NCAA Tournament First Round Preview: East Region

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*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

East Region

Buffalo, NY
#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.

 

Buffalo, NY
#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.

 

Orlando, FL
#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.

 

Orlando, FL
#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.

 

Tulsa, OK
#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.

 

Tulsa, OK
#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.

 

Greenville, SC
#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┬áthe 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.

 

Greenville, SC
#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!

 

NCAA Tournament Preview: East

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.

Image68 (49)

East Region

Raleigh, NC
#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

 

Raleigh, NC
#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.

 

Brooklyn, NY
#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,┬áNorth 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*

 

Brooklyn, NY
#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.