- Our staff roundtable looks at Duke's disappointing end, potential title game matchups, what we'll miss most about Zion in college and more.
Michigan State, Texas Tech, Virginia and Auburn are in the 2019 Final Four; Duke is not, after a season of high expectations. How should we assess the Blue Devils coming up short in the season of Zion Williamson? Which eliminated team from the NCAA tournament do we miss watching the most, and which conference has most impressed us? Looking ahead, which potential national championship game matchup would be the best for college basketball? Our writers answered these questions and more in a Final Four week staff roundtable.
Was Duke's season a failure?
Dan Greene: No. They played hard, they played (mostly) well, and they lost in the Elite Eight to a really good team. It happens. It's also worth remembering that the Blue Devils entered the season ranked No. 4 in the AP poll—an acknowledgement that for all their talent and promise, there were questions and youth for which they would have to compensate. Expectations were rapidly ratcheted up because they played so spectacularly and theatrically out of the gate, but our collective awe at Zion Williamson shouldn't so distort our standards that a very good season is a failure. And at any rate, it was a hell of a thing to watch.
Michael Beller: Absolutely not. Sure, the Blue Devils are and should be disappointed that they didn’t make the Final Four, but no team that is among the last eight playing in the country is a failure. It’s hard to make the Final Four, no matter how good you are.
Molly Geary: I'll bite—yes. Yeah, it's hard to make the Final Four. Yeah, the Blue Devils were super young. But this is the roster-building method Coach K has chosen to try to win championships with. Contending for Final Fours and national titles is the minimum expectation at a place like Duke, and this year, it had a generational talent in Zion Williamson, the No. 1 and No. 2 recruits in the 2018 class and a point guard who was a top-12 recruit himself. Sure, four guys doesn't make a team, but it's not like the rest of the roster was a bunch of spare parts. Marques Bolden is a former five-star. Javin DeLaurier was a top-40 recruit in that same class. Alex O'Connell was a four-star, top-70 recruit from 2017. Joey Baker was a top-40 recruit in the 2018 class who played a total of 18 minutes this year, burning his redshirt yet never actually being utilized. This was a team stocked with perhaps an unprecedented level of talent. The national title was Duke's to lose, something backed up by its No. 1 overall seed status and season-long Vegas odds. Yet the Blue Devils never played close to their immense potential in the NCAA tournament—this wasn’t simply a team that got a bad break at the end.
Max Meyer: Duke’s season wasn’t a failure, but it was evident that the Blue Devils had some major issues that would be tough to overcome despite the high-end talent on the roster. They couldn’t shoot it well (from the perimeter or from the free throw line). They didn’t have much depth. If one of their stars struggled or was injured, Duke was in major trouble. It’s tough winning six consecutive games in the NCAA tournament even if you are the favorite, and you figured Duke’s flaws would rear their ugly head at some point.
Michael Shapiro: It’s pretty foolish to frame Duke’s season as Final Four or bust. Despite having three likely top-10 draft picks, relying on a trio of freshman is always a dicey task. The Blue Devils could have seen a first-weekend exit if Zion Williamson remained sidelined following his shoe fiasco on Feb. 20. Instead, the Blue Devils won the ACC tournament, advanced within one point of Minneapolis and provided perhaps the most likeable team in program history. Thanks for the memories, Zion.
Eric Single: Yes. After dismantling Kentucky on the season's opening night, the Blue Devils jumped from No. 4 in the preseason poll to No. 1 and made every other national title contender feel like a contrarian suggestion. No program is really championship-or-bust (even though the breathless press release of the ESPN+ all-access show on this team promised to chronicle how "Mike Krzyzewski gets his players ready for ... the pursuit of the program’s sixth national championship"), but Duke never shied away from being Final Four-or-bust, and even when Zion was injured, it certainly should have been win-comfortably-at-home-against-Wake Forest-or-bust. Whatever efforts the program made to walk back the initial hype splash of mauling a top-five team with a lineup dominated by freshmen were not significant enough to be noticed by a national audience that craved every stat and highlight of this year's star-studded first-year quartet. Duke defenders don't get to manage those expectations retroactively. To have the most highly touted freshman class ever need lucky bounces to survive the second and third rounds is not a testament to how tough it is to win in March; it's a reminder that this team was supposed to keep these games out of the question until at least Minneapolis.
Jeremy Woo: No, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it was a disappointing end. I don’t know that we should ever expect a team whose four best players are freshmen to win a title under any circumstance, although yes, having Zion creates a legitimate argument. It also helped us all overlook some of the team’s flaws—the shooting, the inexperience, the late-game decision-making—plus, the fact Duke nearly lost twice before it actually lost was a big hint. Frustrating, sure, but failure would be the wrong word.
Which conference has impressed you the most in the tournament?
Greene: The SEC. The league accounted for a quarter of the Sweet 16 and would have at least had a shot at comprising half (or, to be fair, none) of the Final Four if Auburn and Kentucky hadn't played each other in the Elite Eight. Either way, the strong showing by its top four teams (and to a lesser extent, Florida's first-round win over Nevada) showed that the country's dominant football conference has some staying power in hoops.
Beller: The Big Ten went 7–1 in the first round, put three teams in the Sweet 16, two in the Elite Eight, and could (should?) have two teams in the Final Four. Throw in near Sweet 16 misses for Iowa and Maryland, and the fact that one team from the conference lost to another—Minnesota to Michigan State in the second round—and you get a proud tournament performance out of the Big Ten, top to bottom. Except for Wisconsin.
Geary: The OVC. A conference that earned an at-large bid for the first time since 1987 made the most of it, with both teams (Murray State and Belmont) earning a tournament win. Yes, Belmont's was in the First Four, but it took No. 6 seed Maryland down to the wire in the first round, while Ja Morant and the Racers put on a show in their upset of No. 5 seed Marquette. For a league ranked 25th out of 32 on kenpom.com, that's impressive.
Meyer: It’s tough going against the Pac-12 (all three teams won a tournament game!), but I’ll begrudgingly pick the Big Ten. Every team won at least one game besides Wisconsin (of course the Pac-12 played the spoiler role for the Big Ten’s potential perfect Round of 64). But with a few overachievers (Michigan State, Purdue) making noise in the second weekend along with a couple other teams notching impressive first-round upsets (Minnesota, Ohio State), this conference was the most impressive across all rounds thus far.
Shapiro: The top of the SEC held its ground impressively, sending four teams to the Sweet 16 (trailing only the ACC) and two to the Elite Eight. Tennessee lost to Purdue in overtime, and would have been a worthy challenger against Virginia. Auburn is considered the least likely team to cut down the nets on April 8, though I wouldn’t be so fast to count out Bruce Pearl and Co. against the Cavaliers. Auburn could race to the title game in a battle of contrasting styles.
Single: The SEC champion was one of the first weekend's most popular longshot upset picks, but LSU held off Yale and won a thriller against Maryland before meeting its match in Michigan State. The league's two teams that spent most of the year in the top 10, Kentucky and Tennessee, survived early scares but fell victim to an overtime cold snap during the second weekend. Only Mississippi State (playing without the suspended Nick Weatherspoon) and Ole Miss (which got into the tournament in the first place by punching above its weight class) turned in first-round no-shows. The SEC can live with that
Woo: After sitting through the entirety of the Big Ten tournament in person, I can personally attest that the Big Ten has fared very well relative to my expectations.
Which national title matchup would be the best for college basketball?
Greene: Michigan State vs. Virginia, because it would combine this somewhat odd Final Four's greatest star power (Tom Izzo and his program) with its most compelling redemption story (Virginia chasing a title a year after its infamous, historic loss to UMBC). But the other two teams would also provide a chance to showcase some of the sport's best aspects: Texas Tech is led by a grinding coach who was in Division II just four years ago and its players go all-out to play marvelous defense, and Auburn plays a really fun, gunning style and will also be trying to rally around injured forward Chuma Okeke, who tore his left ACL while starring in Friday's upset of UNC. There's plenty to like all around.
Beller: Michigan State vs. Virginia. On one side, you get the name brands of the Spartans and Tom Izzo. On the other, you get a team that has been among the elite all season, which helps dispel the notion that randomness drives much of the single-elimination tournament format.
Geary: I'm going to interpret this as which matchup make for the most entertaining game that will appeal to the most viewers who tune in. It's never good for college basketball when social media lights up with how boring the national title game is, and a low-scoring rock fight will especially pale in comparison to this past weekend's action. So the best matchup would include Auburn’s fast-paced, turnover-forcing, three-point shooting style, even if the Tigers bring a risk of getting blown out if their shots aren't falling. Auburn has been incredibly fun to watch this March, and a matchup with Michigan State seems like the one most likely to produce fireworks (no disrespect to Virginia and Texas Tech, two excellent teams who can play a great brand of basketball even when grinding games down).
Meyer: Best for college basketball means most exciting. As much as I’d love the chess match between Chris Beard and Tony Bennett, I don’t think a Texas Tech-Virginia rock fight would appeal to the masses. Auburn plays the most exciting style, but I think the Tigers have the highest potential to get blown out due to their reliance on threes and suffering a major blow with the Chuma Okeke injury. I think Michigan State-Virginia would be a great battle between two well-balanced teams that are also the two strongest teams remaining in the field. A Virginia redemption story a year after losing to a No. 16 seed would be epic, and having to overcome a team that it has lost to multiple times under Bennett would be a great way to cap it off.
Shapiro: Personal love for Jarrett Culver aside, I think Michigan State and Virginia is the preferred choice, showcasing two big-name programs with notable stars and coaches. Will Tom Izzo win a second championship 19 years after his first? Will Virginia redeem last year’s historic loss with a national championship? It would be a slugfest, but an intriguing one nonetheless.
Single: Michigan State-Auburn. Tom Izzo and the Spartans are a glaring outlier among this group in their recent tradition of success, and Auburn's bombs-away offense provides a more compelling foil than the stingy defenses of Texas Tech and Virginia. With Izzo and Bruce Pearl screaming to be heard over each other all night, we would be guaranteed the hoarsest champions' press conference ever.
Woo: Michigan State-Virginia would probably produce the best game.
Which eliminated team do you most miss watching?
Greene: The obvious and easy answer is Duke, and with good reason: Zion Williamson is an awesome talent that college hoops hasn't seen before, and almost surely won't again. But I'll also miss Purdue thanks to Carsen Edwards's absurd, Kemba-like scoring crush and the cold-blooded shooting of Ryan Cline. Those two put on a show that deserved the Final Four stage too.
Beller: North Carolina, and it isn’t close. Roy Williams’s preferred style of play creates beautiful basketball, and he had the perfect team to run it this season. The Tar heels simply ran into a buzzsaw in the form of Auburn in the Sweet 16.
Geary: Gonzaga. The Bulldogs' wildly efficient offense was a treat to watch, because they could beat you in so many ways and with so many different weapons. Brandon Clarke never got his due this season in terms of national appreciation.
Meyer: Purdue was basically a heat check this entire tournament, and had two shooting performances (Ryan Cline vs. Tennessee, Carsen Edwards vs. Virginia) that will forever live in NCAA tournament lore. Watching Cline and Edwards launch absurdly difficult shots and make them without the net moving an inch was incredible. It was a very fun team that deserved a happier ending.
Shapiro: Although Zion in the Final Four is a real missed opportunity, I’ll head down Tobacco Road and choose North Carolina. The Tar Heels’ breakneck pace was thrilling to watch, and Coby White was one of the tournament’s more lovable players. Ja Morant and Murray State earn an honorable mention despite a second-round stinker against the Seminoles. Ditto for Aubrey Dawkins and UCF.
Single: UCF. Exceptionally tall players like Tacko Fall only come along once every few seasons, and then only some of those players end up on teams good enough to go dancing. By the end of his final college season, the 7'6" Fall was much more than just a curiosity for the Knights, with real post moves and the smarts to not immediately stumble into foul trouble, and the much shorter players around him could ball, too, from coach's kid Aubrey Dawkins to senior big shot artist B.J. Taylor.
Woo: Purdue. Come back, Carsen.
What will you miss the most about Zion Williamson in college?
Greene: That rise of anticipation every time he chased down a loose ball, began a fast break, or broke towards the hoop. He is an almost impossible combination of size, speed, skill, and intelligence, and he kept finding new ways to wow even those of us who he had already wowed so many times over. He seized nearly every opportunity to dazzle, and the sense of the next one coming made his every play feel on the brink of a thrill.
Beller: The dunks. Duh.
Geary: His ability to make you say "how on earth did he do that?" without fail at least a few times a game. His dunks were cool, but I think I'll miss plays like his block of De'Andre Hunter or recovery on Justin Robinson the most.
Meyer: Everything. He was the most dominant college basketball player I’ve seen in my lifetime. He impacted every facet of the game. He also was genuine off the court. With the one-and-done rule on shaky ground, it wouldn’t surprise me if Zion was the last transcendent high school superstar that more than met the hype in college.
Shapiro: Zion’s sheer athleticism made him seem plucked from another universe compared to college competition. Nearly every game provided a slate of swatted shots and breakaway dunks, with his eye meeting the rim as we watched from every conceivable angle. His impressive vision and competitiveness was icing on the cake, but I’ll remember Zion as the best athlete of any college player I’ve seen.
Single: Since most basketball fans don't really need to worry about "missing" the nation's best player as he moves to the NBA, I'm going to pay my respects to an aspect of The Zion Williamson Show we almost certainly won't see much of at the next level: the attempts to draw a charge by those tasked with defending him. From Syracuse's Marek Dolezaj (6'10", 181 pounds) to Virginia's Kihei Clark (5'9", 155 pounds), the brave souls that threw themselves in front of a 285-pound train with no regard for their own future prospects—basketball or otherwise—should be cherished.