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NCAA Tournament Bracket 2019: Region-by-Region Sleepers, Final Four Predictions

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 18, 2019

Duke's Zion Williamson (1) celebrates after Duke defeated Florida State in the NCAA college basketball championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, March 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
Nell Redmond/Associated Press

The 68-team field compiling the 2018 NCAA men's basketball tournament is set.

Take in all its glory, folks, because it's only a matter of time before a few Cinderellas bust most brackets into oblivion.

From production and pedigree to mascots and team colors, there are myriad ways to make your picks.

Everyone and their cousin has an opinion—including us, which we'll get to in a minute—but the important thing to remember is this is your bracket. If you want to go upsets galore or cover your bracket in chalk, you should trust your own instincts before leaning on those around you.

That said, if you're looking for some insight, we'll take a region-by-region look at the bracket below with a sleeper and a Final Four pick for each.

                

South Regional

Sleeper: No. 3 Purdue

Final Four Prediction: No. 1 Virginia

Steve Helber/Associated Press

Only one team in the nation holds top-five efficiency ranks on offense and defense, per KenPom.com. And it's not the overloaded Blue Devils, 2017 champion North Carolina or ruler of the West Coast, Gonzaga.

Rather, it's Tony Bennett's Cavaliers, who pair the country's No. 2 attack with its No. 5 defense. Their recent tournament stumbles—none bigger than last year's historic loss to 16th-seeded UMBC—might cause some to predict another early exit, but we'd caution anyone against thinking history is bound to repeat itself.

Virginia suffered just three losses all season—two against Duke, the other to Florida State in the ACC tournament semifinals. The Cavaliers boast NBA prospects in wing De'Andre Hunter and guard Ty Jerome, and that list doesn't include top scorer Kyle Guy. All three players averaged at least 13 points per game while converting better than 39 percent of their long-range looks.

Virginia can suffocate opponents on defense—only Duke and Maryland cleared the 70-point mark against it—or dismantle them at the other end. Picking this group may not be comfortable to anyone with a good memory, but the numbers say this is one of the strongest teams in the field.

Beware of the Boilermakers, though, and their flame-throwing top scorer Carsen Edwards. The junior averaged 23 points per game and reached 30 points five different times.

"If anyone in the tournament is going to go out there and score 38 points on 27 shots and single-handedly carry his team through a rough night, it's [Edwards]," Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller wrote. "And he'll do it again two nights later, too."

Edwards' supporting cast isn't always consistent, but Ryan Cline and Grady Eifert can drop bombs from distance, and Matt Haarms is a shot-blocking machine in the middle.

                  

West Regional

Sleeper: No. 12 Murray State

Final Four Prediction: No. 3 Texas Tech

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

No one defends at a better rate than the Red Raiders. If you subscribe to the "defense wins championships" theory, that might be all the information you need to plot out a lengthy run from Chris Beard's group.

Of course, two-way balance is typically more important than one-way dominance, but Texas Tech can shine in that department, too.

NBA prospect Jarrett Culver does the heaviest lifting with 18.5 points and 3.7 assists per night. But Davide Moretti and Matt Mooney are both double-digit scorers, and each stripes threes at better than a 38-percent clip.

When the Red Raiders are hitting shots, they can hang with anyone. They helped release the Jayhawks' stranglehold on the Big 12 conference crown, defeating Kansas and co-Big 12 champion Kansas State.

This defense will show up and dominate. The only question is whether the offense will do the same. It sputtered a bit midseason, and Tech dropped three straight in January. But it hit plenty of highs down the stretch and helped the club close with nine wins over its last 10 outings.

The Murray State Racers are as intriguing as any double-digit seed you'll find. How many other 12 seeds—in this tournament and all those that came before it—can confidently and reasonably feel they have the most talented player in their region?

But that's the Racers' new reality thanks to ascending sophomore Ja Morant, the third overall pick in the latest mock draft from Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman.

For better and worse, Morant has a ton of Russell Westbrook in his game. Morant has both elite athleticism and court vision, a combination that's yielded per-game contributions of 24.6 points, 10.0 assists and 5.5 rebounds. But like Westbrook, Morant has had his issues with outside shooting (33.6 percent) and turnovers (5.2).

Still, if you're looking for a sleeper, why not choose the one rostering a player who's awakened all of the basketball world to his dynamic skill set this season?

                 

East Regional

Sleeper: No. 4 Virginia Tech

Final Four Prediction: No. 1 Duke

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

As much as we like bold predictions, accuracy remains king of the prognosticating game. And if you're tying your tournament fate to any team, the world-beating Blue Devils seem the most obvious choice.

It starts with devourer-of-souls Zion Williamson, who can probably be Sharpied into the No. 1 slot of this summer's NBA draft. He's the most athletic 285-pounder you've ever seen, and his skills extend well beyond his absurd physical gifts.

"For his size, how strong he is, to be able to move like the way he moves, he's very impressive," LeBron James said, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "I mean, everybody can see the athleticism. That's obviously, that's ridiculous. But the speed and the quickness that he moves [with] at that size is very impressive."

Williamson has been a nightly supplier of 22.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 2.1 assists and 1.8 blocks. Tack on the contributions of fellow NBA-first-round prospects RJ Barrett (22.9 points, 4.1 assists), Cam Reddish (13.7 points, 1.6 steals) and Tre Jones (9.3 points, 5.3 assists), and Duke's talent advantage feels overwhelming.

Don't sleep on the Hokies, though.

Their 24-8 record includes victories over Purdue and Duke, and it's possible their best ball is still ahead of them. With Justin Robinson back from a foot injury, the team's top table-setter should give this four-guard attack another dimension.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kerry Blackshear both found their way on to All-ACC rosters, and they're only two of the four double-digit scorers in this offense. Add a top-25 defense to the mix, and this is the type of team that could push Duke to the brink.

               

Midwest Regional

Sleeper: No. 6 Iowa State

Final Four Prediction: No. 1 North Carolina

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 15: Teammates Garrison Brooks #15, Coby White #2, and Luke Maye #32 of the North Carolina Tar Heels react against the Duke Blue Devils during their game in the semifinals of the 2019 Men's ACC Basketball Tournament at Spe
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Tar Heels are loaded, as per usual, and that was easier to see once how they learned to live without last year's senior leaders, Joel Berry and Theo Pinson.

After some early-season slipups, North Carolina hammered on the throttle down the stretch. This team won 15 of its final 17 games, falling only to fellow top seeds Virginia (by eight points) and Duke (by one). Five of those 15 triumphs came against ranked opponents, including two against the Blue Devils.

Freshman standout Coby White can shine on or off the basketball, leading scorer Cameron Johnson hits threes at a 46.5-percent clip, and Nassir Little, maybe the best pro prospect of the group, has the physical tools to dominate the defensive end. It's hard to see even a worst-case scenario causing the Heels to fall before the Elite Eight.

If you want a dark-horse in this region, look no further than the Cyclones. A 2-6 close to the regular season means their sixth seed is deserved, but a sprint through the Big 12 tournament shows how dangerous this bunch can be.

Iowa State comes at teams in waves on the offensive end. Marial Shayok is a three-level scorer, Talen Horton-Tucker can create looks at will, and super sixth man Lindell Wigginton is a load whether he's taking aim from distance (38.1 percent) or attacking the rim.  

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