Round of 64
#1 Villanova vs. #16 Mt. St. Mary’s/New Orleans: The opening game of the tournament will be a tasty cupcake for the reigning champs. Villanova is trying to become the first back-to-back National Champion since Florida accomplished the feat in the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
#8 Wisconsin vs. #9 Virginia Tech:The Hokies did not get a favorable matchup in this game. Wisconsin is a team chock-full of postseason experience. In fact, the Badgers have been to the Sweet 16 in five of the last six years. Ethan Happ, Bronson Koenig, and Nigel Hayes will take care of Virginia Tech.
#5 Virginia vs. #12 UNC Wilmington: Virginia puts the clamps down on its opponents with a slow, methodical offense and a grind-it-out defensive scheme. UNC Wilmington is a team averaging 85.0 PPG. The Seahawks are also second in the country in turnover rate, and make 56.1-percent of their shots inside three-point range.
Winner: UNC Wilmington
#4 Florida vs. #13 East Tennessee: Florida took a huge hit with the loss of starting center John Egbunu. The Gators are only 3-3 since their defensive presence in the middle was lost for the season. ETU is a deep, athletic team with the ability to get hot from three. Florida appears ripe for an upset.
Winner: East Tennessee
#6 SMU vs. #11 Providence/USC: SMU is one of the best small ball teams in the country. While they don’t offer terrific depth, Tim Jankovich’s team hasn’t lost a game since Jan. 12. Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye might be the best player no one is talking about.
#3 Baylor vs. #14 New Mexico St.: Baylor is looking to avoid the upset in this contest. In the last two tournaments, the Bears have been knocked out by a No. 14 and No. 12 seed (Georgia State and Yale, respectively). It won’t happen for a third-straight year.
#7 South Carolina vs. #10 Marquette: This is a very fascinating contest. Marquette is the best three-point shooting team in the country – connecting on 43-percent of its attempts. They also have 10 players averaging at least 13 minutes. South Carolina had a very good season in the SEC, winning 22 games. This game could go either way. However, the contest is being played in Greenville, South Carolina. Advantage USC.
Winner: South Carolina
#2 Duke vs. #15 Troy:The Blue Devils enter the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the field. Duke won four games in four days en route to capturing the ACC Tournament Title. Stud freshman Jayson Tatum is peaking at the right time, and Grayson Allen hasn’t tripped anyone.
Round of 32
#1 Villanova vs. #8 Wisconsin: Though the Badgers will get by the upstart Hokies, Villanova presents a far tougher matchup from a personnel standpoint. Jay Wright loves his guards, and often pressures teams defensively with a small ball style of play. While Wisconsin is a much bigger team top to bottom, Villanova will be able to run on them — as well as defend against UW’s three-point gunners. Look for Josh Hart to also have a big game in this contest. Wisconsin doesn’t quite have a defender capable of matching up with the All-American.
#12 UNC Wilmington vs. #13 East Tennessee: The Seahawks are one of the most fascinating teams in the tournament. They like to get up-and-down on the offensive side of the ball, and press relentlessly on the defensive side of the ball. Four players on the team average at least 12 PPG — led by C.J. Bryce at 17.6. One of these two mid-majors will be dancing as a Cinderella, and it will be UNC Wilmington. It simply has too much firepower for its opponent.
Winner: UNC Wilmington
#6 SMU vs. #3 Baylor: This battle of Texas programs will feature star power on both sides. SMU’s Ojeleye has been one of the most versatile players in the nation. Baylor brings freakish athlete Johnathan Motley to the table. The two all-conference performers figure to battle head-to-head versus one another in what should be a great matchup.
SMU ranks No. 15 in defensive efficiency, and Baylor shoots a paltry 35.9-percent from three-point range. Additionally, the Bears are 5-6 in their last 11 contests. The Mustangs haven’t lost a game in two months.
#2 Duke vs. #7 South Carolina: After starting the season slowly, it appears as if the Blue Devils have solved their prior consistency and injury issues. Tatum is demonstrating why he was one of the nation’s best high school players a year ago. In his last five games, Tatum is averaging 20.2 PPG, 7 RPG, and is shooting 50.9-percent. The St. Louis native accrued these statistics against the likes of Louisville, Notre Dame, Clemson, and North Carolina (twice). Duke does have the advantage in overall talent against the Gamecocks, but there are two things to take into account before penciling in Coach K’s squad as a sure-fire winner.
South Carolina is No. 5 nationally in defensive efficiency. Frank Martin has instilled a culture rooted in toughness and physicality. Duly, this game is being played in Greenville, South Carolina. While this is only a stone’s throw from Duke’s campus in Durham, it will essentially be a de facto home game for USC. Look for Duke to eek out a narrow victory.
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 12 UNC Wilmington: The Seahawks four-guard lineup will not be foreign to the Wildcats — as ‘Nova employs a similar style of play. While Hart gets most of the attention, sophomore guard Jalen Brunson is a budding star. His ability to get to the rim will be huge in this game. Should Brunson have success in this capacity, it’ll open up good looks for the likes of Kris Jenkins and Mikal Bridges.
The Cinderella run of UNC Wilmington will stop here versus the defending champs. Villanova ranks a respectable No. 25 nationally in defensive efficiency. It’ll tighten the screws on UNC Wilmington’s top scorer, Bryce.
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 6 SMU: Ojeleye will get a chance at some revenge against his former team. He played sparingly at Duke before opting to transfer closer to home. Both teams mirror each other considerably. Each utilizes a three-guard lineup with one swingman at the four, and a traditional defensive-minded big at the five spot.
A huge matchup in this contest involves Duke guard Luke Kennard and SMU guard Shake Milton. Besides having an awesome name, Milton can really play. The sophomore shoots 42.5-percent from three on the year, and has the size (6’6″) to bother Kennard on the defensive end of the floor. SMU across the board has considerable length. Though they start no player taller than 6’8″, they possess three starters at 6’6″, Ojeleye at 6’7″, and 6’8″ senior big man Ben Moore. This versatility enables the Mustangs to switch on defense quite well.
The trump card for Duke in this game is Allen. Since coming off of the bench, the Florida native has averaged 12 points in the last five games. SMU doesn’t have the same sort of production off of its bench. Though Allen is very much a wildcard, he can explode for 20 points at any time. Assuming he doesn’t trip anyone, he will be the difference in this contest.
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 1 Villanova: This is the matchup everyone wants to see. It pits last year’s National Champion against one of the most iconic programs in the country. Villanova will attempt to rough up Duke with its physicality. On the other hand, the Blue Devils will want to utilize their bevy of skilled wingers and guards.
Duke will likely be favored in this game. Coming off of a very successful ACC Tournament, many are picking the Blue Devils to reach the Final Four. Villanova — a team often looked at as an afterthought — surely will be motivated to demonstrate that last year was far from a fluke.
Simply put, Duke is the more talented basketball team. There are more scoring options made available to Coach K when compared to Wright, and the combination of Tatum and Matt Jones defensively could pose Hart some problems. As such, Duke will be headed back to the Final Four for the 17th time.
East Regional Winner: Duke Blue Devils
Source: Adam Hunger, David Butler, Brad Penner /USA TODAY Sports, ESPN