With the first round of the NCAA tournament set to tip off Thursday, the Blue Zone breaks down each of the four regions, taking a look at all the possible Cinderella stories and heavyweights vying for a place in the Final Four in Houston. Check out our previews for the West, Midwest and South regions as well.
The No. 1 seed: Purdue Boilermakers
Before a decline at the end of its regular season, you could make a strong argument that Purdue was the best team in the entire country. The Boilermakers held the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll for seven weeks, and haven’t fallen below No. 5 since week four.
Purdue is headlined by 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey, the runaway favorite for Naismith Player of the Year. Edey earned Big Ten Player of the Year honors for an incredible season where he averaged 22.3 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Edey made more than 60% of his field goals during the 2022-23 season, thanks in part to his unique height and size. During the Big Ten tournament, Edey went on a tear, averaging 26 points on 56.6% shooting on his way to winning the tournament MVP. Edey instantly makes Purdue a championship contender and his attributes make him an extraordinarily difficult player for even the best of defenses to stop.
Purdue ranks highly in both national offensive and defensive statistics and has excelled despite playing one of the most difficult schedules in the nation. They are one of the best teams in the nation and are prime contenders for the NCAA title.
The other contenders: Old and new faces
The East has a mix of high-profile contenders, up-and-coming teams and those thriving without the spotlight. Specifically, Marquette, Kansas State and Duke are popular picks to make a run, but be wary of upsets.
No. 2-seed Marquette built off of a good 2021-22 season to become one of the best programs in the country in head coach Shaka Smart’s second year with the team. Led by a strong guard trio of Kameron Jones, Tyler Kolek and Olivier-Maxence Prosper, the Golden Eagles won the Big East tournament Sunday and now face No. 15-seed, yet experienced, Vermont.
No. 3-seed Kansas State is making its first tournament appearance in four years under first-time head coach Jerome Tang. Impressive scoring by forward Keyontae Johnson and guard Markquis Nowell propelled the Wildcats to the No. 3 seed in the Big 12 tournament, although they were upset by TCU in the quarterfinals. By some accounts, Kansas State played a harder schedule than even Purdue, and scored more than anyone else in the Big 12. It faces an offensively challenged but defensively present Montana State team in the first round.
No. 5-seed Duke has had an up-and-down season thanks to injuries and inconsistent road play, but it appears that the Blue Devils are trending upwards at the right time. Duke is currently on a nine-game win streak after beating Virginia for its 22nd ACC tournament title and looks as poised as any team to make a deep run. Thanks in part to rebounding machine Kyle Filipowski and fantastic rim-protector Dereck Lively II, the Blue Devils rank as one of the country’s better defensive units. Their offense has played more inconsistently, though, which may cause trouble in their first-round matchup against Oral Roberts.
More on the Golden Eagles later, but other teams to look out for include No. 4 Tennessee and No. 6 Kentucky. The Volunteers are a particular enigma for the NCAA tournament; on paper, they are one of the nation’s best teams, but they recently lost standout guard Zakai Zeigler to a knee injury. Thus, it remains to be seen how far they can progress.
The potential Cinderella: Oral Roberts
Oral Roberts knows what it's capable of. Two years ago, the Golden Eagles upset both No. 2-seed Ohio State and No. 7-seed Florida before falling just short in the Sweet Sixteen to Arkansas, becoming just the second No. 15-seed ever to reach that stage of the tournament.
Following a one-year absence from the tournament, Oral Roberts enters the dance with an outstanding 30-4 record and its second Summit League title in three years. The Golden Eagles have one of the best offenses in the country with senior guard Max Abmas leading the way. Abmas, who regularly scores upwards of 25 points a night, was a scoring machine during Oral Roberts’ previous run in the NCAA tournament, averaging 26.7 points per game and making an exceptional 40% of his threes. With a high-powered offense, the Golden Eagles may do just enough to account for a creaky defense to upset the Blue Devils in the first round and go on a run thereafter.
The regional narrative: All Purdue
The East should spawn exciting matchups in the NCAA tournament, but with the possible exception of Marquette, no team compares with Purdue. Expect these two teams to face in the East final, but the Edey-led offense is more than capable of reaching the Final Four and competing for the national title.
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