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Ben Billman’s NCAA Tournament Preview

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United States Sports Academy doctoral teaching assistant Ben Billman predicts the Duke Blue Devils will win the NCAA Tournament this season. Photo: Twitter

The NCAA tournament is here! A total of 68 teams have been selected by the tournament committee with a dream of cutting down the nets in Glendale, Arizona. There are sure to be upsets and surprises along the way, especially in the first and second rounds. Each of the four regions is filled with contenders competing for a championship and Cinderellas looking for that one shining moment in the first weekend of play. Here is a breakdown of each region along with my predictions for the Final Four and National Championship.

East Region

The Contenders – The No. 1 seed Villanova and the No. 2 seed Duke highlight the East region. They both won their respective conference tournaments and have favorable roads to the elite eight. Keep an eye on the No. 6 seed SMU Mustangs. They finished the season with a record of 30-4 and have a balanced attack on the offensive end of the floor. The No. 3 seed Baylor has struggled late in the season. The No. 4 seed Florida hasn’t been the same since John Egbunu was lost for the season to an injury a few weeks ago. The No. 5 seed Virginia is young and struggled to be consistent in a strong ACC. Wisconsin received a No. 8 seed, which seems very low for such an experienced team. They have advanced to at least the sweet sixteen in three consecutive seasons.

The Cinderellas – UNC Wilmington is the No. 12 seed in this region, and they are a strong upset candidate after taking Duke down to the wire last season in the first round. They probably can’t make a Final Four run, but a run to the second weekend is very possible. Keep an eye on No. 13 seed East Tennessee State as well. They are an experienced team who beat UNC Wilmington and Mississippi State earlier this season.

The Champion – Duke won the national title in 2015, and Villanova in 2016. These two teams should meet in the regional final. I expect a close game, but Duke is playing too well right now to not make the final four. Jayson Tatum is quickly becoming a household name who is transforming into a power on both ends of the floor. Coach K has turned this team around after missing a couple weeks due to back surgery early in the season.

Villanova’s Josh Hart. Photo: Sports Illustrated

West Region

The Contenders – Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed and has only lost one game all season. They have beaten other tournament teams such as Florida, Iowa State, and Arizona. They also swept Saint Mary’s in their three meetings. The No. 2 seed Arizona is coming off a Pac 12 tournament championship in which they beat both UCLA and Oregon. This team is fully healthy and has an emerging star in big man Lauri Markkanen. The Wildcats are young and don’t have much tournament experience, but they are the most talented team in this region. The No. 3 seed Florida State is very athletic, but they lack a killer instinct and will struggle if they don’t assert themselves. West Virginia is the No. 4 seed, and Coach Bob Huggins has developed a stifling defense that could lead them through the region. Notre Dame is the No. 5 seed.  They have shown flashes of brilliance but are undersized.

The Cinderellas – The No. 12 seed Princeton Tigers are traditionally a scary matchup in the first round. This year’s version has matched a strong offense with an even better defense. Keep an eye on the No. 8 seed Northwestern as well.  The Wildcats make their first appearance in the NCAA tournament in program history. They have a lot of momentum heading into a first round matchup against Vanderbilt. The No. 11 seed Xavier looks like they have bounced back after losing Edmond Sumner to injury during the season. They could sneak into the sweet sixteen.

The Champion – Coach Sean Miller will finally break through to the Final Four after bowing out in the Elite Eight in 2011, 2014, and 2015. This team has gone 13-2 after Allonzo Trier returned from a suspension two months ago. The Pac 12 Conference has not had a team advance to the Final Four since 2008, but the Wildcats should break this long streak. It looks like Gonzaga will once again be on the outside looking in as they continue to try to break through in their quest for a Final Four berth.

Midwest Region

The Contenders – Kansas is the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, and they have the best point guard in the country in Frank Mason. The Jayhawks fizzled out in a loss to TCU in the Big 12 Conference quarterfinals, but they have a mature team with a lot of tournament experience. Louisville is the No. 2 seed. Their success will come down to the consistency of their interior players. They are a deep team who finished high in the very tough ACC. Oregon is the No. 3 seed, but they just suffered a devastating loss with an injury to Chris Boucher. The Ducks still boast a fantastic point guard in Dillon Brooks. Purdue as a No. 4 seed and Iowa State as a No. 5 seed are both solid teams, but making the Final Four is a long shot. Michigan as a No. 7 seed could be a sleeper. They won the Big Ten Conference tournament after being involved in a plane crash before takeoff on their way to their opening round game.

The Cinderellas – Rhode Island battled through the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. They may not have gotten into the tournament otherwise. The Rams match up against a Creighton team that has been trending down after losing point guard Maurice Watson Jr. during the season to injury. Oklahoma State as a No. 10 seed could win a couple games in the tournament. They are 10-4 in their last 14 games, and the trio of Jawun Evans, Jeffrey Carroll, and Phil Forte will be tough to match up against.

The Champion – Oregon lost Chris Boucher to an injury, but they still have a complete team that was one step away from the final four last season. They will break through in a tough elite eight game against Kansas after knocking out a defensive-minded Louisville squad in the Sweet Sixteen. The Pac 12 will get two teams in the Final Four to break the drought going back to 2008.

Scottie Lindsey completes a slam dunk for the Northwestern basketball team. Photo: Rachel Dubner/The Daily Northwestern

South Region

The Contenders – North Carolina will be playing as the No. 1 seed with redemption on their minds. After losing last year’s championship game to Villanova on a buzzer beater, they return with a deep, experienced team that won the ACC regular season title. The Tar Heels return a lot of talent from last season.  Kentucky is the No. 2 seed, and they are one of only a handful of teams to beat North Carolina this season. Kentucky’s success will come down to the play of their freshmen. Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox will leave Lexington after this year, but they can lead this team to a championship if they play team basketball and don’t get overwhelmed by the national stage. UCLA boasts the best freshmen in the country in Lonzo Ball. They also have a dynamic offense that is tough to stop when shots begin to fall. Butler is the No. 4 seed, but inconsistency could be their downfall.

The Cinderellas – Wichita State is underrated as a No. 10 seed. The Shockers have consistently shown that winning tournament games as a low seed is no challenge to them. They open against another potential Cinderella in Dayton. The winner of that game could give Kentucky fits in the second round. The No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee is also a hot upset pick. They beat Michigan State in last year’s first round, and they won 30 games this season with a core of experienced players. The No. 5 seed Minnesota needs to play error-free basketball in order to beat them.

The Champion – North Carolina has a perfect blend of experience and youth to get out of this bracket. They should cruise to the elite eight where either UCLA or Kentucky will await them. Coach Roy Williams knows this team was built for the final four. I expect their Elite Eight opponent to be Kentucky. The inexperience of the Wildcats will be all the Tar Heels need to make their second straight Final Four.

The Final Four

No. 2 Duke vs. No. 2 Arizona – Two of the hottest teams in the country will ride into Glendale, Arizona with high hopes of a championship. The key in this matchup will be the guard play of Duke. Grayson Allen has had some issues keeping his cool, but Luke Kennard has picked up the slack by shooting well and leading a balanced attack. The biggest question mark for Arizona is their lack of experience. They are gushing with talent, but they have no experienced leaders who can take over in tight games. I expect Duke to win a close game and advance to their second national championship game in three years.

No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 1 North Carolina – The Tar Heels have a core of juniors and seniors that have experienced both the ups and the downs that take place in March. Joel Berry will be the key to their success. He must control Oregon’s Dillon Brooks on defense and distribute the basketball effectively on offense.  Oregon’s Coach Dana Altman should be proud of his team for advancing this far, but they will run out of gas against Coach Roy Williams in the final four.

The Championship

No. 2 Duke vs. No. 1 North Carolina – The two teams from Tobacco Road will meet for a fourth time this season. Duke has won two of their three meetings so far this year, including a win in the ACC tournament semifinals less than a week ago. Jayson Tatum emerged as a serious threat for Duke in that win. The biggest issue for Duke is their depth. The Blue Devils have a rotation of seven players in competitive games. This could be an issue after a long tournament run. North Carolina has more size and strength, but as we saw last year in the championship game, that doesn’t always matter. A smaller Villanova team controlled the paint against North Carolina. The big men for the Tar Heels must rebound the basketball and limit second chances for Duke.

I like Duke’s chances in this game. Coach K consistently finds ways to motivate his team, and some of the players on this team already have national championship experience. Unfortunately for North Carolina, they will lose in the national championship for the second straight season. The final score will be 78-73, with the Blue Devils cutting down the nets for the sixth time under Coach K.

By Ben Billman

Ben Billman is currently a doctoral teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy. He lives in Mobile, Ala. with his wife Jennifer and son Derrick. He is originally from Indiana, and therefore has a deep love for the game of basketball. Reach him at bbillman@ussa.edu

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