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NCAA tournament preview: East Region

RJ Barrett
RJ Barrett (5) shows that Duke has more than one high-flying act.
(Chuck Burton / Associate Press)

A look at the NCAA tournament’s East Regional:

TOP SEEDS

[ 1 DUKE ] The Blue Devils are the top seed overall and favorite to win the tournament with a loaded roster that includes three potential top-five picks in June’s NBA draft.

[ 2 MICHIGAN STATE] The Spartans rolled to their sixth Big Ten Conference tournament title but were exiled to Duke’s region. Not much of a reward for Tom Izzo’s squad.

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[ 3 LOUISIANA STATE] With coach Will Wade sidelined indefinitely after being linked to the college basketball corruption probe on a wiretap, the Tigers have plenty of off-court drama.

[ 4 VIRGINIA TECH] The Hokies beat Duke last month, with the huge caveat that Zion Williamson sat out the game because of injury, and have talent to play with anyone in the country.

CINDERELLA SEARCH

Why not Virginia Commonweath? Second-year coach Mike Rhoades was an assistant during the Rams’ miracle Final Four run in 2011. This group ranks 10th nationally in scoring defense, giving up only 61.6 points per game.

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TOP PLAYERS

RJ Barrett, guard, Duke

In a season dominated by Zion-mania, Barrett led Duke with 22.9 points per game as the freshman cemented his status as a top-five pick in June’s NBA draft.

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Cassius Winston, guard, Michigan State

The junior combined for 64 points in the Spartans’ three victories over Michigan. He averages 19 points per game and makes 40% of three-point shots.

Williamson, forward, Duke

The highlight-reel freshman is the face of the tournament and likely top overall pick in the NBA draft. He averaged 22.1 points with agility that defies his 6-foot-7, 285-pound frame.

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RIM SHOTS

Former UCLA coach Ben Howland is in his fourth season overseeing Mississippi State.

Williamson sat out five late-season games because of injury but has picked up where he left off by scoring a combined 81 points in three games since returning.

Aubrey Dawkins, the second-leading scorer for Central Florida, is the son of coach Johnny Dawkins. The younger Dawkins scored a career-high 36 points in a loss to Temple last week.

Four schools — Belmont, Liberty, North Carolina Central and Central Florida — are a combined 0-16 in NCAA tournament games.

NCAA tournament preview: West Region »

NCAA tournament preview: South Region »

NCAA tournament preview: Midwest Region »

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HOW THEY MATCH UP

Friday | Columbia, S.C.

16 Play-in winner (matchup below)

vs. 1 Duke (29-5, ACC champion)

The Blue Devils always seem at home in March: they’ve appeared in an astounding 24 consecutive tournaments and could reach the Final Four for the 17th time in school history.

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8 Virginia Commonwealth (25-7, at-large)

vs. 9 Central Florida (23-8, at-large)

Projected to finish seventh in the Atlantic 10 this season, the Rams won the regular-season title. They’ve appeared in the tournament eight of the last nine years.

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Friday | San Jose

5 Mississippi State (23-10, at-large)

vs. 12 Liberty (28-6, Atlantic Sun champion)

The Flames burst onto the national scene in December by beating UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins fired coach Steve Alford two days later.

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13 St. Louis (23-12, Atlantic 10 champion)

vs. 4 Virginia Tech (24-8, at-large)

After sitting out 12 games because of injury, Hokies guard Justin Robinson will return for the tournament. Virginia Tech has a 17-3 record with him in the lineup this season.

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Thursday | Jacksonville

11 Play-in winner (matchup below)

vs. 6 Maryland (22-10, at-large)

The Terrapins dropped three of their final four games, including a 17-point loss to a bad Penn State team and a first-round exit against Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament.

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14 Yale (22-7, Ivy League champion)

vs. 3 Louisiana State (26-6, at-large)

Look for a high-scoring affair. Both teams average more than 80 points per game and their defenses — the Tigers are 222nd and the Bulldogs are 215th — aren’t great.

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Thursday | Des Moines

10 Minnesota (21-13, at-large)

vs. 7 Louisville (20-13, at-large)

Cardinals are an enigma: they’ve lost seven of 10 but Duke beat them by two points. Erratic Golden Gophers picked up a nice win over Purdue in the Big Ten tournament.

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15 Bradley (20-14, Missouri Valley champion)

vs. 2 Michigan State (28-6, Big Ten champion)

The Spartans are peaking at the right time. They have won 10 of their last 11 games, including three victories against fellow Big Ten member Michigan during the stretch.

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Tuesday | Dayton, Ohio

11 Belmont (26-5, at-large)

vs. 11 Temple (23-9, at-lage)

Bruins average an impressive 87.4 points — guard Dylan Winder leads the way with 21.4 — but defense ranks an unsightly 246th in the country.

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16 N.C. Central (18-15, MEAC champion)

vs. 16 North Dakota State (18-15, Summit champion)

The winner between the Bison and Eagles gets Duke on Sunday, not much of a reward after two solid seasons by programs with little name recognition.


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