Forget the rest of the region. Baylor is the No. 3 seed: The Bears have been beaten in the past two NCAA tournaments by Georgia State and Yale. Florida is the No. 4: The Gators lost three of the past four in a tepid SEC. It would be no surprise if both were gone by Round 3 if not Round 2. Virginia — hey, an ACC team I don’t like! — is fading again. Don’t be surprised if the Cavaliers fall to UNC-Wilmington.
Villanova is the second-best team in the country. On the same day the Wildcats won the Big East in Madison Square Garden, the nation’s best team took the ACC title across the East River. Forget Duke’s eight losses. The Duke of November and January isn’t the Duke of March. Harry Giles is finally a factor. Jayson Tatum has emerged as the best player in the land. (Sorry, Lonzo Ball.) Mike Krzyzewski is back on the bench.
The Villanova-Duke East final at Madison Square will be epic. But Duke just won three epic games — over Louisville, Carolina and Notre Dame — in the span of 55 hours. Duke wins 100-98 in double overtime.
Every year we hear the many voices on ESPN say, “This time Gonzaga is for real.” I’ll concede that these Zags are the realest edition we’ve seen: They beat Florida, Iowa State and Arizona before Christmas. Notre Dame is underseeded at No. 5, but Brey will gladly trade that slight for the chance to pick off somebody without a massive edge in talent — such as Kentucky in the 2015 Midwest final and Carolina in the 2016 East final.
The West final will match the two best coaches not to grace a Final Four — Brey and Arizona’s Sean Miller. (Sorry, but I can’t see Notre Dame losing to West Virginia in Round 2.) The big early noise in the West will be the sound of Florida State, a towering team that sometimes plays small, being felled by Florida Gulf Coast. As ever, the West is the weakest regional.
The Pac-12 has three very good teams: UCLA, Oregon and Arizona. The Wildcats beat the other two in the conference tournament’s semis and final. But Miller has had better teams and fallen short of the Final Four. Notre Dame has long been superb on offense, but this Irish team has learned to defend. The past two Marches saw Notre Dame move heaven and earth to reach to the Elite Eight. Here’s the breakthrough.
As I know all too well, Kansas is the team that looks unbeatable until you see it being beaten by Bucknell or Bradley or VCU or Northern Iowa. The Jayhawks won’t stumble over a mid-major this time. They’ll be undone by Miami — yep, another ACC program — which plays tremendous defense and is coached by Jim Larranaga, who took George Mason to the 2006 Final Four. The Hurricanes will meet Michigan State in Round 1, but this is among Tom Izzo’s lesser teams.
Oregon might have been the choice in the Midwest if not for the loss of Chris Boucher, who tore his ACL in the Pac-12 semis. Purdue seems the only Big Ten team in the field capable of winning three games. It will not a win a fourth.
After his team surged from 13 points down to shade the Cardinals in Brooklyn, Krzyzewski said: “Louisville can win the national championship.” I’m not sure that’s true. But the Cardinals can and will make the Final Four.
The South Regional is the toughest. (It often is.) UCLA is excellent. Kentucky appears capable of big things, although the lack of competition in the SEC makes the worth of these Wildcats difficult to gauge. A meeting of the Bruins, with 11 NCAA titles, and the Big Blue, with eight, would be the best game of the Sweet 16. The two met in Rupp Arena in December, UCLA winning. Kentucky is better now. Cats will prevail.
They will not, however, take down Carolina. Kentucky has one good big man: Bam Adebayo. Carolina has three: Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley. The Tar Heels do have one major worry: Justin Jackson, the ACC player of the year, has missed 40 of 60 shots over the past four games. (He’s 7-for-31 on 3-pointers.) That said, Kentucky’s Malik Monk, who famously stacked 47 points on Carolina in December, can drift in and out of games.
Those who hate the snooty ACC will hate hearing this, but this all-ACC Final Four figures to be reduced to Duke versus Carolina on Monday night in Glendale, Ariz. They’ve met three times this season, Duke winning the first and third. The manner in which the Heels collapsed in the ACC semis is fresh in the mind, and so is this: As gifted as Carolina is, it has no player who can seize a game the way Tatum, surely the latest in the series of Duke one-and-dones, has come to do.
Krzyzewski and Roy Williams are Hall of Famers, but they aren't peers. Ol' Roy is among the best. Coach K is the absolute best. Another bit of, er, wisdom from Fiascos past: Sometimes you bet on the horse, sometimes the jockey. I'm betting on the team with the sleekest horses and the smartest jockey. I'm betting on Duke.