The CD Sports staff picks their Final Fours

Final Four predictions: Breakdown and analysis

Sophomore guard De'Andre Hunter and junior guard Kyle Guy have been key to Virginia's offensive development this year, which could carry them to the Final Four. Courtesy Virginia Athletics

Perhaps the most exciting tournament in existence, the NCAA Tournament surprises every year as college basketball’s best 64 teams compete for the championship. Making the Final Four is one of the greatest honors in the tournament, particularly for underdog teams. Last year, No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago made a Cinderella run into the Final Four.

Will another Cinderella make a miracle run this year? Or will college basketball’s “blue bloods” carry the day? The Cavalier Daily sports staff makes their takes with breakdown and analysis.

What’s your final four, and why?

Zach Zamoff, Sports Editor: Michigan State, Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina

I went with the four most complete teams I see in the tournament besides perhaps Gonzaga. Michigan State, Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina all have proven bodies of work and wins against great teams, as well as the experience to win in close games. The four teams also have great coaches — Tom Izzo, John Beilein, Tony Bennett and Roy Williams all have extensive postseason experience. The four coaches have a combined 158-65 record in the tournament, along with 18 Final Four berths.

Out of the four teams, Michigan State has the hardest road to the Final Four, with No. 1 overall seed Duke in their region. While the Spartans are certainly liable to be upset — their losses against Indiana and below .500 Illinois are glaring — they also have the experience and talent to beat the best. Junior guard Cassius Winston is one of the best point guards in the country, and leads Michigan State with 18.9 points per game and 7.6 assists per game. I like the Spartans’ early draw, with LSU posing the only real early threat. While Duke would be a tough matchup, I see Virginia Tech beating the Blue Devils, just like they did earlier this year, and I see the Spartans taking down the Hokies to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2015.

I love this Michigan team. They play great defense like Virginia and have a great starting five. Junior guard Zavier Simpson is a gritty player who is a great leader, passer and defender, and he knows the feeling of playing in the Final Four. After coming up short against Villanova last year, they will be hungry to get back there. Returners sophomore guard Jordan Poole and senior guard Charles Matthews can light it up, and freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis’ three-point stroke stretches defenses. Gonzaga will be a tough draw if they advance that far, but I think Michigan’s stellar defense will be able to slow down the tempo of the game and shut down what has been the most efficient offense in college basketball this year.

Virginia is hungry. While there is still prevalent criticism of the Cavaliers’ underperformance in March, this year’s men’s basketball team is different. Just because Virginia has underperformed in the past doesn’t mean they will do poorly this year — March Madness is a small sample of games. Furthermore, the classic flaws that pundits point out in Bennett teams — especially poor offense — are much less evident in this year’s group, which has the second most most efficient offense in college basketball this year. Sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter is a true gamechanger, and junior guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy comprise perhaps the best backcourt in the country. I see the Cavaliers handling their Elite Eight matchup en route to Virginia’s first Final Four berth since 1984.

North Carolina has a really good team, and the Tar Heels have shown they can beat the best. Senior forward Luke Maye is a smooth player who has championship pedigree, freshman guard Coby White is a game-changer and guard Cameron Johnson is a lights-out shooter. The Tar Heels have beaten No. 1 overall seed Duke twice, and have also beaten No. 1 seed Gonzaga. They have what it takes to go far in March, and I like their draw. Kentucky would be a potentially tough Elite Eight matchup, but I like North Carolina to avenge their loss from earlier in the year and advance to the Final Four.

Colin Cantwell, Sports Editor: Duke, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina

This is arguably the year to go chalk when filling out your bracket, as there are eight teams in the country that stand out far above the rest. I have a hard time seeing any non-1 or -2 seed  — with the possible exception of Florida State — going to the Final Four this year. Duke, Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina have the combination of elite coaching and elite talent necessary to get out of their regions.

Though Duke sputtered without freshman forward Zion Williamson, with Williamson back from injury this team is too talented not to make it to the Final Four. In the ACC Tournament, Williamson averaged 27 points per game to lead the Blue Devils to the title, including a 31-point performance in Duke’s victory over North Carolina. Freshman forwards RJ Barrett and  Cam Reddish and freshman guard Tre Jones are too much for most defenses to handle, and adding Zion to that mix makes Duke’s offense a potential NCAA Tournament contender. Michigan State, the East Region’s No. 2 seed, is a legitimate Final Four caliber team led by junior point guard Cassius Winston, but I see him having a hard time against Jones, who is possibly the best on-ball defender in the nation. As long as Jones can shut down Winston, the Blue Devils should be in the Final Four.

Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed in the West Region, but I don’t think they’ll survive the gauntlet they have to face on the way to the Final Four. Though the Bulldogs have one of the best frontcourts in the country with junior forwards Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Killian Tillie, they will run into Florida State in the Sweet 16 and struggle against the Seminoles. Florida State is red-hot. In the ACC Tournament semifinals, the Seminoles overpowered Virginia with their length and ability to spread the ball around, and they can do the same to Gonzaga. Florida State is deep and battle-tested, but so is Michigan. Michigan is a team with arguably more March Madness experience under their belt than anybody, returning three starters from the team that lost in the national championship game last year, and Coach John Beilein is a coach like Virginia’s Bennett who does more with less elite talent but with the postseason record to back him up. I see Michigan edging Florida State to face Duke in the Final Four.

Virginia certainly has the capability of making it to the Final Four again this year, adding the second-most efficient offense in the nation to an already elite defense. However, the Cavaliers also have never made it to a Final Four under Bennett and became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed this year. Every game in March for Virginia worries me. That being said, barring any surprises, Virginia will be playing Tennessee in the Elite Eight. The Volunteers, a long, athletic team with several talented scoring options, are a tricky matchup for Virginia. Forwards senior Admiral Schofield and junior Grant Williams will be tough to handle defensively and junior point guard Jordan Bone has come into his own as a ball-handler and offensive option. On paper, this Virginia team should be in the Final Four, and I’m going to trust the system and pick them to go there.

North Carolina and Kentucky are both Final Four-caliber teams, but I have the Tar Heels advancing out of the Midwest Region. North Carolina did lose to Kentucky earlier in the season, but the Heels are a better team now than they were in December. North Carolina has beaten Duke twice, as well as Florida State, Syracuse and Louisville within their last eight games. North Carolina under Coach Williams is a team that always shows up come tournament time, and I think they’ll do it again this year.

Vignesh Mulay, Senior Associate: Duke, Florida State, Tennessee, North Carolina

My Final Four picks include a healthy mixture of predictability and surprise, which I think is a perfect definition for the NCAA Tournament. Duke and North Carolina are historically successful blueblood programs with a medley of college basketball stars. Tennessee is in a great position to make a deep run, while Florida State looks like a squad poised to bust some brackets come tournament time. While the aforementioned quartet may not be the four many expect to be the last teams standing, their combination of depth and strong track records make them well-built to advance to the Final Four.

While there are some dangerous teams in the East Region, I think Duke is too good to be eliminated before the Final Four. The No. 1 overall seed has a lot of things going for it including a legendary coach in Mike Krzyzewski and the opportunity to play close to home. However, at the end of the day, Duke’s ability to use four 2018 McDonald’s All-Americans on the floor at the same time is what truly separates the Blue Devils from the rest of the pack. In Jones, Reddish, and Barrett, Duke has an elite playmaker, a high-scoring wing, and the top Class of 2018 recruit leading the way. Even if a team is able to handle those three, the Blue Devils can then lean on phenom Williamson — hands-down the best player in college basketball. Williamson, armed with a 6-foot-7 285-pound frame, is averaging 22.1 points per game, while shooting extraordinarily well from the field — 69.3 percent. As long as Zion is healthy, I can’t realistically see Michigan State, LSU or Virginia Tech being able to keep up with the Blue Devils for an entire game.           

Florida State is undoubtedly my riskiest Final Four pick. The Seminoles are not in a particularly easy region and don’t have the prestigious records that some other teams earned. With all that being said, though, Florida State is certainly not a team to be taken lightly. The Seminoles boast some impressive ACC victories and a couple of quality non-conference triumphs. However, what really makes me a believer in Florida State is the team’s fast style of play and 10-deep rotation which are both very valuable in March. I think Florida State will cruise into the Sweet 16, despite a relatively tough first two rounds, before exposing a Gonzaga team that is talented but grossly untested. The Seminoles will face an enormous challenge in the Elite Eight against second-seeded Michigan, but they are deep enough to poke holes in the Wolverines’ excellent defense. 

Of all the teams in the tournament, Tennessee arguably has the most straightforward road to the Final Four. Three of the teams the Volunteers are likely to face — Iowa, Purdue, and Virginia — are all among the slowest-playing teams in the country. This is fortunate for Tennessee which averages 82.3 points per game — second-most amongst teams in the Power 5 conferences. While the Volunteers will likely cruise past Iowa and Purdue due to sheer talent, their potential Elite Eight matchup with Virginia will be the team’s greatest obstacle. Even though predicting a Virginia loss is heartbreaking for me personally, Tennessee is a team built to take down the Cavaliers due to their athleticism, length, and offensive firepower. With five different players averaging 10 or more points per game and tremendous athletes like Schofield and Williams leading the charge, the Volunteers will be a nightmare for anyone in the South.

North Carolina has a tricky draw, but one I believe they can navigate successfully. A Sweet 16 matchup against SEC Tournament champion Auburn or fellow blue blood Kansas could be tough, but — barring any surprising stumbles early in the tournament — North Carolina should meet Kentucky in an exciting Elite Eight showdown. While the Wildcats won the teams’ earlier meeting back in December, this is a completely different North Carolina with legitimate starpower and depth. Fueled by an excellent combination of seasoned experience and game-changing youth, the red-hot Tar Heels are going to make a lot of noise in the tournament, and I believe that includes reaching their third Final Four in four years.

Alex Maniatis, Senior Associate Editor: Duke, Texas Tech, Virginia, North Carolina

Let’s dive in. Duke, Virginia and North Carolina are in a league of their own. But, the West region is a toss up. Gonzaga and Michigan may look like the clear favorites to come out on top. However, both teams are susceptible to defeat by the serious dark horse contender from Texas Tech.

Looking at the East Region, I see one team and one team only — Duke. The Blue Devils boast the most talented group of freshmen in all of college basketball. Williamson’s comeback from injury has been nothing short of sensational. His return along with prolific scoring from Barrett and the dangerous shooting from Reddish combines to form an explosive juggernaut. The two teams that have a chance of giving Duke a problem are Virginia Tech and Michigan State. Virginia Tech, led by junior forward Kerry Blackshear and sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, has a strong inside presence and outside shooting. On the other hand, there is a significant argument to make for Michigan State. They have an elite coach in Izzo and have proved to be an top team by beating Michigan three times total this season. However, Duke’s performance in the ACC Tournament convinced me otherwise. Duke is simply too good.

Now, let’s enter the Wild West. Starting with Gonzaga and going all the way down to Murray State, the West is wide open. Gonzaga touts a strong record and a loaded frontcourt and backcourt. However, their loss in the West Coast Conference championship, in addition to their lack of competition in conference play, makes them vulnerable. Moving to the No. 2 seed, Michigan looks great on paper as well as with long-distance shooting Brazdeikis and an athletic guard in junior Zavier Simpson. Unfortunately, their loss to Wisconsin and three losses to Michigan State makes me question their fitness for the Final Four. I think the Red Raiders from Texas Tech have what it takes to reach the Final Four. No. 3 seed Texas Tech (26-6) lost in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament but cannot be written off so quickly. Forgetting about their tournament history, they have the lethal characteristics of a threatening outsider — an elite defense, a top-scorer and lottery pick in sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, two other double-digit scorers, sophomore guard David Moretti and senior guard Matt Mooney, that are reliable three-point shooters, and a pair of big men, senior forward Tariq Owens and senior center Norense Odiase, averaging a combined 3.4 blocks per game. In the regular season, they beat Kansas by 29 and secured a road win against the Big 12 Tournament Champion Iowa State. Texas Tech has the recipe for success, watch out.

The South region poses the easiest path for No.1 seed Virginia. Don’t let their loss to No.16 UMBC last year phase you. The Cavaliers are a different, better all-around team. In every metric, the Cavaliers are either better than or competitive with the other No.1 seeds. Bennett’s squad is complete and may have the best offense he’s ever had. However, their shakeup in the ACC Tournament semifinal against Florida State exposed the weakness of their system. With slow play and strong defense, teams are forced to beat them from three. If their opponent catches fire, as shown multiple times in the Cavalier’s history, Virginia lacks the explosiveness to respond quickly. Still, given the slate of regional opponents, Virginia should make it out if they hit shots and be aggressive, leaning on their Big Three of potential first-rounders in Hunter and Jerome, and sharpshooter Guy. Virginia will prove the doubters wrong.

Finally, the Midwest region is stacked with talent, making it the toughest of the four regions. There are three historically great programs in North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas. Despite the plethora of strong teams, the Tar Heels are still the clear favorites. With electric freshman White, experienced senior starters in Johnson, Maye, and guard Kenny Johnson, and athletic role players in freshmen forward Nassir Little and guard Leaky Black, William’s squad has few weaknesses. They play freaky fast and their explosiveness bodes well for the tournament style of play. North Carolina will make its third Final Four performance in four years. 

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