BEST TEAM: DUKE
Duke and Michigan State are the only two teams in the country with adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings in Kenpom.com’s top 10. The Blue Devils edge the Spartans in both categories (No. 3 in offense and No. 7 in defense to MSU’s No. 9 in each). Say what you want about Grayson Allen, but he provides a veteran presence the Spartans lack. And Duke defeated Michigan State 88-81 in November despite losing Marvin Bagley III to an injury in the first half.
BEST POTENTIAL MATCHUP: RHODE ISLAND VS. ARIZONA STATE
The odds on Dan Hurley vs. Bobby Hurley happening are slim, with Rhode Island as a No. 7 seed and Arizona State as a No. 11 that first needs to escape Dayton, but this fraternal matchup would double as an entertaining game and one of the NCAA Tournament’s best storylines in recent memory.
BEST BET TO SPRING AN UPSET: NEW MEXICO STATE
The Aggies don’t shoot well from the outside or the foul line — two typically key areas for a mid-major hopeful of an upset — but they defend just about as well as anyone in the country. Only five teams held opponents to a worse effective field-goal percentage than New Mexico State’s 45.5 percent. The Aggies also fared well against NCAA Tournament teams, defeating Miami (FL) and Davidson on neutral courts during the regular season.
GO-TO GUY: DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, KANSAS
Are there players in this region with better pro potential? Yes. But with an NCAA Tournament game on the line, there’s no one as trustworthy as Graham. The senior is a near-lock for the AP All-America First Team after averaging 17.3 points, 7.5 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game. He had 18 points and 13 assists to just two turnovers in the Jayhawks’ 81-70 win over turnover-forcing-machine West Virginia in the Big 12 championship.
BEST COACHING MATCHUP: RHODE ISLAND VS. OKLAHOMA
After losing two starters from Rhode Island’s first NCAA Tournament appearance of the millennium, Dan Hurley not only brought his Rams back to the Big Dance. He also guided them to a No. 7 seed, up from last year’s No. 11. As for Lon Kruger, what once looked like a potential Final Four season devolved so far that the Sooners had to sweat out Selection Sunday. But don’t forget Oklahoma won 11 games last season, so 18 wins is a notable improvement. This game will be a classic battle of tempo, as the Sooners will look to push the pace and the Rams will try to contain what could be a potent offense.
BEST GUARD/PLAYMAKER: TRAE YOUNG, OKLAHOMA
On Jan. 13, Oklahoma was ranked No. 9 in the country and beat TCU to improve to 14-2 overall. The Sooners have struggled immensely since then, spiraling into the NCAA Tournament at 4-11 over their last 15, and Young’s fall back to earth was a key factor. Especially over the last eight games
BEST BIG MAN: MARVIN BAGLEY III, DUKE
Forget best big man in this region. Bagley is among the best players — not just bigs — in the entire country. There’s not much the 6-foot-11 forward can’t do. Bagley averaged 21.1 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 blocks and 0.9 steals per game. He shot 60.5 percent from the floor and 37 percent (20-for-54) from deep, displaying the versatility that NBA scouts crave and constantly landing among the top five projected picks in 2018 mock drafts. Bagley missed four games in mid-February with an injury but came back and remained right in line with his season averages and shot an absurd 64.7 percent from the floor over Duke’s final five games.
BEST PLAYER YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF: ZACH LOFTON, NEW MEXICO STATE
Perhaps no one in college basketball is as well traveled as the 25-year-old Zach Lofton, who has enrolled at five schools in six years. The 6-4 guard won the SWAC Player of the Year for Texas Southern last season, but he saved his best campaign for his last year of eligibility. Lofton averaged 19.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, improving his shooting to career-bests of 45.4 percent from the field and 38.2 percent from long range.
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