The South ended up playing out as the region that everyone will love to hate on. I’m not sure there is a program that is as universally despised by all non-fans as Duke, and the passion with which the general public hates Duke matches that with which they hate on Gonzaga. The Zags have brought it on themselves, but having so much regular season success lead to so few postseason accolades. The question that has to be asked, however, is whether or not there is anyone in this region that can actually pull off an upset of one of these two teams.
The answer? Keep reading.
Three story lines to watch
- 1. Is this the year Gonzaga finally lives up to the hype?: Every season, we talk for four months about how good Gonzaga is, and every season, at least in recent years, the Zags have let us down in March. This year’s group will undoubtedly bring back memories of the 2013 tournament, when the Zags, as the No. 1 overall seed, lost in the Round of 32. The one thing that concerns me is how one-dimensional each of their three big men are, but I don’t see anyone in this bracket truly being able to exploit that.
- 2. Can Georgetown break the Curse of the Double Digit Seed?: Georgetown’s last five NCAA tournament losses have come to: No. 14 Ohio, No. 10 Davidson, No. 11 VCU, No. 11 N.C. State and No. 15 Florida-Gulf Coast. This year, they get No. 13 Eastern Washington in the opening round, a team with the nation’s leading scorer on the roster and a win at Indiana under their belts. Does the trend continue?
- 3. Freshmen vs. upper-classmen: Duke enters the tournament with as much hype as anyone. That’s what happens when you have talents like Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow on your roster. All three of those guys are freshmen, and if you look at the other top four or five teams in the region, they’re all built around upper-classmen. What wins out?
The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Gonzaga
You’ll find a lot of chalk in the Elite 8 and Final Four projections this season, but that is a result of the fact that the top seven or eight teams this season are a cut above the rest of the country. That’s no different in the South. Duke will have a couple of tough matchups along the way, but they’re so dangerous when they get hot that it’s hard to see teams that can struggle to score beating them. And while Gonzaga’s got some red flags, this is a team with size, shooting, versatility and strong point guard play that got a favorable draw.
Final Four sleeper: No. 5 Utah
The Utes have all the makings of a team that can make a run. They play tough defense, they have size inside, they have shooters than can catch fire and they have a bonafide star running the show in Delon Wright. Larry Krystkowiak’s club has struggled down the stretch of the season, but this is a team built for making a postseason run.
Upsets that CAN happen
- No. 13 Eastern Washington over No. 4 Georgetown: As we mentioned earlier, Georgetown has made a habit of getting picked off early in the tournament by a lower seed, and Eastern Washington is certainly capable of continuing that. They play fast enough that they can nullify the advantage gained by the presence of Josh Smith.
- No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over No. 5 Utah: I know, it’s weird saying Utah can make a Final Four and that they can get upset in their first game. But Stephen F. Austin is a really good team that plays a hectic half court style of defense that forces a lot of turnovers. Ask VCU, they lost to the Lumberjacks in the opening round last season.
Upsets that WON’T happen
- Iowa State losing before the Sweet 16: I really like this Iowa State team, if you can’t tell. The Cyclones are so difficult to prepare for on short rest, and while I have the utmost respect for Larry Brown’s coaching acumen, I’m not convinced that SMU is anything more than a by-product of dominating a league that really wasn’t all that good. And UCLA? They can score, but are they disciplined enough defensively to slow down Iowa State?
Feeling like gambling?
- No. 8 San Diego State over No. 1 Duke: The Aztecs do everything defensively that you need to do to beat Duke: They are terrific with their big-to-big doubles and they defend the three-point line. But can they score enough? They’ll need the Blue Devils to struggle shooting from the perimeter and they’ll need to dominate the offensive glass after getting past St. John’s, but the matchup couldn’t be better for the Aztecs as a No. 8 seed.
The studs you know about
- Jahlil Okafor, Duke: Okafor is, quite simply, the best low-post scorer I can ever remember seeing play in college (I’m 29). He has his shortcomings, but he’s the best at what he does well.
- Delon Wright, Utah: He’s flown under the radar this season despite having an all-american year.
- Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: Pangos began his career carrying a scoring load for Gonzaga. He’s matured into a phenomenal all-around point guard.
- Georges Niang, Iowa State: You won’t find a more skilled forward anywhere, and you won’t find a coach that’s better at putting him in a position to be successful.
The studs the nation will find out about
- Tyler Harvey, Eastern Washington: He’s the nation’s leading scorer playing in a system that loves to get up and down the floor. If Eastern Washington wins a game, you’ll be inundated with stories of how he committed to play to EWU’s coach when he was at a Division III program.
- D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown: Maybe it’s because he plays in the Big East, but DSR gets nowhere near enough attention for how good of a basketball player he is.
- Nic Moore, SMU: In a season where he was recruited over by Larry Brown — remember Emmanuel Mudiay? — Moore managed to put together a season deserving of the American Player of the Year award.
- Tyler Kalinoski and Jack Gibbs, Davidson: They may not play much defense, but Bob McKillop has at his disposal two awesome guards that can do everything on the offensive end of the floor.
Best opening round matchups
- No. 6 SMU vs. No. 11 UCLA: Good luck trying to pick the winner here. UCLA is more talented, but SMU has the Larry Brown factor.
- No. 7 Iowa vs. No. 10 Davidson: Iowa is more talented than a No. 7 seed and inconsistent enough to be on the bubble as recently as three weeks ago. And Davidson? They went from beating VCU by 27 to losing to them by 20 in the span of a week.
Matchups to root for
- No. 1 Duke vs. No. 5 Utah: The Utes are good enough defensively to slow down Duke’s high-powered offense. NBA scouts would love this as well. Jacob Poeltl getting a shot at Okafor and Wright squaring off with Tyus Jones.
- No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Gonzaga: Duke’s loaded freshmen class going up against the veterans that make up Gonzaga’s roster. Coach K vs. Mark Few. Duke’s return to the Final Four or Gonzaga’s first ever trip to the final weekend of the season.
CBT Predictions: Duke makes it back to the Final Four with wins over Utah and Gonzaga along the way.