Bracket Breakdown: Can Duke survive the East Region?

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After winning the ACC tournament title, Duke was awarded the No. 1 overall seed in the 2019 NCAA tournament.

They will be joined in the East by Michigan State, who was slotted in as a No. 2 seed in Duke region despite beating Michigan three times, winning the Big Ten regular season title and, on Sunday afternoon, taking home the Big Ten tournament title.

I don’t think there are many places in this bracket where the Selection Committee got it wrong, but I do think that this is one of those places. Is it really worth Michigan State going to the East, where they will play the regionals in Washington D.C., instead of going west, where they would have played the regionals in Anaheim?

Put another way, did a couple hundred miles really make it worth it for the team that beat Michigan three times end up in the same bracket as Duke while Michigan is a No. 2 seed in Gonzaga’s region?

I don’t think so.

Either way, the Spartans actually have a relatively easy draw to the Elite 8 if they can get there.

In fact, I think that you can make the argument that the No. 3-6 seeds in the East are the weakest of any in the tournament.

With that in mind, let’s dive into the breakdown.

THREE STORYLINES

  1. CAN DUKE PUT AN EXCLAMATION POINT ON THE ‘YEAR OF ZION’?: This college basketball season has been completely dominated by Zion Williamson. He has been the best player in the sport since opening night, when he helped Duke light up Kentucky in the Champions Classic. He’s dominated the way college basketball media cover the sport because he is magnetic, a massive brand at 18 years old and a soon-to-be NBA megastar. We’ve seen players like this before. They haven’t always lived up to expectations in March. this is his chance — and Duke’s chance — to prove that it was all worth it.
  2. IS JUSTIN ROBINSON ACTUALLY HEALTHY?: Virginia Tech was a top ten team with arguably the best backcourt in college basketball and a lethal, efficient offensive attack when, on January 30th, Justin Robinson went down with an undisclosed foot injury. On Sunday afternoon, just hours before the Selection Show, both he and Buzz Williams tweeted that the star point guard would be back. If he is healthy, Virginia Tech is really, really dangerous. They are lethal from the perimeter, they control tempo without turning the rock over and they have a pair of dynamic playmakers in Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. They were 17-3 when Robinson got hurt. Without him, they went 7-5.
  3. DOES WILL WADE COACH IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT?: I find it very hard to believe that LSU will allow Will Wade to coach in the NCAA tournament if he does not speak to them first, and I also find it very hard to believe that Wade’s lawyers will allow him to speak with the administration before he is called to testify in April. Without him, LSU melted away a lead to Florida in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament and beat a short-handed Vanderbilt team that completely gave up on this season weeks ago. It’s worth noting here that LSU-Yale will be for all the storylines, as LSU is embroiled in the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball recruiting while Yale is in the middle of the FBI’s investigation in corruption in college admissions. And that’s only the second-juiciest first round matchup in the East Region.

THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State

I just cannot see anyone in the top of the bracket beating this Duke team. And yes, I know that Virginia Tech has already beaten Duke, and that they did it without Justin Robinson. To that I would remind you that Zion Williamson did not play in that game, and Williamson’s skill-set is precisely what Duke needed against Virginia Tech’s offensive game-plan.

As far as Michigan State is concerned, I’m not all that enamored with either No. 3 seed LSU or No. 6 Maryland. The Terps lost by 14 points to Michigan State, and the idea of watching Tremont Waters, Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams try to navigate defending Cassius Winston in a ball-screen is LOL funny. Tom Izzo might have a legitimate gripe about who the No. 1 seed is in his region, but he shouldn’t be too upset about the path he has to a matchup with that No. 1 seed.

THE FINAL FOUR SLEEPER IS … No. 4 Virginia Tech

The truth is this: I think Duke is to the 2019 NCAA Tournament what Villanova was to the 2018 NCAA Tournament. I think there are precious few teams that are going to be capable of beating them this season — Gonzaga is still the only team to do it when they’ve been at full strength — and none of those teams are in this region. That said, if I’m going to bet on someone to do it, it would probably be the Hokies, assuming Justin Robinson is healthy. They’ve already beaten Duke once, and their ability to shoot combined with a hoss in Kerry Blackshear and a pair of NBA-caliber point guards running ball-screens is enough to beat anyone on the right night.

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

HERE ARE YOUR UPSETS

No. 14 YALE over No. 3 LSU: Yale is not built like a normal mid-major team. They have NBA players on their roster, headlined by a potential first round pick in Miye Oni. Jordan Bruner is an atheltic, do-it-all four that picked Yale over Clemson and their point guard, Alex Copeland, was sensational in a win over Harvard on Sunday. If the Elis are making threes and they keep LSU off the glass, this is a game they can win. I also think Yale would be able to beat Maryland, if you’re willing to get crazy.

No. 13 SAINT LOUIS over No. 4 VIRGINIA TECH: Saint Louis has dudes — Hasahn French, Javon Bess, Jordan Goodwin, Tramaine Isabell. They also can really, really defend, and if Virginia Tech doesn’t have Justin Robinson, this is a game that the Billikens can win.

BUT DON’T PICK THIS UPSET

No. 12 LIBERTY over No. 5 MISSISSIPPI STATE: I am not buying this Liberty team as being one that can pull the upset on Mississippi State. The Bulldogs haven’t done much of note this year, but there is talent on that roster. Liberty, to me, is over-seeded as well.

THE STUDS

  • ZION WILLIAMSON and R.J. BARRETT, Duke: They’re likely going to end up being the top two picks in the NBA draft. They are the two most difficult players to matchup with in the sport. They can both end up going for 30 on any given night, sometimes both on the same night.
  • CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State: He has carried Michigan State to a share of the Big Ten regular season title and the Big Ten tournament title. Can he carry them to a Final Four, too?

THE STARS OF MARCH

  • DYLAN WINDLER, Belmont: Ja Morant got all the attention in the Ohio Valley, but Windler was dominant as well. He has a pro basketball career in front of him, and he will be looking to make a statement during the tournament. All eyes will be on him in the First Four, as the Bruins draw Temple.
  • MIYE ONI, Yale: Oni is a potential first round pick, a 6-foot-6 combo-guard that averages 17.6 points, 6.4 boards and 3.6 assists for a dangerous Yale team.
  • HASAHN FRENCH, Saint Louis: French is an absolute monster in the Billiken frontcourt, a lefty that is built like a wrestler and can dominate the paint.

ONE GAME TO WATCH: No. 7 Louisville vs. No. 10 Minnesota

The Pitino Bowl!

Richard Pitino, the son of Rick Pitino, will be squaring off with the Louisville Cardinals, the program that fired Rick just 18 months ago. That is drama.

ONE GAME THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN: No. 11 Belmont vs. No. 14 Yale

I think that both of these teams have the horses to get to the Round of 32. That would require Belmont winning two games — Temple and Maryland — and Yale knocking off the SEC regular season champions, LSU. Most of the country wouldn’t care too much, but the game itself would be worth it.

AND THE WINNER IS …

Duke.

The Blue Devils are the best team in college basketball. They’ll prove it this month.

Houston reaches No. 1 in AP poll for first time since 1983

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Make some room, Phi Slama Jama. Another Houston team has reached the top of men’s college basketball.

Nearly four decades after Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon took the Cougars to No. 1, the latest bunch led by Marcus Sasser and star freshman Jarace Walker took over the top spot in the AP Top 25. They received 45 of 63 first-place votes from the national media panel, easily outdistancing second-place Texas and third-place Virginia.

“It’s not like we went online and applied for it and waited for a response back. We’ve been working for this,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team is coming off a Final Four and Elite Eight trip the past two seasons. “But remember, it’s a rental. You don’t own it. You’re just renting it because someday somebody else is going to be No. 1.”

North Carolina had been No. 1 all season, but the Tar Heels lost to Iowa State and in a four-overtime thriller to Alabama at the Phil Knight Invitational to cede the top spot to Houston, which beat Kent State in its only game last week.

The last time the Cougars ascended to No. 1 was the final poll of the 1982-83 season, when “The Glide” and “The Dream” along with coach Guy Lewis were the favorites to win it all. They rolled through the NCAA Tournament before falling to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in an iconic championship game in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“I’ve never been ranked No. 1,” said Sampson, now in his 34th season as a college basketball coach. “We were ranked all 12 years at Oklahoma. I’m sure we were ranked at Indiana. Then we’ve been ranked five or six straight years. We’re used to having a high level of success.”

Texas received eight first-place votes and Virginia received two. Arizona climbed from 14th to fourth after emerging from a stacked field to win the Maui Invitational. Purdue jumped from 24th all the way to fifth and scooped up eight first-place votes after beating West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke at the Phil Knight Legacy tourney.

“Our guys are competitive. They’re fun to coach. They get along. They’re out there playing with purpose and that’s what you have to have,” said Boilermakers coach Matt Painter, whose team was briefly No. 1 about this time last season.

“Early in the season, very few teams play with the purpose collectively,” he said. “I thought our guys played with a purpose.”

Baylor was sixth, Creighton seventh and U Conn climbed from 20th to eighth after beating Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State to win the Phil Knight Invitational. Kansas fell from third to ninth after losing to Tennessee in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, while Indiana rounded out the top 10.

There was a tie for 11th between SEC rivals Alabama and Arkansas with the Volunteers, another conference foe, right behind them. Gonzaga dropped from sixth to 14th, its first time outside the top 10 since Feb. 5, 2018, and Auburn was 15th.

Illinois was next followed by Duke and North Carolina in a tough week for Tobacco Road. The Blue Devils fell from eighth after their 75-56 loss to the Boilermakers.

Kentucky and Michigan State joined UCLA, Maryland, Iowa State, San Diego State and Ohio State in rounding out the poll.

RISING AND FALLING

Purdue made a rare 19-spot jump as the poll underwent a massive shakeup. UConn climbed 12 spots, Arizona moved up 10, Tennessee climbed nine and Alabama seven. On the flip side, the Tar Heels tumbled 17 spots, Duke dropped nine, Gonzaga fell eight and San Diego State fell seven.

IN AND OUT

Despite all the movement, Iowa State was the only newcomer this week, checking in at No. 23 after beating Villanova and North Carolina before falling to UConn. The Cyclones replaced Iowa, which dropped out after a one-week stay following its loss to TCU in the title game of the Emerald Coast Classic.

CONFERENCE WATCH

There are six difference conferences represented in the first seven teams in the poll. The Big Ten leads the way with six in the Top 25 while the SEC has five and the Big 12 has four, though three of them are in the top 10.

South Carolina tops women’s AP Top 25; Stanford, UConn next

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South Carolina remained the unanimous No. 1 choice in The Associated Press women’s poll, as the Gamecocks keep close watch on the foot injury of reigning Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.

The Gamecocks received all 29 first-place votes in the poll, a day after Boston left a game with her injury. Coach Dawn Staley said Boston was “questionable” going forward but added that the “team doctor wasn’t too, too concerned.”

South Carolina’s next game is at home against No. 15 UCLA.

Stanford remained No. 2 after cruising through a tournament in Hawaii. It’s the 618th appearance for Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, tying the late Pat Summitt for most all-time. Summitt’s teams only missed being in the poll 14 times during her Hall of Fame career at Tennessee.

UConn, Ohio State and Indiana rounded out the top five.

The Huskies are one of four Big East teams to be ranked this week as Marquette entered the poll at No. 24. It’s the first time the Big East has four ranked teams since the conference realigned in 2014. The league is 56-14 so far this season, including going 8-2 against ranked teams.

“We’ve been trying to earn a little more respect,” Marquette coach Megan Duffy said of the Big East. “Tried to schedule tougher non-conference (games). ‘Nova’s playing people. Us going to the Bahamas was great. Creighton’s doing what they’ve been doing since last season. Getting some of those quality wins is everything.”

North Carolina moved up two spots to No. 6 after rallying to beat then-No. 5 Iowa State in the Phil Knight tournament. The Cyclones fell to eighth.

The Tar Heels visit the Hoosiers on Tuesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Indiana returns home after winning two games in Las Vegas at a subpar venue that lacked basic necessities.

Notre Dame remained No. 7 while Virginia Tech and Iowa finished off the top 10. At No. 9, Virginia Tech has matched its best ranking ever and is in the top 10 for the first time since 1999.

Tennessee fell out of the poll this week marking the 56th time in the 827-week history of the poll that the Lady Vols weren’t ranked. Kansas State also fell out with Gonzaga moving in at No. 23.

FALLING CARDINALS

Louisville dropped to 18th in the poll this week after falling to South Dakota State in the fifth place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis last week. It’s the Cardinals lowest ranking since Jan. 11, 2016.

Louisville entered the top 10 in the preseason poll in 2017 and hadn’t been out since, a span of 98 consecutive weeks. It was the longest active streak.

“It’s a compliment to the consistency that we built here,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of being ranked in the top 10 for so long. “Obviously are goal would have been to stay in the top 10, but it’s a new team and growing.”

Edey scores 21 as No. 24 Purdue beats No. 8 Duke 75-56

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Zach Edey and No. 24 Purdue shook off a slow start. When No. 8 Duke tried to rally in the second half, the Boilermakers finished strong.

Edey had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Purdue beat Duke 75-56 on Sunday in the championship game of the Phil Knight Legacy men’s tournament.

Fletcher Loyer scored 18 points for Purdue (6-0), and reserve Caleb Furst finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“I feel like we weren’t getting the looks we wanted early. As we settled into the game, we kept our poise and kept getting the shots that we wanted,” Edey said. “They were making some tough twos at the beginning of the game, shots we’re OK with all season.”

The 7-foot-4 Edey was 7 for 13 from the field and 7 for 8 at the line. He was named tournament MVP.

“They have the most unique player in the country,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said of Edey. “He’s a hard guy to prepare for because there’s nobody else like him.”

Duke (6-2) shot 36.2% (21 for 58) from the field. Tyres Proctor scored 16 points for the Blue Devils. Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach each had 14.

Ethan Morton had a steal and a dunk to help Purdue open a 58-41 lead with 15:37 left in the second half.

Duke countered with an 8-0 run, capped by two foul shots by Dariq Whitehead. But Furst made a layup and a jumper to help hold off the Blue Devils.

A hook by Edey and a 3-pointer by Loyer made it 68-56 with 5:03 remaining.

Duke got off to a 14-7 start before Purdue worked its way back into the game.

“I don’t feel like we came out bad today, but they matched our energy,” Edey said.

A 3-pointer by Brandon Newman pushed the Purdue lead to 46-28. A late run by Duke cut the Boilermakers’ lead to 46-35 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: It looked as if Roach had an issue with his left foot at one point, but he went back into the game. Scheyer said Roach had hurt his toe.

Purdue: Although neither team had great offensive games, Purdue was the better team from range. Purdue made seven 3-pointers to just two for Duke.

UP NEXT

Duke: Hosts Ohio State on Wednesday.

Purdue: Visits Florida State on Wednesday.

No. 18 Alabama beats No. 1 North Carolina 103-101 in 4 OTs

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Mark Sears had 24 points, five rebounds and five assists, and No. 18 Alabama sent top-ranked North Carolina to a second straight loss with a 103-101 victory in a quadruple-overtime thriller on Sunday in the third-place game of the Phil Knight Invitational tournament.

Jahvon Quinerly added 21 points off the bench for the Crimson Tide (6-1), who knocked off the top-ranked team for the first time since upsetting Stanford in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

“I was losing track of how many overtimes we were in there at the end,” Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats said. “A lot of credit to our guys. I thought they showed a lot of character when we could have folded.”

Charles Bediako had 14 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, while Brandon Miller also scored 14 points.

Caleb Love led the Tar Heels (5-2) with 34 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. Armando Bacot contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds, and R.J. Davis had 19 points and nine rebounds in the second four-overtime game in North Carolina history. The other was a victory over Tulane in 1976.

“At the end of the day, Alabama made one more play than we did,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “I walked in the locker room and a number of the guys had their head down and I told them to pick their head up. I’m just as disappointed (as the players) in terms of the final outcome, but I couldn’t be any more proud about the way they competed.”

Bediako gave the Crimson Tide the lead for good on a layup with 26 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime.

The Tar Heels, who lost to Iowa State in the semifinals, led by as much as eight in the second half before Alabama came back to tie it. The Crimson Tide retook the lead on a pair of free throws from Gurley with 2 minutes remaining, and later tied with another free throw from Sears with 51 seconds remaining in regulation.

Alabama starting forward Noah Clowney took a hard fall on a dunk attempt four minutes into the first half and had to be helped off the court. He did not return.

The Crimson Tide were 16 for 38 (42.1%) from 3-point range, with Sears making seven.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: The Tar Heels figure to take a deep drop in the Top 25 poll.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide bounced back nicely following their loss to No. 20 UConn in the semifinals, beating a top-ranked team in the regular season for the first time since a 66-64 victory over eventual national champion Arkansas on Jan. 8, 1994.

UP NEXT:

North Carolina: The Tar Heels travel to Bloomington to face No. 11 Indiana on Wednesday.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide return home to face South Dakota State on Saturday.

Clingan lifts UConn past Iowa State for Phil Knight title

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Donovan Clingan had 15 points and 10 rebounds to power No. 20 UConn to a 71-53 win over Iowa State in the championship game of the Phil Knight Invitational on Sunday night.

Tristen Newton scored 13 points for the Huskies (8-0), who went 20 for 25 at the free-throw line. Alex Karaban and Andre Jackson, Jr. each had 10 points.

Osun Osunniyi led Iowa State (5-1) with 14 points. Tamin Lipsey had 12 points and Jaren Holmes finished with 11.

“They were the more aggressive team,” Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We wanted a physical game. We didn’t want a physical game with them getting the rebounds and then also us putting them on the foul line. Lesson that we’ve got to learn is we need to embrace being the aggressor at both ends of the floor at all times.”

The Huskies had more offensive rebounds (20) than the Cyclones had total rebounds (19), and capitalized on that disparity with 20 second-chance points.

“Those guys are tough,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “T.J.`s an excellent coach. They grind people up. To outrebound them, it just speaks to how tough we were.”

Clingan, who was named tournament MVP, scored eight points to help UConn to a 38-28 lead at the break.

Iowa State closed to 53-48 on Holmes’ 3-pointer midway through the second half. But Karaban made a 3 and a dunk, and Newton’s jumper made it 60-48 with 7:13 remaining.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies couldn’t have asked for a better showing in Portland, winning all three of their games.

Iowa State: The Cyclones picked up nice wins over Villanova and top-ranked North Carolina in the earlier rounds but ended with their first loss of the season.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies return home to face Oklahoma State on Thursday.

Iowa State: The Cyclones return home to face North Dakota on Tuesday.