The 10 Most Exciting March Madness Match-Ups That Could Happen During the 2019 NCAA Tournament

The NCAA tournament, March Madness, the Big Dance, whatever you want to call it, it’s the most wonderful time of the year for college basketball fans.

Selection Sunday has come and gone and the field of 64 Division I men’s basketball teams that will compete for the 2019 National Championship is set— with the exception of the four teams that will be determined by play-in games on Tuesday and Wednesday, of course. This year’s Final Four will take place in Minneapolis, Minn. from April 6 – 8, with the national championship title game set for Monday, April 8.

In the mix this March are three No. 1 seeds from the Atlantic Coast Conference — Duke, Virginia and North Carolina — as well as the fourth and final one-seed, Gonzaga, and a slew of other programs gunning for an upset against the four top-ranked teams.

Brackets will almost certainly be busted and at least one Cinderella story will hopefully be told as the tournament plays out, but in the meantime let’s take a look ahead at 10 of the most exciting potential match-ups that could happen in the 2019 NCAA tournament.

Match-up: Tennessee (2) vs. Purdue (3)

Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game between the Tennessee Volunteers and Auburn Tigers at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee on March 17, 2019.
Matthew Maxey—Icon Sportswire/Getty ImagesTennessee Volunteers guard Jordan Bone watches the final seconds tick off the clock during the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game between the Tennessee Volunteers and Auburn Tigers at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee on March 17, 2019.

Round: Sweet Sixteen

The Volunteers and Boilermakers may not be defensive powerhouses — their defenses are ranked 34th and 32nd in the nation, respectively, according to KenPom — but with the No. 3 and No. 5 offenses in play, this could be a high-scoring second weekend match-up to look out for.

Match-up: Duke (1) vs. Virginia Tech (4)

Wabissa Bede #3 of the Virginia Tech Hokies runs past Jordan Goldwire #14 and Marques Bolden #20 of the Duke Blue Devils at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Virginia on February 26, 2019.
Lauren Rakes—Getty ImagesWabissa Bede #3 of the Virginia Tech Hokies runs past Jordan Goldwire #14 and Marques Bolden #20 of the Duke Blue Devils at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Virginia on February 26, 2019.

Round: Sweet Sixteen

The Hokies pulled off a decisive upset when they came up against the Blue Devils during regular-season conference play in February. Of course, the caveat to that win is that Duke’s star freshman, Zion Williamson, sat the game out with a sprained right knee. Williamson is back and slamming down more dunks than ever, but that doesn’t mean Virginia Tech won’t somehow find an answer to the Blue Devils’ 6-foot-7-inch, 285-pound forward.

Match-up: North Carolina (1) vs. Kentucky (2)

North Carolina Tar Heels forward Luke Maye #32 handles the ball against Kentucky Wildcats forward PJ Washington #25 during the CBS Sports Classic at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois on December 22, 2018.
Quinn Harris—Icon Sportswire/Getty ImagesNorth Carolina Tar Heels forward Luke Maye #32 handles the ball against Kentucky Wildcats forward PJ Washington #25 during the CBS Sports Classic at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois on December 22, 2018.

Round: Elite Eight

When these two storied basketball programs last met in March, North Carolina’s Luke Maye hit the game-winning shot with just 0.3 seconds left to send the Tar Heels to the Final Four on the way to their 2017 National Championship. Not to mention that the 2018 CBS Sports Classic game that these two played in December came down to the final minutes — Kentucky pulled off the win. An Elite Eight match-up between the one and two-seeds in the Midwest would almost certainly be another one for the books.

Match-up: Duke (1) vs. Michigan State (2)

Michigan State Spartans guard Foster Loyer #3 and Michigan State Spartans players celebrate after defeating the Michigan Wolverines in a Big Ten Tournament Championship game between the Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans at the United Center in Chicago, IL on March 17, 2019.
Robin Alam—Icon Sportswire/Getty ImagesMichigan State Spartans guard Foster Loyer #3 and Michigan State Spartans players celebrate after defeating the Michigan Wolverines in a Big Ten Tournament Championship game between the Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans at the United Center in Chicago, IL on March 17, 2019.

Round: Elite Eight

Straight off a come-from-behind victory against their in-state rival Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament Championship, Michigan State is entering the NCAA tournament on a hot streak. The only bad news is that the Spartans’ Kyle Ahrens suffered a gruesome ankle injury in Sunday’s game that could keep him on the bench for the remainder of the season. As the No. 1 overall seed, the Blue Devils are going to be a force to be reckoned with for any team, let alone one that isn’t at full strength.

Match-up: Virginia (1) vs. Villanova (6)

Phil Booth #5 of the Villanova Wildcats celebrates the 74-72 win over the Seton Hall Pirates during the Big East Championship Game at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 16, 2019.
Elsa—Getty ImagesPhil Booth #5 of the Villanova Wildcats celebrates the 74-72 win over the Seton Hall Pirates during the Big East Championship Game at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 16, 2019.

Round: Elite Eight

After battling through a late-season slump to win the Big East Tournament Championship, Villanova could easily turn out to be one of the most dangerous teams ranked below the top three seed lines in this year’s tournament. On the other hand, after losing to the No. 16-seeded UMBC Golden Retrievers in the first-round of last year — a historic March Madness upset — the Cavaliers are back at No. 1 with something to prove.

Match-up: Kentucky (2) vs. Kansas (4)

Lagerald Vick #24 of the Kansas Jayhawks shoots the ball against the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky on January 26, 2019.
Andy Lyons—Getty ImagesLagerald Vick #24 of the Kansas Jayhawks shoots the ball against the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky on January 26, 2019.

Round: Elite Eight

If one-seed North Carolina and current-Tar-Heel-former-Jayhawk coach Roy Williams fall to Kansas in a Sweet Sixteen game that is set to take play at Kansas City’s Sprint Center — an arena that would essentially give Kansas a home-court advantage — a Kentucky-Kansas match-up in the Elite Eight could very well be in the cards. The Wildcats topped the Jayhawks by just eight points when the two teams faced off in January, so with a spot in the Final Four at stake, this rematch would likely be a showstopper.

Match-up: Gonzaga (1) vs. Michigan (2)

Rui Hachimura #21 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs brings the ball up the court against the Pepperdine Waves during a semifinal game of the West Coast Conference basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 11, 2019.
Ethan Miller—Getty ImagesRui Hachimura #21 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs brings the ball up the court against the Pepperdine Waves during a semifinal game of the West Coast Conference basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 11, 2019.

Round: Elite Eight

As the losers of the 2017 and 2018 National Championships, Gonzaga and Michigan are both itching to make it back to the championship title game for a shot at redemption. But to get there, the two may first have to face each other in an Elite Eight game that would pit the nation’s No. 1-ranked offense (Bulldogs) against the No. 2-ranked defense (Wolverines).

Match-up: Virginia (1) vs. North Carolina (1)

Kenny Williams #24 of the North Carolina Tar Heels takes a three-point shot against the Virginia Cavaliers during their game at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on February 11, 2019 .
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesKenny Williams #24 of the North Carolina Tar Heels takes a three-point shot against the Virginia Cavaliers during their game at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on February 11, 2019 .

Round: Final Four

The Cavaliers came out on top the first and only time that Virginia and North Carolina met during the regular season, but it’s always a showdown when these two ACC powerhouses go head to head. The Cavaliers thrive at a slower pace while the Tar Heels like to race down the court at breakneck speed, so the outcome of this Final Four match-up would likely depend on who controls the tempo of the game

Match-up: Michigan (2) vs. Michigan State (2)

Ignas Brazdeikis #13 of the Michigan Wolverines dribbles the ball while being guarded by Aaron Henry #11 of the Michigan State Spartans in the second half during the championship game of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois on March 17, 2019.
Jonathan Daniel—Getty ImagesIgnas Brazdeikis #13 of the Michigan Wolverines dribbles the ball while being guarded by Aaron Henry #11 of the Michigan State Spartans in the second half during the championship game of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois on March 17, 2019.

Round: Final Four

If both Michigan State and Michigan manage to knock out the No. 1 seeds in their regions (Duke and Gonzaga, respectively) — or another team does the job for them first — a Big Ten Tournament Championship rematch could prove to be one of the tournament’s most exciting games. Only this time, the Spartans and Wolverines would be competing for a chance to play in the 2019 National Championship.

Match-up: Duke (1) vs. North Carolina (1)

North Carolina Tar Heels forward Nassir Little #5 shoots over Duke Blue Devils forward RJ Barrett #5 during the ACC basketball tournament between the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC on March 15, 2019.
Icon Sportswire—Icon Sportswire via Getty ImagesNorth Carolina Tar Heels forward Nassir Little #5 shoots over Duke Blue Devils forward RJ Barrett #5 during the ACC basketball tournament between the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC on March 15, 2019.

Round: National Championship

No matter either team’s record or ranking, a Duke-UNC game is high stakes any time the two Tobacco Road teams meet. Over the course of college basketball history, the two schools — both of which are among the top five winningest programs of all-time — have won a combined 38 of the 65 ACC Tournament Championships, 50 regular season ACC championships and 11 National Championships. This year alone, North Carolina swept Duke to win a share of the ACC regular season championship before Duke returned the favor by edging Carolina out of the ACC Tournament with a 74-73 win in the semifinals.

All of this is to say that, for fans of either program, the idea of the Blue Devils and Tar Heels meeting in the NCAA tournament for the very first time with a national title on the line is nearly unfathomable. If these two do go head to head in the 2019 National Championship, the greatest rivalry in college basketball will skyrocket to a whole new level.

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Broadcaster Jay Bilas Breaks Down March Madness and Any Qualms About Savoring it

In the den of Jay Bilas’ Charlotte, N.C., home, framed pictures commemorate his collegiate basketball career at Duke, his days as a pro overseas and the critical reception of I Come in Peace, the 1990 sci-fi thriller that stars Dolph Lundgren but features Bilas in the role of Azeck, alien cop. (Los Angeles Times: I Come in Peace Should Go Away.) But that’s the past. Today, through his platform as an analyst at ESPN and a Twitter account with nearly 2 million followers, Bilas has emerged as a sort of conscience of college basketball. His is a singular voice that can both deftly break down game tactics for passionate fans and eviscerate the business model supporting the entire enterprise. He’s a fierce critic of amateurism, the NCAA policy that facilitates a free market for handsomely compensated coaches, administrators and TV executives–everyone involved in college basketball, it seems, except the players themselves.

So I’ve journeyed to Charlotte to ask Bilas whether he, who makes a living in the game, reporters who write about it, or anyone who watches college basketball or simply fills out an annual March Madness bracket in the office pool is complicit in supporting a business that, according to Bilas, is “just wrong to the point of immoral.”

Jay Bilas, can we make our tournament picks in peace?

Sure, he says. (Whew.) If you don’t like a law in America, after all, you don’t up and leave the country. You push for change. Bilas knows the skeptics’ line: Since you despise amateurism so much, why don’t you quit your job and do something else? “I find that reasoning to be nonsensical,” he says. “The fact that I differ in policy matters doesn’t mean I don’t love the endeavor. I love it, that’s why I opine on it. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t care.”

The 6-ft. 8-in. former center is a licensed attorney who, before becoming ESPN’s lead college-basketball analyst, once subpoenaed Barney the purple dinosaur in a costume copyright-infringement case. But over the past decade or so, Bilas, as much as any public figure, has pushed the case for paying players out of the halls of academia and into the mainstream. He called BS when high school officials in Alabama benched a star basketball player this season because she had deposited an accidental payment from USA Basketball and when the NCAA investigated former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel for selling his autograph at the same time his jersey was being sold on its shopping website. On March 13, Bilas called out the NCAA via Twitter for its tepid two-sentence response to a sweeping college-admissions scandal; several coaches have been accused of accepting bribes to falsely present high school students as athletes in order to ensure their admission to elite universities. Admirers love his hammering. Critics tell him to shut up about this stuff already.

Not likely. On March 8, a federal judge in California found that the NCAA amateurism rules violate antitrust law. She ordered the NCAA to remove caps on compensation related to education for things like tutoring, computers and science equipment. The ruling, ostensibly a victory for the players, falls far short of imposing a free-market system in which college athletes can earn their full worth. In an environment in which multimedia rights to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament go for $ 8.8 billion and coaches can make north of $ 7 million per year, he believes school leaders will eventually have to do the right thing on their own and fairly compensate players. “The idea that the free market works for the entire world, save the athletes, is ludicrous to me,” says Bilas. “Absolutely ludicrous.”

 

Bilas, who grew up in the Los Angeles area, started sensing this economic imbalance in the mid-1980s, while playing at Duke. But he wasn’t about to speak up publicly. “You knew what got rewarded and what didn’t,” he says. “I wasn’t Norma Rae or anything.” When a former Duke player brought up the idea of boycotting the 1986 Final Four in Dallas, which Bilas and his teammates had reached in his senior season, his response was, “Why don’t we do it next year?”

After his Blue Devils lost to Louisville in that year’s national championship game, Bilas, now 55, played professionally in Italy for two seasons and in Spain for part of a third. He picked up the alien acting gig–sadly, Azeck’s head exploded–one offseason. Bilas soured on pro ball after his Spanish team fined him for missing practice time to take the LSAT and accepted both a spot in Duke’s law school and one on Mike Krzyzewski’s bench, as an assistant coach. He loved coaching but not the itinerant lifestyle, so he settled with his wife Wendy in Charlotte, where he joined a law firm. Soon came offers to call games on local radio, and he joined ESPN as a full-time analyst. He keeps his old office and pitches in on recruiting and business development, but “there’s going to be a point where they walk in and say, ‘Pack your sh-t and get out.’”

As a broadcaster, Bilas figured if he could call out players and coaches for messing up, why should NCAA leadership be off-limits? Wendy encouraged him to sign onto Twitter 10 years ago so he could prove he had more personality than your average geek watching hoops film all day. Bilas is like your bald, slightly hip, bright and upright bio teacher. He tweets rap lyrics from Young Jeezy, daily, before signing off with “I gotta go to work” (since, while once corresponding with a Twitter user, he ended the conversation by saying he actually did have to go to work). Bilas trades in self-deprecation–“You must have low standards,” he told a tickled crowd at a Charlotte fundraising benefit where he was the guest speaker. He’s a needler who can take being needled and, ever the lawyer, recognizes that words matter, not least his own. During the March 9 Duke–North Carolina game in Chapel Hill, he observed on air that the rebounding of North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson has improved “immeasurably.” He then chastised himself, off the air, at halftime. Rebounds, like most things in sports, are nothing if not quantified. “F-cking idiot,” he said backstage.

Bilas was present for the most momentous episode of the regular season: the foot of Duke superstar freshman Zion Williamson ripping through his Nike shoe, resulting in a knee sprain. If Zion’s back at full strength for the tournament, Bilas likes his alma mater’s chances. Zion’s too, of course. “As long as he stays healthy, he’s going to make a billion dollars,” Bilas says of the presumptive top pick in the NBA draft. A Cinderella player to watch: arguably the best shooter in college basketball, Wofford guard Fletcher Magee. “Sounds like he should be somebody’s butler,” Bilas deadpans.

Before wrapping up our talk in the den, I ask Bilas for some bracket tips, now that we don’t have to feel crappy about obsessing over March Madness and all. Earnestly, he suggests going to KenPom.com, a stats site for hoops wonks, and checking out every team’s offensive and defensive efficiency stats. Okaaay. Bilas recalibrates. Most Americans are allergic to KenPom.com and just want to finish the damn bracket before the deadline. Sensing this, he checks out of “Bilastrator” mode and comes out with a bit of sensible advice. “Go with the toughest mascot,” he says.

This appears in the March 25, 2019 issue of TIME.
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