The East is a beast featuring last year’s champion Villanova, the team everyone loves to hate in Duke and four teams which aren’t getting enough respect heading into the tourney (SMU, Wisconsin, Virginia & Florida).
There’s an argument to be made (rightfully so) for the South being the hardest region (UNC, UCLA, Kentucky, Cincinnati), but the East gives us three teams that were ranked 1st in the nation at some point this season, another that is arguably the best in the B1G in Wisconsin and a team in Virginia that can shut down any offense at any time.
If Villanova can get past Wisconsin and Virginia, and Duke doesn’t stumble against Baylor or SMU we may end up with a Villanova vs Duke matchup in Madison Square Garden for a trip to the Final Four on the line.
Even if you don’t care about the basketball you can spend your time waiting to see if Grayson Allen has another meltdown, what custom suit Jay Wright is wearing, what fun things Wisconsin senior’s Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes will say and if Frank Martin has a complete meltdown on the South Carolina bench.
On the court your attention should be focused on Duke, who after winning four straight games against big time competition in the ACC Tournament comes into the NCAA Tournament finally looking like the team most national media members picked to win it all preseason. Harry Giles is starting to look like Harry Giles again, Jayson Tatum looks like the guy who’s the safest bet to succeed in the NBA in all of college basketball and Luke Kennard can get his shot off from any spot on the court at any time.
Even if the basketball turns out to be a bust there’s three letters that make this region better than any of the others…MSG. Anytime high level basketball leads to The Garden it automatically brings a level of excitement unrivaled by any other venue…hey, if the Mecca can prop up the overrated Big East Tournament it can surely do the same for some of the premier programs in college basketball.
(KenPom ranking in parenthesis)
(2) Villanova vs (212) Mouth St. Mary’s
Nova survived losing Arcidiacono and Ochefu from their national championship team and ran the Big East sweeping both the regular season and conference tournament on their way to a 31-3 record head into the NCAA Tournament. Josh Hart has been that dude while Jalen Brunson has blossomed into the floor leader during his sophomore campaign.
The NEC happens to be headquartered in my hometown so I’ll be pulling hard for MSM (to little or no avail). The Mountaineers won the regular season, going 14-4 before taking down the conference tournament. A 1 point win over New Orleans in the First Four earned them a date with Villanova, quite the reward. Three of their players score in double digits per game, led by sophomore Elijah Long at 15.1 (14.9 in conference). They don’t do anything particularly well that would make you think they have a shot in this one.
Time/TV: 7:10pm ET Thursday, CBS
Prediction: Villanova by 27
(23) Wisconsin vs (44) Virginia Tech
Wisconsin was my favorite to win the B1G before they hit a skid, losing 5 of 6 between February 12th and March 2nd. They have three players averaging double digit points, led by Bronson Koenig at 14.1 per game. Expect Koenig and Hayes to turn it up for the NCAA Tournament, both seniors have big time tournament experience. I not only like them to win this one but to also defeat Villanova in the round of 32. If anything, their soft seed hurt Villanova, who as a 1 will have to face such a good team in their second game of the tournament. The Badgers enter the tournament with the 8th best defensive efficiency in the country.
Va Tech finished the ACC regular season 10-8 with some nice wins over Duke, Virginia (2OT), Miami and a sweep of Clemson. They failed to beat up on any of the other ACC heavyweights and got their three largest wins (Duke, VA, Miami) at home. They have a shot at the upset due in part to their ability to knock down the outside shot (40.3% as a team), but in the end Wisconsin should end up being too much for them. The LeDay’s lead them in scoring (Zach 16.3 PPG, Seth 14.0 PPG) while four other Hokies also average double digit point totals per game. Their offense is legit, I just don’t think their defense makes enough stops to win.
Time/TV: 9:40pm ET Thursday, CBS
Prediction: Wisconsin by 9
(7) Virginia vs (59) UNC-Wilmington
Virginia enters the tournament touting the nation’s best defensive efficiency, and boy can they be boring to watch if you don’t appreciate grind it out basketball. Their adjusted tempo of 58.5 is dead last in the country, making them the slowest team in the nation. The Cavaliers are led in scoring by senior London Perrantes at 12.5 point per game and he’s the only Virginia player to have a double digit scoring average. Wilkins availability is up in the air for the UNCW game as of this writing.
UNC-Wilmington likes to play faster and touts the nation’s 18th best offense when it comes to efficiency. They excel taking care of the ball and at shooting a high percentage from two-point range, but have had issues on the defensive end. The Seahawks are led in scoring by C.J. Bryce (entertaining dude to watch) who comes into the tournament averaging 17.6 points per game. Four total UNC-W players score in double digits per game, with three averaging at least 14.5 points per game. Kevin Keatts is a hot name in coaching circles right now, but in the end the Virginia defense will be too much for them to overcome.
Time/TV: 12:40pm ET Thursday, truTV
Prediction: Virginia by 12
(9) Florida vs (64) East Tennessee St.
Florida enters the NCAA Tournament coming off back to back losses to Vanderbilt. Prior to those losses, they had won 10 of their last 11 with the only loss coming on the road at Rupp. It’ll be interesting to see if they find their groove again, while they’ll get past ETSU, Virginia awaits in the round of 32. They do a nice job protecting the three-point line and enter the tourney with the nation’s 4th best defense based on efficiency. The Gators are led in scoring by KeVaughn Allen at 13.9 points per game, while Canyon Berry (12.1) and Devin Robinson (10.9) are also in double figures.
ETSU will rep the Southern Conference after winning both the league’s regular season and conference tournament. They shoot a healthy percentage (38.2%) as a team from deep, but expect Florida’s defense to negate their outside scoring. The Buccaneers will have to get to the line and do some damage inside to have any shot at the upset. The good news for anyone looking for the upset is their roster is experienced, boasting 13 upperclassmen. They’re led in scoring by T.J. Cromer at 19.1 points per game, while Desonta Bradford (10.6) is the only other ETSU player in double figures.
Time/TV: 3:10pm ET Thursday, truTV
Prediction: Florida by 9
(11) SMU vs (59) USC
The NCAA decided SMU couldn’t play in the NCAA Tournament last year so one would expect they’d come in hungry and on a mission. Their offense is legit and they boast two wins over a Cincinnati team with a stifling defense, including a 15-point victory in the AAC championship game. Their offense is balanced and they come into the tourney hitting 40.6% of their threes, good for 5th best in the nation. The Mustangs are led in scoring by Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye at 18.8 points per game, while three other players averaged double digits this season. SMU finished AAC play at 17-1 before running through the conference tournament, their only stumble a two-point loss at Cincinnati on January 12th. They sport length on the perimeter but lack it inside and will go small every occasionally, with Ojeleye at 6’7’’ their tallest player on the court.
USC overcame a double-digit deficit to defeat Providence in Dayton during the First Four. Their last win over a top 50 program came on January 25th as they took down UCLA at home. All year they’ve looked to be a couple of pieces short, and that should be the case again in this one. Not much stands out for them statistically on either side of the ball, just ball security where they only turn it over 15.6% of their possessions, good for 16th best in the nation. The Trojans are led in scoring by sophomores Bennie Boatwright (14.6 PPG) and Chimezie Metu (14.5 PPG). It’s interesting that the Trojans top two scorers are listed at 6’10’’ and up yet they only get 49% of their points from two-point range.
Time/TV: 3:10pm ET Friday, truTV
Prediction: SMU by 11
(12) Baylor vs (87) New Mexico St.
Baylor has mastered being more talented than most of their opponents and outplaying them for 35 minutes. They should have enough to get into the round of 32, but they have a lot of toughness questions to answer if they plan on advancing beyond their expected opponent of SMU. As usual, they excel on the offensive glass and do most of their scoring on the inside. They play at a slow pace and do an awful job taking care of the ball, but their talent alone should carry them in this one after a quick exit last year in the NCAA Tournament. Motley who hurt his finger in their last contest is probable for their first tourney game.
NMSU enters the tourney representing the WAC (which had a down year) after finishing in second during the regular season and defeating Cal St. Bakersfield (regular season champion) by 10 in the title game. The Aggies get a large percentage of their points from the free throw line and will have to get there a ton to have any shot against Baylor. The Aggies are led in scoring by Ian Baker (16.6 PPG). It’ll be tough for them to take down Baylor without Sidy N’dir who they’ve been missing for all but 9 games this season.
Time/TV: 12:40pm ET Friday, truTV
Prediction: Baylor by 7
(32) South Carolina vs (29) Marquette
South Carolina comes into the tourney riding a two-game losing streak, a loss at Ole Miss and a first-round SEC tournament loss to Alabama. Senior Sindarius Thornwell leads them at scoring with 21 points per game, while two other Gamecocks averaged double digits this season. They make their living on the defensive end, as they enter tourney play with the 3rd most efficient defense in the nation. Their issues have been on the offensive end as they’ve shot poor percentages from both three point and two-point range.
Marquette enters the tournament with some nice wins (vs Vanderbilt, at Xavier, at Creighton, vs Villanova) and some head scratching losses (at St. John’s by 14, at Georgetown by 18). The Golden Eagles shot a nation best 43% from deep this season, and are top 50 in two-point field goal percentage, but have allowed their opponents to shoot high percentages from both as well. They’re led in scoring by freshman Markus Howard (13.2 PPG) and sport a balanced offense as 4 other Golden Eagles averaged double digits this season. Their offense is the 8th most efficient in the nation, it remains to be seen if they’ll get enough from it to carry their defense against South Carolina. Center Luke Fischer is listed as probable for the South Carolina matchup.
Time/TV: 9:50pm ET Friday, TBS
Prediction: South Carolina by 2
(13) Duke vs (136) Troy
Duke comes in as hot as can be having won four straight (including wins over Louisville, UNC and Notre Dame) to win the ACC Tournament. Harry Giles is close to returning to the player everyone touted pre-injury and Jayson Tatum seems to have finally realized how good he is. Their offense has been fine, it’s the defensive end where they tend to slip up, especially against athletic guards who can drive. Luke Kennard (20.1 PPG) led them in scoring while 4 other Blue Devils averaged double figures. I have them going to the championship game, but it’ll depend largely on Tatum and Giles and whether Grayson Allen has re-found his stroke.
Troy won the Sun Belt tourney after only finishing 10-8 in conference play during the regular season. They avoided UT Arlington in the conference tourney, but did defeat 2 seed Georgia St. on their way to the championship. Keep an eye on sophomore Jordon Varnado (16.5 PPG) and junior Wesley Person (14.8 PPG) for the Trojans. They don’t do anything extraordinarily well, and should have a tough time with all the weapons the Blue Devils possess.
Time/TV: 7:20pm ET Friday, TBS
Prediction: Duke by 28
Round of 64
Villanova over Mount Saint Mary’s
Wisconsin over Virginia Tech
Virginia over UNC-Wilmington
Florida over East Tennessee St.
SMU over USC
Baylor over New Mexico St.
South Carolina over Marquette
Duke over Troy
Round of 32
Wisconsin over Villanova
Virginia over Florida
SMU over Baylor
Duke over South Carolina
Wisconsin over Virginia
Duke over SMU
Duke over Wisconsin