Blue Zone

Take of the week: Duke is going to be the next national champion

Every week, the Blue Zone will make a take on Duke basketball—whether that take may be hot, cold or lukewarm. This week's take is in from Likhitha Butchireddygari:

I've been a non-believer for most of the season.

Each win, I took with a grain of salt and each loss, I attributed to larger structural issues of a young team. In fact, I had Duke losing in the Sweet 16 against Michigan State in my bracket. But, now, after the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, I am very confident that the Blue Devils will win the national championship. 

After being placed in one of the toughest regions, Duke's road to San Antonio seems to be clearer than ever. 

Some teams that could have beaten the Blue Devils' have imploded in dramatic fashion. Michigan State's loss to Syracuse took out one of the Blue Devils' most competitive opponents in the Midwest region. UMBC's Cinderella win took out of one of the strongest contenders for the title, Virginia, which was the only team to win at Cameron Indoor Stadium this year. 

No. 2 Cincinnati's, No. 3 Tennessee's and No. 4 Arizona's losses in the same region put the Blue Devils closer to victory. Second-seeded North Carolina's unexpected loss to Texas A&M also increase Duke's chances.

Then, there are the teams that would give Duke a run for its money had their tournament performance not been so poor. In the midwest, Kansas barely squeaked past No. 8 seed Seton Hall. In the South, Kentucky made zero 3-pointers against Davidson, only beating the No. 12 seed by five points. In the East, Purdue's loss of its powerful center Issac Haas has left the team struggling—only beating No. 10 Butler by three.

In the West, Gonzaga blew its 15-point lead against Ohio State in the middle of the second half, winning the game in the final minutes with six points. Michigan has been an absolute mess since the start of the tournament. After a lackluster performance against No. 14 Montana, Michigan only won against No. 6 Houston on a buzzer-beater after playing with a 35.6 field goal percentage. The team has also had significant foul trouble—its best player, Mo Wagner, had four fouls in both games and two other players fouled out against Houston.

Compared to these teams, Duke has had a very strong performance in the first two rounds. The Blue Devils' once-absent offense has flourished with Trevon Duval on top of his game, while their defense has continued to be suffocating. Rhode Island was a good test for Duval, as it was one of the most opportunistic defenses in the country, but failed to get Duval and Duke's offense out of sync by forcing takeaways. 

The Blue Devils are arguably playing the most complete basketball they have played all season. 

Now, this isn't all to say that Duke will have an easy time winning the national championship. There are still very clear barriers in its path in Villanova, which cruised past its first two opponents, and Kansas, but it's hard to see a victor coming out of the left side of the bracket. 

But right now, the Blue Devils are the best bet in the country to do it. 

Beyond the arc: Duke's offense is cruising into the Sweet 16

Second-seeded Duke wrapped up its opening weekend of the NCAA tournament with a dominant 87-62 win against No. 7 seed Rhode Island. The Blue Zone gives three key takeaways and stats from the win and looks forward for the Blue Devils: 

Three key takeaways:

1. The Blue Devil offense is cruising

There were clearly some question marks down the stretch of the regular season and into the ACC tournament whether Duke’s scoring would return to early-season levels. The Blue Devils scored more than 70 points just once in their final five games before the NCAA tournament.

But with 178 combined points in two tournament contests, it’s clear that Duke should have little problem finding the bottom of the net, even against tougher opposition.

2. And don’t forget about the defense

For as good as the Blue Devils have been offensively, their defense has yet to take its foot off the gas. 

The Rams shot worse than 40 percent from the field Saturday and they scored just 28 points before halftime. Duke may not have Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense, but it appears that Coach K’s newfound zone scheme may be similarly effective—especially with one of the tallest and longest lineups in the nation.

3. Upset avoided

It’s already been a wild first weekend in the NCAA tournament, so Duke can at least take a deep breath knowing that it will make a third Sweet 16 trip in the last four seasons. Three top-four seeds have been knocked out already, with potentially more upsets to come, but the Blue Devils will be on their way to Omaha, Neb. 

Three key stats:   

1. 56.9 percent from the field and 47.6 percent shooting beyond the arc

Against a small group of Rams, the Blue Devils had little problem finding offense from all over the floor Saturday. Wendell Carter Jr. led the way with a perfect 6-of-6 effort, knocking down all of his 2-point shots plus one more at the charity stripe. Marvin Bagley III wasn’t far behind, hitting on eight of his 10 tries, and Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. took charge of the long-range barrage, combining for seven treys.

2. Nine turnovers in the final 33 minutes

Similar to Thursday’s first-round game, Duke came out just a bit too amped against Rhode Island and made  some bad mistakes in the early going. But about halfway through the first, the Blue Devils settled into the contest and limited giveaways as they went on a 23-5 run to blow the game wide open.

3. 19-of-24 at the charity stripe

If offense wasn’t even enough for Duke, the Blue Devils got plenty of free points as they repeatedly pounded the ball inside and earned trips to the line. But unlike in past contests, Duke capitalized, missing just five free throws all game. And a bright spot going forward was a 4-of-5 effort from Trevon Duval, who had struggled at the line in pressure situations earlier this season.

Looking forward: 

Either way, Duke will now get the opportunity to double down on a victory from earlier this season when it faces either No. 3 seed Michigan State or 11th-seeded Syracuse in the Midwest regional semifinal Friday night. 

The Blue Devils took out the Spartans at the Champions Classic in Chicago Nov. 14 by an 88-81 margin—but played much of that contest without Bagley. Duke rode a dominant defensive effort to top the Orange just last month in Durham 60-44. 

HALFTIME: Duke 45, Rhode Island 28

PITTSBURGH—Once again, Duke looked out of sorts early against an underdog, but its defense and a late surge has pushed it well ahead. 

The second-seeded Blue Devils have taken a comfortable 45-28 lead against seventh-seeded Rhode Island at PPG Paints Arena behind a strong defensive effort and more impressive perimeter shooting. Despite laying through a sore left Achilles' tendon, Wendell Carter Jr. scored nine points, while Gary Trent Jr.’s 11 points and three triples have steadied Duke on the perimeter. The Rams shot just 36.7 percent from the field and buried three triples. 

The Blue Devils were hampered by a barrage of turnovers early against one of the best teams in the country at forcing giveaways and looked nervous as they allowed the Rams to take a 7-2 lead.  

It started out early, with Trevon Duval dribbling it out of bounds off his foot and Carter coughing it up in the first few possessions. Duke never really got out of its funk until a timeout almost midway through the half. The Blue Devils were down 11-10 with five turnovers through eight minutes. 

But then Duke’s offense finally woke up, going on a 23-5 run right after that timeout, started by a Carter dunk and continued by a 3-point parade. Trent knocked down three triples and senior captain Grayson Allen hit an and-one 3-pointer and another triple to help Duke surge ahead by 17 points. The Blue Devils only turned the ball over two times in the last 13 minutes of the half.

Here are a few observations from the first half:

  • The officiating crew has been quick to blow whistles against Duke’s big men for charges in the paint. But the Blue Devils adjusted and started taking more outside shots and making post moves under control.
  • The Blue Devils have controlled the glass against a tiny Rhode Island team that has no rotation players taller than 6-foot-8, outrebounding the Rams 19-14. 
  • Duval was quickly benched after his misplaced dribble, but has come back to the floor and played 17 solid minutes, dishing out three assists to just one turnover and scoring 10 points, including a deep 3-pointer with less than 20 seconds left to wrap up the half.
  • 6-foot-8, 286-pound Andre Berry is larger than most post players Duke has seen this season, and it gave the Blue Devils some trouble. He scored six points and grabbed five rebounds in just nine minutes. 
  • Head coach Mike Krzyzewski hasn’t dipped into his bench much, with just Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier coming off the pine. 

Key three: Duke must limit turnovers against aggressive Rhode Island defense

After dispatching Iona 89-67 in their NCAA Tournament opener, the second-seeded Blue Devils will face off against Rhode Island hoping to avoid the same fate the team suffered last year: falling to a No. 7 seed. Here are three keys to a Duke win: 

Win the turnover battle

The Rams are an experienced team, starting four seniors and a sophomore. Over the years, they have learned to be a cohesive defensive force—which may pose problems for a young Duke squad. Boasting the 36th best defense in the country according to statistician Ken Pomeroy, Rhode Island one of the best teams in the country at forcing turnovers.  Meanwhile, the Rams are very careful with the ball, and as result, are second in the nation in turnover margin at +5.2.

On the other hand, the Blue Devils’ struggles in taking care of the ball are well documented. They are 233rd overall, losing the turnover battle by 0.6 on average. With four players averaging over two turnovers per game, it is going to be critical for Duke to make smart plays and maintain possession. 

Ultimately, the game may come down to the decision-making of Trevon Duval and Grayson Allen—both of whom have had turnover woes in critical games of the season. If they play similar to their performance against Iona, with a combined 17:5 assist to turnover ratio, the offense should run smoothly. If not, it could be a long flight back to Durham for them. 

Execute a fluid zone scheme

After Iona’s four guard lineup found holes in the Blue Devil’s 2-3 zone early, many viewers were left wondering if any adjustments would be made. Like all great coaches, head coach Mike Krzyzewski modified the defense into a primarily 3-2 zone. Luckily for Duke, that experience against Iona may come in handy against a Rams team that also plays four guards on the perimeter and likes to hit shots from deep. 

It is anyone’s guess as to how the Blue Devils will open defensively, but they must be able to operate effectively in all of their different zone schemes if they hope to limit Rhode Island.

Feed the big men

The Rams’ four guard lineup allows for space in the paint for Duke’s big men. 

Much like Iona, Rhode Island’s lone starting forward is just 6-foot-8, which pales in comparison to the 6-foot-10 and 6-foot-11 frames of Wendell Carter and Marvin Bagley, respectively. 

The duo combined for 31 points and 15 rebounds against the Gaels and will hope to do much of the same against a Rhode Island team that was outrebounded by Oklahoma 54-41 and has struggled mightily on the defensive glass. If the Blue Devils, one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, can find second-chance opportunities and work efficiently in the paint, it will limit the burden placed on a streaky shooting squad. 

Beyond the arc: Duke is a scary team with Duval making shots

Second-seeded Duke opened up its NCAA tournament on a high note, blowing past No. 15 seed Iona 89-67 Thursday in Pittsburgh. The Blue Zone gives three key takeaways and stats from the win and looks forward for the Blue Devils: 

Three key takeaways: 

1. Duke is a scary team with Duval playing well 

As Trevon Duval goes, so does Duke. He was a force Thursday against the Gaels, helping the offense flow smoothly and score the most points it had since a January win against Wake Forest. 

Duval finished with 19 points and was a force from deep, nailing 4-of-5 triples to force defenders to play up on him. That opened up the offense for every other Blue Devil—four starters scored 16-plus points. When Duval plays like this, it’s hard to see anyone beating Duke. 

2. Defense still a work in progress

Although it tightened up eventually, the Blue Devil defense showed it still has some holes. It had generally locked down opponents on the perimeter, but it failed to stop the Gaels in the early going, allowing them to tie the game at 19 in the first half. 

But it locked in, especially in the second half, when Duke went to a 3-2 zone as opposed to its traditional 2-3. This allowed the Blue Devils to clog up the perimeter—Iona’s lone strength. 

The Gaels are a potent perimeter team, but Thursday showed Duke is not invincible beyond the arc. Against a team that can make an impact inside, a 3-2 zone likely won’t fly, so it will have to get back to succeeding in the 2-3 if it wants to make a deep run. 

3. Rhode Island is going to be tough 

Don’t look past Rhode Island. Don’t do it. 

The Rams start four seniors and run four guards on the outside, similar to the attack that Iona ran, but with more talent. Duke might have to lean on the 3-2 zone again, though Rhode Island isn’t nearly as good of a 3-point shooting team as Iona. 

But where the Rams are really tough is on defense.  Rhode Island ranks No. 36 in the country in basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings, and has allowed the fifth-fewest 3-pointers in the country. Duke likely will have to work inside more and won’t be able to count on 13 3-pointers, or four from Duval, to bail its defense out if it struggles at all. 

Three key stats: 

  1. Duke wins battle in the paint 46-30

Marvin Bagley III was a force in the paint, scoring 22 points and grabbing seven rebounds to help Duke win the battle in the paint 46-30. 

2. Iona shoots 1-of-15 from deep in the second half

The Blue Devils’ 3-2 zone locked down the Gaels’ perimeter attack in the second half, allowing them to shoot just 1-of-15 from beyond the arc after shooting 44.4 percent in the first half. 

3. Grayson Allen’s nine assists

Allen quietly helped facilitate the offense alongside Duval, adding nine assists to go with his 16 points on 4-of-10 shooting from deep. 

Looking forward: 

If Duke can maintain this level of play from Duval, it’s hard to see anyone taking it down. Certainly, the Blue Devils will take on much tougher competition than Iona, but if Duval can resurrect the offense, they have a level of balance few teams can match. 

Duke wasn’t perfect on defense, but it has been lights out overall since switching to the zone, even against high-quality opponents. It’s hard to see the defense falling apart—if anything, a poor showing from Duval is more likely to be the Blue Devils’ undoing. 

HALFTIME: Duke 53, Iona 39

PITTSBURGH—Duke's Jekyll and Hyde offense has come out hot again to open play in the NCAA tournament.

The Blue Devils lead Iona 53-39 after an impressive half of offense at PPG Paints Arena, shooting 61.8 percent from the field. Marvin Bagley III has had his way against the undersized Gaels forwards with 14 points, and Iona has struggled to keep up when it can't push the pace for fast-break layups.

Duke made its first six shots, including 3-pointers on four consecutive possessions—two from freshman Trevon Duval and two from senior captain Grayson Allen—to open up a 17-8 lead, with the Gaels' zone slow to rotate to perimeter shooters or conceding the shots to Duval.

But Iona quickly responded, beating the Blue Devils down the floor in transition multiple times and moving the ball well to pick apart Duke's zone. An 11-2 run tied the score at 19, though the Blue Devils pulled back in front with another triple from Duval. The point guard drilled three of his four long-range attempts after entering the game shooting only 27.0 percent from beyond the arc and has 13 points.

The scoring became more one-sided after the midway point of the half, as the Blue Devils could set up their defense and forced the Gaels into longer possessions. Iona went scoreless for more than four minutes to help Duke open up a 12-point lead while going on a 17-3 run, and the Gaels have not come within nine points since.

Here are a few other observations from the first half:

  • After the Blue Devils' initial 3-point flurry, they began to exploit their extreme size advantage inside and finished the half with 24 points in the paint.
  • Duke played a clean half defensively, committing only four fouls spread out among four players.
  • The Blue Devils rode Allen, Duval and Bagley for the whole half, with only Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden coming off the bench so far.
  • Roland Griffin has come off the bench with a lot of success for Iona's offense, scoring 11 points thanks to several midrange jumpers in the middle of Duke's zone. He also helped slow Bagley and Wendell Carter Jr. early in the post, but eventually their size caught up with Griffin and the Gaels. 

2018 NCAA tournament regional preview: West

Each day leading up to the first round of the NCAA tournament, The Chronicle will preview one of the four regions in the bracket, touching on the true contenders in the region and potential bracket-busting Cinderellas. After starting with the South, we looked at the Midwest, the East, and now finally, the West:  

The No. 1 seed: Xavier Musketeers

For the first time in school history, Xavier earned a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance after losing just two of its final 15 games to wrap up the season. What they do with that opportunity largely rests on senior guard Trevon Bluiett. 

The 6-foot-6 guard is averaging 19.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc for a team that has boasted one of the best offenses in the nation. Classmate J.P. Marcura adds even more experience and scoring at the wing, contributing 12.2 points per game for the Musketeers, which made a run to the Elite Eight as a No. 11 seed last year. 

The Achilles heel for Xavier all year has been its subpar defense, which disappeared in two drubbings at the hands of Villanova and has dogged the Musketeers since November. A capable defense, or a lack thereof, will be key if Xavier is to make the most of its top seed and make it past the Elite Eight. 

The other contenders: The defending champs are eyeing a third-straight Final Four in a stacked region

The clearest obstacle to Xavier’s first-ever trip to the Final Four is No. 2 seed North Carolina, which is coming off a close loss to No. 1 overall seed Virginia in the ACC tournament. 

The Tar Heels are coming off back-to-back trips to the final weekend in the Big Dance, and with a wealth of experience, could be one of the toughest outs in the entire tournament. Senior guards Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson anchor North Carolina on the wings, and junior forward Luke Maye has been outstanding down low this season. 

The Tar Heels’ weakness lies in their defense, which ranks just 34th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, compared to their 4th-ranked offense in offensive efficiency. Nevertheless, gives the defending champs a 25 percent chance to make it out of the West, higher than Xavier at 17 percent. 

Although North Carolina arguably represents the strongest all-around team in the region, there are several other contenders who can give both the Musketeers and the Tar Heels trouble. 

No. 3 seed Michigan lurks as a potential Sweet 16 matchup for the Tar Heels after pulling off its second straight surprise run to the Big 10 tournament title. But while many people are eyeing a potential upset by the Wolverines, they will potentially have to get through a pair of underrated teams in the opening weekend first: No. 14 seed Montana and No. 6 seed Houston. 

Houston just nearly pulled off an upset of Cincinnati, the No. 2 seed in the South region, in the American Conference championship game last weekend and is ranked 17th in the nation, per basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.  

Last but certainly not least, Gonzaga has also been under-seeded as the No. 4 seed in the West, a slap in the face for a team that finished the season ranked eighth in the nation in Pomeroy's overall adjusted efficiency. The Bulldogs certainly will have some extra motivation to get another shot at North Carolina in the Elite Eight after falling to the Tar Heels in the championship game last season. Gonzaga has a balanced offense that features five players averaging double-digit scoring along with one of the best defenses in the country. 

The potential Cinderella: Montana

Though there is no team that is an especially exciting pick to find its glass slipper in the West region this year, No. 14 seed Montana is the best bet to go dancing beyond the opening weekend. 

In order for the Grizzlies to make a run, they will need to take down a hot Michigan team and then likely an underrated Houston squad to reach the Sweet Sixteen. But Montana was also a better team this season than its seed might suggest—the Grizzlies are ranked higher than any other 14 seed in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings at 71, higher than lower seeds such as Buffalo, South Dakota State and UNC Greensboro.

Guard Michael Oguine was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year for a team that has lost just twice since Dec. 22. Montana will have a tall order to fill in the opening weekend alone, but if it can knock off a Michigan team that is coming off a long layover from the B10 tournament, it is the best shot for a Cinderella story. 

The regional narrative: Parity

To many, the West region appears to be the weakest in the tournament. Xavier, North Carolina, Michigan and Gonzaga are all being given about equal odds to advance to the Final Four, but are clumped together beneath a number of more dynamic teams spread across the other regions. 

Besides those four, there are few teams that have given much evidence they could make a serious Cinderella run to the regional final. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be some upsets in the opening weekend. San Diego State could give Houston some trouble in the first round, Montana has the potential to cool off the Wolverines after a long break and even Missouri could make some noise if Michael Porter Jr. is able to show some flashes of brilliance after missing nearly the entire season. 

At the top, the lack of one truly dominant team means this region is wide open. 

Coach K's letter to his younger self: 'You're not going to believe how lucky you are'

On Wednesday morning, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski appeared on CBS This Morning in its "Note to Self" segment.

The Emmy-nominated segment has previously featured Kesha and former Vice President Joe Biden. Segment guests write and read letters to their younger selves. Krzyzewski appeared at the end of the broadcast to deliver his letter, which focused the "schoolyard games" he played in as a child in Chicago. 

"When you grow up, when you become a head coach, first at Army and then at Duke, when you find yourself coaching a team at championship moments, you will feel as if you've been there before," the Blue Devil men's basketball coach said. "Because of what you are doing right now in that schoolyard in inner city Chicago, you will know what to do. Never underestimate the immense power of your imagination."

In the segment, Krzyzewski also talked about his mother, who he said was his "first hero." Krzyzewski's mother, a child of Polish immigrants, cleaned office floors at night and only got an eighth grade education, he said. In an emotional moment, the coach asked his younger self to take it easy on his mother.

"Your passion for creating opportunities for the next generation begins with her, as does your sense of your humor," he said. "Watch her, listen to her. She is selfless and courageous."

Krzyzewski also reflected on his health as he aged. He talked about how hard it was to step back from the game he loved, but that it was important to find balance in his life. 

The segment also featured some of the coach's best moments, including his 2015 national championship. He recognized that life was good to him.

"You're not going to believe how lucky you are," Krzyzewski ended.

Coach K's full letter is below.

Dear Mick,

Keep playing those schoolyard games. I know they are the best part of your day and you might not yet know they are also important to your future. Those games you play with Mo and the rest of the boys are laying a foundation for your future as a member and leader of teams. And the games you play when they all go home and you are alone with the ball and the hoop, those are equal in their fundamental value. When you envision yourself in championship moments, counting down the seconds in your head, driving past invisible defenders, you are giving yourself a destination.

There will be stops along the way that you could not possibly imagine. Did you know Mick that you will be the first in your family to go to college? Did you know that your father, the elevator operator, and your mother, with the eighth grade education who cleans office floors at night—those children of Polish immigrants—did you know that they were doing those things to ensure opportunities for you and your brother? You will become a cadet and a basketball player at one of the greatest institutions for leadership in the world. Their encouragement will send you to West Point. 

And when you grow up, when you become a head coach, first at Army and then at Duke, when you find yourself coaching a team at championship moments, you will feel as if you've been there before. Because of what you are doing right now in that schoolyard in inner city Chicago, you will know what to do. Never underestimate the immense power of your imagination. You will use it all your life.

There will be a time in your future when you are approaching 50 years old, when you will become disconnected with those things you learned in the schoolyard, where it wasn't always about winning and when the experience and the feeling are what mattered most. The pressure will become heavy and you will feel that burden in your body, as well as in your mind.

Your family will ask you to take a step away from the team and the game you love. It'll be hard, but please listen to them and let them help you reclaim the part of yourself that finds joy and meaning in the process and that understands the importance of balance.

And Mick, take it easy on your mom, ok? It won't be long before you realize that she is your first hero. Your passion for creating opportunities for the next generation begins with her, as does your sense of your humor. Watch her, listen to her. She is selfless and courageous. 

For whatever reason, life will be good to you. It will offer you many opportunities and you will do your best to make the most of them. Your ability to seize those opportunities lies in what you're doing right now and the people you have around you. Please pay attention. You will be talking about that schoolyard a half-century from now. You will still be able to feel the pavement beneath your feet and experience the joy of the countless celebrations of imagined victories. You will tell stories of your mother's courage to locker rooms full of athletes and gymnasiums full of hopeful high school graduates. You're not going to believe how lucky you are.

—Coach K

2018 NCAA tournament regional preview: East

Each day leading up to the first round of the NCAA tournament, The Chronicle will preview one of the four regions in the bracket, touching on the true contenders in the region and potential bracket-busting Cinderellas. After starting with the South, we looked at the Midwest and now, we look at the East: 

The No. 1 seed: Villanova Wildcats

Another year, another 30 wins. 

The Wildcats finished first in the Big East and racked up at least 30 wins for the fourth straight year, and hope to push that to 36 with their second NCAA title in three years. Villanova is incredibly dangerous on offense, ranking first in the nation in efficiency according to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, and hope to ride that wave deep in the tournament. 

Led by juniors sharpshooters Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, both on the 2016 championship squad, the Wildcats have made the second-most 3-pointers in the country on a guard-heavy squad. 

But Villanova is not invincible. Despite all of its offensive prowess, it has been vulnerable at times on defense. In their four losses this season, the Wildcats gave up nearly 87 points per game and lost rebounding battle in all but one game, when it outrebounded Creighton just 38-36.  

The other contenders: all with clear flaws

Villanova might have the easiest path to the Final Four—all of the top teams in the East all have clear flaws. 

No. 2 seed Purdue has an elite offense like the Wildcats, but has not been quite the same on defense. Led by sophomore guard Carsen Edwards, the Boilermakers have the second-highest 3-point percentage in the country, but rank No. 279 in the nation in keeping opponents off the offensive glass, something that has hurt them at times. 

No. 3 seed Texas Tech might not have the scoring to keep up with the Wildcats. Outside of those two teams, it’s hard to see anyone else making a run. Wichita State’s defense is very porous, West Virginia could be upset-prone and Florida has been remarkably inconsistent. It’s hard to see anyone but Villanova and Purdue duking it out in the Elite Eight for a chance to move on. 

The potential Cinderella: Murray State

The Racers are hot and seem like prime Cinderella candidates in a weak region. 

Murray State hasn’t lost since Jan. 18 and has the shooters to keep up with West Virginia’s high-flying offense. Guards Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller Jr. both shoot around 40 percent from downtown, while freshman Ja Morant has been lethal as well. 

It also helps that the Racers slow the game way down—they rank No. 216 in Pomeroy’s tempo metric. This will limit the number of possessions the fifth-seeded Mountaineers can get, helping increase the odds that Murray State can pull off an upset. 

Assuming Wichita State can get to the second round, the Racers could potentially take advantage of the Shockers’ weak defense and win in another shootout, shocking the college basketball world with a run to the Sweet 16. 

The regional narrative: It's Villanova's to lose

The Wildcats are the best team in this region, and should not face any real threats until a potential matchup against second-seeded Purdue in the Elite Eight in a matchup of similarly offensive-minded teams. 

Outside of that, they should face little competition in a bracket that has a decent amount of upset potential, especially with third-seeded Texas Tech as ice-cold as it is right now. 

Key three: Duke needs to exploit its massive size advantage against Iona

After an exit in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, second-seeded Duke will look to get the ball rolling in the NCAA tournament Thursday against 15th-seeded Iona at 2:45 p.m. The Blue Zone gives three keys for the Blue Devils to move to the next round: 

Find a perimeter shot

Duke has been inconsistent from deep in its last five games, combining to shoot just 29.7 percent from 3-point range. 

While Grayson Allen has seemed to have gotten himself back on track, making nine of his last 16 shots from deep, Gary Trent Jr. is stuck in a ditch. The freshman guard has gone just 8-of-34 from beyond the arc in his last five games, a trend that he will need to buck against the Gaels and going forward. 

But Iona has been particularly weak in defending the arc—it ranks No. 222 in the nation in 3-point percentage allowed. The Gaels' vulnerability here presents a big opportunity for the Blue Devils to get their stroke back, a huge key if they want to make a deep run. 

Exploit Iona's lack of size

The Gaels are small, and it has showed on the glass. 

Iona's tallest rotation player, Tarekeyi Edogi, stands at just 6-foot-8, while starting forwards E.J Crawford and Roland Griffin stand at just 6-foot-7. This is a huge mismatch for the Gaels, who will have to face up against Duke's towering big men—Wendell Carter Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Marques Bolden and even Javin DeLaurier, all at 6-foot-9 or taller. 

And it's not like Iona has been able to make up for its lack of size—it ranks near the worst in the nation in rebounding, while the Blue Devils have grabbed the third-most boards in the country. This should be an easy mismatch for Duke to exploit—look for Allen and Trevon Duval to feed Bagley and Carter early and often. 

Don't look past Gaels

Although the Blue Devils are facing one of the weakest opponents they have faced all year, they shouldn't be looking ahead to a potential second round matchup against either Oklahoma or Rhode Island. 

That lack of presence of mind has seemed to hurt them at times this year, when they played down to St. John's level the game before they were slated to travel to Chapel Hill. Duke can't afford to look past anyone, much less the Gaels, who have shown they can be dangerous from beyond the arc, ranking No. 31 in the nation in 3-point percentage. 

When the Blue Devils have underestimated opponents, it has tended to hurt their defense more than their offense, something they cannot afford to do against Iona, whose most dangerous trait is its ability to score.