NCAA Tournament bracket picks: East Region
Best story line
Is this the Duke we were expecting all along? When the season began, Duke was a near-unanimous No. 1 pick among the preseason publications (including Sporting News College Basketball yearbook) and the polls.
But injuries that ruined the preseason for freshmen Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden, a nagging injury and persistent on-court issues for star junior Grayson Allen and the leave of absence for coach Mike Krzyzewski to recover from back surgery all undermined the Devils’ ability to develop as a team. They won four games in four days at the ACC tournament, including over a No. 2 NCAA seed, a No. 1 seed and a No. 5 seed. But before that they’d dropped three of their last four regular season games. We shall see over the next two weeks if it’s all in place now.
Villanova senior wing Josh Hart; Duke sophomore wing Luke Kennard; SMU junior forward Semi Ojeleye; Baylor junior forward Johnathan Motley; Wisconsin sophomore center Ethan Happ.
Best first-round game
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 10 Marquette. The third-best defense in efficiency (Gamecocks) vs. the seventh-best offense (Golden Eagles). How fun is that?
Seeded too high
No. 4 Florida. There are a few to choose from in this regional wasteland, but the Gators take the prize for posting a 3-3 record subsequent to center John Egbunu’s injury, including consecutive losses to Vanderbilt. It’s not the Gators’ fault, but we can’t be sure how good they are any longer. Remember when Cincinnati got docked a seed because Kenyon Martin was injured? Florida didn’t budge.
Seeded too low
No. 8 Wisconsin. The Badgers own a 25-9 record with six victories over the NCAA field and two losses against teams outside the field. East No. 5 Virginia owns a 22-10 record with six victories over the NCAA field and two losses against teams outside the field. And somehow there is a difference of three seed lines between those two? It’s possible no team in the field has a bigger seed gripe than Wisconsin.
No. 12 UNC Wilmington over No. 5 Virginia. In addition to the very cool nickname of “Seahawks” – how many Wildcats do we need, people? -- Wilmington has a terrific offense with four double-figure scorers led by guard C.J. Bryce and 3-point rifleman Denzel Ingram, who is top-20 in the nation in 3-pointers made. They’ve never seen anything like the Virginia defense, but they’re good enough to make this happen.
Best potential game
Duke vs. Villanova in the Elite Eight. Let’s be honest. The selection committee couldn’t have handed these two a better ticket to the regional final if they tricked the other 16 teams into spending next weekend at Disney World. But Devils-Wildcats will be a spectacular show, with Duke’s phenomenal array of offensive talent paired against Villanova’s cat-scratch fever defense. We will have to wait through some preliminaries to get to NYC, but we will get there.
Best potential player matchup
Villanova wing Josh Hart vs. Duke wing Luke Kennard. If the Devils opt to play bigger on occasion, then Hart will be dealing with Devils freshman. And that will be a show, too. But in the teams’ most common lineups it is most likely Hart will cover Kennard. At the opposite end, Matt Jones is Duke’s best defender and will handle Hart the majority of the time. But the two All-Americans will see plenty of one another.
Get to know ...
SMU forward Semi Ojeleye, who was going to be in this region one way or the other. Ojeleye began his career at Duke but played only 143 minutes in a season and a half. He figured he was good enough to play somewhere and left the school at the semester break in 2015. That cost him the opportunity to be part of the NCAA championship that year, but now he is the American Athletic Conference player of the year and tournament MVP. A 6-7, 235-pound forward, he averaged 19 points and 6.7 rebounds for the Mustangs, who won the league regular season and tournament. He could be two victories removed from a shot at his old school.
Don’t be surprised if ...
Baylor misses the Sweet 16 from a top-4 seed for the third consecutive season. Since the committee released its bracket sneak-peak on Saturday, Feb. 11, the Bears have compiled a 3-4 record. Two of the wins were against the worst teams in the Big 12, and one of the losses was against a non-field team (and the last, against Kansas State, probably saved the Wildcats). In the four losses, opponents shot 48.5 percent against the Bears.
Southern California. The Trojans’ home victory against UCLA was an impressive accomplishment, especially coming without forward Bennie Boatright, who has scored in double figures in 10 of 11 games since his return from injury. That was one of just three wins against the field, which is why the Trojans are in the First Four, but Boatright, center Chimezie Metu and guard Jordan McLaughlin are high-end talents.
Final Four pick
Duke Blue Devils. In some ways this is the best matchup Villanova could have gotten in a push for a second consecutive Final Four. The Blue Devils prefer a spread-the-court approach with smaller players, which means 'Nova’s lack of size won’t be punished. Duke is the one team the Wildcats can look directly in the eye. However, the Devils also are the most difficult team in the tournament to defend. They will score their way into Krzyzewski’s 13th Final Four, which break his current tie for the record with fellow Hall of Famer John Wooden.