NCAA Tournament Preview: East Region

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 12:25pm

Why Duke Makes it to the Final Four:

Tre JonesTre JonesSimply put, Duke has Zion Williamson and no one else does. The Spartanburg native is playing out of his mind and at a level that the college basketball world has not seen in over a decade, posing a nightmare challenge for any opponent. Overshadowed by Williamson is Duke’s elite wing in RJ Barrett. Barrett, the ACC’s leading scorer, is an incredible finisher at the rim.

The duo has been spectacular all season, but the talent does not stop there. Point guard Tre Jones is arguably the best on-ball defender in the country and forward Cameron Reddish has the length and athleticism that matches up well with any wing. Averaging 9.5 steals and 6.8 blocks per game, the Blue Devils enter the NCAA tournament as the sixth-best team in defensive efficiency.

The Blue Devils should be well-prepared for a grueling NCAA tournament. Duke’s out of conference schedule included games against Kentucky, Auburn, Gonzaga, and Texas Tech. Duke went 3-1 against those opponents with its only loss to Gonzaga in November. Add in 18 more games from the toughest basketball conference and Duke knows what it takes to win, expecting a high level of competition night in and night out.

Why Duke Won’t Make it to the Final Four:

As much hype that surrounds Mike Krzyzewski's young team, deservingly so, there are several holes that could cost the Blue Devils a Final Four appearance. Duke is one of the nation’s worst 3-point shooting teams, making just 30.2% of its attempts this season. Duke’s biggest weakness is its outside shooting, which could pose a problem if its players are unable to score in the paint.

Although the Blue Devils have played like a veteran team despite starting four freshmen, the NCAA tournament stage is unlike any atmosphere that Duke’s freshmen have experienced so far. In the regular season, Cam Reddish was extremely inconsistent and struggled to move through contact and at times disappeared in critical moments. When he is not playing well, Duke’s only two reliable scorers are Williamson and Barrett.

A potential Sweet 16 matchup with Virginia Tech could present a problem for the Blue Devils. With Williamson hurt in the first matchup between the two teams, Duke fell five points short to the Hokies. But, Virginia Tech was also out without its star—point guard Justin Robinson—who will be returning for the NCAA tournament. The Hokies are a dangerous 3-point shooting team with three players shooting over 40% from beyond the arc. Another team that could clip the Blue Devils are the LSU Tigers—a team that features an athletic frontcourt and explosive offense that is great at getting to the free throw line. Michigan State, the two seed in the East, is playing some of the best basketball in the country. Junior forward Nick Ward has returned from a fractured hand and point guard Cassius Winston is having an exceptional season.

Best Non-1 Seed (A):

Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State fans were not happy with their team’s draw for valid reasons. After defeating its rival Michigan for the Big Ten tournament title, the Spartans were placed with the overall no. 1 seed in Duke. The good news is that the Spartans are on a roll despite an injury-prone season, coming off an impressive three-game stretch in its conference tournament.

This team has what it takes to cut down the nets in Minneapolis. Cassius Winston, one of the nation’s best point guards, is a skillful passer averaging 7.6 assists per game. Tom Izzo’s team also features Xavier Tillman, who was named Big Ten sixth man of the year. His 6-foot-8 presence is felt on the court every game and he is more than capable of snagging a double-double.

The Spartans are a balanced scoring team with stout defenders holding opponents to 23.4% from the 3-point line this season. As a team, the Spartans are shooting nearly 40% from downtown with Cassius Winston being one of the deadliest 3-point shooters this college basketball season.

Best Non-1 Seed (B):

LSU Tigers

With LSU head coach Will Wade suspended indefinitely in the wake of wiretap revelations, it is uncertain how the Tigers are going to react in the NCAA tournament. If LSU is able to push aside the chaos, the Tigers have a legitimate shot at reaching the Final Four.

The Tigers had the SEC’s second-best offense this season, scoring nearly 23% of its 81.6 points per game from the free throw line. LSU is a phenomenal offensive rebounding team, grabbing an offensive board on 37.3 percent of its possessions. With a 6-foot-10 tough, physical presence, Naz Reid has the ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the hoop.

Think about the previous National Champions—Villanova, North Carolina, Duke—and how invaluable their backcourts were in the six-game stretch. Guard play is critical in March and the Tigers have the right pieces. Point guard Tremont Waters, who led the SEC in assist rate, is confident with having the ball in pressure moments. LSU’s other star guard, Javonte Smart, has taken his game to another level, averaging 18.6 points in the last month.

Sweet 16 Sleeper:

Belmont

The Bruins snatched the final bid of the NCAA tournament after sharing the Ohio Valley Conference regular season title with Murray State. It is a reach to say that Belmont will make it to the second weekend considering the team still has its First Four game against Temple, but the Bruins are a popular pick to make some noise this year. If Belmont knocks off Temple, the Bruins will take on 6-seeded Maryland.

Belmont averages 87.4 point per game (2nd in the nation) and play at a fast pace that is difficult to keep up with. The Bruins own the nation’s second-best 2-point percentage (59.5) and average over 10-made threes per game. If Maryland and Belmont meet, the Bruins will have the best player on the court in Dylan Windler. The senior guard is averaging 21.4 points and 10.7 rebounds, shooting 54.8% from the field. Maryland has a habit of turning the ball over, which will certainly be problematic against Belmont—a team that tries to get in transition as much as possible.

A win against the Terrapins would setup a second-round matchup against the winner of Yale/LSU. Yale averages over 80 points per game and has a legit NBA prospect in Miye Oni. LSU’s head coach is currently suspended, so it raises questions if the Tigers will be mentally prepared for the tournament. Either of these matchups are a difficult draw for the Bruins, but March is full of upsets.

In terms of offense, Belmont can keep up with both these teams, it is just a matter of if they are able to dominate the boards. The Bruins do grab defensive rebounds at a high rate (22nd in the nation). If Belmont makes it to the second-round, a game against Yale or LSU will certainly be highly entertaining and high-scoring.

Final Four Sleeper:


Virginia Tech

When making bracket selections, most people are going to automatically count the Hokies out, simply because they see a daunting Duke team in the way. But, the Hokies have a complete résumé with its best wins against Purdue and Duke this season.

Buzz Williams’ team goes with a four-guard lineup, which will intensify when the Hokies welcome point guard Justin Robinson back into the starting rotation. The Hokies’ strengths include spreading teams out and slicing defenses up, kicking the ball out to open 3-point shooters. Virginia Tech’s Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are the centerpieces of the Hokies’ offense. Blackshear Jr., a 6-foot-10 forward, scores effortlessly and is a great passer. A super athletic wing must defend Alexander-Walker or else he is nearly unstoppable.

There is a downside to having a smaller lineup; defensive rebounding is one of the Hokies’ weaknesses. A team with large and athletic post players could give Virginia Tech some trouble. The upside of Virginia Tech’s four-guard lineup is its ability to shoot lights out. In the ACC, three Virginia Tech players ranked in the top 15 in 3-point field goal percentage. Plus, the Hokies are getting back their best player, Justin Robinson, who was averaging 13.7 points and 5.2 assists per game before he got hurt. Virginia Tech is a dangerous underdog and have the right scorers to make a serious run in this tournament.

Top First Round Matchup:

Liberty vs. Mississippi State

Almost every year, a no. 12 seed upsets at least one no. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. No. 12 Liberty has what it takes to knock off no. 5 Mississippi State. The Flames rank eighth in the nation in 2-point field goals (56.9%) and have the best free throw percentage of all teams in the tournament. Liberty plays slow, eating up an average of 20 seconds on the shot clock before attempting to score. The Flames’ slow adjusted tempo could frustrate Mississippi State, which is a team that plays at a faster pace and does not always defend for a entire possession.

Liberty’s best player is Scottie James, a 6-foot-8 235-pound forward, who is a beast in the paint. James scores off offensive rebounds and has connected on 70% of his 2-point attempts this season. If the Flames want to pull off the upset, the X-factor will be Caleb Homesley. Homesley is Liberty’s second-leading scorer, a terrific passer, and the team’s best defender that can guard on the perimeter or under the rim.

The Bulldogs are a great team in transition, but also cough up the ball often. This season, Mississippi State holds a 2-7 record on nights with its worst offensive efficiency. Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay spent six years as Virginia’s associate head coach and has modeled a similar pack line defense into his program, which will be challenging for the Bulldogs to pick apart.

Top Potential Prospect Matchup:

RJ Barrett vs. Aubrey Dawkins

This will be a second-round matchup if Duke defeats its 16-seed and UCF defeats 8-seeded VCU. Central Florida, coached by the former Duke basketball star Johnny Dawkins, is arguably the toughest 9-seed in the bracket. UCF has picked up quality wins against Houston, Cincinnati, Alabama, and Memphis this season.

Duke’s RJ Barrett is likely going to be a lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft. He’s one of the nation’s most-gifted scorers with the ability to overpower and blow by any defender. Barrett can guard multiple positions and creates his own shots when driving to the basket.

Johnny Dawkins’ son, Aubrey Dawkins, has made some noise this season and is looking like a legitimate prospect. Aubrey Dawkins has tremendous size for a wing and excels at knocking down shots off of spot-up opportunities. Dawkins has the upperhand when it comes to 3-point shooting—something RJ Barrett needs to better develop. Barrett is without a doubt the favorable prospect, but this should make for a physical and entertaining second-round matchup.

Top Five NBA Prospects:

1. Zion Williamson, Duke

An explosive forward that possesses freakish athleticism, body control and coordination. A skilled passer with terrific footwork. Excellent rebounder, shot-blocker and defender. Ranked in the top three in points, rebounds and steals per game in the ACC.

2. RJ Barrett, Duke

Led the ACC in scoring at 22.9 points per game. A 6’6’’ left-handed wing with terrific scoring instincts; can play on or off the ball. Has the ability to elevate after one quick step. Drives the ball with solid body control and draws contact. Finishes in transition and creates plays for himself and his teammates. Underrated facilitator—averages 4.1 assists per game.

3. Nickeil Alexander Walker, Virginia Tech

A 6’5’’, 205-pound guard that is versatile offensively. Shot nearly 40% for the Hokies from the 3-point line this season. Converts spot up jumpers and knocks down spot threes. Alexander-Walker is a competitive defender and creative ball-handler who can attack the rim going left or right, making it difficult for any opponent to guard him.

4. Bruno Fernando, Maryland

The 6’10’’ NBA prospect recorded 20 double-doubles in 31 regular season games for Maryland, earning a place on the all-Big Ten first-team. Excellent footwork with impressive mobility. Has a 7-foot-4 wingspan and an athletic frame. Elite shot-blocker and explosive finisher. Has to take better care of the ball, turning it over 21% of the time.

5. Cameron Reddish, Duke

For a wing prospect, Cam Reddish has great size and length. Is a strong standstill shooter with space and can get hot from the 3-point line. He scores in a variety of ways and has strong court vision.. Reddish is a streaky shooter and not consistently competitive, but his defense and rebounding abilities have improved significantly over the course of the season with Duke. On upside, he belongs higher, but one has to wonder why the competitive fire doesn't burn stronger.

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