The stars and storylines for the NCAA Tournament in Columbia
You know about Zion. You’ve seen the dunks, blocks and steals. You’ve seen his shoe fall apart. You’ve seen him return from injury and dominate the ACC Tournament. You know you’re going to see him in the NBA soon.
But Duke — featuring Zion Williamson — is just one of eight teams coming to Columbia for the NCAA Tournament. Here’s who they are and why you should (or shouldn’t) root for each one:
No. 1 seed Duke (East Region)
NCAA Tournament experience: 43rd appearance
Player to watch: R.J. Barrett is Duke’s other lottery-bound freshman. The 6-foot-7 guard was the second-leading vote-getter for first-team All-ACC. He’s averaging 22.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.
Why you should root for Duke: The Blue Devils feature South Carolina’s own Zion Williamson, who in his freshman season (and only season of college basketball) was named the ACC’s Player of the Year. Williamson is expected to be the No. 1 overall selection in the upcoming NBA Draft and could have the kind of professional career that will make people wish they’d gotten a chance to see him play live when they had the chance.
Why you shouldn’t root for Duke: It’s the Evil Empire. Rooting for Duke is akin to rooting for Coca-Cola. It’s the ultimate frontrunner play. The Blue Devils have been to the Final Four 16 times and won five national titles. Where’s the fun in that?
No. 8 UCF
Conference: American Athletic
NCAA Tournament experience: Fifth appearance
Player to watch: Senegal native Tacko Fall is 7-foot-6 and on the verge of breaking the NCAA’s career field goal percentage record. He’s hit 74 percent of his career shots so far.
Why you should root for UCF: Fall will be the most noticeable player in the town this weekend. Also, a Knights win would set up a second round game between Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his former player, UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins, who was the Naismith Player of the Year at Duke in 1986.
Why you should root against UCF: The Knights are an athletic underdog, but they are Goliath in terms of enrollment. When the school started in 1968, it had an enrollment of fewer than 2,000 students. It now has more than 66,000 students on campus, making it the largest college in the country.
No. 9 VCU
Conference: Atlantic 10
NCAA Tournament experience: 17th appearance
Player to watch: Point guard Marcus Evans averages 13.8 points per game and starts the Rams offense.
Why you should root for VCU: One of the great Cinderella stories in the tournament’s history, the Rams are still the only team to advance from the First Four play-in games to the Final Four. They did that in 2011, and then-head coach Shaka Smart turned that into the Texas job, from which he might get fired soon. They also play great defense, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Why you should root against VCU: The sad demise of “The Peppas.”
No. 16 North Dakota State (First Four winner)
Conference: Summit League
NCAA Tournament experience: Fourth appearance
Player to watch: Sophomore Deng Geu, a member of the Ugandan national team, averages 9.9 points and five rebounds a game.
Why you should root for the play-in winner: North Carolina Central and North Dakota State will play Wednesday for the right to face Duke on Friday. Both are conference champions, and it’s unfair for tournament champions to have to play in the First Four games. Save that for Power 5 teams that just squeak into the field.
Why you should root against the play-in winner: College basketball only has so many games of Zion Williamson left. Might as well get the most out of it.
No. 1 seed Virginia
NCAA Tournament experience: 23rd appearance
Player to watch: Junior guard Kyle Guy leads the Cavs with 15.6 points per game.
Why you should root for Virginia: The Cavaliers are a throwback to a different era of elite college basketball. Their earnest head coach, Tony Bennett, has built an elite program without the help of supremely talented one-and-done players like Williamson. Virginia regularly starts three upperclassmen, and its leading scorer is junior Kyle Guy. On top of that, the Cavaliers actually play defense.
Why you shouldn’t root for Virginia: What the Blue Devils are the basketball blue bloodery, the Cavs are to real life elitism. Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson and no graduate will ever let you forget it. In 2017, it was ranked the most expensive public university in the country by CNBC. Woodrow Wilson, Robert Mueller and lots of Kennedys are among its alumni, but this is a basketball game not a D.C. cocktail party.
No. 8 Ole Miss
NCAA Tournament experience: Ninth appearance
Player to watch: Guard Breein Tyree averages 18.2 points per game.
Why you should root for Ole Miss: In the part of the country where “SEC! SEC! SEC!” regularly rings out in football stadiums, the Rebels are the only SEC team coming to Columbia. They are one of seven SEC teams in the field. Irmo native Devontae Shuler spurned South Carolina to sign with Ole Miss, but he and Gamecocks coach Frank Martin remains close. Shuler starts at guard for the Rebels.
Why you should root against Ole Miss: Who remembers Marshall Henderson? That guy was annoying, right?
No. 9 seed Oklahoma
Conference: Big 12
NCAA Tournament experience: 31st appearance
Player to watch: Senior guard Christian James leads the Sooners in scoring with 14.4 points per game and is second in rebounding (6.3 per game).
Why you should root for Oklahoma: Most folks say Lon Kruger is a good guy, and he can sure coach. He is the only coach in NCAA history to win an NCAA Tournament game with five programs – Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and the Sooners.
Why you should root against Oklahoma: The Sooners were 7-11 in the Big 12. That has to chap South Carolina fans whose team finished 11-7 in the SEC and didn’t even get a bid to the NIT.
No. 16 Gardner-Webb
Conference: Big South
NCAA Tournament experience: First appearance
Player to watch: Senior guard David Efianayi leads the Runnin’ Bulldogs with 18.4 and shoots 43 percent from behind the arc.
Why you should root for Gardner-Webb: The Runnin’ Bulldogs are making their first ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. With 5,000 students, they are the underdog in every sense of the word.
Why you should root against Gardner-Webb: They aren’t going to win. Only one 16 seed in history has knocked off a No. 1 seed. That was last year when Maryland-Baltimore County beat the same Virginia team that the Runnin’ Bulldogs will face Friday. The Cavaliers aren’t going to let it happen two years in a row.