Duke Blue Devils earn top bill for March Madness

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The time has passed for complaining about where Michigan State was sent and why Marquette was seeded higher than the Big East regular season and tournament champs, Villanova.

It’s time to figure out who’s going to win the NCAA Tournament. Let’s start in the East and work our way westward.

East Region

No. 1 Duke was made the top overall seed in the field of 68 after Zion Williamson returned to lead his team to an ACC Tournament title. The Blue Devils (2-1) are also the favorite in Las Vegas to emerge from what might be the weakest of the four regions and take home what would be Mike Krzyzewski’s sixth national title.

After Michigan State, arguably the best of the No. 2 seeds, the East Region is a little thin. Third-seeded LSU will go through the tournament without its head coach; No. 4 Virginia Tech beat Duke this season, but Williamson was not on the court that day; and the fifth and sixth seeds, Mississippi State and Maryland might have trouble making it out of the first round.

Most intriguing first-round matchup: No. 9 Central Florida vs. No. 8 VCU. The Knights’ 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall is the tallest player in North American basketball (he might actually be 7-7). He will make it difficult for Rams players such as 6-foot-7 sophomore Marcus Santos-Silva to get to the rim. UCF can advance by slowing down the game.

First-round upset: No. 14 Yale over No. 3 LSU. While Liberty over Mississippi State in an ever-popular 5-12 game and whoever comes out of Tuesday’s Belmont-Temple matchup beating sixth-seeded Maryland will be popular picks, let’s go deeper. The Ivy League-champion Bulldogs are deep, experienced, can score (11th in effective field goal percentage) and have a potential NBA player in 6-foot-6 junior Miye Oni. The Tigers took the SEC regular season crown thanks in part to their 5-1 record in overtime games.

On to Minneapolis: Michigan State, instead of Michigan, was placed in Duke’s region because the East’s regionals are played in Washington while the West’s take place in Anaheim, Calif. The Spartans are mentally tough, but they don’t have the athletes to slow down the Blue Devils. DUKE

South Region

Tony Bennett, coach of top-seeded Virginia, will likely breathe a small sigh of relief when his Cavaliers roll past Gardner-Webb on Friday and put to rest his UMBC nightmare. Experienced Tennessee, the 2-seed, and defensive-minded No. 4 Kansas State might be the biggest stumbling blocks to Bennett finally reaching a Final Four.

Most intriguing first-round matchup: No. 11 Saint Mary’s vs. No. 6 Villanova. This is a bad matchup for the defending champion Wildcats. Villanova takes 53.5 percent of its shots from the behind the arc (fourth in the country); the Gaels focus on limiting opponents’ 3-point tries (just 31.4 percent, No. 9 in the country. If the Wildcats can get past this one, they can make some noise.

First-round upset: No. 12 Oregon over No. 5 Wisconsin. While this game will likely be around pick’em, it still qualifies as your 12-over-5 upset. The Ducks took a while to recover from the loss of freshman Bol Bol but rolled through the Pac-12 tourney. As one of the worst teams in the nation from the free-throw line, the Badgers are vulnerable in close games.

On to Minneapolis: While Tennessee has a potentially difficult path to the regional final — potentially under-seeded Cincinnati and either Villanova or No. 3 Purdue — the Volunteers are experienced and have enough offense to beat Virginia. TENNESSEE

Midwest Region

Here’s your answer to “Which is the toughest region?”

No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Kentucky are joined by 31-win Houston, No. 4 Kansas, the winners of the SEC (Auburn) and Big 12 (Iowa State) tournaments and potential 2019 darling Wofford, which hasn’t lost since the middle of December.

Most intriguing first-round matchup: No. 10 Seton Hall vs. No. 7 Wofford. The Terriers are No. 19 at KenPom and second in the nation in 3-point shooting, but have to face an athletic Pirates team that made the Big East final. Wofford’s Fletcher Magee needs three 3-pointers to become the all-time NCAA leader.

First-round upset: None. While 12-seeded New Mexico State is deep and athletic enough to hang with Auburn, the Tigers appear to be peaking at the perfect time. Ditto Iowa State which should handle Ohio State. The Midwest’s chaos could begin in the second round.

On to Minneapolis: North Carolina and Kentucky have tricky potential second-round match-ups against Utah State and Wofford. And it will get tougher from there. Both Iowa State and Auburn have overcome questionable stretches this season. The young Cyclones in particular seemed to have turned it around behind their No. 9 offense. IOWA STATE

West Region

Gonzaga’s third No. 1 seed was met with the usual grumbling about strength of schedule. But few who watched the Zags this year quibbled.

The Bulldogs do face some early potential threats, however: No. 8 Syracuse and No. 4 Florida State, teams that have eliminated Gonzaga in two of the past three years could be round-of-32 and Sweet 16 opponents.

Most intriguing first-round matchup AND first-round upset: No. 12 Murray State over No. 5 Marquette. This could be the best game of the first round as the two highest scorers in the entire field, the Racers’ Ja Morant and Markus Howard of Marquette, square off.

Morant, who’s been compared favorably to Russell Westbrook, also leads the nation in assists at 10 per game. While the Golden Eagles lost five of six down the stretch, Murray State comes in with an 11-game winning streak.

On to Minneapolis: Gonzaga’s has enough offense to negotiate the West’s land mines and tops Texas Tech in the regional final. GONZAGA

Final Four

Duke vs. Gonzaga: This rematch, featuring possibly the two most-talented teams in college basketball, hinges on whether Duke can pressure the Gonzaga guards — particularly Josh Perkins — and force bad decisions. The Zags are one of the few teams that can match-up with the Blue Devils on the inside. DUKE

Tennessee vs. Iowa State: The Volunteers’ experience will prove too much for Iowa State — which will be a team to watch in 2019-20 — and the Volunteers will advance. TENNESSEE

National championship

Duke vs. Tennessee: Youth vs. experience. While the Blue Devils’ fab four comprise one of the best freshman classes ever, the Volunteers are led by two seniors and four juniors. Here’s betting Williamson is the difference maker, and Coach K gets out his scissors again. DUKE


Murray State vs. Marquette (-4): It’s Ja Morant vs. Markus Howard. While Howard has the better supporting cast, the Racers are fourth in the nation in defending from deep. MURRAY STATE 

Florida vs. Nevada (-2): After beginning the season in the Top 10, the Wolf Pack enters the tournament quietly. Nevada coaches have had time to digest the loss to San Diego State and tune up the offense. NEVADA 


Iowa vs. Cincinnati (-3.5): The Bearcats, No. 7 in the South, are probably the most under-seeded team in the field, and they’re taking on a Hawkeyes teams that lost six of seven to finish the regular season. CINCINNATI 

Saint Louis vs. Virginia Tech (-10.5): The Billikens made a nice run as a 6 seed to grab the Atlantic 10 automatic bid. The Hokies, however, are Top 25 in both offense and defense. VIRGINIA TECH

Last week: 2-2

Season: 34-28-2

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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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