Why the No. 1 seed will make the Final Four:
No disrespect to any of the other teams in the South Region but the committee did the Blue Devils a favor. Gonzaga, Iowa State and Georgetown as the 2, 3, 4 in the South? Aside from a tough Iowa State team that they wouldn’t see until the Elite 8, I don’t see a team in this region being able to take down Coach K’s squad. Duke has without a doubt the easiest path to the Final Four of any #1 seed. They’ve already beaten St. John’s, a potential second round game and Georgetown, the team likely to see them in the Sweet 16 (at least based on seeding), is described by most as being seeded too high based on their body of work.
But aside from that, they have arguably the best player in America in Jahlil Okafor. Okafor is an absolute beast down low. He’s going to be the #1 pick in this year’s draft and he’s like a man among boys on the block. Few teams, if any, have the talent up front to shut him down. He’s averaging 18 points and 9 boards while shooting close to 70% from the field and is the engine that makes this Duke team go. He’s long, has great footwork and is one of the most skilled offensive big men I’ve ever seen at this point in their career.
But guards seem to take center stage in the Tournament and Duke has two of the best guards in the country to go along with the big man up front. Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones have been on fire recently and have been the Robin to Okafor’s Batman. The duo is averaging 27.3 points and 8.5 assists on the season but have really started to gel together as of late with Tyus running the show a little more and Quinn playing off the ball, spotting up and attacking in transition. Jones, a freshman, has been particularly hot of late seemingly having the ball in his hands in crunch time and delivering night after night. Combine that with the team co-Captain in Cook, a senior who has seen it all during his time in Durham and you’ve got the makings of a team that is poised to make a deep run in a region where they likely won’t face any adversity until the Elite 8.
And I haven’t even mentioned potential lottery pick Justise Winslow who is one of the better wings in the country. He is versatile enough to play the four spot in small lineups and can guard any position from 2-4. He’s extremely athletic and is a physical player that can do a little bit of everything. He has a tendency to get out of control and commit silly fouls but there is no denying his talent. Mix in a little Matt Jones, Amile Jefferson, Marshall Plumlee and sharp shooting Grayson Allen and the Blue Devils will be a tough out for any team in this field, and yes that includes Kentucky.
Oh, and did I mention they have Coach K on the sidelines?
Why the No. 1 seed will fall short:
Simply put, a lack of depth. Duke has 8 scholarship players on the roster after the suspension to Rasheed Sulaimon and the transfer of Semi Ojeleye, both coming mid-season. They are an injury or foul trouble to Jahlil Okafor away from an early exit for the second straight season. They’ve been able to dodge the injury bug for the most part this season as the team has been relatively healthy other than an odd string of non-serious ankle sprains that virtually the entire roster suffered a few weeks ago. The problem is that in the Tournament, the games are called a little tighter than normal and Duke will need all three of the Okafor, Cook, Jones trio on the court for at least 35 minutes a night for the team to be successful (outside of the first game that is).
Grayson Allen and Marshall Plumlee are two guys that have played well since the departures of Sulaimon and Ojeleye but they aren’t difference makers right now and both guys have major holes in their games. That leaves Amile Jefferson, a former starter, to backup Okafor while forcing the remaining players to play virtually the entire game. Iowa State is the only team that I see standing in Duke’s way of another Final Four and they are definitely a team to be reckoned with. They are physical, they play with a lot of energy and they’ve got players who have been there before. Like Duke, they are extremely talented offensively and feature a few of the better relatively "unknown" star players in the country in Georges Niang and Jameel McKay.
Ultimately, Duke should win the South and should bring Coach K home his 11th Final Four banner. It would be a fitting end to a season that saw him win his 1,000th game.
Best Non- No. 1 seed: Iowa State
My apologies to those in Spokane but as I stated above, the Cyclones are the biggest threat to Duke in the South Region. They are one of the hottest teams heading into the Tournament and seem to be peaking at the right time as they’ve won 5 straight and 8 of their last 10. Niang, McKay, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Monte Morris and Naz Long all average double figures for a team that is #7 in the country per KenPom in offensive efficiency. They are bettered by only one team in the South…Duke who is #3. They were in the Sweet 16 a season ago and have wins this season over Georgia State, Arkansas, Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kansas all of which are teams in the field of 68. This team plays with a lot of energy and emotion which is one thing that can tip the scales come Tournament time as hustle plays and key rebounds can be the difference in a win and a loss.
Fred Hoiberg has completely rebuilt what was a bottom feeding program in the Big 12 in just five seasons. He’s won a game in each of the last three NCAA Tournaments and is poised to win one in his first four. His teams play together and they know what it takes to win. They are well coached and well prepared night in and night out. This team in particular is a well-traveled veteran group of guys that have everything needed to make a deep run.
Sweet 16 Sleeper: Eastern Washington
Tyler Harvey can flat out score the basketball. Guards win games come Tourney time and Harvey is one of the more underrated guards in the country. They have a very winnable game against an overrated Georgetown team in the Round of 64 and then would meet the winner of a 5-12 matchup that will either be Utah or S.F. Austin. Neither of those two teams scare anyone and certainly won’t scare Harvey and the Eagles who are 3rd in the Nation averaging just over 80 points per game. They defend well and take care of the ball for the most part. They took down Indiana in Bloomington earlier in the season and played close games with Washington and SMU so they are battle tested. Look for Harvey to have a big game against he Hoyas and potentially be Steph Curry 2.0 for this year’s Cinderella team.
Final Four Sleeper: San Diego State
I like what Steve Fisher has built in So Cal. From Kawhi Leonard to Jamaal Franklin to Xavier Thames and now Winston Shepard. He has built a perennial power in the Mountain West and has been rewarded for it with six straight NCAAT appearances.
The Aztecs get a short-handed St. John’s team in the first round who will be without Chris Obekpa due to a suspension. Without their second leading rebounder and the Big East’s leading shot blocker, the Red Storm will have a void up front as the team tries to stop the dribble penetration of the Aztecs.
They would have to get past Duke in the Round of 32 but with underrated big men like Malik Pope and Angelo Chol up front, the Aztecs have the length and bulk up front to slow Okafor down. With O’Brien potentially drawing an assignment against Winslow and Shepard slowing down Cook or Jones it could end up being one of those games for the Blue Devils where a team with the defensive intensity of the Aztecs could slow them down enough to pull off the upset.
I love teams that play defense, especially in the Tournament, and the Aztecs certainly do that. They are second in the nation in opponents points per game at just a tick over 53 allowed. Defense like that can be smothering for even the best of offenses and as the old saying goes, defense wins Championships. The Committee knew what they were doing dropping this defensive juggernaut into a Region with some of the top offensive groups in the country. It should make for some interesting matchups along the way.
Best First Round Matchup: San Diego State vs. St. John’s
There aren’t many "sexy" first round matchups in this Region but I’m going to keep my eye on the 8-9 game between the Aztecs and the Red Storm. Specifically, the player on the San Diego State roster that is assigned to guard Sir'Dominic Pointer. Pointer is a matchup nightmare as he can play both wing and forward positions. Pointer is an extremely gifted athlete and can score in a plethora of different ways. He’ll likely be challenged to become more of a jump shooter by the Aztecs as he’s at his best when attacking the basket and doesn’t shoot it particularly well from distance. Obekpa’s absence makes this game a little less exciting as I think the Aztecs will start to pull away in the second half, but it is one of the better first round matchups between fairly even pitted teams.
Top Potential Player Matchup: Justice Winslow vs. Winston Shepard
Can you tell I’m a big fan of combo wing/forwards? Winslow is a lottery pick and a guy that Duke will rely heavily on if Okafor is having a bad night. The freshman has had a roller coaster season but has scored in double digits now in 14 straight games after being held without a field goal in a game against potentially second round foe St. John’s back in January. Winslow and Shepard will likely match up with each other at different points in the game with this being a huge opportunity for Shepard to show what he’s made of against the best competition he’s seen this season.
Top Coach: Coach K
1,012 Total Wins
11 Final Fours
4 National Championships
82 NCAAT Wins
2 Olympic Gold Medals
Biggest Question Mark: Can Gonzaga finally make a run passed the Sweet 16?
The Zags are known for fizzling out come Tournament time. They run wild through the WCC each and every season only to falter when the stage gets big and when the competition gets better. This season could be and should be different as Mark Few’s bunch has a well balanced team with some star power to boot. I could easily see Davidson knocking off Iowa which would set up a very winnable second round game against the Wildcats that should give the ‘Zags an easy path to the Sweet 16, a place they haven’t been since 2009.
Kyle Wiltjer, the Kentucky transfer, along with senior point guard Kevin Pangos are all too familiar with disappointing ends to seasons as they’ve both experienced them in recent years. Wiltjer has also experienced the success of winning a National Championship, something that can’t be overlooked. Neither player wants an early exit this season, in particularly Pangos, who hasn’t gotten out of the Round of 32 in his career.
Iowa State will likely await them in the Sweet 16 which will be the toughest team they’ve faced all season outside of an Arizona team that accounted for one of the ‘Zag’s two losses. If they can somehow get past the Cyclones and into the Elite 8, the monkey might be shaken off of their backs and they might play loose enough to get the school their first ever Final Four appearance.
Top 5 NBA Prospects
1. Jahlil Okafor – Duke
He’s the best big man and player in the country. He’s going to be the #1 overall selection in this June’s draft. There really isn’t much to say that hasn’t been said about Okafor. He’s just that good. He’s years beyond where he should be at this point in terms of offensive progression and he plays with a quiet confidence that, unlike Christian Laettner, people don’t seem to hate.
2. Justice Winslow – Duke
Like his teammate, Winslow is a sure fire lottery pick this June. He’s extremely athletic and can play multiple positions on the court. He’s a great finisher/slasher, a decent jump shooter and has a back to the basket game that surprises you on occasion. He is extremely foul prone and will need to stay on the floor during the Tournament as this Duke team isn’t particularly deep. He’ll need to keep his temper in check as that has cost his team a few times this season and there wouldn’t be a worse time than to cost your team during March.
3. Kevin Looney – UCLA
Looney is a guy I haven’t seen play that much this season as I’m on the East Coast but when I have seen him play, he’s been really impressive. He’s another combo player that can do a little bit of everything. He’s aggressive and attacks the basket in one on one situations and is extremely effective in doing so. He needs to add some strength if he’s going to play the four at the next level which is where he currently projects. He’s another likely lottery pick in this Region and is a guy to keep an eye on if UCLA makes a run.
4. Delon Wright – Utah
Wright has really come into his own this season and the Utes are reaping the benefits. He’s basically doing it all for his team. He scores, he distributes, he rebounds, he defends. There really isn’t much he can’t do. He’s more of a combo guard playing point guard at this level but has done it extremely well. He isn’t a great shooter and has a hard time creating shots for himself but his real potential, in my opinion, is on the defensive side of the ball as he’s got active hands, stays in front of his man and is an above average shot blocker (1.2 per game/career) for his size. He’s a senior that can really improve his already 1st round grade draft stock with a deep run in the Tournament.
5. Tyus Jones – Duke
Jones has really come on in the second half of the season as he’s become the team’s primary ball handler. He and Cook took some time to get used to one another but they’ve now learned how to both be affective and play off of each other. He isn’t a big kid but he is aggressive when attacking the rim and can finish in traffic. He’s got great vision in the half court and sets his guys up in the right spots to be effective. He’s not cocky by any stretch but he’s is as confident as they come. He’ll likely stick around for another season at Duke and be "the man" next season but he would be a 1st round pick if he came out this year.
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