Best potential matchup: Duke vs. Marquette
If No. 10 Marquette can beat No. 7 South Carolina, we could be treated to a barn burner in the second round. The Golden Eagles play fast, shoot a lot of three-pointers and wear out defenses. Their 43 percent clip from deep leads the country. Their 121 points per 100 possessions ranks seventh in Kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings.
The problem is their defense, and Duke’s offense ranks sixth on Kenpom. But if Marquette’s offense is clicking, that may not matter.
This potential matchup would also pit Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski against his mentor, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
Best bet to spring an upset: UNC Wilmington (No. 12)
By the advanced metrics, Virginia (No. 7 in Kenpom, No. 9 in Sagarin) is one of the best teams in the country. The Cavaliers have the most efficient defense, according to Kenpom, and are capable of grinding out just about anyone. But UNC Wilmington’s offense has the second-best turnover rate in the country and the ninth-best two-point percentage. This team can make shots. If the Seahawks can force an up-tempo pace and hit enough three-pointers — they’ve converted 36 percent of their attempts this year — then they’ll have a real chance to pull off the upset.
Best go-to guy: Josh Hart, Villanova
This region is absolutely loaded in this category. Duke’s Luke Kennard, Baylor’s Manu Lecomte, Virginia’s London Perrantes, Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig and Virginia Tech’s Seth Allen are all strong candidates, but Hart will be an All-American first teamer, if not national player of the year. Villanova would not have beaten Notre Dame on Dec. 10 or DePaul on Dec. 28 without Hart’s clutch play down the stretch.
Best coaching matchup: Virginia vs. UNC Wilmington
Tony Bennett’s Virginia teams have always worn out opponents with a slow tempo and suffocating defense, but UNC Wilmington can push the pace and score the ball. It’s no fluke that the Seahawks have made back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. Kevin Keatts likely will be one of the hottest names in the job market this spring, especially if his team controls the pace and upsets Bennett and Virginia.
Best big man: Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Motley is an athletic 6-10 power forward who can hit mid-range jumpers and the occasional three-pointer. He is averaging 17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.0 blocks per game and shooting 51.7 percent from the field and 71.4 percent from the line. With seven-footer Jo Lual-Acuil alongside Motley, Baylor has one of the best frontcourts in the country.
Best guard/playmaker: Luke Kennard, Duke
Coming into this season, all the hype around Duke centered on Grayson Allen and a freshman class loaded with NBA talent. But with Allen struggling and Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden sidelined early with injuries, Kennard emerged as the Blue Devils’ best player.
The 6-6 sophomore guard is averaging 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. He is shooting 49.9 percent from the floor, 44.3 percent from deep and 84.9 percent from the foul line.
With Duke sitting at 15-5 overall and 4-4 in the ACC, Kennard hit a last-second three-pointer to beat Wake Forest on the road on Jan. 28. That sparked a seven-game winning streak that helped put the Blue Devils in position to earn the No. 2 seed.
Best player you’ve never heard of: Semi Ojeleye, SMU
Chances are you don’t know much about the Mustangs or their star forward. Ojeleye, who transferred from Duke, is a well-rounded 6-7 forward. He is averaging 19 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and shooting 49 percent from the floor, 77.7 percent from the foul line and 42.3 percent from long range.
SMU will pose a serious threat to anyone in the tournament, largely because of Ojeleye.
Best team: Villanova
The gap between Villanova and Duke is about as small as it gets. The Wildcats have had the better overall season, entering the Big Dance with a 31-3 record and the No. 2 ranking in Kenpom and Sagarin’s advanced metrics. The Blue Devils, who started slowly, are fresh off the most impressive week of the season. They beat Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame on three straight days to finish 27-8 and climb to No. 12 in Kenpom and No. 8 in Sagarin.
Duke is deeper than Villanova and has more NBA talent, but the reigning national champions have won all year despite those deficiencies. Until they fall, you cannot count the Wildcats out.