It’s very weird that a No. 1 seed doesn’t win the conference regular season or the conference tournament, but that’s what Duke has on the resume this year. Duke certainly has the impressive wins to have earned the honor considering they beat fellow No. 1 seed Wisconsin and beat No. 2 seed Virginia on the road. That looks pretty good when you add that to two wins against North Carolina and wins against Louisville, Michigan State, and Notre Dame. But Duke did lose to Notre Dame twice and surprisingly lost back-to-back games by double-digits to NC State and Miami.
Duke turned things around after the Miami loss by moving Justise Winslow to power forward and going with a smaller, more athletic lineup. The departure of Rasheed Sulaimon hasn’t hurt Duke at all offensively as the starters each stepped up, specifically Winslow, while Matt Jones and Grayson Allen have shined times. It really hurts Duke that Player of the Year candidate Jahlil Okafor can’t make foul shots, but thankfully they have Tyus Jones, aka Tyus Stones, has been as good as any player in the country late in games.As long as Duke doesn’t have both guards go cold, which happened in the recent loss to Notre Dame, it shouldn’t be hard for them to get to the Final Four. This biggest thing holding Duke back is it’s 57th-ranked defense according to Kenpom, which usually means a national championship is a pipe dream.
Duke’s biggest competition is Gonzaga, who hasn’t played anyone of note since December. It’s obviously not Gonzaga’s fault that their conference isn’t very good, but it’s hard to turn up the dial against elite teams when you haven’t seen them in recent weeks. That especially comes into play when you’re the hunted as a high seed. Just look at what happened to Wichita State last year. Gonzaga has really good guard play in Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to go along with frontcourt weapons Kyle Wiltjer and Przemek Karnowski, but Pangos won’t be able to shut down whichever Duke guard he gets stuck with, Wiltjer will get abused by Winslow off the dribble, and Karnowski isn’t athletic enough to bother Okafor.
Outside of the top two seeds, the region is incredibly weak. Iowa State just won the Big 12 tournament, but their defense leaves them very susceptible to an upset. They’ve also lost a few games this year, South Carolina and Texas Tech specifically, which left you scratching your head. Georgetown as a No. 4 seed is confusing. They struggled outside the conference this year with losses to Kansas and Wisconsin and have a 6-10 record against other teams in the NCAA Tournament. They’re ripe to lose early again this year.
Utah looks great on paper, being in the top 18 in the Kenpom rankings on offense and defense, but they’ve lost four of their last seven and also have a losing record (3-7) against fellow NCAA Tournament teams. SMU might’ve been a top 10 team had Emmanuel Mudiay not fled to China, so it’s possible that they could break open the bracket with Larry Brown as their coach. Then you realize that SMU has one win, count it one, against other tournament teams. Iowa has a lot of Jekyll and Hyde to their game, but an up-tempo game helps their case and that’s what they could see in their bottom of the region.
First round upset that will happen: Stephen F. Austin over Utah
Remember when Stephen F. Austin upset VCU last year? Well the band of underdogs is back along with two of their top three leading scorers from last year. They’re currently the 19th-best offense in the country according to Kenpom. We already mentioned Utah’s issues above, so it should be no surprise that I think they’re vulnerable. Watching Utah this year makes you realize they struggle to score sometimes, despite generally having the best player on the floor in guard Delon Wright. That’s a bad combination with what the Lumberjacks have to offer.
First round upset that won’t happen: Eastern Washington over Georgetown
Despite all the issues with Georgetown and their recent tournament history, Eastern Washington just isn’t that viable of a threat to knock them off their perch. Eastern Washington does have the leading scorer in the nation in Tyler Harvey, but they can’t play defense worth a damn. Georgetown should find it no problem scoring and Josh Smith should dominate inside against an undersized frontline.
Best Non-Bracket Bets:
San Diego State -2.5 over St. John’s – The suspension of Chris Obekpa means the Red Storm will have trouble protecting the rim against a team that likes to attack it.
Stephen F. Austin +6.5 over Utah – We believe in the Lumberjacks.
Davidson +2.5 over Iowa – Davidson is great offensively and can really shoot it from distance. I don’t trust Iowa’s defense at all and they’ve been known to lay an egg.
Iowa State +600 to win the South Region – If Iowa State can stay out of their own way then they’re certainly capable of taking down Duke and Gonzaga in shootouts.