With the first round of the NCAA tournament starting Thursday afternoon, our men’s basketball beat writers make their predictions for which teams will make the Final Four and eventually be crowned national champions. If you want to compete against their picks, you can register and play in The Chronicle’s Bracket Challenge here.

How far will the Blue Devils advance, and who will make the Final Four out of Duke’s Midwest region?

Ben Leonard: Although some have called the Blue Devils’ path among the toughest in the country to the Final Four, I actually think it plays into their hands very well—and they’ll win it all. 

Iona is horrible at rebounding, so it shouldn’t be an upset threat. The Oklahoma Trae Youngs are ice cold, and Rhode Island doesn’t have have the rebounding presence to hang with Duke. 

As for the Sweet 16 against likely opponent Michigan State, the Blue Devils have owned Tom Izzo’s teams, winning 11 of 12 games all-time. Right now, Duke is the most balanced team in the country, and should be able to handle Kansas in the Elite Eight. 

Every team that has won the championship since 2002 has been in the top 20 in basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings on both offense and defense—and the Blue Devils are No. 3 and No. 7 in those, respectively. Outside of Duke, Michigan State and Gonzaga own that combination right now. That level of balance bodes well for the Blue Devils, and will allow them to handle anyone they could face in the Final Four. Book it, Duke’s going to win No. 6. 

Mitchell Gladstone: Like Ben, I feel really good about the Blue Devils’ early path. I’d guess it’s going to be a second-round matchup with the Rams, and Duke should win out even if Rhody gives it a run for 30 minutes. But in Omaha, it all feels like a crapshoot—the Blue Devils could win no games, they might advance to the Elite Eight before losing and they could go all  the way to San Antonio.

I think my instincts tell me they’ll be able to take out Sparty in a Friday regional semifinal before losing to the Jayhawks. Although Michigan State goes nine or 10 deep, it doesn’t have the size to handle Duke’s bigs, and I think with Marvin Bagley playing close to 40 minutes, the matchup goes similarly to the teams’ November contest. But against Kansas, the Blue Devils will have to deal with a much more balanced opponent and one that is even better on the offensive end. Plus, the Jayhawks have just two freshmen in their eight-man rotation, so after coming up one win short of the Final Four the last two seasons, Kansas returns to college basketball’s final weekend for the first time since 2012.

Sameer Pandhare: I’ve always been a pessimist when it comes to Duke’s NCAA tournament chances, so don’t read on if you want a glowing opinion about the Blue Devils in San Antonio. I think Duke is highly susceptible to going home in the second round once again this season. Rhode Island is not nearly big enough to guard Carter and Bagley down low, but the Blue Devils could have an equally tough time with the Rams’ guards. Rhode Island also has a slight edge in experience, and let’s not forget that they came very close to upsetting Oregon a year ago. I’m not as high on Oklahoma, but transcendent players make their name in March, and I still believe in the powers of Trae Young to potentially make noise in the Big Dance. 

At the end of the day, I have Duke bowing out in the Sweet 16 against Michigan State. The first matchup between the teams is not really an indication of where both sit today. The Blue Devil zone may actually play into the hands of a Spartans team that can stick Miles Bridges or Jaren Jackson in the middle. Michigan State also has enough 3-point shooting and veteran leadership to make life difficult for Grayson Allen and company. I have the Spartans emerging victorious in this region with a win against Kansas in the Elite Eight—though I’m very, very tempted to pick N.C. State to topple the Jayhawks in the second round. 

Hank Tucker: Yes, Duke beat Michigan State in November, but Allen hasn’t shown he’s capable of taking over a game for 40 minutes since then, and the Spartans started to get hot with 13 straight wins before a setback in the Big Ten tournament against Michigan. The Blue Devils got unlucky they have to run into an underseeded Michigan State team so early. 

There are few things less relevant to this tournament than Coach K’s career record against Izzo—they both have completely different teams this year than in the past, and while we’re citing meaningless stats, Izzo’s teams have beaten Duke in the Sweet 16 just as many times as the Blue Devils have beaten him in that round: once. Michigan State will get its revenge in Omaha, edging Duke and beating Kansas as well to advance to the Final Four in San Antonio.

Who will win the South region to advance to the Final Four?

BL: Virginia is far too good on defense not to advance to the Final Four. The Cavaliers have one of the best defenses in college basketball history, something that will travel far better than shooting, which tends to be streaky. They’re the biggest lock for the Final Four in recent memory. 

MG: I may be the only one in this group to not pick Virginia—and that’s only because I think the NCAA selection committee did them really, really dirty. I think the Cavs get to the Sweet 16 and have to deal with an Arizona team that may have the most dominant player in the NCAA tournament in Deandre Ayton and has lost just four times since November. The Wildcats have burned me before, but I’m going to roll with Sean Miller’s squad because I think it is the best team in the South region.

SP: I agree that the Cavaliers got screwed by the committee, but I think this Virginia team is good enough to beat the Wildcats. Miller’s team has yet to see any sort of defense resembling the packline, and I simply don’t trust Arizona to make plays in big tournament games. Ayton is great and all, but the Cavaliers have shown that one player can’t always beat them, and I don’t think the Wildcats hit enough 3-pointers to upset Virginia. Give me the Cavaliers over Tennessee in the Elite Eight. 

HT: There are three legitimate national title contenders crammed into the top half of the South region, but only one can make it to Elite Eight, and it’ll be Virginia. Ayton would be a tough matchup for sure, but Arizona will have a hard time even making it there with a potential second-round game against Kentucky looming. The Sweet 16 is the only possible stumbling block I see for the Cavaliers, but they’ll find a way and then will enjoy a comfortable win in the regional final to go to head coach Tony Bennett’s first Final Four.

Who will win the East region to advance to the Final Four?

BL: Villanova has guys who have done it before, and they’ll be able to do it again this year in the East region. It’s a very weak group—Purdue is the only team that has any sort of chance of unseating the Wildcats. The Boilermakers are very similar to Villanova in that they are elite on offense and not amazing on defense, but the Wildcats do that style better, which will propel them to the Final Four. No. 3 seed Texas Tech is ice cold, and Wichita State just isn't that good. It’ll be easy sailing to the Final Four for Villanova. 

MG: Like Sameer, I definitely see this region as wide-open—just not in terms of who emerges as the champ. Villanova might be the best program in the country at the moment in terms of culture and sustained excellence. I could see Florida, Purdue, Texas Tech, Butler or Arkansas making it to the Elite Eight, but none of them are good enough to top the Wildcats. And although Villanova has won in blowout fashion on many occasions this season, it has shown with two overtime victories in its last six games, that it knows how to win in tight contests—which I think it will get throughout the East region.

SP: This region is the most open in my eyes because I don’t believe Villanova is good enough on defense to advance deep in the tournament. Despite having talented players in Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, the Wildcats’ reliance on the 3-point shot is also not a great sign. Look out for either Alabama or Virginia Tech to send Jay Wright to his usual spot in the CBS studio for the second weekend. Unlike Ben, I have little faith in Purdue as well, and I think Arkansas will actually be a nightmare matchup for them in the second round with Daniel Gatford controlling the game down low. With the top two seeds out of the picture, I’m going to roll with West Virginia to come out of this region. This Mountaineers team is better on offense than those in the past, and big man Sagaba Konate is the X-factor that pushes West Virginia over the edge for me. 

HT: When I was in Oregon for the PK80 Invitational in November, I watched in person as Florida beat Gonzaga in double overtime in what might still be the game of the season, and then I watched as the Gators looked like the best team in the nation for 30 minutes against Duke before melting down. There were plenty of slumps and inexplicable losses over the course of the season, but I can’t get that spectacular version of Florida out of my head when it spreads the floor, beats teams in transition and hits 3-pointers. The Gators are making a Cinderella run to the Final Four.

Who will win the West region to advance to the Final Four?

BL: I have a lot of faith in Gonzaga—the Bulldogs have a level of balance that will serve them very well in the tournament. They rate No. 12 in offensive efficiency and No. 15 in defensive efficiency, allowing them to play with anyone. They can rebound well, shoot decently from deep and play tight defense, all with an experienced core of players. They’ll be able to hang with Xavier, a team I think is frankly pretty overrated. It hasn’t beaten anyone!

MG: I’m with Ben on the anti-Xavier bandwagon, and I have been all season. If you look at its schedule, it does have three consecutive wins against KenPom’s No. 25 Butler, No. 27 Creighton and No. 26 Seton Hall. Except its nonconference strength of schedule is below that of six of the other 15 top-four seeds, and it just lost to 10th-seeded Providence less than a week ago. Gonzaga comfortably makes it to the Elite Eight, and in a matchup with North Carolina, the Bulldogs won’t lose for a second straight season.

SP: When I started eyeing Gonzaga in early February, I thought I’d be alone in picking the Bulldogs to the Final Four. Instead, they’ve become one of the trendiest picks of the tournament, which has me a tad bit worried. But I’ll stick with them because of the balance Ben mentioned. I don’t think Xavier is overrated, but Gonzaga showed the ability to handle the Musketeers a year ago and will do the same in the Sweet 16 this season. To me, North Carolina has an easy path to the Elite Eight, where it’ll meet Mark Few’s squad in a rematch of last year’s national championship. In any other region, I would pick the Tar Heels to go to their third straight Final Four, but the Bulldogs have piqued my interest all year, and I’ll roll with them to return to the Final Four. 

HT: I keep trying to find a team North Carolina will lose to, and I just can’t. For the last month of the season, the Tar Heels were as consistent as anybody in the ACC after a few early hiccups, and senior Theo Pinson is one of the most underrated players in the country as a point forward who can defend every position. Xavier is by far the weakest No. 1 seed, and Gonzaga has some potential, but not enough to win a rematch of last year’s national championship in the Elite Eight.

Who will win the national championship?

BL: Duke is the only team in the country that can handle Virginia right now—it should have been able to come away with a win in January. The Blue Devils have the defense and the offensive firepower to keep up with the Cavaliers, and they showed it in that loss—they dropped 41 points in the second half and almost came back for a win. Now, with a functional defense, they have all the pieces in place to win it all.

MG: If we get a Final Four with Arizona vs. Gonzaga and Villanova vs. Kansas, I would be absolutely thrilled. I think those wind up as two incredible matchups, and I see the Wildcats coming out victorious in both. Arizona has so, so, so much talent and I just think it overwhelms Mark Few’s squad. The Jayhawks have beaten good Big 12 teams, but they’ve also been inconsistent—see home losses to Arizona State in December and Oklahoma State in February—so I’ll take Villanova, which has been to the Final Four before and emerged victorious. And call me a homer, but I’m taking Jalen Brunson and the Villanova Wildcats to cut down those nets at the Alamodome. Brunson is so composed, may be the National Player of the Year, and he’s got the supporting cast that is national title-worthy.

SP: My Final Four matchups of Virginia vs. Gonzaga and West Virginia vs. Michigan State are far from sexy, which is fitting for an up-and-down season of college basketball. Look, this Cavaliers team is one of the best in recent college basketball memory. But I refuse to believe that you can win a championship with Virginia’s plodding pace, and I think the Bulldogs will expose that in San Antonio. In my eyes, Michigan State has all the pieces needed to make a deep tournament run, and I think Tom Izzo’s team is too experienced and balanced to struggle against West Virginia’s press. Since I picked Gonzaga and Michigan State to make the championship game, it probably won’t happen. But if it does, I see the Bulldogs climbing the mountaintop and Mark Few—the most underrated coach in the country–cutting down the nets for the first time in his career. 

HT: Virginia is the best and most consistent team in the nation, and it’s not very close. The Cavaliers were in full control throughout the ACC tournament, and even with key sixth man De’Andre Hunter out for the tournament due to a broken wrist, they’ll still be tough to beat. Virginia has less margin for error against inferior opponents because of its pace of play, which has caused some of its stunning March slip-ups in past years, but it won’t matter this year. The Cavaliers are that much better than the rest of the country, and they’re going to win their first national championship.