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March Madness Predictions

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March Madness Predictions

The Duke men’s basketball team huddles during January’s matchup with Pitt.

The Duke men’s basketball team huddles during January’s matchup with Pitt.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

The Duke men’s basketball team huddles during January’s matchup with Pitt.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

The Duke men’s basketball team huddles during January’s matchup with Pitt.

By Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

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Every year around the end of February, sports fans start to count down the days until the NCAA Tournament, the insane competition that crowns the champion of college basketball. Appropriately dubbed “March Madness,” the tournament is one of the most exciting events in sports and is known for its buzzer-beaters, Cinderella stories and ridiculous individual performances.

Some teams are a lock for the tournament and are expected to advance far into the big dance, while others will have to fight and scrape for every single win to get an invitation to the ball.

Here is a guide to a few powerhouse teams favored to win it all, as well as potential Cinderella stories and players to keep an eye on.

Favorites

Duke: The Blue Devils have a shot to win almost every year and this year is no different. This year’s Duke squad somehow seems more unstoppable than ever, led by the talented first-year trio of Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. Duke has already beaten fellow top-five team and ACC rival Virginia twice. But if you really want to know how good the Blue Devils are, ask Louisville –– the Cardinals were up 23 with 10 minutes to go last week until Duke came storming back for the 71-69 win.

Gonzaga: It would be absurd not to include a top-five team that dealt Duke one of its two losses this season. Junior forward Killian Tillie is likely out for the regular season with a foot injury, but fellow junior forwards Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura can shoulder the load. With a strong defense and the nation’s top offense, head coach Mark Few and the Zags have a shot to make it back to the title game for the second time in three years after last year’s Sweet 16 exit.

Tennessee: Head coach Rick Barnes led the Vols to 19 straight wins, including a victory against Gonzaga, before falling to fellow SEC powerhouse Kentucky, 86-69, on Saturday. Senior guard Admiral Schofield is a potential All-American averaging 16.7 points per game. He and the rest of his team will look for vengeance after last year’s tournament defeat at the hands of Cinderella-story Loyola Chicago. Tennessee boasts experience, high assist numbers and a top-10 free-throw percentage, but will need to step up its defense if it hopes to avoid an upset.

Michigan: John Beilein’s Wolverines were one of the last undefeated teams in the country before three conference losses, including a tough one at the hands of a below-average Penn State team. Michigan is one of the best defensive teams in the country, only behind Virginia in total defense. Respective sophomore and senior guards Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews make for an impressive backcourt, averaging more than nine points a game each with solid rebounding numbers, too. Although getting to the title game two years in a row is a tall task and statistically unlikely, the Wolverines always seem to have a shot under Beilein’s tutelage.

Virginia: No true college basketball fan will ever forget the moment a No. 16 seed finally took down the No. 1 seed for the first time –– and neither will head coach Tony Bennett and Virginia, the team that allowed it to happen when UMBC beat them 74-54. Like all of Bennett’s teams, this year’s Hoos are built on suffocating defense, allowing only 54 points a game, the best in the nation. Virginia’s trio of guards –– Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome –– can all score in a variety of ways. Virginia’s fate will hinge on its performance and health. Hunter did not play in the team’s opening-round loss last year.

Cinderellas

Buffalo: This isn’t a typical Cinderella pick, as the Bulls have ranked in the top 25 for much of the year and knocked off No. 3 seed Arizona in the tournament last year. The Bulls start three seniors and rotate in two more with forward Nick Perkins and point guard Dontay Caruthers. Two of the three players are averaging double-digit points, along with senior forward CJ Massinburg. Buffalo is eyeing its fourth bid in five years and teams with experience like the Bulls are always a good bet to make some noise.

South Dakota State: Back-to-back Summit conference player of the year Mike Daum leads the Jackrabbits squad that gave Ohio State a close game in the first round of the tournament last year. And for the second year in a row, SDS is once again in position to win its conference. Although the Jackrabbits don’t have the experience of a team like Buffalo, Daum scored 27 points in the tournament game last year –– a few good performances from him could propel his team to the later rounds.

Players to Watch

Zion Williamson: The likely first overall pick in this summer’s NBA draft will be the player everyone is watching in the big dance. The high school phenom has continued to shine as a first-year at Duke, averaging 22.4 points-per-game and 9.2 rebounds in one of the nation’s toughest conferences. His season thus far has been a highlight reel of insane dunks, shots and blocks. He’ll get the chance to continue to show off in March on college basketball’s biggest stage.

Ja Morant: The Murray State sophomore has become a star in his sophomore season, and many see him going right behind Williamson in the draft. Averaging 24.3 points and 10.2 assists a game, Morant has led Murray State to a 21-4 record and first place in the Ohio Valley conference. Although Murray State isn’t a lock to make the dance without a victory in its conference tournament, last year’s inclusion of an average Oklahoma team to give Trae Young a chance to shine provides a glimpse at Morant and the Racers’ fate.

Carsen Edwards: The junior Purdue guard isn’t a household name like Williamson or a top-three pick like Morant, but the kid can play ball. He’s averaging 24.4 points on a Purdue team that has looked like it can beat anyone in the country at its best. Edwards poured in a season-high 40 points against a good Texas team and 38 in a narrow overtime win against Penn State. The junior also contributed 30 points in Purdue’s Sweet 16 loss to Texas Tech last year. This year, his play could lead the Boilermakers to an even deeper run.

Markus Howard: Marquette’s Howard truly burst onto the scene with a ridiculous 53 points in an overtime win against Creighton, but he had been putting up big numbers way before that. The junior guard had eight 30-point games this year. He has also shown he can get it done against stiff competition, scoring 45 points twice against top-25 teams Kansas State and Buffalo. Howard has his Golden Eagles poised to grab a 3-4 seed, depending on if they can lock up the Big East or not. If it can win its conference, Howard also has Marquette at the top of the list of teams no one wants to play.

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March Madness Predictions