Top seed outlook: According to this FiveThirtyEight model, high seed Duke gets got the best chance of advancing to the Final Four at the entire area (53 percent probability) as well as the best odds of winning the national title (19 percent).
The Blue Devils are led by four soon-to-be first-round draft picks, including Zion Williamson, one of the most significant talents in recent memory. Duke is a walking highlight reel to the offensive end and far stingier on defense than many may realize. This is one of Mike Krzyzewski’s most-balanced teams and projects to be his first since 2010 to rank within the top six in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offense and defense metrics. That team won the national title.1
What this team lacks, however, is signature along the perimeter. Duke shoots a grisly 30.2 percent from outside the arc, the worst mark one of tournament-qualifying teams. In an offensive era increasingly dominated by space and perimeter scoring, the Blue Devils could match the trend punishing the rim.
On the other side of the region is that the winner of the Big Ten conference tournament, Michigan State. As their reward, the No. 2 Spartans have the honor of a possible matchup against the top overall seed in the Elite Eight. Head coach Tom Izzo was none too happy. The Spartans have been pummeled by accidents but remain among the most balanced teams in the country, standing inside the top eight in Pomeroy’s adjusted offense and protection metrics.
Sneaky Final Four select: No. 4 Virginia Tech. Directed by the celebrity pairing of Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Hokies are a balanced squad that ranks among Pomeroy’s Top 25 teams on both the offense and defense. Although they have dropped eight times, just two of these were by double-digits. Virginia Tech also includes a not-altogether-unfriendly draw, with exceptionally winnable opening games against Saint Louis (87 percent) and the Mississippi State-Liberty winner (63 percent) before most probably running to Duke’s juggernaut. We give the Hokies a respectable 25 percent chance from the Blue Devils — and a 54 percent chance against whoever emerges from the bottom of the region if they do manage to knock off Duke.
Do not wager on: No. 3 LSU. With trainer Will Wade embroiled in a pay-for-play scandal and his team likely overvalued as a 3-seed, the Bayou Bengals may be ripe for an upset in this tournament. They ranked only 18th in Pomeroy’s ratings — about the caliber of a No. 5 seed — thanks in large part to a defense which didn’t even crack the nation’s top 60 in corrected efficiency. (This showed up in the 51 second-half points that they allowed to Florida while shedding their first game of the SEC tournament.) Their NCAA path isn’t very simple, either: Yale is no pushover as a No. 14 seed, nor is potential second-round competitor Maryland, and we all give the Tigers a mere 26 percent likelihood of beating Michigan State if the teams meet in the Sweet Sixteen. That is easily the lowest-rated top-three seed in the field.
Cinderella watch: No. 11 Belmont. The East is top-heavy, with Duke and Michigan State soaking up most of the Final Four chances. However, the Bruins are an intriguing lower-seeded group due to an impressive offense led by do-everything swingman Dylan Windler. According to Pomeroy, Belmont ranks 20th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency (and second nationally in raw points per game behind Gonzaga), whereas Windler was one of just 3 players nationwide to average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Even though the Bruins do have to acquire a play-in game against Temple only to make the field of 64 — we give them a 59 percent chance — they’d have a very aggressive 39 percent probability of upsetting Maryland in the first round and a much better opportunity from the LSU/Yale winner.
Player to watch: Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Three years back, zzo stated he believed his 6-foot-1 freshman could be Michigan State’s greatest passer because Magic Johnson. The Spartans’ do-everything point guard — one of the greatest facilitators from the nation — is supporting his trainer’s comment. Just Murray State’s Ja Morant, a surefire lottery pick in this year’s draft, has a higher assist rate than Winston (46.0 percent). And behind Winston, the Spartans assist on the highest speed of field goals in the country.
The junior also happens to be Izzo’s leading scorer and one of the nation’s top perimeter threats, shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. As harms have relentlessly sapped the Spartans of their on-court production, Winston has elevated his game to compensate. As he put it to The Athletic,”I have to do a whole lot for my own team to win”
Likeliest first-round upsets: No. 9 Central Florida over No. 8 VCU (47 percent); No. 11 Belmont* over No. 6 Maryland (39 percent); No. 10 Minnesota over No. 7 Louisville (34 percent)