By Bob Whitney | @WhitneyBob
Well, it’s time to get the 2019 NCAA basketball tournament underway after Sunday’s selection committee announced the top seeds and brackets for the 68 team field.
There were no surprises at the top with Duke receiving the top seed along with Virginia, North Carolina and Gonzaga.
Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans made a very impressive last-second push for consideration but it was too little – too late. Izzo is a master at preparing his team for March and the Spartans enter the tournament playing some of the best basketball in the country.
Realistically, Michigan State is one of seven or eight teams with a shot to claim the 2019 crown in Minneapolis.
Tennessee and Kentucky were in the conversation but their season-long body of work fell a tad short when compared to Duke, Virginia, Carolina and the Zags.
John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines, who were the runner up to Villanova in 2018, would be the other squad with a legitimate chance at advancing to the championship game.
The tournament gets started this evening in Dayton, Ohio with ‘first four’ action featuring Farleigh Dickinson (20-13) versus Prairie View A&M (22-12) followed by Belmont (26-5) and Temple (23-9).
The other ‘first four’ concludes on Wednesday with NC Central (18-15) versus ND State (18-15) followed by Arizona State (22-10) against St. John’s (21-12).
The Belmont/Temple matchup is perhaps the most interesting of all the ‘first four’ games. Belmont could be this year’s Cinderella team in the tournament. Temple enters with plenty of emotion on its side as coach Fran Dunphy prepares to write the final chapter on what is likely to be a Hall of Fame coaching career.
Here is an early look at some of the key matchups in each region, exciting players to watch, potential Cinderella teams, and much more.
East Region Preview: Duke, with a healthy Zion Williamson, is the odds-on favorite to win the region, however, Michigan State and Virginia Tech (the Hokies outstanding point guard Justin Robinson is expected back for the tournament) just might get in the way of the Blue Devils bid for Coach K’s sixth national title.
If Duke has an Achilles heel it would be outside shooting.
Two first-round games to watch would be Mississippi State/ Liberty and LSU/Yale.
Liberty under coach Richie Mackay (and a former assistant under Tony Bennett at UVA) sport a stingy defense that could pose problems for Mississippi State. Controversy surrounds a very athletic and talented LSU squad with coach Will Wade embroiled in a recruiting scandal.
Ivy League tournament champ Yale is the real deal so this game is on the upset watch list.
If Belmont gets by Temple they could be a team to watch along with Louisville who has surprised most in the ACC under first-year Coach Chris Mack.
Whitney’s Prediction: Duke and Michigan State will meet in the east final.
West Region Preview: Gonzaga is the top seed with Michigan close behind in a region where most teams enter the tournament with more questions than answers.
Florida State has the talent to advance to the regional final, particularly after they raised a few eyebrows by easily defeating Virginia in the ACC tournament semifinals. But the ‘Noles have been inconsistent and will be challenged to raise their level of play, especially shooting from beyond the arc. The Buffalo Bulls, with an experienced senior-laden lineup, could be the surprise team in the region.
A first-round matchup to keep your eye on would be Marquette/Murray State. The contest pits two of the most explosive players in the country in Marquette’s Markus Howard and Murray State’s Ja Morant. Both are capable of going for 40 points on any given night. Morant has been tabbed a mini Zion Williamson so get ready to hold your breath as these two go head-to-head on Thursday in Hartford.
Whitney’s Prediction: Florida State and Michigan will advance to the west final.
South Region Preview: Top-seeded Virginia is front and center as the Hoos seek to erase the stain from last’s first-round flameout to UMBC.
On paper, this region appears to be stacked in Virginia’s favor as most of the contenders play a slower, defensive-oriented style which is right up Virginia’s alley.
Kansas State may pose a mild challenge to the Hoos but the road to the regional final is wide open for Virginia’s redemption tour bus. If you haven’t seen him catch a peek at Virginia’s All American guard Kyle Guy, who can drain three’s with his eyes closed.
Tennessee and Purdue should battle it out for the chance to face Virginia in the final with a possible challenge from Mitch Cronin’s Cincinnati Bearcats.
Whitney’s Prediction: It will be Virginia and Purdue in the south final.
Midwest Region Preview: This region could have the most drama and surprises of all the four regions.
I like Carolina and I also believe that this is one of Roy Williams best coaching jobs in his Hall of Fame career. The Tar Heels have the horsepower to get to Minneapolis provided they continue to defend at a high level and eliminate costly turnovers. Many are looking ahead to a Carolina/Kansas battle of blue blood programs, but the Jayhawks have been playing poorly and may not get past a first-round date against Billy Coen’s Northeastern Huskies.
Auburn is coming off a spectacular run in the SEC tournament. The knock on the Tigers is that they often play with far less energy than their coach exudes on the sidelines.
Kentucky and Houston should compete for the chance to face Carolina in the final.
Wofford and Seton Hall should be an intriguing first round battle. Both teams are capable of beating anyone in the country and the winner could derail Kentucky’ shot in the region.
Whitney’s Prediction: It will be a Carolina and Houston final.
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