The selection committee set the framework for the NCAA men's basketball tournament; now we separate the Final Four from the madness that will ensue in the coming weeks.
Last year, two No. 1 seeds (Villanova and Kansas) advanced to San Antonio along with No. 3 Michigan and No. 11 Loyola-Chicago as the Cinderella squad. In a game of "which item doesn't belong," the Ramblers stand out. However, it's part of the deal with March Madness.
Will another lower-seeded team reach the Final Four or should bracket enthusiasts go with mostly chalk across the board? Many expect to see a couple of perennial contenders in Minneapolis, but who's primed to match up with the powerhouse programs in April?
Following Selection Sunday, it's time to pull out the brackets and pencils. Let's take a look at projected winners for each regional. We'll break down who must elevate their game under the bright lights and which teams have what it takes to reach the semifinal round.
East Regional Winner: No. 1 Duke
When Duke takes the court at full strength, there's no other program that looks stronger as a candidate to reach the Final Four. Future Hall of Fame head coach Mike Krzyzewski guides a star-studded freshman group, with Zion Williamson leading the charge.
The Blue Devils exacted revenge on North Carolina—after two regular-season losses without Williamson—in the ACC tournament. Forward RJ Barrett and guard Tre Jones had strong performances in the conference title game against Florida State. Forward Cam Reddish hasn't been efficient as a shooter, converting on 35 percent from the field, but opponents can't overlook his ability to pull up from beyond the arc.
Duke isn't invincible with Williamson on the floor, Gonzaga beat this team in November and Syracuse earned a victory with the freshman star notching a season-high 35 points at Cameron Indoor Stadium in January.
The last time the Blue Devils entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed, they won the national title in 2015. With heightened expectations surrounding a freshmen quartet, Krzyzewski has the talent to reach the Final Four again.
West Regional Winner: No. 1 Gonzaga
Gonzaga's regular-season ended with a 60-47 loss to Saint Mary's in the West Coast Conference tournament, but the program will rebound with a strong push in the Big Dance. The Bulldogs' first real test may not come until the Sweet 16 if Florida State wins its matchups. Other than a potential contest with the Seminoles, Michigan may pose the biggest threat to Gonzaga's road to the semifinals.
The Bulldogs have a top-notch experienced guard in Josh Perkins, who can also score anywhere on the floor. Brandon Clarke provides toughness in the frontcourt to match physical teams on the interior; he's averaging 16.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per contest as a dominant force in the paint.
Sophomore guard Zach Norwell Jr. is the team's best long-distance shooter, knocking down 2.6 triples per contest. The Chicago native also serves as a secondary facilitator.
Gonzaga has an abundance of high-end talent with upperclassmen in key roles. Barring a shocking upset, head coach Mark Few should be able to lead his group to Minneapolis.
South Regional Winner: No. 2 Tennessee
Tennessee's last impression may deflate some confidence in their play before the tournament, but head coach Rick Barnes' squad has a good shot at advancing to the Final Four in the South Region. Virginia, who bowed out to Maryland-Baltimore County in the first 1-16 matchup upset last year, is listed as the No. 1 seed in the Volunteers' bracket corner.
Before their loss to Auburn Sunday, the Volunteers had some buzz as a potential No. 1 seed for good reason. They beat Gonzaga on a neutral floor and won the season series against Kentucky 2-1, which included a victory in the SEC tournament.
Senior guard Admiral Schofield and junior forward Grant Williams lead Tennessee on the offensive end. The former possesses a well-rounded game with a 42 percent conversion rate on his three-point shot; the latter knows how to battle through contact for extra points at the free-throw line.
Jordan Bone could push this squad over the top. He's capable of breaking down a defense and kicking out to the open man. The junior guard averages 6.2 assists per game and lists as the third-leading scorer (13.5 PPG) on the roster.
Tennessee also has a solid supporting cast with guard Lamonte Turner, who can knock down big shots as witnessed in the SEC tournament game against Kentucky, and 6'11" big man Kyle Alexander, who's able to protect the paint. Top to bottom, the Volunteers have one of the most complete teams in the field.
Midwest Regional Winner: No. 1 North Carolina
North Carolina has a starting lineup that features experienced collegians. Cameron Johnson, a fifth-year senior, and Luke Maye, a former NCAA champion, could provide the Tar Heels with a sense of composure in a mentally taxing elimination-style gauntlet. They're also strong contributors.
Maye averaged a double-double (14.7 points and 10.5 rebounds in 2018-19) in consecutive seasons. Johnson converted 47 percent from three-point territory while shooting 51 percent from the field during the year.
In addition, freshman guard Coby White has developed into a dynamic playmaker under head coach Roy Williams. He can facilitate, split the defense on a drive to the hoop or create his own shot off the dribble. The North Carolina native is the key to this squad's engine. The 6'5", 185-pound guard averaged 16.3 points, 4.2 assists and 2.4 triples per contest during the regular season.
The Tar Heels also have a scrappy team on the floor—opponents must prepare for a physical matchup on both ends of the court. They're the top rebounding program in the nation, attack the passing lanes to force turnovers and challenge shooters on the perimeter.
North Carolina will have a tough road with No. 2 Kentucky, No. 3 Houston, No. 4 Kansas and No. 5 Auburn in its bracket. Nonetheless, Maye's ability to score and crash the boards, Johnson's inside-outside game with White's electric offense should keep this program alive late in the tournament.
Click here for B/R's Printable Bracket.