So far we have previewed the First Four games, as well as the First Round games in the South Region, which will see the regional semifinals and finals take place in Louisville. Next up is the East Region, which will conclude in Philadelphia, and is headed by the Committee’s #2 overall team, the North Carolina Tar Heels, undisputed 2016 ACC Champions. The team that makes it to the Final Four from this region definitely will have earned it, as there are a few fantastic teams in this section of the bracket.
As with the other previews, any statistics are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom, and we will first give you a look at the entire bracket.
#1 North Carolina (28-6) vs #16 Florida Gulf Coast/Fairleigh Dickinson
Thursday 3/17, 7:20 pm TBS
Overview: It is quite the feat, even in a down year for the conference, for a team to win the ACC regular season and Tournament titles. North Carolina did just that this year. They were the consensus #1 team in the preseason, and despite some injuries and some hiccups, they are right at the top as we enter the postseason. They are definitely a team that many will pick to win this whole thing. They won’t know their opponent until after FGCU and FDU do battle Tuesday night, but it shouldn’t matter much.
Key Players: You can look back to the First Four preview to see who the key players are for the Eagles and the Knights, but for the Tar Heels, it’s seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson that make this team go. Paige averages 12.1 points and 3.7 assists per game, while Johnson leads the team with 16.6 points per game and 10.6 rebounds per game. Paige has struggled with his shot at times this year, so if he is making baskets, North Carolina is in good shape.
Why UNC will Win: No 16-seed has ever defeated a 1-seed, and it won’t start with North Carolina.
Why FGCU/FDU will Win: They won’t
#8 USC (21-12) vs #9 Providence (23-10)
Thursday 3/17, approx. 9:50 pm TBS
Overview: USC started off red hot this season, going 11-2 in non-conference play with wins over Monmouth, Yale and Wichita State. They scuffled in Pac 12 play though, going just 9-9, but Andy Enfield will lead his Trojans to the Tournament for the first time, and it’s Enfield’s first trip to the Big Dance since leading Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16 in 2013. It was a similar season for Providence, as they went 12-1 in non-conference with a win over Arizona, but limped to a 10-8 record in the Big East, leading to a 9-seed in the Tournament.
Key Players: The Trojans are led by backcourt pair Julian Jacobs and Jordan McLaughlin. Jacobs, a junior, averages 11.8 points and 5.5 assists per game, and McLaughlin, a sophomore, leads USC in scoring at 13.4 points per game. Meanwhile, Providence may have the best point guard in the nation in two-time Big East Player of the Year Kris Dunn. Dunn has had quite a season, averaging 16 points, 6.4 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals a game. Dunn has a partner in crime as well, and that is forward Ben Bentil, who leads the Friars in scoring at over 21 points a game.
Why USC will Win: This game will be strength versus strength, as USC is a great offensive team and Providence is a great defensive team. USC likes to play fast, and that will be a good way for them to keep Providence from locking them down defensively. USC is also a much deeper team than Providence, so speeding up the game could cause the Friars to get tired, and have to go their bench more often. If USC can do that, they’ll have a good shot.
Why PROV will Win: It might just be because Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil take over the game and move on to a Tournament match-up with North Carolina for the second time in the last three years. The Friars do not shoot a great percentage from three-point range, and a lot of times are better off attacking the rim. USC does not defend the paint very well, and Providence shoots over 72 percent from the free throw line, so attacking the rim would be in Providence’s best interests.
Des Moines, IA
#5 Indiana (25-7) vs #12 Chattanooga (29-5)
Thursday 3/17, 7:10 pm CBS
Overview: Surprisingly, the Big Ten Regular Season champs this season were the Indiana Hoosiers. And they did it despite losing their second leading-scorer, James Blackmon, before the start of Big Ten play. They benefited from only having to play Michigan State, Maryland and Michigan once, but they are still a really good team. That being said, Chattanooga is a really good team as well. During the first half of Championship Week, Chattanooga was the only 1-seed to win their conference tournament. The Mocs lost just five games all year, and defeated the likes of Georgia and Dayton, so they’ll be prepared to face Indiana.
Key Players: Yogi Ferrell is the man for Indiana. The point guard is averaging 17 points and 5.5 assists per game while shooting over 40 percent from three-point range. Another guy to watch for is freshman big man Thomas Bryant. The season started slow for Bryant, but he really started to come into his own down the stretch. The Tournament could be a coming out party for him. Chattanooga doesn’t have a “star,” but they are very good across the board. Their leading scorer is guard Tre’ McLean, who averages 12.3 points and 6.4 rebounds a game this season.
Why IU will Win: The Hoosiers have a sour taste in their mouth after they were eliminated in the Big Ten quarterfinals by Michigan, and they are looking to go deep in the NCAA’s to make up for that. They are in the top-10 in the nation in 2-point percentage AND 3-point percentage, so you really have to do a great job defending them to beat them. I don’t know if Chattanooga is good enough to get it done.
Why CHATT will Win: They might be good enough to get it done though. They are a very good defensive team, and the biggest thing in their favor is their turnover percentage. According to KenPom, the Mocs turn their opponents over on more than 20 percent of possessions. The one thing Indiana struggles with, is turning the ball over. Indiana turns the ball over on nearly 20 percent of their possessions. If Chattanooga can force turnovers, they have a great chance to pull off this upset.
Des Moines, IA
#4 Kentucky (26-8) vs #13 Stony Brook (26-6)
Thursday 3/17, approx. 9:40 pm CBS
Overview: It didn’t start all that great this year for Kentucky, and they have losses to the likes of Auburn, Tennessee, UCLA, Ohio State and LSU, but the season ended with an SEC Tournament Championship, and they enter the NCAA Tournament with a lot of momentum and playing their best basketball. But they are running into a Stony Brook team who is in the Tournament for the first time in school history, and they have a lot of momentum as well.
Key Players: The other thing that Stony Brook has is one of the top-10 players in the entire nation in senior forward Jameel Warney. Warney is an absolute force on the inside (6-8, 260 lbs), and I don’t know if there is a player in the country that can guard him one-on-one. He is coming off of a 43 point performance in the America East title game on Saturday. Kentucky has some really good players too, highlighted by their backcourt pair consisting of sophomore Tyler Ulis and freshman Jamal Murray. Ulis is one of the best point guards in the country (7.2 apg) and Murray is a sharpshooter (20.1 ppg, 42.1 3pt).
Why UK will Win: This looks like another Kentucky team that can absolutely contend for a National Championship with Ulis and Murray at the helm. KenPom rates Kentucky as the most efficient offensive team in the country. They don’t give up the ball and they shoot a really good clip from inside and outside the arc. I think if Kentucky just plays their game, and nobody has a terrible game, they’ll defeat Stony Brook.
Why SB will Win: That being said, there is something that feels special about Jameel Warney and this Seawolves team. If Kentucky has a weakness, it’s that they are susceptible to giving up second chances. That’s good news for Stony Brook, because they are among the top-50 offensive rebounding teams in the nation (Warney is the biggest reason for that). If Stony Brook is able to get second chances at the rim, they could absolutely defeat the Wildcats and ruin their season.
#6 Notre Dame (21-11) vs #11 Michigan/Tulsa
Friday 3/18, approx. 9:40 pm CBS
Overview: This is a team that has defeated Iowa, North Carolina, Louisville and Duke twice this season, yet Notre Dame just doesn’t feel like a serious contender to advance deep into this Tournament. They have struggled offensively down the stretch, but if they can get back to their mid-season form, there’s no reason they can’t make another long run in this tournament.
Key Players: The Irish have an NBA prospect at point guard in junior Demetrius Jackson. Jackson is averaging 15.5 points and 4.8 assists per game this year. Another guy who has started to play great for the Irish is senior forward Zach Auguste. Auguste had 19 points and a career high 22 rebounds in the ACC quarterfinals against Duke.
*The rest of the preview will be completed following the First Four game on Wednesday*
#3 West Virginia (26-8) vs #14 Stephen F. Austin (27-5)
Friday 3/18, 7:10 pm CBS
Overview: West Virginia was embarrassed in the Sweet 16 last year by Kentucky, and it appears that the Mountaineers have been playing with a chip on their shoulder all season. They were picked to finish 6th in the Big 12 in the preseason, and they proved all of their doubters wrong by finishing 2nd, picking up victories over Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma along the way. But they are running into the team with the longest current winning streak in the country, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. They have won 20 consecutive games entering the NCAA Tournament, and they’d love to make it 21 with an upset of the Mountaineers.
Key Players: West Virginia has a rotation of impressive guards that all average over nine points a game, but the key for West Virginia might be star forward Devin Williams. Williams has turned a corner this season for Bob Huggins, averaging 13.3 points and 9.3 rebounds a game. Despite all of West Virginia’s great players, Stephen F. Austin may have the best player on the floor in senior guard Thomas Walkup. This will be the 4th NCAA Tournament game in Walkup’s career, and he’s averaging just over 15 points and 10 rebounds a game in tourney action. He’ll be very important in this one.
Why WVU will Win: These are two similar teams, in that they both love to go full-court pressure to force turnovers, and nobody in the country is better at it than West Virginia. The Mountaineers are second in the nation in turnover percentage, and first in the nation in steal percentage. Stephen F. Austin struggles with turnovers on the offensive end, and that plays right into West Virginia’s hands.
Why SFA will Win: They have Tournament experience on their side, and it seems like they might not know how to lose. That’s a dangerous team to play this time of year. In addition, I mentioned that these two teams are similar. The Mountaineers are second in the country in turnover percentage. The number one team in that category? You guessed it, the Lumberjacks. I mentioned that Stephen F. Austin struggles with turnovers. You know who struggles with turnovers more? You guessed right again, West Virginia does. It could come down to which team turns the ball over less.
St. Louis, MO
#7 Wisconsin (20-12) vs #10 Pittsburgh (21-11)
Friday 3/18, 6:50 pm TNT
Overview: Not too long ago, Wisconsin was looking unlikely to make the NCAA Tournament. But they flipped a switch late in the season, winning 11 of their last 14 games to earn a berth in the field. The season went in reverse for the Panthers. Pitt went 12-1 in non-conference play, but limped to the finish line, losing seven of their last eleven. Both are struggling as they enter this match-up.
Key Players: Wisconsin lost the National Championship game last season, and their leaders this year, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, were there for it. Their experience will be key for Wisconsin as they look to make an unlikely run back to the Title game. For Pitt, it is senior point guard James Robinson who makes the car run. Robinson is one of the best floor generals in the nation, and he averages 10.3 points and 5.1 assists per game. Jamel Artis and Michael Young are great scorers, but Robinson sets them up to play well.
Why WIS will Win: This game will be slow and methodical, as neither team likes to get out and run. They’d much rather take their chances in the half court set. The one thing that Wisconsin needs to avoid in order to win this game is sending Pitt to the free throw line. The Panthers are one of the best foul shooting teams in the country. As long as the Badgers play smart defense, they should get the win.
Why Pitt will Win: We see free throw shooting decide a lot of games in March. If this game devolves into a free throw contest, Pitt will definitely have the advantage. A way that Pitt can make that happen is to attack the rim. The Panthers do most of their damage inside the arc, and the majority of points scored against Wisconsin come from inside the arc. If Pitt doesn’t settle for perimeter jumpers, they should get the victory.
St. Louis, MO
#2 Xavier (27-5) vs #15 Weber State (26-8)
Friday 3/18, approx. 9:20 pm TNT
Overview: One of the best teams in the country that not many people are putting in that elite category is Xavier. They have flown under the radar for most of this season, but if you watch them, they are without question a National Championship contender. They are very balanced, and definitely a team to look out for. In the First Round, they’ll take on the Weber State Wildcats, who are back in the Tournament for the first time since 2014, when they gave 1-seed Arizona a real run for their money.
Key Players: You don’t know who Joel Bolomboy is, but you might want to. He is a finalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award (Center of the Year), and no, he doesn’t play for Xavier. He is a senior at Weber State. Bolomboy averages a double-double this season, with 17.2 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. He’ll be a lot for Xavier to handle. The main player looking to stop him will be junior Jalen Reynolds. Reynolds is 6-10, 238 pounds, and he’ll need to step up his game to handle Bolomboy. Sophomore guard Trevon Bluiett is the scoring leader for the Musketeers at 15.5 points per game.
Why XAV will Win: Defensive rebounding could be a key for Xavier in this match-up. Weber State struggles on the offensive glass, so as long as the Musketeers clear the boards defensively, they should be able to get out in transition, where they are most effective. Weber State would rather play a slower game, so speeding up the contest will give Xavier the advantage.
Why WEB will Win: For Weber State to win, they’ll need to have success in the paint. They have a great paint presence in Joel Bolomboy, but he’ll have to have a really good game. The Wildcats are top-10 in the country in 2-point percentage, and Xavier is about average when it comes to 2-point defense. That’s the advantage that Weber State will have to exploit if they’re going to pull off the upset.
With that, you now know what to look for in each of the First Round games in the East Region. Next up will be a look at the Midwest Region, where 1-seed Virginia and 2-seed Michigan State could be on a crash course for their third straight meeting in the NCAA Tournament.