The N.C.A.A. tournament’s second weekend opens Thursday with one of the two chalkiest brackets in history. There are high-seeds galore. The good news is virtually all the matchups are strong and relatively even.
EAST REGION (Washington, D.C.)
No. 1 Duke (31-5) vs. No. 4 Virginia Tech (26-8)
Throw out Duke’s 0-1 record against the Hokies this year: it came during the six-game stretch when Zion Williamson was sidelined with a sprained knee, and the Blue Devils without Williamson are like Sinatra with a cold. But now consider the how the teams have been playing. Since a two-point overtime loss to Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Buzz Williams’s squad easily handled two lesser but frisky opponents, St. Louis and Liberty, while Duke was a missed tip-in away from being upset Sunday by Central Florida.
Line: Duke -7 1/2 (William Hill)
No. 2 Michigan State (30-6) vs. No. 3 Louisiana State (28-6)
This game represents a substantial mismatch in terms of coaching experience: Tom Izzo, the Spartans’ coach since 1995, against Tony Benford, an assistant serving as L.S.U.’s interim head coach while his boss, Will Wade, is being held out indefinitely by the university after a report tied him to an illicit offer to a recruit. (Benford is not a novice; he was North Texas’s head coach for several seasons). The gap is smaller talent-wise, as the Tigers have gone 3-0 against highly rated teams still left in the tournament. Still, Michigan State appears more and more like a juggernaut.
Line: Michigan State -6 (William Hill)
WEST REGION (Anaheim, Calif.)
No. 1 Gonzaga (32-3) vs. No. 4 Florida State (29-7)
The Zags are, as usual, have more size than almost any team in college basketball, except maybe the Seminoles, who are even bigger. Big question marks: Will Florida State get back Phil Cofer, who was hobbled last weekend with a foot injury (and is grieving the recent death of his father, the former N.F.L. player Mike Cofer)? Was Gonzaga’s neutral-site loss to Saint Mary’s earlier this month a blip, or a leading indicator?
Line: Gonzaga -6 1/2 (William Hill)
No. 2 Michigan (30-6) vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (28-6)
The No. 1 and No. 2 defenses in the country, per KenPom.com’s ratings, face off. If that virtual tie goes to the offense, then Michigan’s is better. If it goes to the team that can limit the opposing team’s 3-pointers and give itself second chances by offensive rebounding, then the Red Raiders will prevail. Expect a physical slog, and expect how loosely (or not) the referees officiate the game to have an affect.
Line: Michigan -2 (William Hill)
SOUTH REGION (Louisville, Ky.)
No. 1 Virginia (31-3) vs. No. 12 Oregon (25-12)
After defeating its demons and No. 16 Gardner-Webb (along with No. 9 Oklahoma), the Cavaliers have the privilege of facing the sole double-digit seed left in the field. Oregon is one of college basketball’s hottest teams, riding a 10-game win streak. But if Virginia plays to its seed — admittedly an issue over the last several years — then it should have little problem dispatching an inferior Ducks squad.
Line: Virginia -8 (William Hill)
No. 2 Purdue (25-9) vs. No. 3 Tennessee (31-5)
This may not read as the sexiest matchup of the regional semifinals, but it is likely the best. These are two excellent, veteran teams with chips on their shoulders (both programs see themselves as historically disrespected, and neither won its conference tournament). Both have good coaches, and deep reserves of talent. The Volunteers might be favored, but when Purdue gets good minutes out of the 7-foot-3 sophomore Matt Haarms — as it did Saturday, when it blew out the defending champion, Villanova — the Boilermakers look as good as anyone in the country. Expect fans to pour into Kentucky from the north and the south.
Line: Tennessee -1 (William Hill)
MIDWEST REGION (Kansas City, Mo.)
No. 1 North Carolina (29-6) vs. No. 5 Auburn (28-9)
The Tigers, surprise winners of the Southeastern Conference tournament, have momentum on their side. Of course, they also will have played seven games in the two weeks before Friday’s meeting with the Tar Heels, who will try to make the game a track meet. Auburn could tire. Beyond that, these two explosive offenses both will have plenty of chances to score. Can Auburn make enough of its shots to swing the game its way?
Line: North Carolina -5 (William Hill)
No. 2 Kentucky (29-6) vs. No. 3 Houston (33-3)
Houston is one of two teams still in the N.C.A.A. tournament from outside college basketball’s six power conferences (though its own league, the American Athletic Conference, is not too shabby, least of all this year). It has proved it can run with the big dogs, with regular-season wins over Oregon and Louisiana State on its résumé. But what about the Wildcats? With a similarly stout defense and more pure talent, Kentucky, when healthy, presents a suboptimal matchup for Houston. But it is not clear that Kentucky will enjoy the services of its leading scoring threat, the sophomore P.J. Washington, who did not play in the first two N.C.A.A. games with a sprained foot. That is exactly the kind of bad March break that can upset Coach John Calipari’s best-laid plans.
Line: Kentucky -2 1/2 (Westgate)