Which region do you think has the toughest path to the finals?
Rory O’Toole: The Midwest region is a minefield. Wofford is exactly the kind of mid-major team to make a Cinderella run, but it has the bad luck of potentially facing a second-round matchup with a talented Kentucky squad that could reach the Final Four. North Carolina, Houston, Georgia State, Auburn and Washington all have the potential to play far into the tournament as well.
Harshil Desai: The Midwest is going to be an absolute bloodbath. UNC is a powerhouse, Kentucky is Kentucky, Auburn and Iowa State are having amazing years, and Houston is a dark horse pick to make a deep run in the tourney. And even though the Pac-12 is an embarrassment, Washington is still a very good team that could pose a challenge in the first round.
Trilok Reddy: The Midwest region. UNC won a share of the ACC regular-season title, Washington won the Pac-12 regular-season title, Auburn won the SEC Tournament, Iowa State won the Big 12 Tournament, and Houston won the AAC regular-season title. That’s already five major-conference accolades without mentioning teams such as Kansas, Kentucky, Wofford or Seton Hall that are primed to make deep runs in the tournament.
Who do you think will be the most valuable player of the tournament?
Justice Delos Santos: Zion Williamson is the most obvious answer, but to get a little more creative, I’m going to go with Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter. Last season, a broken wrist kept Hunter, the 2018 ACC Sixth Man of the Year, from playing in the NCAA Tournament, and we all know how that ended for the Cavaliers. As a starter this season, Hunter has been the most complete player in the country not named Zion. Hunter may not boast the defensive stats of a Matisse Thybulle, but at 6’7” with a 7’2” wingspan, he has the tools to guard one through four, and he’s the spearhead of a Cavalier defense that will make life hell for opposing teams in the tournament.
RO: Brandon Clarke. The 6’8” forward is one of the Bulldogs’ key pieces on both ends of the floor thanks to his switchability on defense and soft touch around the rim to go along with a sweet spin move. The transfer from San Jose State is one of college hoops’ premier lob targets and a fierce rim protector who has averaged three blocks a game, including a six-block game against Duke in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.
The Zags are my pick to capture the national championship this year, and Clarke will be instrumental in ensuring that the mid-major powerhouse finally secures its first national title. Superstar teammate Rui Hachimura will be drawing the most attention from opposing defenses, so expect Clarke to take advantage of defenses that will be overly concerned with neutralizing Hachimura.
HD: My boss said I wasn’t allowed to say Zion, so I’m going with my dark horse pick of Tennessee’s Grant Williams. Williams has been a stud for the Volunteers, averaging almost 20 points and leading his team to the No. 2 seed in the South. Williams needs to work on his shot, but with his defensive tenacity, driving ability and veteran poise, the athletic wing is primed to make some noise this March. Tennessee has a real shot of going far in the tourney, and Williams is going to be at the center of everything the team does.
TR: Any answer other than Zion Williamson would just be disingenuous. Yes, the constant media coverage is annoying, and I hate Duke as much as anybody else, but he is still the best player in college basketball, and Duke is an entirely different team without him. He even seemed better than before his injury during Duke’s championship run in the ACC Tournament, shooting .767 from the floor and .500 from three.
Duke also has the easiest road to the finals. The first real challenge it faces is Michigan State, but when you notice that the Spartans are 1-12 against the Blue Devils in the Coach K era, you realize it might not be that big of a challenge.
What are some teams you have on your upset radar, either to complete an upset or to be upset?
JDS: Last season, when Wofford played Cal at Haas Pavilion, I had the privilege of witnessing the spectacle that is Fletcher Magee, who’s in the conversation for best shooter in the country. Despite the loss, he dropped 32 points and splashed home seven 3-pointers, some of which had a ridiculously high degree of difficulty. In addition to Magee, Wofford brought back most of its core and became one of the best offenses in the entire country en route to a 29-4 record up to this point. This season, the Terriers boast four volume shooters who hit threes at a clip of at least 41 percent. One of those four players is named Storm Murphy, which is tied for Admiral Schofield for the dopest name in college basketball. I can envision a scenario in which Wofford’s shooters get hot and unleash a monsoon of 3-pointers.
RO: I don’t think we’ll see a 16 seed upset a No. 1 like last season, but I do like 14-seed Yale’s chances of upsetting an LSU program embroiled in a “pay-for-play” scandal and of handling an inconsistent Maryland squad to reach the Sweet 16.
Ja Morant has been the most electric player in college hoops not named Zion and has a chance to single-handedly drag his team to a Sweet 16 appearance. Heavy shades of a Steph-Curry-Davidson-style run.
HD: I’m on the Morant hype train and believe in Murray State’s potential to make a run. He is averaging almost 25 and 10, an absolutely absurd stat line. The Racers haven’t faced many real challenges this season, inflating their record, but they have real potential to make a deep run into the tourney. They don’t have the deepest roster, but their star power might be enough to get them through to the Sweet 16.
TR: Gonzaga is not making the Elite Eight. While losing one game usually isn’t a big deal, the loss to Saint Mary’s exposed its biggest weakness: slow defense that forces the Bulldogs to grind out possessions and limits Hachimura’s scoring ability. In the second round, Gonzaga will most likely face Syracuse, a team that is known for its 2-3 zone defense and winning tournament games it has no business winning. If they get past the Orange, the Bulldogs will then most likely face Florida State. The Seminoles are criminally underseeded this year — they are boasting KenPom’s ninth-rated defense and are entering the tournament having won 14 out of their last 16 games, including beating No. 1-seeded Virginia to make the ACC finals. Even if they make the Elite Eight, the most likely matchups feature Texas Tech or Michigan, which coincidentally have the best and second-best defenses in the country.
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