The Duke Sports Staff NCAA Tournament predictions are in. Look for a Final Four of Duke, Florida, Arizona and Michigan State when the dust settles and the field of 68 shrinks to four.
South | Julian Routh
The South region of the tournament could end up being a bloodbath, especially if Kansas doesn’t get a healthy Joel Embiid. If Embiid’s back heals, the Jayhawks have a chance to take down No. 1 Florida, who is the clear favorite to advance to the Final Four from the section. Still, the journey will be captivating. The region features some of the most interesting first round matchups, including Dayton-Ohio State and New Mexico-Stanford. And don’t sleep on 12-seed Stephen F. Austin. Really, don’t.
Upset Alert: No. 12 Stephen F. Austin vs. No. 5 VCU
There’s always that 12-5 upset every year, and look no further than the South. Stephen F. Austin, riding 28 straight wins and a conference title, is reminiscent of Florida-Gulf Coast, who caused havoc in the bracket last year. They shoot the ball well and rebound with tenacity. They have the physicality to match up against VCU, who plays havoc pressure defense. Look out for junior forward Jacob Parker to have a game worth remembering for the soon-to-be-Cinderella.
Player to watch: Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
The Lobos’ senior forward could be a household name soon if New Mexico makes a run. Bairstow, a member of the Australian national team, racked up 20.3 points per game during the season and led his team to a Mountain West championship. He is also a shutdown defender, and plays some of the most impressive post basketball in the nation. If Bairstow can get help from Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk, he will be an exciting force to watch.
Dark horse: New Mexico
The 7-seed could make a run to the Final Four, and it wouldn’t even shock anyone. Bairstow, Williams and Kirk are strong on both ends of the court. Kirk, standing at 7-feet tall, can match up with any big man in the tournament. And their journey might work in their favor. If Embiid isn’t healthy for the Jayhawks, New Mexico matches up well. They are playing their strongest basketball lately, and if it carries into the tournament, the South should be scared.
Prediction: Florida advances
The overall No. 1 seed in the tournament is well-deserving of all the buzz. Fresh off an SEC championship, the Gators are dangerous. As dangerous as they were in 2007, when they won the national title. Scottie Wilbekin is one of the best players in the nation, and thrives in the final moments of games. Casey Prather scores with ease. Coach Billy Donovan can mix up tempos and change defensive styles with little difficulty, and versatility is important. Plus, the Gators have been there before. An experienced squad goes a far way come tournament time. They should roll into the Final Four, and neither Pittsburgh or Kansas (without Embiid) can stop them.
West | Pat Higgins
With Arizona, Wisconsin, Creighton and San Diego St. among others headlining the West region of the bracket, there will be a plethora of opportunities for lower seeds to pull upsets, especially when you consider UCLA already upset Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship Game last week. T.J. McConnell leads the Wildcats, while Doug McDermott will fight to play another day of collegiate basketball. Throw Marcus Smart and a number of mid-majors into the equation, and there’s sure to be plenty of competitive basketball on Thursday.
Upset Alert: No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 8 Oklahoma St.
At No. 1, Arizona is the favorite to advance both out of the region and onto the Final Four, but they’ll have to gameplan heavily for Marcus Smart in the second round. Though he caught a lot of flak for pushing a fan earlier in the year, he’s a dominant force on the floor for the Cowboys. And as tournament history shows, one player can take over a game at any point in time (looking at you Steph Curry).
Player to Watch: Doug McDermott, Creighton
Doug McDermott will play his final minutes of college basketball in the tournament. With over 3,000 career points, he’s second only to Pete Marovich for the NCAA all-time scoring lead. He’s averaging nearly 27 points this year, and at 6-foot-8, shot 45 percent from 3-point range. Creighton won’t face any significant challengers until (potentially) Wisconsin in the Elite Eight. Expect Creighton to continue to shooting the lights out in the West.
Dark Horse: Baylor
The Baylor Bears navigated through the often-overlooked Big-12 this season with just a 9-9 record, but finished the season on a tear. They won 10 of their final 11 games before falling to Iowa State, a trendy Final Four pick in many brackets, in the Big-12 Championship Game. They’ve played tough basketball night in and night out this year and seem to have peaked around the right time, which will play in their favor when the tournament begins. Because it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish that matters.
Prediction: Arizona advances
When all the dust settles, Arizona will likely advance to the Final Four out of the West. They lost sophomore forward Brandon Ashley against Cal on Feb. 1, but they still have plenty of talent across the board. As long as freshman Aaron Gordon is on the floor and McConnell is handling the tempo, Arizona should be able to its way through the West. They’ll face a tough challenge against Marcus Smart and Oklahoma St. in the second round if the Cowboys can get past Gonzaga, but they’re good enough to endure.
East| Joey Sykes
The NCAA Tournament’s East Region is surely bound to fly under the radar this year when you look at the all the talented squads fielded by the other three regions. However, that does not mean you should count any of these teams out.
Upset Alert: No. 7 UConn over No. 2 Villanova
Villanova was close to securing the top seed but they may be the first high-ranking team to be knocked out early. They open up against the University of Milwaukee so that should not be too much of a challenge. After that though? The Wildcats could either face the AAC’s UConn or the Atlantic 10’s St. Joseph’s. ‘Nova only lost four times this season but when you look at those losses, they were blown out in all of them by some quality teams, such as Creighton (twice) and Syracuse. The competition will only get tougher as they move on down the bracket.
Player to watch: Travis Trice, Michigan State
The Spartan’s Travis Trice isn’t the most well-known member on his team, but he is sure to make a big impact when he hits the court. Trice has played in 32 games this year but has only started eight. He is most effective, though, for head coach Tom Izzo when he comes off the bench. The guard is best known for nailing 44.0 percent of his shots from downtown which makes him a dangerous overlooked player. He is the spark that the team needs in big situations, and in the NCAA Tournament, every matchup is sure to have plenty of those. He is the player to watch due to his hidden talent off the bench.
Dark Horse: North Carolina
Every year there are always a few Cinderella teams. Who is it this year? In the past, North Carolina was almost always considered contenders, but this season saw the Tar Heels finished with nine loses. Their wins over teams like Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke, Louisville and in-state rival Duke, however, are just a few reasons why this team can beat anyone in March.
Prediction: Michigan St. advances
The two favorites representing the East in the Final Four have to be the ACC and Big Ten tournament champions, Virginia and Michigan State. Expect an air of confidence surrounding these two teams as they look to make some noise following their conference wins. If these two teams meet this March, it will make for one heck of a Sweet Sixteen Matchup. Don’t think the Spartans will be playing this March with a championship hangover as they will find their toughest competition of the Tournament in the Final Four.
Midwest | Saúl Berríos-Thomas
The Midwest region of the NCAA tournament is being billed as one of the toughest regions in recent history. There may not be an easy game in the round of 32. There are many storylines to follow in this region: Is Wichita St. for real? What’s up with Kentucky? Is Duke as good as they seem? This is also the region in which, according to the experts, the most overrated No. 1 seed, Wichita St., and the most underrated No. 4 seed, Louisville, reside. Wichita St. will lose to Kentucky in the second round, if Kentucky gets by a very tough first round test against Kansas St. Louisville and Duke should advance to the Elite Eight.
Upset alert: No. 12 NC State vs. No. 5 St. Louis
A major upset to watch out for in this region is NC State/Xavier beating St. Louis. Fresh off of a big win in the play-in game, the winner is poised to shock St. Louis. I mean let’s be honest, any team that loses to Duquesne probably won’t do well in the Big Dance.
Player to watch: Montrezl Harrel, Louisville
Montrezl Harrell, a sophomore forward for Louisville, has been playing at a very high level recently. Shooting 61 percent from the field is impressive but doing that while averaging over 8 rebounds a game is crazy. In his last three games combined he has put up 47 points while pulling in 21 rebounds. And against everyone’s favorite snub SMU he had 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and a block.
Dark Horse: Kentucky
While this might sound crazy to say, Kentucky is my dark horse. They are one of the most talented eight seeds ever. Led by a great college coach in John Calipari, they have all the tools to be a great team. They have the size, shooting and athleticism to beat anybody. The question is if they can put it all together and forget about their subpar season.
Prediction: Duke advances
Duke has the firepower to ultimately win the Midwest. Beyond the fact that they looked really good in the ACC tournament and that they had a great regular season in one of the toughest conferences in the country, they are really starting to gel as a team. Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood are studs and Rasheed Sulaimon is a tough guard who has hit some big shots for them. Not to mention they have the easiest route out of this deadly region.