I started with the West Region, and now we move up the bracket to the East, which is led by the #1 overall seed in this year’s Tournament, the defending National Champion Villanova Wildcats. Jay Wright’s squad lost its leader in Ryan Arcidiacono and it’s best interior presence in Daniel Ochefu, yet despite that, this season’s team might actually be better.
Josh Hart is a NPoY candidate, Kris Jenkins can still hit the big shot, and Jalen Brunson has taken a massive leap forward, showing the promise that had many expecting him to be a one-and-done coming out of high school. There hasn’t been a repeat champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007, but the Cats are the team best positioned to get it done since.
They will have their fair share of roadblocks though, including a potential Elite Eight matchup with the hottest team in the country, the ACC Champion Duke Blue Devils. A Second Round meeting with grossly under-seeded Wisconsin could be tricky for Nova as well.
The team that emerges from Madison Square Garden unscathed will head to Phoenix to take on the winner of the previously previewed West Region. Here is a preview of the First Round in the East.
*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom*
#1 Villanova (31-3) vs #16 Mount St. Mary’s/New Orleans
Thursday 3/16, 7:10 pm CBS
Overview: I am on record as saying that I believe this year’s Villanova team is better than the one that won last year’s National Championship game over North Carolina. The Wildcats have an extremely impressive resume, with wins over Purdue, Virginia, Notre Dame and Wake Forest out of conference, and a dominating season in the Big East, winning the regular season and tournament titles. They were beaten twice by Butler, so if they can avoid the Bulldogs, they should be good to go!
Key Players: I mentioned potential National Player of the Year Josh Hart earlier, but he is still the most important player for this team. Hart is averaging 18.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game, while shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range. Hart struggled with his jump shot last season, and it is evident that he has improved in that area this year, turning himself into a potential 1st round NBA Draft pick. You also know about Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson, but another extremely important player for Nova is 6-9 senior forward Darryl Reynolds. The Cats do not have very much depth, especially on the interior, so Reynolds needs to stay out of foul trouble and stay healthy, two things that have been easier said than done at times this season.
Why NOVA will Win: I won’t even put a note here about the potential for MSM or NO to win, because as of this writing we’re not sure who will be facing Villanova, and let’s be real, they won’t beat them anyway. But Villanova will win this game because they are on a mission to prove to everybody that they are every bit as good this year as the team that took home the championship last year. This team has way too much talent to slip up and become the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed.
#8 Wisconsin (25-9) vs #9 Virginia Tech (22-10)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 9:40 pm CBS
Overview: Overall, I was very happy with the job the Selection Committee did this season. All of the teams that most deserved to get in are here, but they did misfire on some seedings. Maybe none more so than Wisconsin as an 8-seed. The Badgers had a rough stretch at the end of the year, losing five of their last seven games in the regular season, and their non-conference strength of schedule left a lot to be desired. They also were able to gain some momentum in the Big Ten Tournament, destroying Northwestern and falling to Michigan in the title game, but they definitely deserved a higher seed. They will not have an easy First Round game though, taking on Buzz Williams’s Virginia Tech team that had a very good season in the tough ACC. The Hokies went an impressive 10-8 in conference play which included wins over Duke and rival Virginia. VT is a very good offensive club, and will challenge the Badgers.
Key Players: Wisconsin is a very experienced squad, with seniors Bronson Koenig (14.1 PPG) and Nigel Hayes (13.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG) already having 14 NCAA Tourney games under their belts, but the best player on this team is sophomore forward Ethan Happ (13.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 1.9 SPG). Happ finished 6th in KenPom’s POTY ranking, and he is a dominant post player that can create problems for any team. Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, they lost star forward Chris Clarke to an injury late in the regular season, severely hampering their hopes for a deep Tournament run. They still do have four other players who average double-figures, led by 6-7 senior forward Zach LeDay (16.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG).
Why WISC will Win: The experience factor should play a huge role here. Koenig and Hayes have been to the Final Four twice in their careers already, and this team just seems to up the intensity come Tournament time. The Badgers are great on defense this season, and they’ll be able to force missed shots, clean up on the boards, and do enough on the offensive end to win fairly easily over the Hokies.
Why VT will Win: I don’t think there are many people who believe Virginia Tech can defeat Wisconsin. The Badgers are better than an 8-seed, and the Hokies are kind of getting screwed because of that. Don’t sleep on them though. They are a very good offensive team, in the Top-20 in 2-point and 3-point percentage (according to KenPom). If they get hot, Wisconsin might not have enough on the offensive end to keep up with the Hokies.
#5 Virginia (22-10) vs #12 UNC Wilmington (29-5)
Thursday 3/16, 12:40 pm TruTV
Overview: Virginia is once again one of the best defensive teams in the nation. Tony Bennett knows how to teach defense, and it is extremely difficult to score against them. They even held North Carolina to 43 points in one of their meetings this year. That is crazy. The issue for the Cavs is that unlike the past few years, they really struggle on offense. They play at a snail’s pace, so if they aren’t making shots, they don’t give themselves enough opportunities. UNC Wilmington opened up last season’s Tournament with a near upset of 4-seed Duke, giving the Blue Devils everything they could handle. They have returned three of the top four scorers from last year’s team, and they will be extremely motivated to finish the deal this year with another shot to upset a top ACC team.
Key Players: Four UNC Wilmington players average double-figures, led by sophomore CJ Bryce (17.6 PPG) and seniors Denzel Ingram (14.5 PPG) and Chris Flemmings (15.8 PPG). The trio scored 51 combined points in the game against Duke in last year’s Tournament. I mentioned Virginia’s struggles on the offensive end, but when they have good games, they get a significant output from freshman guard Kyle Guy. He averages just 7.8 points per game, but he has had some big games down the stretch, including a 19 point output in a 53-43 win over UNC on February 27. They will need Guy to score if they are going to get the win here.
Why UVA will Win: If you can hold North Carolina to 43 points, you should have no issues beating a team like UNC Wilmington. The Seahawks are better on the interior, but that is where Virginia thrives on defense. They will force UNCW into taking bad perimeter shots, and will be able to get enough done on the offensive end of the floor to escape with a victory.
Why UNCW will Win: They really felt like they should have beaten Duke last year, and that will motivate them in their return to the Dance this season. If the Seahawks can make some shots and get an early lead, they can win this game. Virginia doesn’t have the firepower to make a comeback. UNC Wilmington will make some shots early, build a lead, and force Virginia to play a game that they don’t want to play. The Seahawks will hold on down the stretch, and move on to the Second Round.
#4 Florida (24-8) vs #13 East Tennessee State (27-7)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 3:10 pm TruTV
Overview: Mike White has done a fantastic job in his second season in Gainesville, leading the Gators to an impressive 24-win season, which included multiple 7-plus game winning streaks and victories over Seton Hall, Miami, Arkansas (twice) and Kentucky. Florida is one of the best defensive teams in the country, but they can also shoot the lights out of any gym they play in. They lost three of their last four entering the Tournament, but this is still a team that can make a deep run. On the other side is East Tennessee State, who was a team considered to be very dangerous if they could win the SoCon and reach the Tournament. The Buccaneers are loaded with talented players, most of which have come from other programs. Head Coach Steve Forbes is very well regarded in basketball circles, and could be on his way to a higher-profile job if he can lead his team to a victory or two in this postseason.
Key Players: Florida’s leading scorer is 6-2 sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen, who averages 13.9 points per game, shooting a shade under 40 percent from 3-point range. A very important player off the bench for the Gators is junior point guard Chris Chiozza. He is the only true point guard on this team, and he is capable of a triple-double, going for 12 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over Missouri earlier this season. ETSU has more talent than your typical mid-major team, and they are led by 6-3 junior college-transfer T.J. Cromer, who is averaging 19.1 points per game. In the SoCon semis against Samford, Cromer dropped 43 points, going 9-12 from 3-point range and 10-11 from the free throw stripe. He shot just one 3-pointer in the title game, but still went for 23 points, and was a perfect 11-11 from the FT line.
Why UF will Win: ETSU will not be a pushover, but Florida is a better team than a lot of people realize. The fact that they lost to Vanderbilt three times this year makes people question how good this team is, and they will be without center John Egbunu who was lost for the season to a knee injury, but this is still a talented team that can make a deep run in this Tournament. They will refuse to give the Bucs any clean looks on offense, frustrating them to the point where they force the issue, which is exactly what the Gators want.
Why ETSU will Win: This team has the resume of a 13-seed, but the talent of a 10-seed, or possibly even higher. Cromer is capable of taking over any game that he plays in, and I expect him to be out to become one of the stars of this Tournament. Cromer goes for over 25 points, and the Gators struggle offensively against a sneaky good Bucs defense. ETSU pulls the upset and moves on to the next round.
#6 SMU (30-4) vs #11 Providence/USC
Friday 3/17, approx. 3:10 pm TruTV
Overview: I had another seeding gripe here, but not as big as the one with Wisconsin. I know the American Conference had a down year, but this SMU team is scary good, and they go 30-4, and they’re a 6-seed? They should be at least a 5-seed, if not a 4-seed. The regular season and tournament champs in the AAC are one of the best teams that you don’t know very much about. They have won 16 games in a row as they enter the postseason, but they’ll have to sit back and wait until Wednesday night to find out who they’ll be playing on Friday afternoon.
Key Players: You can look back to my First Four preview to see who the key players are for Providence and USC, but for the Mustangs, the best player in Duke-transfer, 6-7 junior Semi Ojeleye, and he is an outstanding basketball player. Ojeleye averages 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds a game this season, and he is capable of carrying this team to a Final Four. He, and they, are that good, trust me.
Why SMU will Win: I don’t see either Providence or USC stopping an SMU team that is just on an absolute roll right now. Ojeleye and Ben Moore are great interior players, but Ojeleye can shoot the jumper too, and the Mustangs do a lot of damage from the outside. They are 5th in the nation in 3-point percentage according to KenPom. The talent will be too much, and SMU will get hot from the outside en route to an easier victory than some may expect from a 6/11 matchup.
Why PROV/USC will Win: Well, one of SMU’s four losses this season came on Black Friday in Los Angeles, when the Trojans came away with the 78-73 win. That absolutely means that they have a shot to knock out the Mustangs, but this is a different SMU team now than it was back in November. That being said, USC’s size could cause problems for the relatively undersized Mustangs. Providence plays a similar style to SMU, and is a similar team from top-to-bottom, but less talented, so I think it’s less likely that Providence will be able to defeat SMU.
#3 Baylor (25-7) vs #14 New Mexico State (28-5)
Friday 3/17, 12:40 pm TruTV
Overview: At one point this season, the Baylor Bears were the #1 ranked team in the country. They started 15-0 with wins over Oregon, VCU, Michigan State, Louisville, Xavier and Iowa State. That is nuts. They were finally defeated by West Virginia, but then won five more games to put them at 20-1. If you look above, you can then figure out that they finished the season 5-6, including a loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 quarterfinals. It was a tale of two seasons for the Bears, and they are limping into the Tournament. There were two good teams in the WAC this year, and it was the #2 team (but the team that KenPom believes is better), New Mexico State, who won the title game over #1 CSU Bakersfield to get into the Field of 68. Head Coach Paul Weir has done a great job in his first year with the Aggies, getting this team to the Tournament for the fifth time in the last six seasons.
Key Players: Baylor is an extremely long and athletic club, and that starts with 6-10 junior Johnathan Motley, who is averaging 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game this season. His frontcourt mate, 7-0 junior Jo Lual-Acuil is one of the best shot blockers in the nation, averaging 2.6 blocks a game. They have talent in the backcourt as well, led by second-leading scorer Manu Lecomte (12.4 PPG). The Aggies best player is 6-0 senior guard Ian Baker, who has been a significant contributor for this team for all four of his seasons in Las Cruces. This year, Baker is averaging a team-leading 16.6 points and 4.1 assists per game.
Why BAY will Win: This is not a great matchup for New Mexico State. They are a good team, and I might have picked them to win against a different 3-seed, but the Aggies do most of their damage in the paint, which is where Baylor has a bunch of large human beings who are very adept at denying chances at the rim. This is mostly a matchup thing, because Baylor has not played well as of late, but they will lock down the interior and get the victory.
Why NMSU will Win: Two years ago, 14-seed Georgia State upset 3-seed Baylor in a First Round game that took place in an early afternoon game. When it comes to the matchup, the Aggies don’t stand a chance. But history tends to repeat itself, and crazy things happen in March.
#7 South Carolina (22-10) vs #10 Marquette (19-12)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:50 pm TBS
Overview: South Carolina has done the same thing two seasons in a row. They start off really well, and then fade down the stretch. This season, a win over Florida put them at 15-3 and 5-0 in the SEC. They finished 7-7 with two losses to Alabama and a loss to Ole Miss. Frank Martin’s squad is the 3rd most efficient defensive team in the nation (according to KenPom), but they have a heck of a time putting up points. It was an up and down season for Marquette, with some really big highs (a win over #1 Villanova) and some really bad lows (a loss to St. John’s). The Golden Eagles really know how to put the ball through the hoop, but teams tend to have an easy time scoring against them as well. That means this game could come down to SC’s offense versus Marquette’s defense.
Key Players: The best player on the floor in this game will be South Carolina’s 6-5 senior guard Sindarius Thornwell (21.0 PPG). For as bad as the Gamecocks are on offense at times, Thornwell is more than capable of getting hot and taking over a game. The Golden Eagles are very balanced on the offensive end, with five players averaging double-figures. Senior guard JaJuan Johnson wreaks havoc on the defensive end as well (1.9 steals per game), while 6-11 senior Luke Fischer is the team’s best rebounder, grabbing 5.9 boards per contest.
Why SCAR will Win: You cannot ignore the struggles for the Gamecocks down the stretch of the season, but with a player as good as Sindarius Thornwell, you can’t count them out, especially in a 7/10 matchup that equates to a toss-up on most occasions. Marquette wants to play fast, so to win, South Carolina will need to make some shots and play really good defense. They are usually pretty good at one of those two things. Marquette struggles to get into a groove offensively, and Thornwell hits some late free throws to seal the win for the Gamecocks.
Why MARQ will Win: They normally say that defense wins championships, but when it comes to March Madness, it’s usually the teams that get hot offensively who go on to make deep runs. Marquette is a Top-10 offensive team this year, and they have been able to score against some really good defensive teams. According to KenPom, they are the best 3-point shooting team in the nation, and they get hot from distance and blitz South Carolina, moving on to the Second Round.
#2 Duke (27-8) vs #15 Troy (22-14)
Friday 3/17, 7:20 pm TBS
Overview: About a month and a half ago, the question was how far down the seed-line was Duke going to fall, and will they every realize the potential or live up to the expectations that everybody bestowed upon them heading into the season. Now, after winning four games in four days, including three against Top-25 teams, to win the ACC Championship, and people started talking about this team possibly being a 1-seed. That was a little far fetched, but what isn’t is having the Blue Devils as one of the favorites to win this whole thing. The Troy Trojans made an impressive run in the Sun Belt Tournament, winning four games in five days as the 6-seed. They are very good on the offensive end of the floor, but have their struggles defensively.
Key Players: I could just start listing Duke players here, because they have so many good ones, but the key is Grayson Allen, the most hated player in basketball. He’s a terrible human being (he no longer gets the benefit of the doubt from me), but when he’s right, he is one of the best basketball players in the country. Coach K has Allen coming off the bench right now, and that appears to have helped get him back on track. He was scoreless against Clemson, but scored 18 points each in the games against Louisville and North Carolina. Duke needs Grayson to be Grayson if they are going to win a title. For the Trojans, 6-6 sophomore Jordan Varnado is the one to watch, leading the team with 16.5 points and 7.1 rebounds a game.
Why DUKE will Win: They are clicking at the perfect time, showing flashes of what had everyone picking them as the title favorites prior to the season. They are healthy, they are talented, and they are simply winning basketball games. I feel like Troy could play really well, and still lose by double-digits. The Trojans struggle on defense, and you have to play defense to have any prayer of beating the Blue Devils. Duke wins going away.
Why TROY will Win: I just said you have to play defense to beat Duke, but what happens if Duke has an off night? The Blue Devils biggest weakness is their interior defense, and Troy shoots it better inside the 3-point arc. The Trojans do a good job getting to the rim, they get Duke in foul trouble, and they make enough plays down the stretch to pull off one of the biggest shockers in Tourney history!