Bracket Breakdown: Can Duke survive the East Region?

NCAA
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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.