- This week's roundtable looks at the NCAA tournament matchup we most want to see, conference races that are still up in the air and Duke's chances vs. UNC if it's still without Zion.
As time ticks down on the end of the 2018–19 regular season, there's still some unfinished business. Several conference titles are still up for grabs, and the Duke-North Carolina rematch highlights the final Saturday before the postseason. Still, we can't help but start looking ahead to the Big Dance as well—after all, it is March. This week's college hoops roundtable follows:
Which matchup do you most want to see happen at any point in the NCAA tournament?
Dan Greene: Duke-Gonzaga II. The Maui final was great and remains the Blue Devils' only full-strength loss, which makes the Zags the most intriguing potential opponent for the tournament's must-see team and likely favorites. Plus, unless things end up getting real screwy on the top seed line, this game would either happen in the Final Four or national title game—I don't think we could ask for a better matchup on that stage.
Jeremy Woo: Give me a Gonzaga-Duke Maui rematch. There aren’t many teams that can truly handle Duke at full-strength—Gonzaga might actually be the only one—and we’d be remiss to watch the Blue Devils (assuming the presence of Zion Williamson) slice through the bracket (or randomly lose on a bad day) without ever meeting a proper foe at full tilt. You probably haven’t watched a minute of Gonzaga since conference play began, but they are still very scary.
Michael Shapiro: Duke facing off against Gonzaga in the Final Four would be a delight. The two national title contenders battled in Maui the day before Thanksgiving, with Gonzaga withstanding a late Blue Devils’ charge in an 89–87 victory. Rui Hachimura turned in the game’s best performance, scoring 20 points while adding a trio of late blocks to seal the Bulldogs’ victory. Zion Williamson notched his second double double with the Blue Devils, while R.J. Barrett led Duke in scoring. Barrett’s development could swing a rematch in Duke’s favor. He went just 9 for 25 on Nov. 21 and was denied by Hachimura three times in the final minute. Over two months have passed since, and Barrett is largely a reformed player. He combined for 63 points against Syracuse and North Carolina with Williamson out, shooting 59.5% from the field. The stretches of hero-ball have largely dissipated.
Gonzaga has disappeared from the spotlight as we enter March. It’s not necessarily the Bulldogs’ fault. They’ve rolled through the West Coast Conference with 17-straight victories, and should enter the NCAA tournament without another loss. This Gonzaga squad is arguably as talented as the 2017 Final Four team. The Bulldogs currently lead the nation in field goal percentage and scoring and are second in assists. They’re imposing inside, too, with Brandon Clark ranking second in the NCAA in blocks. Gonzaga may not boast the same lottery talent as Duke, but they’re every bit the national title contender as March Madness approaches.
Emily Caron: Duke vs. Kentucky. Saturday’s blowout loss to Tennessee aside, the Wildcats are a wildly improved team compared to when they first faced Duke way back in November.
Max Meyer: While this wouldn’t be the most aesthetically pleasing matchup, give me Washington vs. Syracuse for the hilarity. Washington coach Mike Hopkins was Jim Boeheim’s assistant at Syracuse for over two decades, and brought Boeheim's patented 2–3 zone out west. Watching these two teams try and score against their mirror images on defense would be fascinating. It also wouldn't hurt to see Matisse Thybulle in action, since he's the best defensive player in the country.
Eric Single: Duke vs. Texas Tech. The Blue Devils won a dogfight in mid-December that was much closer than the final 11-point margin and much more entertaining than most games in which neither team breaks 70. In the two and a half months since that showdown in Madison Square Garden, the Red Raiders have found some offense to support Jarrett Culver and slipped past Virginia to claim the title of the nation's top defense by kenpom.com's efficiency metrics. The next rematch may have to wait until the Elite Eight or the Final Four, but it would seem to be a safe bet to stay within single digits.
Molly Geary: Gonzaga vs. Virginia. These programs have yet to meet in the Tony Bennett era at UVa, and it would be fascinating to see the Zags’ uber-efficient offense go up against the Pack-Line defense. And in terms of player matchups, the Cavaliers would have the backcourt/perimeter edge, while the Bulldogs would have the advantage inside.
Who's going to end up on top of the following conference races that have not yet been settled: the AAC, ACC, Big 12 and SEC?
Greene: Houston, Virginia, Texas Tech, and Tennessee. I'm boring.
Woo: AAC: Houston wins at Cincinnati this weekend to seal the regular season title.
ACC: Virginia. The Cavaliers win out, and Duke gets Zion back and topples UNC on the road.
Big 12: K-State wins its last two games, Texas Tech drops a game to Iowa State, and the Wildcats bust Kansas’s streak.
SEC: Tennessee and LSU end up in a deadlock for first.
Shapiro: AAC: Houston. Cincinnati hosts the regular-season finale against the Cougars on March 10, but the Bearcats will add a third conference loss on Thursday at UCF. Tacko Fall and Co. are 14–2 at CFE Arena in Orlando.
ACC: North Carolina travels to Boston College on Tuesday and hosts Duke on Saturday. Virginia heads to the Carrier Dome this week before a home matchup with Louisville. I’ll say both teams close the regular season with a pair of victories, even if Zion is available against the Tar Heels. The conference will end with co-champions for the first time since 2010.
Big 12: The Red Raiders have the hardest test with a regular-season finale at Iowa State. But Texas Tech and Kansas State should both finish with a pair of victories and share the dethroning of Kansas atop the Big 12.
SEC: Tennessee should be able to tally two wins this week with a home matchup against Mississippi State before a trip to Auburn. The Volunteers may have their groove back after rolling past Kentucky last week, and will likely end 16–2 in the SEC. LSU faces a big test at Florida on Wednesday. The Gators won in Baton Rouge in February. They’ll snag the win in Gainesville and give Tennessee the conference crown.
Caron: Houston will end up on top of the AAC given that Cincinnati still has two ranked opponents to beat to clinch the conference as opposed to the Cougars' one (which happens to be the Bearcats), Virginia is going to take the ACC—the question is whether or not it will win it outright or stand atop the conference alongside UNC. That likely won't be decided until the Tar Heels host Duke in Chapel Hill to close out the regular season. The Big 12 is more of a toss up but I¹ll run with Texas Tech and Kansas State to snap Kansas's streak. The Vols will wear the SEC crown. The Tigers are tough but they still have to run through a Florida team that¹s been red hot (outside of Saturday's loss).
Meyer: AAC: Houston
Big 12: Texas Tech
Single: After getting outfought by UCF on Saturday, Houston uses a get-right game against SMU effectively and wins the de facto AAC regular-season title game at Cincy next weekend. Virginia is not losing to Louisville, and it should emerge with an outright ACC crown after Duke splits its season series with UNC. Texas Tech and Kansas State stay on course to team up and end Kansas's Big 12 streak; both seemed to have refined their systems down the stretch. And Kentucky will in all likelihood hit the rocket boosters to win the SEC tournament, but Tennessee and LSU will split the regular-season crown after conquering one last road test each.
Geary: Cincinnati has a more difficult path in having to play at UCF before facing Houston on Sunday, so I’ll go with the Cougars in the AAC. Virginia and UNC will share the ACC crown, Kansas State will take the Big 12 outright and LSU will claim the SEC.
Does Duke need Zion Williamson back in order to beat UNC in Chapel Hill on Saturday?
Greene: Need would be going a bit far—the Tar Heels did lose to a pretty middling Texas team this year, albeit a while ago and in Las Vegas, and Coach K still has a good deal of talent available. But given just how good Carolina is and the fact that the game is in the Dean Dome, a Zion-less Duke team would really be up against it. So I wouldn't say they need him to win, but they need him in order to move it from longshot to a more realistic possibility.
Woo: Yes. We all need Zion back.
Shapiro: I have a hard time seeing the Blue Devils win in Chapel Hill without Zion. The Tar Heels have won 12 of their last 13 including a 16-point beating at Cameron Indoor on Feb. 20. They rank third in the NCAA in scoring while canning an ACC-best 153 triples. The Blue Devils still struggle to penetrate the middle of defenses without Zion, increasingly relying on Barrett for 30-point efforts. Cam Reddish is shooting just 36.5% from the field this season, 388th out of the 392 players to score more than 14 points per game. Duke is simply too inefficient to keep up with North Carolina without Zion.
Caron: Duke and Carolina both have something to prove on Saturday. Even if Duke puts its absolute best foot forward, it's going to be tough without Zion. The Blue Devils have looked incomplete without their star, struggling to play cohesive basketball on both ends of the court. Roy Williams's crew is on a roll right now so unless someone steps up to makeup for the missing 20+ points that Zion would've dropped in Chapel Hill, it won't be an easy win. That said, I don't think they *need* him to do it. They *need him* to *know* they will win, but it could still happen without Zion. If Duke shoots as lights out as say they did when they played Virginia on the road, it could do it. But without Williamson, it's a tall task.
Meyer: Yes, because Zion is needed for Duke to be efficient as a half-court offense. Without him on the floor the first time around, Duke took 39 threes, which was 54.2% of its total shot attempts. It¹s already difficult to attack the rim against UNC, and with Zion's absence, Duke had big-time trouble getting easy looks. The Blue Devils could also use his defense. Luke Maye definitely had the upper hand going up against the likes of Jack White and RJ Barrett, putting up 30 points. Zion's athleticism and size is the best weapon Duke has to neutralize Maye from putting up another high-scoring effort.
Single: Yes. Kerry Blackshear's huge night in Virginia Tech's upset of Duke showed me that the Blue Devils didn't just unfortunately cross Luke Maye on the best day of his life in the teams' first meeting. Without Williamson, someone in that frontcourt can be exposed against the ACC's most versatile bigs.
Geary: Duke won’t be shell-shocked this time if it doesn’t have Williamson, but defensive concerns on the interior without Zion and being on the road will likely result in another (albeit narrower) loss if he’s still sidelined.