Team to beat: No. 1 Duke
HARTFORD – The Blue Devils have lost just once with its full roster in place and they seemed in fine form in three games in the ACC tournament upon the return of freshman forward Zion Williamson. Two other ACC teams (No. 4 seed Virginia Tech and No. 7 seed Louisville) are also in the region. Duke hasn’t been to the Final Four since winning the national title in 2015.
No. 2 Michigan State, No. 4 Virginia Tech: The Spartans know how to get it done in March and they’re coming off a Big Ten tournament championship. Seems like their path crosses with Duke quite often in the postseason.
The Hokies have tangled with some top teams and own a victory against Duke at home late in the season. Virginia Tech suffered two late-season losses in overtime to Florida State or else their stock might have been higher.
Possible Must-see matchups
— No. 7 Louisville vs. No. 10 Minnesota. This is a first-round matchup ripe with storylines as Minnesota coach Richard Pitino Jr. takes his team against the school that his father once coached to prominence. Louisville is less than two years removed since Rick Pitino’s awkward departure.
— No. 1 Duke vs. No. 9 Central Florida. It will take Central Florida getting past No. 8 Virginia Commonwealth, but it would pit Central Florida coach Johnny Dawkins, a standout player at Duke during coach Mike Krzyzewski’s early years and later an assistant coach for the Hall of Fame coach, against his alma mater.
— No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 7 Louisville. If you’re into rematches, this one might have appeal for the first weekend. Louisville won 82-78 in overtime at home on Nov. 27 as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. That gave first-year coach Chris Mack an early signature victory.
— No. 14 Yale vs. No. 3 LSU. Yale pulled an NCAA Tournament stunner against Baylor in 2016, so there’s that to fall back on. LSU is certainly a team with some upheaval with coach Will Wade suspended and then the Tigers failing to make it to the SEC tournament title game.
— No. 11 Temple (if it makes it through the First Four by defeating Belmont) vs. No. 6 Maryland. It’s the last go-round for Temple coach Fran Dunphy and it would be fitting if he could make a tournament run. Temple would have to beat Belmont first, but a matchup with Maryland would be somewhat of a neighborhood matchup as well.
— No. 12 Liberty vs. No. 5 Mississippi State. Liberty has Ritchie McKay as its coach and he was an understudy to Virginia’s Tony Bennett. So expect the Flames to give Mississippi State all it can handle with a style of play that’s a bit unique.
Get to know
— Duke forward Zion Williamson (22.1 ppg., 8.9 rebounds). If you haven’t heard of him by now, welcome to college basketball. He’s the most-hyped player in the sport and he usually lives up to it.
— Duke forward RJ Barrett (22.9 ppg., 7.5 rebounds). Often overshadowed by Williamson, he leads the ACC in scoring and is rated as a likely top-5 selection in the NBA Draft.
— Michigan State guard Cassius Winston (18.9 ppg.). This junior has the ‘it” factor and he can take care of business. He’s listed as 6-foot-1, but plays bigger.
— Virginia Tech forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. (14.7 ppg., 7.4 rebounds). The redshirt junior became a top-notch interior player, particularly late in the season. The mobile 6-10 player is the Hokies’ second-leading scorer and top rebounder.
— Maryland guard Anthony Cowan Jr. (16.0, 4.3 assists). He’s the Terrapins’ leading scorer, but he also is the main distributor on the offensive end.
— Liberty forward Scottie James (13.1 ppg., 8.8 rebounds). He embodies the workmanlike profile that a team like the Flames embraces. The redshirt junior won’t be flashy, but he can get the job done.
— Louisville forward Jordan Nwora (17.2 ppg., 7.5 rebounds). Team leader in scoring and rebounding became one of the most improved players in the nation. He averaged just 5.7 points per game last season.
— Central Florida guard Aubrey Dawkins (15.2 ppg.). The coach’s son is the team’s second-leading scorer after sitting out last season with an injury.
Predicting the East
Duke makes it through assuming there are no significant injuries along the way because there have been some ordinary-looking stretches when the Blue Devils haven’t been at full strength. The freshmen don’t seem to have any stage fright. Plus, Michigan State is hobbling some as well so being at full strength might be mandatory in this region.
(1) Duke vs. (16) North Carolina Central or North Dakota State
(8) Virginia Commonwealth vs. (9) Central Florida
(5) Mississippi State vs. (12) Liberty
(4) Virginia Tech vs. (13) Sant Louis
(6) Maryland vs. (11) Belmont or Temple
(3) LSU vs. (14) Yale
(7) Louisville vs. (10) Minnesota
(2) Michigan State vs. (15) Bradley
— Staff Report with Wire Service Info by Field Level Media