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With Zion Williamson back, Duke is a daunting favorite in the East Regional

Duke's Zion Williamson (1) shoots against North Carolina's

Duke's Zion Williamson (1) shoots against North Carolina's Nassir Little (5) in the final seconds of the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Charlotte, N.C., on March 15, 2019.  Credit: AP/Nell Redmond

Best team: Duke

The Blue Devils stumbled without Zion Williamson, going 3-3 when he missed the final six regular-season games with a knee injury. However, Williamson returned for the ACC Tournament, was as dominant as ever, and Duke ran the table. The projected No. 1 pick in June’s NBA Draft elevates Duke from great to elite, but the Blue Devils are teeming with talent. RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish are also projected to be picked in the top five, according to several reputable mock drafts, and freshman point guard Tre Jones provides a steadiness that belies his age. The one knock on the Blue Devils is their 30.2-percent accuracy from long range, which ranks 338th. But only three other teams --Virginia, Michigan State and North Carolina -- rank in Kenpom’s top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Best go-to guy: RJ Barrett, Duke

Williamson is more dominant, but Barrett routinely has the ball in his hands at the end of a close game because he is Duke’s best creator. Barrett’s 779 points are the most by any freshman in ACC history. He is averaging 22.9 points per game and shooting 45.7 percent. Barrett, who averaged 26 points in Williamson’s six-game absence, is the projected second pick in June’s NBA Draft for a reason.

The dark horse: LSU

In all likelihood, coach Will Wade’s indefinite suspension will remain in effect for the NCAA Tournament. Interim head coach Tony Benford has not excelled since taking over, most notably by picking up a technical foul that all but sealed an SEC quarterfinal loss to Florida. But the Tigers still have the pieces on the floor to make a deep run. Tremont Waters is one of the best point guards in the country, and freshman forward Naz Reid is a force inside and out. LSU creates loads of extra possessions by ranking fifth in offensive rebounding percentage and 58th in turnover percentage.

Best guard/playmaker: Cassius Winston, Michigan State

Winston came to Michigan State as part of the Spartans' 2016 recruiting class, which also included five-stars Miles Bridges and Josh Langford. Winston improved each year, and with Bridges in the NBA and Langford missing the second half of this season with an injury, he has elevated his game to an All-American level. Winston is averaging 19 points, 7.5 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. He is shooting 40.8 percent from deep.

Best player you’ve never heard of: Dylan Windler, Belmont

Windler is a do-it-all 6-8 wing. He is averaging 21.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals and is knocking down three three-pointers per game at a 43- percent clip. He and Belmont are a nightmare matchup for a higher seed.

Best potential matchup: No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 3 LSU

This seems like the top matchup of the Regional because, frankly, it’s hard to imagine either of these teams sticking with Duke. This game would feature two of the country’s best point guards in Winston and Waters.

Best bet to spring an upset: No. 11 Belmont over No. 6 Maryland

The Bruins must defeat Temple in the First Four, but if they advance, they’ll be a handful for a Maryland team that prefers a slower pace. Belmont’s offense is extremely active, producing the nation’s second-best two-point percentage while also having four players who shot better than 36 percent from long range.

Best big man: Zion Williamson, Duke

After Williamson sprained his knee Feb. 20, nobody knew how effective he would be upon returning to Duke’s lineup. Turns out he was as impressive as ever. In three ACC Tournament games, the 6-7, 285-pound freshman averaged 27 points, 10 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks. He converted each of his 13 field-goal attempts against Syracuse -- his first game back -- and shot 76.7 percent over the three games. With a healthy and dominant Williamson, Duke is the team to beat.

Most interesting story line: LSU

What a wild season it's been for the Tigers, who have experienced the tragedy of losing Wayde Sims to murder, the euphoria of winning the SEC regular-season title and the embarrassment and uncertainty resulting from coach Will Wade's allegedly being caught on a wiretap discussing paying a player. LSU suspended Wade indefinitely March 8 and has split its two games since then. What happens now? The Tigers, a legitimate Final Four threat, will play with their teammate’s memory in mind but also with the possibility that the NCAA will vacate any Tournament wins.

New York Sports