2019 NCAA Bracket Predictions: Best Picks for Every Matchup

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 18, 2019

2019 NCAA Bracket Predictions: Best Picks for Every Matchup

0 of 16

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    You can pick your bracket for the 2019 NCAA men's basketball tournament in a thousand different ways. You could flip coins, throw darts, choose colors or, you know, do something a little more scientific involving basketball data.

    But the tried-and-true method for competing in a bracket pool is watching an excessive amount of regular-season hoops and then quickly scribbling down your picks as the field is announced.

    That's exactly what I did. Then I spent several hours writing about the picks I made in five minutes. And I have to say, a lot of data is backing up the gut reactions.

    So before the bracket breaks into a thousand pieces like it always does, spend these next few minutes educating yourself on why it should be three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 seed in this year's Final Four.

First Four

1 of 16

    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Budding Buzzer-Beater: Fairleigh Dickinson vs. Prairie View A&M

    How can it get any closer than this? (Also, how is Prairie View A&M's team nickname not the Prairie Dogs?) Fairleigh Dickinson is No. 208 on KenPom.com, while its opponent is one slot lower at No. 209.

    I'm going with Prairie View because its physical style of play (lots of steals, lots of fouls) could be all sorts of annoying for Fairleigh Dickinson. But it's more than possible this first game of the 2019 NCAA tournament goes to overtime.


    Upset Special: St. John's over Arizona State

    It blows my mind St. John's even made it into the tournament while ranked outside the top 70 on both the NET (No. 73) and KenPom (No. 78)—and with a terrible nonconference strength of schedule, no less. That resume was trash.

    Now that they're here, the Red Storm could still do some damage. The amount of sheer talent in this starting five in unrivaled by at least 95 percent of teams. They just haven't had much consistency. But neither has Arizona State, and I think Shamorie Ponds, Marvin Clark and Co. can catch fire from distance against this Sun Devils defense.


    Player to Watch: Dylan Windler, Belmont

    It is awesome Belmont made it into this tournament as an at-large bid, not just for the mid-majors everywhere who can celebrate "stealing" one away from the big bad guys, but because the college basketball world will get one final look at Dylan Windler in a prime-time outing.

    In 13 games since Jan. 26, Windler has averaged 25.8 points and 12.4 rebounds per game while shooting 46.4 percent from three-point range and...no, come on, this can't be right...81.6 percent from inside the arc. He's also made almost 90 percent of free throws during that time. This dude can play, and he's going to carry Belmont to at least one win.

First Round, East Regional

2 of 16

    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 8 VCU vs. No. 9 UCF

    As far as our power rankings are concerned, this is the toughest first-round matchup to pick. We have UCF at No. 39 overall and VCU at No. 40, so I suppose it's UCF that is more likely to win on a buzzer-beater. But this should be a great game between teams that both want to drag out possessions on defense.


    Upset Special: No. 11 Belmont over No. 6 Maryland

    We are starting out light in terms of upsets. Excluding the No. 8/9 game that doesn't really count for upset purposes, this is all I've got for this region.

    But you saw a moment ago what Windler has been up to lately, right? And he's just one major part of what has been a wildly efficient offense. Belmont ranks among the nation's top 10 in two-point percentage, effective field-goal percentage and assist rate, and the Bruins love to stroke it from three-point range.

    And then there's Maryland, which hasn't looked good lately. The Terrapins have lost seven of their last 13, including ugly performances against Nebraska, Illinois and Penn State. They haven't scored more than 72 points in a game once during that stretch, and their inability to turn Belmont over will be their downfall.


    Player to Watch: Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech

    Robinson isn't the most exciting player in this region, but he is the most intriguing one in the first round. He has missed the last 12 games with a foot injury suffered in late January, but the Hokies announced on Twitter Sunday that their senior point guard will be back for the NCAA tournament.

    With him in the lineup, they were a top-10 team. Without him, they still won a home game against Duke, but their offense wasn't anywhere near as potent. How he looks in the first round against Saint Louis could play a huge role in how this region plays out.

First Round, Midwest Regional

3 of 16

    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 7 Wofford vs. No. 10 Seton Hall

    Seton Hall has played in 20 games decided by six points or fewer this season, and its star player, Myles Powell, is arguably the top Kemba Walker candidate in this year's field.

    But Wofford's Fletcher Magee is also an incredible player, just three triples away from setting the NCAA's career record in that category. And he is surrounded by many other Terriers who are doggone good at putting the ball in the hoop, too. This one is going to be a blast.

    (Bonus factoid: Magee is from Orlando, and the game is in Jacksonville. That building is going to be rocking with Wofford fans.)


    Upset Special: No. 9 Washington over No. 8 Utah State

    Again, we're taking it easy in terms of first-round upsets. Don't worry. We'll get a little more adventurous in the later rounds and in the other two regions.

    Utah State had an unbelievable season and has some of the best defensive frontcourt marks in the nation for two-point defense, rebounding and blocks. But pushing around Noah Dickerson, Hameir Wright, Sam Timmins and Matisse Thybulle is a bit different than manhandling the Mountain West. The Huskies will battle the Aggies in the paint and force a lot of turnovers along the perimeter.

    Unless Sam Merrill is on fire for USU, I like the minor upset here.


    Player to Watch: D'Marcus Simonds, Georgia State

    The Panthers aren't likely to have a long stay in the NCAA tournament, but be sure to tune in and see what D'Marcus Simonds does in his second trip to the Big Dance. He had 24 of Georgia State's 53 points in the opening-round loss to Cincinnati last year, and he's still the go-to guy, averaging 18.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

    He'll at least give Houston a run for its money.

First Round, West Regional

4 of 16

    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 7 Nevada vs. No. 10 Florida

    Nevada was the king of late drama in last year's tournament, erasing huge second-half deficits to beat Texas and Cincinnati before losing by one to Loyola-Chicago. Could the Wolf Pack go back to that well in this game?

    They haven't beaten many tournament-caliber opponents this year. But you know what? Aside from two dramatic wins over LSU, neither has Florida. This should be a good litmus test to see if the winner has sleeper potential.


    Upset Special: No. 12 Murray State over No. 5 Marquette

    Markus Howard vs. Ja Morant. Be still my heart.

    In a Jan. 21 bracket projection, I had No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Murray State, and I've been craving this game ever since. I don't agree with everything the selection committee decided, but this makes up for most of it. And I love Murray State to pull off the upset.

    Everyone knows about Morant, but most probably don't know the Racers have one of the best three-point defenses in the nation. Opponents shoot just 28.2 percent from distance, and only four teams have shot better than 35.3 percent in a game against them—especially notable because threes are such a huge part of what Marquette wants to do on offense.

    Moreover, the Golden Eagles have lost five of six, and Murray State has won 11 straight. Go with the hot team and root for at least two games of Morant.


    Player to Watch: Drew McDonald, Northern Kentucky

    Aside from the Howard vs. Morant showdown, the player in this region I've got my eye on is Northern Kentucky's Drew McDonald.

    Two years ago, this versatile big man had 14 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals in an NCAA tournament game against Kentucky, and he has only become more of a force since then. It'll take a Herculean performance to beat a stifling Texas Tech defense, and this Mike Daum-ish big man will do his best to provide it. 

First Round, South Regional

5 of 16

    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 6 Villanova vs. No. 11 Saint Mary's

    This is such a weird matchup. Both teams love to play slow, so they'll be comfortable with the (lack of) pace. But Villanova ranks second in the nation in three-point rate while Saint Mary's ranks ninth in defensive three-point rate. Meanwhile, Saint Mary's has the lowest assist rate in the country, so it isn't likely to take advantage of a Villanova defense often susceptible to ball movement.

    It's hard to know what to expect here. Both teams will likely spend the first half feeling each other out before settling into a low-scoring, back-and-forth affair. I like Villanova to win, but mainly because picking Villanova to lose early in the NCAA tournament has become a foolhardy endeavor.


    Upset Special: No. 13 UC Irvine over No. 4 Kansas State

    Props to Kansas State for helping end Kansas's Big 12 streak. This is one of the best defensive teams in the country, and two weeks ago I would've said the Wildcats had a shot at reaching the Final Four.

    But Dean Wade's status (foot) is in question. The game is in San Jose against a California school. (Irvine isn't exactly walking distance to San Jose, but the underdogs have the clear geographical advantage here.) And the matchup of Kansas State's offense with UC Irvine's defense could be a disaster for the Wildcats. The Anteaters thrive on forcing mid-range jumpers, and this is not a good shooting team.

    It's going to be an ugly game. I'd be surprised if either team scores 65. But all things considered, give me the upset.


    Player to Watch: Carsen Edwards, Purdue

    Which Edwards will show up? The one who couldn't buy a bucket for most of February, or the one who constantly took over games for the first three months of the season?

    If he's back to his old self and threatening to score 35 points in any game, the Boilermakers are a major Final Four threat. If he scores 11 points on 17 shots with six turnovers as he did against Minnesota in Purdue's only Big Ten tournament game, the Boilermakers might get bounced in the first round.

Second Round, East Regional

6 of 16

    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 4 Virginia Tech vs. No. 5 Mississippi State

    These teams are night and day. Virginia Tech plays slow, runs a zone defense, jacks up a lot of threes and isn't physical. Mississippi State plays faster with an aggressive man-to-man defense and often controls games on the offensive glass. 

    If Justin Robinson is close to 100 percent, I like the Hokies. But I could see this one going either way, based on which team is able to assert its style of play. Generally speaking, though, it's easier for a zone defense to dictate the flow, and it's hard to stop a team from shooting threes.


    Upset Special: No. 11 Belmont over No. 3 LSU

    In every year since the field expanded to 68 teams in 2011, one of the at-large play-in teams has gone on to reach the round of 32. Four of those eight years, that team also made it to the Sweet 16. That doesn't mean this has to happen, but precedent for it certainly exists.

    And, really, is there a more vulnerable team on the top four seed lines than LSU? Even before the Will Wade FBI situation came to a head late in the season, the Tigers were often playing in nail-biters against teams they should have beaten easily. They've played seven overtime games and nine others decided by six points or fewer.

    Plus, this LSU defense is not that good. Tremont Waters is great at forcing turnovers, but opponents shoot well and get a lot of offensive rebounds when they don't lose the ball. And Belmont has a low turnover rate and is more than content playing at LSU's pace. If anything, the Bruins might be the ones pushing the tempo.

    The Cinderella story continues!


    Player to Watch: Zion Williamson, Duke

    It goes without saying that Williamson is the biggest star in this region. We didn't list him as the player to watch in the first game because Duke will probably only need him for about 15 minutes to move on from North Dakota State. But against the defense of either VCU or UCF, he'll be a much more important force of nature.

    And, my gracious, could you imagine if it's UCF, and he puts Tacko Fall on a poster?

Second Round, Midwest Regional

7 of 16

    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 3 Houston vs. No. 6 Iowa State

    These teams are separated by several seed lines, but KenPom says they're a lot closer. Houston is ranked No. 15, while Iowa State is No. 16.

    The Cougars have one of the most efficient defenses in the country, ranking in the top five for both two-point and three-point percentage allowed. But when is the last time they faced an offense anywhere close to this good?

    The Cyclones rank ninth in adjusted offensive efficiency, and Houston is the only AAC team in the top 40. The only top-30 offense Houston faced all season was LSU, and the Tigers put up 50 in the first 21 minutes before going cold and blowing a huge lead. This should be highly competitive.


    Upset Special: No. 5 Auburn over No. 4 Kansas

    Even before Auburn ran wild at the SEC tournament, I was planning on picking this team to win at least two games, almost no matter the draw. Now you're telling me the Tigers will get to face a falling-apart-at-the-seams Kansas team that gives up a lot of threes and is just average in terms of avoiding blocks and steals?

    Yeah, I'll take Auburn. Please and thank you.

    Jared Harper and Bryce Brown are going to suffocate Kansas's three-freshmen-starters backcourt, and the Tigers have more than enough big men to throw at Dedric Lawson and keep him somewhat neutralized. Simply put, you don't beat Auburn without hitting threes and owning the offensive glass, and Kansas doesn't make a living in either department. War Eagle.


    Player to Watch: Keldon Johnson, Kentucky

    Before the tournament field was set, Bleacher Report colleague David Kenyon and I were discussing nightmare matchups for potential No. 1 seeds. The big one I liked for Kentucky was Wofford. Lo and behold, here it is: Arguably the most lethal three-point shooting team in the country against a Wildcats defense that has struggled with the deep ball all year.

    Because of that, Johnson will be of colossal importance. He and Ashton Hagans will have the impossible task of keeping Fletcher Magee under wraps while also worrying about four other perimeter shooters. Kentucky is going to need a big game from Johnson on both ends in order to avoid the upset.

Second Round, West Regional

8 of 16

    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 8 Syracuse

    One of Gonzaga's toughest games of the regular season was against Washington, which is coached by long-time Jim Boeheim-assistant Mike Hopkins. And if a Syracuse-like team could cause problems for the Zags, maybe Syracuse can, too.

    Plus, the Orange are never an easy out in the tournament, and the Bulldogs always seems to have one heart-stopping game in the opening weekend. I trust the Gonzaga offense to get the win, but it shan't be a blowout.


    Upset Special: No. 7 Nevada over No. 2 Michigan

    One of these years I'll learn not to pick Michigan to lose in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Evidently, this is not that year.

    I love Zavier Simpson, but I don't trust this Wolverines offense. It has concerned me for two months now, and watching it struggle in the second half of the Big Ten championship against a depleted Michigan State roster sent that red flag flying up once again. Statistically, the only thing Michigan's offense does at a significantly above-average level is avoid turnovers.

    The defense is impeccable and does an incredible job denying ball movement along the perimeter. The problem is Nevada's Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline are perfectly content not moving the ball, playing iso offense and hitting contested shots. It's probably going to be a 65-60 type of affair, but I've got the upset.


    Player to Watch: Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech

    Jarrett Culver hit a bit of a rough patch in late January, but he has been hot for the past five weeks and scored at least 15 points in eight straight. He lit up Iowa State for 31 points in the regular-season finale and put up 26 in Texas Tech's blowout win over Kansas. This Red Raiders offense goes through the occasional dry spell, but he can carry them through it.

Second Round, South Regional

9 of 16

    Budding Buzzer-Beater: No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 7 Cincinnati

    When flying through the picks for each region, I penciled Tennessee into the Sweet 16 without a second thought. But now that I've realized this game is in Columbus—around 100 miles from Cincinnati—I'm a little less confident.

    Plus, on second glance, the Bearcats could be the perfect foil for the Volunteers. One of Tennessee's biggest weaknesses is the defensive glass, and Cincinnati is the second-best offensive rebounding team in the field. And while Cincy is liable to get smoked by threes, it has a great interior defense. Tennessee isn't that strong from the perimeter on offense.

    A lot of people will be sweating this game in their bracket pools.


    Upset Special: No. 6 Villanova over No. 3 Purdue

    Villanova has won two national championships in the past three years. Purdue has been eliminated before the Elite Eight in 11 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament. I understand this game is for the Sweet 16, which the Boilermakers have gone to four times during that stretch. But the moral of the story is I don't trust Purdue anywhere near as much as I trust Villanova.

    Even with all the struggles the Wildcats have endured this season, they finished strong and remain an incredible three-point shooting team. That's bad news for Purdue, which has a high defensive three-point rate and an average three-point percentage allowed. Even if Carsen Edwards gets cooking in this one, it might be tough to keep up with Villanova's triples.


    Player to Watch: Pick one of Virginia's Big Three

    Whether you prefer Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome or De'Andre Hunter, the Cavaliers should have some fun in this one. If they draw Oklahoma, that's an opponent that gives up a lot of threes, doesn't force turnovers, doesn't shoot that well and isn't physical. If it's Ole Miss instead, that's the worst three-point defense in the tournament against the second-best three-point offense. Think that's going to end well?

    All three of these Wahoos might score 20 in the second round. 

Sweet 16 and Elite 8, East Regional

10 of 16

    No. 1 Duke over No. 4 Virginia Tech

    Duke lost at Virginia Tech less than a month ago, but I'm not worried about that. In fact, I'm impressed the Blue Devils only lost by five without Zion Williamson on the road against a three-point-heavy offense.

    A team with a stretch 5 like Kerry Blackshear Jr. was the perfect candidate to beat a version of Duke without Williamson. Marques Bolden couldn't guard him away from the rim, and Javin DeLaurier couldn't handle him at the rim. Williamson can and will do both, and he also drastically improves what the team can do on offense.

    If Virginia Tech shoots 40 percent or better from distance, this might get interesting. But the Hokies haven't shot that well away from home, and this Blue Devils team ranks among the top 10 in three-point defense.


    No. 2 Michigan State over No. 11 Belmont

    Some Sister Jean type of story will have everyone rooting for Belmont by the time the Sweet 16 begins, but this is where Cinderella's carriage turns back into a pumpkin.

    The Spartans are just too good. By this time, Nick Ward should be close to 100 percent recovered from his broken hand, and he, Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins will make life in the paint miserable for the Bruins. More importantly, Michigan State's offense will run circles around Belmont's mediocre defense.

    Dylan Windler is good, but Cassius Winston is a college basketball deity. The star point guard eliminates the sleeper.


    No. 1 Duke over No. 2 Michigan State

    This is where Michigan State's turnover woes become an insurmountable problem.

    If you're careless with the ball against the Blue Devils, you might as well just start shooting it into their basket for them. Either Williamson, Tre Jones or Cam Reddish is going to jump the passing lanes, resulting in a thunderous dunk a few seconds later. And because Michigan State is awful at forcing turnovers, Duke is going to get shots up, and it is going to get back a lot of the ones it misses.

    I love Ward as an interior presence against most teams, but Williamson will make him look slow and lost. Duke won't necessarily cruise to victory, but it is the clear favorite here. Just about the only way Michigan State wins the game is if Ward—who has always had a knack for drawing fouls—is able to send Williamson to the bench with early whistles.

Sweet 16 and Elite 8, Midwest Regional

11 of 16

    No. 5 Auburn over No. 1 North Carolina

    Maybe I'm too high on Auburn, or maybe this is brilliant. Time will tell. But I love this matchup for the red-hot Tigers.

    Assuming North Carolina draws Washington in the second round, this will be the Tar Heels' second consecutive game against a defense that ranks within the NCAA's top five in both block and steal percentage—a tough draw for an offense that has had issues with blocked shots and live-ball turnovers.

    But while Washington will lose because of its inability to score, Auburn will win by shooting (and making) threes for days against North Carolina's defense. Guarding the perimeter has been a major issue for North Carolina over the past four years, and it'll bury the Tar Heels in this game. They'll keep it close by taking advantage of the Tigers' poor defensive rebounding and terrible three-point defense, but Auburn gets it done.


    No. 2 Kentucky over No. 3 Houston

    How long can Houston's big men last before getting into foul trouble in this game?

    The Cougars have a great interior defense, but all four guys—Breaon Brady, Fabian White Jr., Brison Grisham and Chris Harris—struggle with fouls. And Kentucky draws fouls at an impeccable rate, which could spell disaster. If the Houston big men are forced to play tentative basketball, PJ Washington and Co. will score at will.

    Moreover, Houston's typical advantage on the glass won't apply here. And for a team that doesn't shoot that well relative to other contenders, that'll be a big problem.


    No. 2 Kentucky over No. 5 Auburn

    It's tempting to keep going with Auburn here, since Kentucky's three-point defense leaves more than a little to be desired. But the Wildcats swept the Tigers during the regular season by just beating them up in the paint.

    UK shot better than 60 percent from inside the arc and won the rebounding battle in both games. And Auburn's elite shot-blocking and turnover-forcing defense never got going in either contest. Kentucky didn't even have Reid Travis for one of those games, and it still made mincemeat of Auburn's frontcourt.

    The third round could always be different, but I'll take Kentucky for the third time. 

Sweet 16 and Elite 8, West Regional

12 of 16

    No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 4 Florida State

    One year ago, Florida State pummeled Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. The Bulldogs lost Killian Tillie right before that game, and they couldn't figure out how to score without him. This year, they're in the opposite situation: They were already elite on offense without Tillie, and now they're even more dangerous with him back in the mix—woeful performance against Saint Mary's in the WCC finals notwithstanding.

    I think it's actually Gonzaga's defense that makes the difference in this game, though. After early struggles against the likes of North Carolina, Tennessee and Creighton, the Zags have done a great job defending the perimeter.

    And Florida State isn't a great shooting team in the first place.


    No. 3 Texas Tech over No. 7 Nevada

    The isolation offense might work for Nevada against Michigan, but it's going to run into a wall against Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are happy to let you shoot contested threes, and they will destroy you if you try to score in the paint. Tariq Owens is one of the best shot-blockers in the country, and Norense Odiase plays a mean second fiddle in that department.

    That duo will neutralize Jordan Caroline while Jarrett Culver will try to lock down Caleb Martin in a fun battle between wings who will soon join the NBA ranks. And on the other end, Culver and Davide Moretti will provide just enough offense against a mediocre perimeter defense to get Texas Tech the victory.


    No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 3 Texas Tech

    The unstoppable force against the immovable object. Gonzaga's incredible offense going up against Texas Tech's impenetrable defense.

    Defense wins championships, but offense usually wins these battles. Remember, it was Wisconsin's ridiculously efficient offense that ended Kentucky's quest for perfection in 2015. And it's no coincidence Duke was the only team to beat Virginia during the regular season. Heck, even Gonzaga's offense against Duke's great defense was another example of why I've got Texas Tech bowing out here.

    Much as I love Culver and Moretti, I don't envision the Red Raiders having enough firepower to keep up with the Zags. This ends up a higher-scoring game than most expect, and Gonzaga goes to the Final Four. 

Sweet 16 and Elite 8, South Regional

13 of 16

    No. 1 Virginia over No. 12 Oregon

    Even if I'm wrong about Oregon and UC Irvine pulling off first-round upsets, this is an easy pick if Virginia has to face Kansas State or Wisconsin. The Cavaliers ended up in the weakest half-region of any Nos. 1 or 2 seed, and this team is at least going to the Elite Eight, recent history be darned.

    Oregon's offense had trouble scoring against most Pac-12 opponents. It might not even get to 45 points against this pack-line defense.


    No. 2 Tennessee over No. 6 Villanova

    If this is another one of those years in which Villanova is going to shoot close to 50 percent from three-point range for the tournament, maybe the upset happens here. After all, Tennessee's three-point defense is probably its biggest weakness (see: two games vs. Auburn). 

    But I expect Tennessee's physicality to be too much for Villanova. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree won't be able to slow down Grant Williams. Admiral Schofield will get just about anywhere he wants against an average defense. And not-so-secret weapon Jordan Bone is going to carve up the Wildcats.


    No. 1 Virginia over No. 2 Tennessee

    Virginia's performance against Florida State in the ACC tournament makes this a scary pick. The Seminoles kind of bullied the Cavs into submission, targeting Kihei Clark in isolation plays and shooting 66.7 percent from inside the arc against a defense designed to stop that exact thing from happening.

    Physically, Tennessee is similar to FSU.

    But I also remember a Virginia game against Florida State from early January in which the Cavaliers led 65-39 with two minutes remaining before letting the walk-ons turn it into a 13-point game. Maybe the ACC tournament game was the anomaly, and it's unlikely the Cavaliers will get beaten with contested baseline jumpers again. And they probably won't shoot 5-of-24 from three-point range, either.

    At long last, Tony Bennett gets to the Final Four.

Final Four: No. 1 Duke over No. 1 Gonzaga

14 of 16

    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    There were a lot of folks clamoring this past weekend about how badly they want some combination of Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan State and Michigan in the Final Four. Round III of those conference rivalries was so much fun that everyone would love a Round IV.

    But in reality, the best possible rematch is this one.

    Gonzaga beat Duke 89-87 in the Maui Invitational championship game, and it was sensational. With the exception of Cam Reddish (10 points, four turnovers, four fouls), every key player from both teams delivered. Gonzaga was the only team to beat Duke at full strength, and the Zags actually did so while Zion Williamson gave the Blue Devils 22 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. It wasn't even an off night for the presumed Wooden Award winner.

    Gonzaga was just better.

    Here's the thing, though: Duke is better now than it was then. As annoying as the "These freshmen are sophomores now!" refrain can be at this time of year, it bears mentioning that these freshmen had only played five regular-season games together at the time of that epic showdown, and it was their third game in less than 48 hours.

    Also, Gonzaga shot 10-of-19 from three-point range against Duke, which just doesn't happen this year. The Blue Devils will do a better job defending the perimeter this time, and they'll have their revenge.

Final Four: No. 2 Kentucky over No. 1 Virginia

15 of 16

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Truthfully, this is where the "Virginia has broken your bracket too many times" voice in the back of my head got a little too loud. You can win a bracket pool while losing a Final Four team early, but you can't recover from losing your champion before the Sweet 16. Virginia has proved that at my expense twice in the past five years.

    Short of that nagging concern, I might actually like Virginia to win this game.

    Kentucky doesn't shoot many threes, its primary point guard (Ashton Hagans) has some turnover issues and its dependence on free throws isn't likely to be fulfilled in a slow-paced game against this defense. And Virginia's three-point offense would figure to fare well against Kentucky's perimeter defense.

    I just trust Kentucky more than I trust Virginia, and I can't shake it.

    Tyler Herro and PJ Washington will get huge buckets, like always. Reid Travis, Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery will be titans on the offensive glass, like always. And Virginia will fall shy of reaching the national championship, like always.

National Championship Game: No. 1 Duke over No. 2 Kentucky

16 of 16

    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    How ridiculous is it that these blue bloods haven't met in the NCAA tournament since 1998? You'd think with all their respective trips to the Final Four, they would have engaged in another showdown somewhere along the way. But before too long, some people of legal drinking age won't have been alive for a single Duke vs. Kentucky tournament game.

    These teams did meet a few months ago for a colossal beatdown. The Blue Devils crushed the Wildcats 118-84 in the Champions Classic to open the 2018-19 season. And we can only hope they'll square off again to end the year.

    This time around, it won't be a 34-point blowout. Duke shot 12-of-26 from three-point range in that game, and it has scarcely been able to buy a three-pointer since.

    I do like Duke to get the job done again, though. Zion Williamson didn't come back from his knee injury just to go out with a whimper in the national championship. Rather, he returned to finish his quest and get Mike Krzyzewski his sixth national championship ring. And as good as PJ Washington and Reid Travis may be, they aren't going to stop him.

    Williamson and RJ Barrett combine for at least 50 points, and the Blue Devils win yet another tournament classic between two of the best programs in the history of the game.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.