The return of Zion Williamson, combined with three incredible performances in the ACC Tournament, allowed Duke to secure the No. 1 overall seed in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. And, yes, the Blue Devils deserved it. They own three wins over No. 1 seeds (Virginia, North Carolina), a 34-point win over a No. 2 seed (Kentucky), a win over a No. 3 seed (Texas Tech), two wins over a No. 4 seed (Florida State) and a win over the school that earned a No. 5 seed by winning the SEC Tournament (Auburn). That's strong -- especially when you understand that Duke only lost once all season when its four freshmen were available.

Obviously, Duke is the betting-favorite -- both here in the East Regional and NCAA Tournament. But that doesn't mean the Blue Devils get a pass to the Final Four. Michigan State projects as a real hurdle. Virginia Tech, with Justin Robinson back in the lineup, won't back down. And LSU remains talented even if it's now being coached on an interim basis by Tony Benford because of the FBI scandal that resulted in the suspension of Will Wade. So while I wouldn't say the East is "totally up for grabs," I also wouldn't say there's no chance Duke won't end up in the Final Four. As we're often reminded, there's always a chance.

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Best first-round game

No. 7 Louisville vs. No. 10 Minnesota: It's not even close, really. This is the best first-round matchup, and it has nothing to do with the actual game. These two teams combined to go 19-19 in league games this season. Neither is special or that interesting. So who cares? But Richard Pitino vs. the school that fired his father, Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, is super-interesting! So I can't wait for this one. And the idea that it's the first game on Thursday is just perfect. Absolutely perfect.

Top potential matchup

No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State: The Spartans are the Big Ten regular-season champions and the Big Ten Tournament champions. So being placed in the same regional as Duke is less-than-ideal -- plus confusing considering Michigan State, in my opinion, should've been the highest-rated No. 2 seed and, in a perfect world where geography doesn't matter to the selection committee, matched against the lowest-rated No. 1 seed. But the selection committee instead threw the Spartans in the East Regional with Duke. And a Duke-Michigan State showdown would be awesome if it happens. The Blue Devils and Spartans have offensive-efficiency and defensive-efficiency numbers that both rank in the top eight nationally. Virginia is the only other team that checks each of those boxes.

Upset lock of the regional

No. 6 Maryland over No. 3 LSU: I have Maryland upsetting LSU in the second round because I just don't trust the Tigers without their coach. Will Wade remains removed from the team because he was reportedly caught on a wiretap discussing a pay-for-play scheme involving LSU freshman Javonte Smart. The Terrapins are the No. 6 seed in the East; The Tigers are the No. 3 seed in the East. But I'm giving the edge, in that likely game, to Maryland -- which is led by Anthony Cowans and Bruno Fernando, the latter of whom is averaging a double-double and is probably a first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Cinderella team that will surprise

No. 12 Liberty: I don't have anything lower than a No. 6 seed making it to the Sweet 16 of the East Regional; so I don't believe a Cinderella team will surprise here. But, obviously, I've been wrong before. And if I'm wrong again, Liberty is the most likely candidate to make me that way. The Flames are 28-6 and ranked 63rd at KenPom. They're only 7-point underdogs in their 12 vs. 5 game against Mississippi State. So keep an eye on Ritchie McKay's team that's led by Scottie James.

Team that will make a far-too-early exit

No. 3 LSU: The Tigers are 1-1 without Will Wade with the victory coming over Vanderbilt and the loss coming on a neutral-court to a Florida team that's a No. 10 seed in this NCAA Tournament. Like previously stated, I don't trust the Tigers in this form. Tremont Waters is still terrific -- and Naz Reid can be awesome. But there's not a top-three seed in this entire NCAA Tournament more vulnerable to an early exit than LSU.

Five players to watch

  1. Zion Williamson, F, Duke: Williamson has been college basketball's best player all season -- and he reminded us why with an incredible performance in the ACC Tournament. His Player Efficiency Rating is 42.55. That's nearly five points higher than anybody else. He's averaging 22.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.8 blocks in 29.1 minutes per game.
  2. RJ Barrett, G, Duke: Barrett is probably the second-best player in the country -- second-only to his teammate. He's averaging 22.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 34.9 minutes per game.
  3. Cassius Winston, G, Michigan State: Winston is the Big Ten Player of the Year and the MVP of the Big Ten Tournament. He's averaging 18.9 points and 7.6 rebounds in 32.9 minutes per game.
  4. Bruno Fernando, F, Maryland: Fernando has 20 double-doubles this season -- among them an 18-point, 17-rebound performance against Nebraska. He's averaging 13.7 points and 10.4 rebounds in 29.6 minutes per game.
  5. Shizz Alston, G, Temple: Alston could've reasonably received the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year award (that went to Cincinnati's Jarron Cumberland). He's averaging 19.7 points and 5.0 assists in 37.1 minutes per game.

East Regional winner 

No. 1 Duke: There's just no sensible way to pick Duke to lose before the Final Four given what the Blue Devils have been at full-strength this season, which is to say totally overwhelming. If you're looking for a reason they might get caught early, it's because they shoot just 30.2 percent from 3-point range; that ranks 338th in the country and is the type of thing that lends itself to upsets. But even while shooting that way, when healthy, Duke has only lost once this season. And that loss came to Gonzaga. So the Blue Devils, when healthy, haven't lost to anything but a fellow No. 1 seed. And I'm not going to predict that to change now.

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