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The most exciting time of the year for college basketball gets underway on Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, with the First Four matchups of March Madness taking place. Duke was given the #1 overall seed in the field of 68, and are the odds-on favorites to win the whole thing. We will find out over the next three weeks whether or not that ends up being justified, or whether a Cinderella story ends up stealing the show.
Whoever ends up cutting the nets down on April 8th in Minneapolis, it should be a fun ride. We put together a preview of some things to watch for in the NCAA tournament:
Welcome to the Show: Gardner-Webb and Abilene Christian
The Bulldogs and Wildcats both won their conference tournaments, the Big South and Southland respectively, to secure their first NCAA tournament births. It won’t be easy for either of them, as Abilene Christian faces Kentucky in the first round, while Gardner-Webb has to match up against ACC co-champions Virginia.
Biggest Snub: UNC Greensboro
The Spartans were roughly five minutes away from securing the automatic bid from the Southern Conference, but Wofford went on a 20-3 run to end the game, costing UNC Greensboro a spot in the field of 68. A 28-6 record with losses to Wofford (3 times), Furman, Kentucky, and LSU wasn’t enough, even with a higher NET ranking than Arizona State and St Johns. This team took Gonzaga to the wire in a 68-64 loss in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, so it would’ve been interesting to see what the Spartans could’ve done this season.
Most Likely 12 Over 5 Upset: Murray State over Marquette
It isn’t always the best team who wins games in March Madness, but sometimes it’s the hottest. However, Murray State might be both in this matchup. Ja Morant averages 24/10 and is a legitimate candidate for not only NCAA Player of the Year, but also a top 5 selection in the 2019 NBA Draft.
The Racers are on an 11-game winning streak, while Marquette has lost 5 of their last 6 games. All-American Markus Howard has been incredible for Marquette, but seems to be bothered by his injured wrist. If his injury continues to affect his play, it would be up to Theo John and brothers Sam and Joey Hauser to slow the Racers down; something that has proven to be difficult to do already.
East Region Final Four Sleeper: Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech got a huge boost after it was announced that Justin Robinson would be available for the tournament. Pairing him with Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kerry Blackshear could give the Hokies the best trio in the region outside of Williamson/Barrett/Reddish. Speaking of Duke, that’s who Virginia Tech would face in the Sweet 16 if they advance past Saint Louis, then either Mississippi State or Liberty. The Hokies did beat Duke, without Zion, earlier this season. Could one of the more complete teams in the tournament oust the favorites early?
First Round Upset Potential: Yale over LSU
Players to Watch: Cassius Winston (Michigan State), Tacko Fall (UCF)
Midwest Region Final Four Sleeper: Houston
As noted in our tournament dark horse picks, it seems strange to talk about a 30-win team that was ranked in the top 10 as a sleeper pick. However, with North Carolina and Kentucky threatening on both sides of the region, the Cougars may be seen as a bit of an afterthought. A top 10 team in scoring defense, rebound margin, and field goal defense where they hold opponents to just 37% shooting, Houston should handle Georgia State in the first round, along with either Iowa State or Ohio State in the second round. If they end up facing Kentucky in the Sweet 16, the Cougars 3-point shooting could be too much for the Wildcats to handle, especially if their elite defense shows up like it has almost all season.
First Round Upset Potential: New Mexico State over Auburn
Players to Watch: Sam Merrill (Utah State); Vasa Pusica (Northeastern)
South Region Final Four Sleeper: Cincinnati
Remember that Cincinnati allows 62 points per game (11th in the nation), averages 12.5 offensive rebounds per game, and just defeated a 30-win Houston team by 12 to win the American Athletic tournament. It is a surprise to see Cincinnati seeded so low, with a 12-5 record against Quad 1 and 2 opponents, along with a 5-5 record against tournament opponents. They may not complain though; if Cincinnati advances past Iowa in the first round, they’ll likely face Tennessee in the round of 32, but the committee did the Bearcats a huge favor by having that game take place in Columbus, Ohio. Jarron Cumberland against Admiral Schofield would be fantastic to watch.
First Round Upset Potential: UC Irvine over Kansas State
Players to Watch: BJ Stith (Old Dominion); Ethan Happ (Wisconsin)
West Region Final Four Sleeper: Buffalo
They’re back and better than ever. After beating Arizona as a 13-seed last season, Buffalo comes into this season as a 6-seed following being ranked in the AP top 25 for most of the year. A top 5 team in terms of scoring and rebounding per game would be difficult for anyone, but they’re also a team that’s top 10 in assists.
The Bulls would have to get by Arizona State or St Johns in the first round to get to a favored Texas Tech, and their 2nd-ranked scoring defense in the second round. Buffalo has the style of play that could give the Red Raiders issues, and could propel them to a Sweet 16 bid, if not farther.
First Round Upset Potential: Murray State over Marquette
Players to Watch: Caleb Martin (Nevada); Anthony Lamb (Vermont)
Elite Eight Picks: Duke-Michigan State; Florida State-Texas Tech; Virginia-Purdue; North Carolina-Houston
Final Four Picks: Duke, Texas Tech, Purdue, North Carolina
There has been at least one team seeded 7th or lower that has made the Final Four each year since 2013, but that ends this year. The length and athleticism of Florida State will get them past Gonzaga and Michigan, but they will run into a wall against Texas Tech, sending the Red Raiders to the Final Four.
Purdue has to face #1 seed Virginia, who doesn’t have history on their side, and Carsen Edwards will pave the way for Purdue.
Duke and North Carolina have been two of the top teams in the country all season long, and they will continue their runs all the way to the National Championship game in Minneapolis.
National Champion: Duke over North Carolina
The Blue Devils and Tar Heels have never faced each other in an NCAA Tournament game, fitting that the first time would be for the highest stakes of all. Cameron Johnson, Coby White, and Luke Maye will go up against Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish for the 4th time in two months.
UNC swept Duke in the regular season, but the Blue Devils won on the neutral floor in the ACC Championship, and should win on this neutral court as well. This Duke team, when healthy, boasts the best player in college basketball in Zion Williamson, who will make the difference in another classic Duke-Carolina match.