By UPI |

March Madness: Dick Vitale's tournament favorites, players to watch

March 15 (UPI) -- Legendary announcer Dick Vitale's voice invades the minds of college basketball fans annually, as he brings excitement to the game with trademark phrases like "diaper dandy" and "it's awesome baby."

Vitale, 79, has covered the sport for 40 years and said March Madness still gets the blood flowing. He told UPI on Thursday that he got even more excited when Duke's Zion Williamson was cleared to return to the court.

The freshman's return makes the Blue Devils "tough to beat" this March, according to Vitale. But he said a few programs have a shot. Duke will be a favorite of many bracket-fillers this March after the 68-team field is announced for the annual Division 1 tournament on "Selection Sunday."

The big reveal will air at 6 p.m. Sunday on CBS and can be live-streamed on the NCAA website.

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Who can beat Duke?

While much still is to be determined during conference tournament play, the Blue Devils (26-5) change gears from a great team to an elite team with the addition of Williamson. The star freshman was lost to a knee injury in the Blue Devils' 88-72 loss to rival North Carolina on Feb. 20. Duke is just 3-3 since his injury.

"I think if Duke has their A game, they play their A game and Zion is Zion, they are going to be tough to beat," Vitale said. "North Carolina, Virginia lost to them tough ... they have a couple right there in their conference.

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"Tennessee is a very physical and tough team mentally. There are a number of teams on a given day. One thing Coach K [Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski] always tells his players is 'we must raise our game, because everybody we play plays at another level against us.'"

Vitale worked the microphone for Saint Mary's upset win over No. 1 Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Championship. He said unlike the NBA, where the playoff format can run up to seven games in a particular matchup, college basketball gives teams just one chance at glory.

That means if a team defends well or shoots for a spectacular 3-point percentage against the Blue Devils, they could come up short in their quest for championship hardware.

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"It's one bad night and the party is over," Vitale said. "So many times, a great team, especially today with the 3-point shot ... kid gets in foul trouble. Those things happen and that changes the complexion of the game."

"Saint Mary's lost to Gonzaga by 48 points [Feb. 9]. They end up beating them because they controlled the tempo, executed efficiently and got good shots."

Dickie V's players to watch

While Williamson is the "most unique player" Vitale said he's ever seen, there are plenty of other talents looking to become household names in March.

Williamson is averaging 21.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.8 blocks per game this season. His teammate -- and fellow lottery pick -- R.J. Barrett averages 23.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. Cam Reddish averages 14.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists for Duke, making up a terrifying trio of offensive firepower.

But not all of the best players suit up for perennial power programs.

Louisville: Jordan Nwora. Vitale calls Nwora the "most complete player in college basketball." The sophomore forward is averaging 17.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game this season for the Cardinals.

Texas Tech: Jarrett Culver. The 6-foot-6 Red Raiders sophomore is averaging 18.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game this season. Culver also is expected to be an early first round pick in the NBA Draft.

Murray State: Ja Morant. The Racers' star guard is a projected lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Morant might not be well-known to your average college basketball watcher, but he will undoubtedly jump off of your TV screen this March with his high-flying antics.

The 6-foot-3 sophomore is averaging 24.6 points, 10 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game for the Racers (27-4).

"Are you kidding me? ... He's explosive," Vitale said. "He's a dynamic player. He is really going to create a lot of excitement for Murray State in the tournament."

Florida State: Mfiondu Kabengele, Terance Mann, Trent Forrest. Vitale said the Seminoles have a "host of athletes" on their roster. Kabengele, Mann and Forrest are the biggest scoresheet-stuffers of the bunch. Kabengele is averaging 13.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per clash. Mann is posting 11.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. Forrest averages 9.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists for the Seminoles.

North Carolina: Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson. Maye is a senior averaging 14.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. Johnson is a senior posting 17.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per bout for the Tar Heels.

Virginia: De'Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy. The Cavaliers' trio is deadly from the perimeter and will have opposing defenses scrambling. Guy is a junior guard posting 15.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game while shooting better than 45 percent from 3-point range. Hunter is posting 15.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per bout and shoots better than 47 percent from downtown. Jerome is shooting better than 42 percent from 3-point land is averages 13.5 points and 5.3 assists per game.

Kentucky: P.J. Washington. While Washington isn't expected to be the first Wildcats player taken in the NBA Draft, he has proven his worth in his final season for John Calipari's crew. The sophomore forward has shown better production in all areas this season for the Wildcats, logging 14.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.1 blocks per game this season for Kentucky. Washington is also shooting 42 percent from 3-point range, compared to 23 percent last season.

Tennessee: Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield. Williams was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year last season. This year he is having an even better season. The junior forward is averaging 19.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, .3 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals per game for the Volunteers. He is shooting nearly 57 percent from the field. Schofield is a 6-foot-7 senior guard posting 16.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game.

"There will be some household names made after this tournament is done," Vitale said. "Thats the beauty of this tournament. There will be some heroes and there will be some people that will be really shedding some tears. So much attention and so much notoriety."

Tournament schedule and NET rankings selection tool

The NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee is turning to a new gadget this March called the NCAA Evaluation Tool to help determine the field for the tournament. The tool compiles game results, schedule strength, game location, scoring margin and offensive and defensive efficiency to rank teams.

The tool will be used in conjunction with the quadrant system, which sorts win and loss results based on location and rankings.

Current NET rankings

After the committee uses its algorithms and tools to determine the field for "Selection Sunday," games tip off with the first-four round Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. Those games will air on truTV.

The first-round games will be March 21 and 22. The second round games take place March 23 and 24. The first- and second-round games will air on truTV, CBS, TNT and TBS. The Sweet 16 is set for March 28 and 29. The Elite Eight is planned for March 30 and 31. The regional rounds will be on CBS and TBS.

The Final Four is April 6 and the National Championship is April 8. Those games will air on CBS.