The 2019 NCAA Tournament is upon us. After a thrilling Championship week that saw some teams come out of nowhere to earn bids to the Big Dance and other favorites sweep their way to titles, March Madness is here. Over the next two days before the Tournament tips off we’ll be taking a look at each of the four regions in the Tournament. We continue with the East Region where the #1 seed is the Duke Blue Devils, the top overall seed in the tournament. Duke is back to having their stars healthy after National Player of the Year Zion Williamson’s return during the ACC Tournament. This region also features Michigan State as the #2 seed, setting up a potential Coach K vs Tom Izzo matchup in the Elite Eight.
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1. Duke vs 16. North Dakota St
Duke enters the NCAA Tournament fresh off winning the ACC Tournament thanks to the return of National Player of the Year Zion Williamson. Zion was nothing short of spectacular in the ACC Tournament, going for 29, 31, and 21 points in three games. On the season, Zion has been a force all over the floor, averaging 22.1 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.1 APG, 2.2 SPG, and 1.8 BPG. The Canadian Mamba RJ Barrett leads the Blue Devils in scoring (22.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 4.1 APG). Fellow freshman Cam Reddish (13.7 PPG) has been hot and cold but when he’s on his game is a dangerous outside shooter. Point guard Tre Jones (9.3 PPG, 5.3 APG) missed a few games with a shoulder injury and is not the outside shooter his brother Tyus was, but is an excellent distributor and is one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation. Duke’s weakness is their lack of scoring depth behind the top three, despite averaging 83.5 PPG as a team as well as their outside shooting. Duke ranks in the top 10 in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency. All that said, Duke has only lost once this season with a fully healthy lineup (to Gonzaga by 1 in the Maui final) and should be considered one of the favorites to cut down the nets. Interestingly, of Duke’s five previous national titles, 3 have been won in Indianapolis and 2 in Minneapolis (where the Final Four is this year). North Dakota State came from the 4-seed to win the Summit League Tournament, the first time in 4 years that South Dakota State did not win the title. The Bison then went on to top 3-time MEAC Champion North Carolina Central in the First Four. North Dakota State plays a slow-paced game with an inefficient defense that ranks in the bottom 75 in the nation. Offensively, the Bison rely on the backcourt duo of Vinne Shahid (12.8 PPG) and Tyson Ward (12.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG). Ward lead the way with 23 points in their First Four victory over NC Central.
8. VCU vs 9. UCF
VCU won the A-10 regular season title but was upset by Rhode Island in the first game of the conference tournament. The biggest concern for VCU is the status of star guard Marcus Evans (13.8 PPG, 3.2 APG, 1.9 SPG) who left the Rhode Island game with a knee injury. With Evans out, the scoring weight will fall on De’Riante Jenkins (11.4 PPG), Isaac Vann (10.9 PPG), and Marcus Santos-Silva (10.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG). The Rams are not a high-scoring bunch (71.4 PPG) and rate the lowest in offensive efficiency of any at-large team. They win by their defense, which ranks in the top 10 in the nation. VCU will go 9 deep onto their bench and do not have a single player that averages more than 30 minutes per game. UCF flew a bit under the radar in the AAC this year before an early March push saw them score victories over Houston and Cincinnati which was enough to send the Knights dancing. They enter the tournament with two straight losses after falling to Memphis by 24 in their AAC Tournament opener. UCF is led by the guard tandem of BJ Taylor (16.0 PPG, 3.3 APG) and Aubrey Dawkins (15.2 PPG) son of head coach and Duke legend Johnny Dawkins. The potential for a second-round matchup between Johnny Dawkins and Coach K is alive and well. The player that will generate the most social media buzz is 7’6″ center Tako Fall (10.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.5 BPG).
5. Mississippi St vs 12. Liberty
San Jose, CA
Mississippi State was a solid team in the middle of the SEC pack who didn’t score any wins over the top 3 teams but also didn’t take any bad losses. The Bulldogs rank in the top 15 in offensive efficiency and average 77.3 PPG. They are led by a trio of guards in Quinndary Weatherspoon (18.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG), Lamar Peters (11.7 PPG, 5.2 APG), and Tyson Carter (10.5 PPG) who all shoot over 36% from beyond the arc. Their bench has been shortened after losing Nick Weatherspoon (9.6 PPG) to injury. Liberty won the Atlantic Sun in their first year since moving over from the Big South Conference. The Flames battled with defending champion Lipscomb all year before winning the rubber match in the tournament final. Liberty is an incredibly slow-paced team that ranks in the Top 100 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Unlike the Bulldogs, they have a deep bench and will go as many as 9 players deep during a game with no players averaging over 30 minutes. Junior forward Scottie James (13.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG) leads the way along with the backcourt tandem of Caleb Homesley (12.0 PPG) and Lovell Cabbil (11.5 PPG). What the Flames lack is size – James at 6’8″ is the tallest of their rotational players.
4. Virginia Tech vs 13. St. Louis
San Jose, CA
Buzz Williams has the Hokies back in the Tournament. Virginia Tech had good metrics all season but lacked good wins before a late February victory over a Zion-less Duke team. They didn’t lose a game outside the Top 50 all season and shoot nearly 40% from beyond the arc as a team, which will keep them in any game. The Hokies rank in the Top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency while in the bottom 20 in tempo, which means they will clog things up and force a slow-paced game where they rely on their outside shooter to win. Four players average in double figures, led by Nickeil Alexander-Walker (16.6 PPG, 4.0 APG) and Kerry Blackshear (14.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG). The good news is that Justin Robinson (13.7 PPG, 5.2 APG) is due back from an injury that caused him to miss 11 games and should be a factor in their Tournament run. St. Louis made a surprising run from the #6 seed in the A-10 to win the tournament thanks to stifling defensive performances that only allowed one team to score over 55 points. The Billikens are one of the lowest-scoring teams in the tournament (67.4 PPG) and rank in the 200s in offensive efficiency. They are led by a trio of guards in Javon Bess (15.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG), Tramaine Isabell (13.8 PPG, 3.7 APG), and Jordan Goodwin (10.6 PPG, 7.5 RPG). Forward Hasahn French (9.3 PPG, 8.4 RPG) is a double-double threat on a nightly basis. This figures to be a slow-paced defensive game and it would not be surprising at all to see it played in the high 50s or low 60s.
6. Maryland vs 11. Belmont
One of the most puzzling teams in the country this year was Maryland. They were home court heroes, scoring wins over Purdue and Wisconsin, but also lost games to the likes of Illlinois, Penn State and Nebraska (in the Big 10 Tournament). The Terrapins are not a high-scoring squad (71.3 PPG), but they do rate in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Junior guard Anthony Cowan (16.0 PPG, 4.3 APG) leads the way with the frontcourt duo of Bruno Fernando (13.7 PPG, 10.4 RPG) and Jalen Smith (11.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG) also contributing. Belmont won their first NCAA Tournament game in school history when they topped Temple in the Play-In Game on Tuesday night. The Bruins earned an at-large bid after falling to Murray State in the Ohio Valley Championship Game. Though the Bruins did not have as many top-end victories as some major conference teams, they absolutely deserve to be here with a 25-5 overall record and have a chance to spring an upset over a streaky Maryland team. The Bruins high-scoring offense (87.4 PPG) is led by Dylan Windler (20.8 PPG, 10.8 RPG), a double-double threat despite playing guard. Fellow guard Kevin McClain (16.7 PPG, 4.0 APG) and center Nick Muszynski (14.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG) are the top complementary scorers. Belmont is a good outside shooting team with Windler leading the way at 42.5% and their top 4 scorers all shooting over 36% from 3-point range.
3. LSU vs 14. Yale
LSU was one of the most tumultuous and exciting teams in the country this season. The Tigers program is currently under investigation and head coach Will Wade is on suspension for allegedly being involved in making “offers” to land star freshman Javonte Smart (11.5 PPG). On top of that, the Tigers have played an incredible SEVEN overtime games this season, going 5-2 in those games, including wins over Tennessee, Mississippi State, and Florida. LSU also had a controversial buzzer-beating tip-in to beat Kentucky. This is a tough, battle-tested team led by Tremont Waters (15.1 PPG, 5.9 APG), Naz Reid (13.7 PPG, 7.2 RPG), and Skylar Mays (13.4 PPG). LSU ranks in the top 10 in offensive efficiency and averages over 81 points per game. Yale has the offense to keep up with the Tigers, ranking in the top 50 in efficiency and averaging just over 80 points per game. Both teams play at a relatively fast tempo so this game has the potential to be an up-and-down, high-scoring affair. The Bulldogs are an experienced team led by junior guard Miye Oni (17.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.5 APG) and senior guard Alex Copeland (13.8 PPG, 3.4 APG). On the inside, junior Jordan Bruner (10.2 PPG, 8.3 RPG) is a double-double threat every night. Yale is one of hte best passing teams in the nation, averaging over 17 assists per game.
7. Louisville vs 10. Minnesota
Des Moines, IA
Louisville is a talented team under former Xavier coach Chris Mack that scored early-season victories over North Carolina, Michigan State, and Virginia Tech. However, since blowing a 22-point lead to Duke in mid-February, the Cardinals have not been the same. They have lacked a killer instinct down the stretch, losing 5 of 8 since the Duke game. Louisville has the length and athleticism to play with anyone and can create matchup problems on the outside as their bigs can all shoot from beyond the arc. Jordan Nwora (17.2 PPG, 7.5 RPG) leads the way. One of their issues has been inconsistent scoring as Dwayne Sutton (10.2 PPG, 6.9 RPG) is the only other player averaging in double-digits. Minnesota has been similarly frustranting this year. Two March victories over Purdue sealed the Gophers place in the Tournament, but their resume also has losses to Rutgers, Illinois, and Boston College. Minnesota is led by stellar guard Amir Coffey (16.3 PPG). In the frontcourt, the tandem of Jordan Murphy (14.8 PPG, 11.5 RPG) who ranks 5th in the nation in rebounds and Daniel Oturu (10.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG) have created matchup problems. Both of these teams have suffered from bouts of inconsistent play and blown leads, which means that anything could happen when they face off.
2. Michigan State vs 15. Bradley
Des Moines, IA
Michigan State was a team that many thought should be in the conversation for a #1 seed after winning both the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles. The Spartans rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and are a team capable of making a run to the Final Four. Cassius Winston (18.9 PPG, 7.6 APG) is already a household name in the Big Ten and will likely be one nationally after this tournament. Winston has taken the helm after second-leading scorer Josh Langford was lost with a foot injury in late January. Sparty is loaded with quality players outside of Winston, including Nick Ward (14.0 PPG, 6.2 RPG), Matt McQuaid (9.9 PPG), and Xavier Tillman (9.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG). They are an excellent defensive and outside shooting team and rank second in the nation in assists (19.1 APG). Bradley came from the #5 seed to win a crazy Missouri Valley tournament. “Arch Madness” lived up to its name this season as Bradley beat Missouri St by 3 then defending champions and Final Four participant Loyola-Chicago by 2 to reach the title game against 6th-seeded Northern Iowa. Bradley continued their streak of one-possession victories, storming back from 18 points down to top Northern Iowa in the Arch Madness final. The Braves rely on the tandem of Darrell Brown (14.7 PPG) and Elijah Childs (12.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG) fo most of their scoring. Of the 68 Tournament teams, only NC Central rates worse in offensive efficiency than Bradley (who averages 66.7 PPG).