NCAA Tournament East Region Breakdown: Can Anyone Challenge Duke?

With freshmen Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Tre Jones leading the way, Duke is the most talented team and top seed in the East Region. But after winning the Big Ten tournament, could Michigan State challenge the Blue Devils in the Elite Eight?
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The 2019 NCAA tournament bracket has been released, and for the next 72 hours March Madness pool enthusiasts and hoopheads alike will be filling out brackets and diving into debates over which teams will be cutting down the nets in Minneapolis. With the path to the Final Four set, we’re sizing up the players, teams and games to watch in each region. What to make of the East, home of the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed?

State of the No. 1 Seed

To nobody’s surprise, Zion Williamson back in uniform makes Duke look like the best team in the country, and claiming the ACC tournament title was a perfect warm-up. The Blue Devils are certainly not perfect, but they’ve lost only twice with him in the lineup, and with his much-discussed injury sabbatical in the rearview, Williamson hasn’t missed a beat. Of course, the other freshmen are good too: R.J. Barrett has also been particularly difficult to stop from scoring, the savvy Tre Jones might be the best point-of-attack defender anywhere, and while Cam Reddish has spent much of this season as more Banner than Hulk, he’s still capable of swinging a game when he’s hot from three-point range. Duke might be missing center Marques Bolden…but not that much. The Blue Devils will look like chalk to a lot of people.

If there’s a way to beat the Blue Devils, you have to catch them on a bad shooting night (they shoot a combined 30.2% from three and 69% from the line), hope to get Zion in foul trouble (they have looked rudderless without him), and then try and keep it close enough that the ball doesn’t end up in his hands when it matters. The chief problem Williamson creates, other than having no natural athletic foil anywhere in the field, is that his knack for defensive rebounding, open-floor athleticism and passing smarts make it near impossible to keep Duke out of transition, which means easy baskets. There’s not a more talented team, but there are certainly more tested ones, and while the Blue Devils have a fairly clear path to the Elite Eight, their region’s No. 2 seed would qualify as the latter. 

Who Has the Toughest Draw: Michigan State

After finishing as Big Ten regular season co-champs and edging Michigan to win the conference tournament on Sunday afternoon, the Spartans had a borderline case as the fourth No. 1 seed. Alas, they’re a No. 2, and they got stuck in Duke’s region. Just to get to the regional, they’ll need to go through a well-coached ACC team (Louisville) or, weirdly, a conference rival (Minnesota). Lying in wait could be LSU, (who, yes, does not have its head coach right now), Maryland (who would essentially be playing a home game in D.C.), or potentially a prickly mid-major opponent in Belmont (scroll down). The Spartans should be up to the task, but it may not be particularly fun.

The Team That Could Bust Your Bracket: Belmont

Anyone advocating for rewarding good mid-major teams this week can take solace in the fact the Bruins made the tournament. While they’ll have to take out Temple in the First Four, they’re profiling as a perfectly reasonable Sweet 16 pick. Belmont is extraordinarily well-coached under Rick Byrd, is led by Dylan Windler, a shooter who could give anyone problems, and if freshman center Nick Muszynski recovers from an ankle injury in time, it'll have legit size up front. Watching the methodical Bruins sneak past Maryland, who limped out of the Big Ten tournament and look vulnerable, and LSU, a wild card sans Will Wade, is far from impossible.

Player to Watch: Zion Williamson

At this point, Zion is the Milky Way Galaxy’s player to watch, East Regional be damned. He’s going to be the No. 1 pick in the draft, he’s back from injury, he’s only going to smash his way through March Madness one time, and you’re going to want to savor it. Williamson is more than just a showstopping dunker (although he’s certainly that)—he’s essentially a rhinocerous on a go-kart with a sledgehammer strapped to his back who can finish with both hands, jump over anybody (7'6" UCF star Tacko Fall will not be safe), and do it while making everyone else on his team smile and feel better about themselves. He’s real, and he’s spectacular.

Most Intriguing Matchup: Louisville vs. Minnesota

Rick Pitino’s not walking through that door, fans. But we can’t entirely rule out the elder Pitino flying around the world from Greece (where he’s coaching Panathinaikos in not-quite-exile) to Des Moines to sit behind the Minnesota bench as his son Richard, head coach of the Golden Gophers, tries to take down his former employer. While we cannot guarantee this game will be aesthetically pleasing, Minnesota just knocked off Purdue at the Big Ten tournament and Louisville is probably the strongest 7-seed and has taken its lumps in the ACC. Dueling Jordans (Nwora and Murphy) should make it fun.

Regional Finalists: Duke vs. Michigan State

Duke should be mostly unhurried until the Sweet 16, where it could draw ACC rival Virginia Tech. The Hokies beat Duke in Blacksburg with Zion and their own talisman, Justin Robinson, out with a foot injury he’s just now returning from, but with Williamson in the lineup, the Blue Devils will be positioned for revenge. Michigan State rolls out one of the most mature, cohesive teams in the country, and Cassius Winston should be able to pilot the Spartans to D.C. and past whomever they end up facing (though LSU’s depth and athleticism would be quite a test). Any meeting between Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo’s teams is appointment viewing, and if there’s an easy No. 1 vs. No. 2 Elite Eight matchup to pencil in, it’s this.

Pick: Duke

While Duke's shooting woes and inexperience would be red flags on most teams’ record, pick against a Williamson-led team at your own peril.

March Madness 2019: Print the complete NCAA tournament bracket