Adam Lindner & David Borne | The Duquesne Duke
On the 49th anniversary of Duquesne’s most recent NCAA Tournament victory, top teams from around the nation will begin play in the NCAA Tournament at PPG Paints Arena, making 2018 the third year in the past seven to see the tourney hosted in Pittsburgh. This year’s draw of teams visiting Pittsburgh may even manage to make the city the focus of the basketball world for a few days, being that there is absolutely no shortage of star power in a grouping of programs including No. 1-seeded Villanova, No. 2 seed Duke and No. 7 seed and Atlantic 10 representee Rhode Island, among others. Perhaps college basketball’s most polarizing player this season, freshman Oklahoma guard Trae Young, leads a Sooners squad stumbling into Pittsburgh as a No. 10 seed, as well.
There is no such thing as a sure thing come March — look at the 2014 Villanova Wildcats, who fell in the Round of 32 as a No. 1 seed to No. 8-seeded N.C. State here in Pittsburgh just four years ago for proof — but don’t be surprised if one of the teams that will begin its NCAA journey here at PPG Paints Arena manages to make it all the way to the Final Four in San Antonio, either. Certain squads here possess the chops needed to make a long run, but only time will tell which teams are built solidly enough for success in March.
Below, each team is biographed, providing college basketball fans in Pittsburgh with a primer for this weekend’s NCAA action.
Villanova (30-4 overall, 14-4 Big East); Big East Tournament Champions
East Region No. 1 seed —
Excellence has become an expectation for Jay Wright and the Wildcats, and this season hasn’t deviated from recent successful seasons for Villanova. The tournament’s No. 2 overall seed, the Wildcats cruised through the early rounds of the Big East Tournament, eventually capping off the tourney with an overtime victory over Providence at Madison Square Garden on March 9 to grab their third Big East Tournament crown in four seasons.
With NBA prospects Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges leading the way, the Wildcats’ scoring attack is a well-oiled machine, posting the country’s most efficient offense according to KenPom.com. An effective field goal percentage of 59.7 was tops in the nation, too.
Duke (26-7 overall, 13-5 Atlantic Coast)
Midwest Region No. 2 seed —
Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils ended their regular season with wins in seven of their final nine contests, but were ousted in the ACC Tournament semifinals by Tobacco Road foe North Carolina on March 9 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Arguably the most talented team in all the land, Duke struggled defensively at times throughout the season’s earlier stages, but a mid-year strategic switch to a primarily zone-oriented defensive scheme worked tremendously well for the Devils. Now, they hope to once again prove to be one of the NCAA’s most dangerous programs come tournament time.
The pairing of Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter below the basket hasn’t lived up to the enormous expectations that had been set for them, but the freshmen big men both project as top-1o selections in this summer’s NBA Draft. Regardless, the duo helped Duke to achieve the nation’s top offensive rebounding percentage this season (39.1). Throw in guards Trevon Duval, Grayson Allen and sharpshooter Gary Trent, and almost any team in the country will struggle to slow down Duke’s high-powered offense. The key for an opponent who wishes to knock off Duke is neutralizing Bagley on offense.
Rhode Island (25-7 overall, 15-3 Atlantic 10); A-10 Regular Season Champions
Midwest Region No. 7 seed —
The Rams have fond memories at PPG Paints Arena, having won the 2017 A-10 Tournament in the building, and they hope a visit back to the Fifth Ave. arena sparks some March magic for them. Thought to be on its way to a second A-10 Tournament title in a row, Rhode Island was upset by Davidson in the conference final on March 11 in Washington, D.C., 58-57. Regardless, the Rams possessed a resume that more than qualified them for a decent seeding in this year’s tournament.
Loaded with experienced leaders in seniors E.C. Matthews, Jared Terrell and Andre Berry, the Rams hope to shake off their late-season struggles before it’s too late. Sophomore Jeff Dowtin is a reliable floor general, and freshman guard Fatts Russell is a lightning rod of energy for coach Dan Hurley.
Rhode Island forced just under 16 turnovers per game this season, tied for the tenth-highest average in the country.
Virginia Tech (21-11 overall, 10-8 Atlantic Coast)
East Region No. 8 seed —
Led by junior guard Justin Robinson, the Hokies are back in the tournament for the second year in a row under headman Buzz Williams. Boasting the nation’s 39th-most efficient offense according to KenPom.com, Virginia Tech has shown that it can hang with anybody with wins over ACC juggernauts Virginia, Duke, North Carolina and Clemson during the regular season.
The Hokies are a team that lacks the big names and star power that other squads congregated in Pittsburgh may have, but are able to supplement their low profile with grit and an all-around attack. If the field of teams situated in Pittsburgh houses a sleeper right now, it very well may be the Hokies.
Alabama (19-15 overall, 8-10 Southeastern)
East Region No. 9 seed —
Head Coach Avery Johnson’s team didn’t exactly put together a glamorous regular season portfolio, but the Crimson Tide had everybody on high alert during the SEC Tournament just last week — in large part, thanks to the efforts of freshman point guard and projected NBA lottery pick, Collin Sexton. The athletic scorer erupted for multiple 30-plus-point performances in the tourney’s earlier rounds, elevating his team all the way to the SEC semifinals, where it fell to surging Kentucky.
Everything about Alabama’s offense revolves around Sexton, who will be the key to any sort of success that the Crimson Tide plan to have in Pittsburgh or beyond. Forecasting the future in March is fruitless, but one thing’s certain: Sexton will be a sight to witness for fans at PPG Paints Arena.
Oklahoma (18-13 overall, 8-10 Big 12)
Midwest Region No. 10 seed —
Despite managing to win just two of its final 10 games, Oklahoma did seemingly enough in its full body of work to impress the selection committee and land an at-large berth. The Sooners possess a scorer unlike any other in freshman Stephen Curry-impersonator Trae Young, who led all Division I players in both scoring (27.4 ppg) and assists (8.8 apg) this season.
Pundits everywhere were miffed by Oklahoma’s at-large selection to the field, and perhaps rightfully so. However, it’s also true that Young could single-handedly power the Sooners to a win now that they’re here.
Nevertheless, even if Oklahoma manages to defeat Rhode Island in the Round of 64, it’s likely that Young’s collegiate career ends this weekend in Pittsburgh.
Iona (20-13 overall, 11-7 Metro Atlantic Athletic); MAAC Tournament Champions
Midwest Region No. 15 seed —
The Gaels, representing the MAAC in the Big Dance for the third-straight year, are certainly more prolific on the offensive side of the ball. Iona’s scoring offense (79.8 ppg) was tied with Wyoming for the 45th-highest in the country, and the Gaels love to hoist the 3-pointer. All-MAAC Second Team selection Rickey McGill leads the Gaels in scoring, averaging 13.5 points per game.
Iona has not proven to be defensively competent this season, and is now faced with the almost comical task of containing Duke’s star-studded roster. Advancing as a 15-seed is tough, but we’ve seen it done several times before — in 2016, No. 15 Middle Tennessee stunned No. 2 Michigan State in the Round of 64, 90-81. Iona can potentially take advantage of the fact that all of the game’s pressure will rest on Duke’s shoulders, should the game remain close on the scoreboard.
Radford (23-12 overall, 12-6 Big South); Big South Tournament Champions
East Region No. 16 seed —
The Big South’s champions downed Northeast champ LIU Brooklyn in a First Four matchup between potential East Region No. 16 seeds on Tuesday, March 13 in Dayton, 71-61 — but that is certainly the extent of Radford’s accomplishments this season.
Junior forward Ed Polite, who leads the Highlanders in both scoring and rebounding with 13.5 and 7.9 per, respectively, has a tall order ahead of him in facing off against Villanova’s frontcourt, led by Bridges and Omari Spellman.
Regardless, freshman Radford guard Carlik Jones, second on the team in scoring with 11.8 points per game, had one of March’s most memorable moments thus far, sinking a deep buzzer-beating 3-point dagger as time expired in the Big South Championship game, giving the Highlanders an unforgettable 55-52 victory on its home floor over Liberty.