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Sunday, March 17, 2019

16 teams that could win it all in the 2019 NCAA Tournament

Kentucky's Reid Travis (22) drives on Kansas' Dedric Lawson during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Kentucky won 71-63. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Kentucky's Reid Travis (22) drives on Kansas' Dedric Lawson during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Kentucky won 71-63. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

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1. Virginia — One season after being the first No. 1 seed to be upset by a No. 16 seed, Virginia can get redemption with a 2019 title. Sure, it may seem like a movie script, but the Cavaliers are one of the elite teams in the nation. They have as good of a shot as anyone of cutting down the nets behind one of the best defenses in the country.

2. Gonzaga — Other than a six-day stretch in December, Gonzaga has been unbeatable. The Bulldogs lost to Tennessee and North Carolina in back-to-back games, but rattled off 20 consecutive wins after that minor mishap.

3. Duke — If Zion Williamson is 100 percent for the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils are the clear favorite to win six games. The only question is if the four freshmen, who have embraced key roles all season, can handle the big stage.

4. North Carolina — The Tar Heels ended the regular season with a seven-game winning streak, including a 79-70 victory over Duke in the finale. North Carolina brings back 65 percent of its scoring from last year’s team that was upset by Texas A&M; in the second round.

5. Kentucky — Recent history would suggest that the Wildcats are poised for a deep run after a 26-win season last year. The four previous times Kentucky won fewer than 30 games under John Calipari, the Wildcats bounced back by making it to the Elite Eight all four times, including two trips to the national championship game.

6. Michigan State — In the regular season, Michigan State was tied with Virginia for the most quadrant one wins in all of college basketball. The Spartans posted an 11-4 clip in such contests, and have a good enough veteran core to make a deep run.

7. Texas Tech — The Red Raiders have a strong case for the best defense in the nation, ranking first in effective field goal percentage on the defensive end. Since it also has the Big 12 Player of the Year, Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech could make it even further than its run to the Elite Eight last year.

8. Tennessee — Tennessee has never won a national title, but it has proven it is a threat this year. The Volunteers’ lone loss in their first 24 games of the regular season was an overtime defeat at the hands of the Jayhawks.

9. LSU — Three SEC teams were ranked inside the top nine of the final AP poll of the regular season, but it was LSU that won the outright title in the top-heavy conference. Since LSU head coach Will Wade is suspended indefinitely, though, it is hard to have complete confidence in the Tigers.

10. Michigan — The Wolverines are statistically one of the best defenses in the country and they also do a great job of taking care of the rock on the offensive end. Opposing teams are posting just a 5.8 steal rate on Michigan, the best mark in the nation. Those are good qualities to have for a team that has aspirations of avenging last year’s loss in the national championship game.

11. Purdue — According to KenPom.com, the Boilermakers posted the fifth-best adjusted offensive efficiency in the regular season and ranked inside the top 30 on the defensive end. That’s a good enough balance to make a deep run, and junior point guard Carsen Edwards figures to lead the way after taking 37.4 percent of Purdue’s shots in the regular season.

12. Nevada — The Wolf Pack scuffled down the stretch before eventually claiming a share of the Mountain West Conference title for the third year in a row. Still, Nevada has an experienced roster and was ranked as high as No. 5 earlier in the year.

13. Auburn — Nobody in the country forced more turnovers in the regular season than Auburn. The Tigers forced a 25.2 turnover rate, which was the best mark in the nation. Auburn also shoots 38 percent from long range and can put up points in a hurry when it is on.

14. Kansas — Some of KU’s best wins came in neutral sites, despite the team’s well-documented struggles on the road. If that trend continues, Kansas could be playing during the third weekend.

15. Kansas State — Having an elite defense could prove to be a difference maker during the NCAA tournament. That’s certainly what the Wildcats are hoping for after posting the sixth-best adjusted defensive efficiency (88.1) in the regular season, per Kenpom.com.

16. Wisconsin — Senior Ethan Happ could carry Wisconsin through the first two weekends of the Big Dance. He already carried the Badgers in the regular season, taking 32.2 percent of the team’s shots and posting a 35.4 usage range.

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