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, Midwest and the West, we move on to the East:
The No. 1 seed: Duke Blue Devils
It was exactly 13 months ago that Zion Williamson shocked the world for the first of many times, declaring on national television that he will spend his likely lone college season in Durham, N.C., completing arguably the best recruiting class of all-time. And from that moment on, everyone knew the 2018-19 campaign would be the year of the Blue Devils.
Sports Illustrated dubbed Duke’s five newcomers the “Fabbest Five”, and ESPN even aired an all-access documentary on the team leading up to the start of the season. This intense focus on the Blue Devils has led to a myriad of complaints that the media needs to hop off the Duke hype train. But now that it’s finally March, and the 2018-19 regular season is behind us, it’s safe to say Williamson and company did not disappoint one bit.
The Blue Devils enter the NCAA Tournament with 29 wins, their most since the program’s 2015 championship campaign. That 2015 season was also the last time Duke secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, an honor the Blue Devils earned this year after a spirited ACC Tournament Championship run. And now, the Blue Devils enter the dance as the odds-on favorites to bring home yet another piece of hardware—the program’s sixth national championship.
The other contenders: who can take down Duke?
Despite their recent dominance, the Blue Devils face some scary competition in their path to the Final Four.
Michigan State is the hottest No. 2 seed in the country, winners of the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships. Its Big Ten tournament run included wins over No. 19 Wisconsin and No. 10 Michigan—the Spartans' third victory over the Wolverines on the year. If Michigan State and Duke do meet in the Elite Eight, expect an all-out battle.
But even before a potential matchup with the Spartans, the Blue Devils could have to get through fourth-seeded Virginia Tech in the Sweet Sixteen. The Hokies are one of the two teams on Duke’s regular season schedule that it has not beaten this year, and Virginia Tech pulled off the upset without star guard Justin Robinson—albeit Williamson sat out the contest as well.
Lastly, there’s No. 3 seed Louisiana State. The Tigers dominated the SEC en route to a regular season title, but fell to Florida in the tournament quarterfinals. Furthermore, LSU will be without head coach Will Wade, with the second-year coach serving an indefinite suspension due to potential recruiting violations. The Tigers are still dangerous, but they’d have to claw their way through Michigan State first to even see the likes of the Blue Devils.
The potential Cinderella: Yale
An Ivy League school hasn’t made the Sweet Sixteen since 2010. But this year, the Bulldogs could be the team to change that.
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Yale didn’t have the best ending to its regular season, but rattled off wins over Princeton and Harvard for the Ivy League Tournament Championship and the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2016. And what happened during that 2016 tournament run? The twelfth-seeded Bulldogs snuck past fifth-seeded Baylor in the First Round before coming seven points shy of defeating Duke two days later.
Led by Ivy League Player of the Year Miye Oni, Yale boasts both star power and depth. Despite Oni being a legitimate NBA prospect, the Bulldogs have had six different players lead the team in scoring at some point this season. In addition, players like senior guard Alex Copeland—who dropped 25 on the Crimson Tide en route to Ivy League Tournament MVP honors—have proven they have what it takes to step up in big moments as well.
Yale’s first test will be LSU in the first round. The Tigers possess some glaring flaws coming into March, and don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs shock everyone and make a run to the tournament’s second weekend.
The regional narrative: It’s Duke, and everyone else
This East region boasts some dangerous squads, a far from ideal Selection Sunday draw for the country’s No. 1 overall seed. But don’t let that distract you from the fact that this is Duke’s region to lose. The Blue Devils have had the spotlight all season long. At this point, anything less than a Final Four appearance—at the minimum—would be a colossal disappointment.