7 rebounds, runs the floor, has a big wingspan, and loves pressure games. Pick: Belmont
7 Louisville vs. 10 Minnesota
The Louisville Cardinals took 6th place in the ACC, and have only won three of their last ten games. They’ve beaten UNC, Virginia Tech, and Michigan State, which is probably why they’re in the draw, and they’ll have to regain their early-season form in a hurry in order to advance. The Minnesota Golden Gophers took seventh in the Big Ten, and like their opponents, they’re one of the more questionable berths in the draw. They have the talent to do some damage, but–again, like their opponent–they’ll have to put it all together quickly if they want a shot at the second round. This one’s a crapshoot. Pick: Louisville
8 Virginia Commonwealth vs 9 Central Florida
Even after coach Shaka Smart‘s departure, the VCU Rams continue to wreak their signature ‘Havoc’ on defense. The problem is, it’s not always clear where the points will come from, aside from turnovers and junior guard Marcus Evans. The UCF Knights are a tough squad, with a couple of wins under their belt and a third place regular season finish in the AAC. 6’2″ senior guard BJ Taylor has been on fire of late, and 7’6″, 310-pound Tacko Fall isn’t exactly nimble but is a game-changing presence in the paint. If the Knights can slow the tempo, avoid turnovers, and keep Fall out of foul trouble, they could take this one. Pick: UCF
The bracket’s biggest sleeper is: Belmont. They can score in droves, they’ve gotten used to winning close games, and they have a player who can take over a game.
Upset alert: Belmont. See above. Also keep an eye on Yale, a fearless squad who can run and shoot.
Who makes the Final Four? Michigan State. Despite all their talent, Duke has had problems with defense and cohesive play; Izzo’s tenacious squad could take them down head-to-head in the Elite Eight.