March Madness 2018: year of the Blue Devil?

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March Madness 2018: year of the Blue Devil?

Duke forward Marvin Bagley III (pictured) is garnering serious NBA Draft buzz.

Duke forward Marvin Bagley III (pictured) is garnering serious NBA Draft buzz.

@DukeMBB on Twitter

Duke forward Marvin Bagley III (pictured) is garnering serious NBA Draft buzz.

@DukeMBB on Twitter

@DukeMBB on Twitter

Duke forward Marvin Bagley III (pictured) is garnering serious NBA Draft buzz.

Jake Novack, Writing Editor

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Following a wild 2017-18 men’s college basketball regular season in which 18 different teams found themselves in the top five, the NCAA Division I basketball tournament title is up for grabs. After a strong #1 seed in North Carolina wrestled a title from #2 Gonzaga in 2017, there’s no guarantee that another top team will exit with hardware. Out of nine quintillion possible tournament outcomes, here are some highlights from my attempt at a perfect March Madness bracket.

EAST:

Biggest upset: #9 Alabama Crimson Tide over #1 Villanova Wildcats

Two words: Collin Sexton. The Crimson Tide’s point guard has been the focal point of the team all season, averaging a solid 19 points per game. Sexton has also showcased his superb defense by locking up prolific Oklahoma guard Trae Young in January. Because Sexton’s game is so consistent, he will be key for an Alabama team coming off big Southeastern Conference (SEC) tournament wins over #7 Texas A&M and #4 Auburn (whom I have advancing to the Elite Eight). This year’s Villanova squad isn’t the same as its 2016 championship team, and is vulnerable coming off of two losses to #10 seed Providence, one of which coming recently in the Big East tournament.

Final Four pick: #5 West Virginia Mountaineers

The Mountaineers, while still a solid team, are going to be the beneficiaries of a quadrant riddled with upsets. In fact, I predict that the highest seed West Virginia will face before the Final Four is #9 Alabama. Because West Virginia is an experienced team, with only two freshmen in their entire lineup, they’ll be able to overcome “Cinderella” teams coming off huge emotional highs like Alabama and #10 Butler. Besides, Bob Huggins is one of the most underrated coaches in college basketball, and senior guard Jevon Carter has proven to be an all-around contributor.

WEST:

Biggest upset: #13 University of North Carolina-Greensboro Spartans over #4 Gonzaga Bulldogs

Greensboro’s play style is well-suited to hectic tournament play. While a team’s scoring can fluctuate from game to game, defense is less likely to change, and the Spartans have allowed a meager 62.4 points per game this year. Greensboro also has multiple sources of production on offense. Junior Francis Alonso is second in program history with 297 made three pointers, and senior forward Marvin Smith is averaging a steady 12.3 points per game. Following an adrenaline-pumping 2017 season, Gonzaga, a smaller program with few deep runs in the tournament, is poised for a letdown.

Final Four pick: #1 Xavier Musketeers

I think the Musketeers are aptly named; they do indeed follow an “all for one, one for all” mentality. Xavier plays stellar team basketball, as they were among the top 25 in the nation in assists, and their offense doesn’t run through one particular player. Seniors Trevon Bluiett, JP Macura and Karem Kanter all averaged over ten points per game this season. Xavier also topped Big East powerhouse Villanova in the regular season standings, demonstrating their ability to carry out dominant performances across an extended period of time against quality opponents.

MIDWEST:

Biggest upset: #12 New Mexico State Aggies over #5 Clemson Tigers

The first Tiger team to make the tourney since 2011, Clemson’s tendencies on the offensive end of the floor don’t bode well for a deep run. They’re tied for 185th in the nation for points per game (73.3) and tied for 203rd in the country for assists (13.2). Essentially, if they have an initially low field goal percentage, it will be hard for Clemson to get a rhythm going on offense with a lack of ball movement. That being said, New Mexico State can widen this gap with electric scorer Zach Lofton at the helm (19.8 points per game).

Final Four pick: #2 Duke Blue Devils

How can I bet against Mike Krzyzewski? The decorated Duke coach has a strong history of taking his Blue Devils deep in the tourney (five championships and 12 Final Four appearances). That being said, Duke has the talent to overpower a Midwest bracket power vacuum left by a Kansas team riddled with injuries. Standout forward and Naismith Award finalist Marvin Bagley III is the team’s engine, averaging a double-double of 21 points and 11 rebounds per game this year. Guard Trevon Duval is a catalyst for playmaking with 5.5 assists per game, and senior guard Grayson Allen gives the team much-needed grit with 15.7 points per game and experience in high-pressure situations.

SOUTH:

Biggest upset: #11 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers over #3 Tennessee Volunteers

Making the tournament for the first time in 33 years, it’s clear that the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers aren’t exactly an NCAA powerhouse. However, Loyola excels in possibly the most important area of college basketball: defense. The Ramblers are fifth in the country in points allowed per game with 62.2. Loyola also ranks in the top 50 nationwide in assists per game (15.8). The Ramblers will ride their defense to beat a #6 seed Miami team in the first round, but will also overcome a Tennessee team that can struggle on offense with only 74.3 points per game.

Final Four pick: #5 Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky is always primed for deep tournament runs, even at a lower seed. Coach John Calipari’s team even made it to the final of the 2014 tournament as a #8 seed. Furthermore, Kentucky is red-hot coming off an SEC tournament championship. The Wildcats are a physical bunch, as forwards Kevin Knox and PJ Washington are strong around the rim. Seeing how #1 seed Virginia has less reliable sources of offense (309th in points per game), Calipari’s Wildcats can bully the Cavaliers in the paint and punch a ticket to the Final Four.


Championship: #2 Duke Blue Devils over #1 Xavier Musketeers

This one was a tough call. I think that both of these teams are talented enough to advance to the final, but the sheer star power of Duke will ultimately be too much for Xavier. Four Blue Devils (Allen, Bagley, Gary Trent Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr.) average over 13 points per game, and I think the numerous scoring options that Coach K can default to will overwhelm Xavier. The real x-factor, however, is experience. This year would be Xavier’s first in the Final Four, and the combined grit of seniors such as Allen and a legendary coach in Krzyzewski will preclude the Blue Devils from stooping to the nerve-induced level of their opponents.

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