It’s hard to go against top-seeded Virginia. The Cavaliers rolled through the ACC Tournament, taking out Clemson (a No. 5 seed) and North Carolina (a No. 2 seed) to take the championship. Virginia has won eight in a row and 23 of its past 24. Virginia does everything well; the Cavaliers are the best defensive team in the country, don’t turn the ball over, make free throws and keep opponents off the free-throw line, among many other qualities. All that said, in coach Tony Bennett’s five NCAA Tournament trips, in which they’ve been a No. 1 seed twice and a No. 2 seed once, the Cavaliers have only reached the Elite Eight once. Plus, the road is not easy. Potential opponents include Kentucky or Arizona in the Sweet 16.
Top 5 players
Arizona center DeAndre Ayton is projected to be the top overall pick in the draft, one of a number of likely one-and-done lottery picks in the region. The 7-footer from the Bahamas is seen as a can’t-miss talent, an athletic big with a deft scoring touch who can also finish at the basket with force. The likely second-round matchup between Arizona and Kentucky could be the best of the weekend.
Texas center Mohamed Bamba is a defensive standout for the Longhorns and is projected to be a one-and-done lottery pick. Bamba is 7-foot-0 and his wingspan has been measured at 7-9. He blocked 3.7 shots per game, second most in the country, and he is likewise tough on the defensive glass. He’ll be a tough matchup challenge for Nevada, whose tallest player is 6-8. It bears mention that Bamba missed three games at the end of the season with an ankle injury and played 14 minutes in his last game, a Big 12 Tournament loss to Texas Tech.
Kentucky point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, another likely one-and-done lottery pick, could be the key for the Wildcats as they play out of a No. 5 seed, unusually low for the Wildcats. Kentucky was spiraling when it lost four games in a row in February, but has won seven of eight, including the SEC Tournament championship on Sunday, when Gilgeous-Alexander scored 29 to earn MVP honors. Gilgeous-Alexander has taken on a greater scoring load in that eight-game run and his assist/turnover has been a sterling 53/18.
Virginia sophomore guard Kyle Guy won’t overwhelm – he threw down the first dunk of his career during the Cavaliers’ run to the ACC Tournament championship this past week. But he’s the star player of the region’s top seed, someone who can give you scoring and 3-point shooting and embodies the team’s seemingly egoless personality. It takes some determination and intelligence to contribute to the best defense in the country, and Guy plays a central part.
Kentucky forward Kevin Knox is probably the best of the Wildcats’ talented freshman class, likely to be a one-and-done lottery pick. Knox leads the Wildcats in scoring and is capable of contributing from inside the arc and out. He can be a bit of a streaky scorer, although he does do a good job of getting to the free-throw line. At 6-foot-9 with guard skills, he’s going to be a matchup problem for Davidson.
While Creighton has a top-50 RPI and a likely first-round pick in guard Khyri Thomas, the No. 8 seed seems a little high for the Bluejays. Creighton had one of the weakest non-conference strength of schedules of any at-large bid and also didn’t win against top competition outside of its late-season win over Villanova. Creighton was 2-9 (.182) against teams in Group 1 (a new selection committee category identifying games against top competition). The other No. 8 seeds were a combined 14-22 (.389).
Georgia State guard Devin Mitchell has few peers in Division I when it comes to making 3-point shots. Mitchell, from Collins Hill High, has made 45.1 percent of his 3-point attempts this season, putting him in the top 20 in the country. Further, Mitchell has been particularly effective of late, making 20 of 39 from beyond the arc in the Panthers’ past six games as they stormed to the Sun Belt championship.
If it’s not DeAndre Ayton (Arizona) or Mohamed Bamba (Texas), the best glass man in the region might be the entirely unheralded Loudon Love of No. 14 seed Wright State. Love has averaged 9.8 rebounds per game in his redshirt freshman season, including 3.1 on the offensive glass. Georgia Tech knows all about the 6-foot-9, 300-pound Love, who dinged the Yellow Jackets for 16 points and 12 rebounds in their upset win over Tech in December.
On the best defensive team in the country, the best defender is Virginia forward Isaiah Wilkins, a graduate of Greater Atlanta Christian and the stepson of hall of famer Dominique Wilkins. Isaiah was named the ACC defensive player of the year this season. In 33 games, all starts, he leads the team in blocks (49), steals (39) and defensive rebounds (141). It would be a joyful homecoming for Wilkins if the Cavaliers can make it to the second weekend, where they’d play for the Final Four at Philips Arena.
It might have the looks of a mismatch in the bracket, where Loyola-Chicago is a No. 11 seed and Miami is a No. 6 seed, but one bookmaker established the Hurricanes as a mere three-point favorite. That’s a smaller spread than when Miami played (and lost) at Georgia Tech in January. The Hurricanes are streaky and will continue to be without guard Bruce Brown, one of their top players, out for the season after foot surgery.