by Paul West
More and more in recent years, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is a wide open affair, with a number of credible title threats and no clear frontrunner. This year’s March Madness bracket is no different. Here’s a look at the East Region.
1 Villanova vs 16 LIU-BK/Radford
The Villanova Wildcats are one of the most widely favored teams to win it all, and with good reason. They lead the nation in scoring, with 87.1 points a game; they’re one of the most dangerous teams in the tournament from behind the arc; and they share the ball, as evidenced by not just their 16.7 assists a game but the fact that they have six players averaging double digits in scoring. They’re led by Player of the Year candidate Jalen Brunson, an elite guard who can take over a game, and they’re coming off of a Big East Tournament victory in which they outlasted a tough Providence squad to close it out. Jay Wright is one of the best coaches in the country, and his team is one of this year’s most likely championship candidates.
The Radford Highlanders are a tough defensive team that made the tournament by way of a buzzer-beater over Liberty. They start things off against the LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds, an under-.500 team who beat top-seeded Wagner to win the NEC Tournament. The Blackbirds are led in scoring by 6’3″ senior guard Joel Hernandez, who puts up 20.9, 5.9 and 2.6 and can score over bigger defenders; they’re also 17-0 this season when leading with five minutes or less to go. They’ll likely take care of the Highlanders, but aren’t likely to take down the Big East champs. Pick: Villanova
2 Purdue vs 15 Cal State-Fullerton
The Purdue Boilermakers are a bit under the radar for a 2 seed, but they were second in the Big Ten Conference this season and have the experience and talent to make a run. 7’2″ senior Isaac Haas and 6’8″ senior Vincent Edwards highlight a group of skilled big men who can control the interior at both ends of the floor and can make life miserable for opposing front lines. The Boilermakers’ key variable will be the play of their backcourt, and the play of leading scorer Carsen Edwards; a hot-shooting team or dominant backcourt could give them trouble, especially if they can’t score from the perimeter.
The Cal State-Fullerton Titans are here by virtue of an inspired run through the Big West Tournament. Brooklyn-born guard Kyle Allman, averaging 19.4 game, will have to play a red-hot game if the Titans are going to continue overachieving and get to the second round. Pick: Purdue
3 Texas Tech vs 14 Stephen F. Austin
The Texas Tech Red Raiders are a popular sleeper in this year’s tournament. They sport a tough team defense, and are battle-tested by a tough schedule in a tough Big 12 Conference. The problem is, they’ve slumped a bit of late, losing four in a row down the stretch. This is a balanced bracket, and they’re going to have to heat up again in a hurry.
The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks have been to the tournament in four of the last five years, and are perennially on the short list of dangerous mid-major teams. They score in transition, they battle on defense, and they’re cool under pressure. The Red Raiders might be a bit too physical for them in the paint, but if they get in rhythm, look out. Pick: Stephen F. Austin
4 Wichita State vs 13 Marshall
The Wichita State Shockers got a 4 seed after a somewhat surprising loss to Houston in the AAC Semifnals, likely due in part to being 10th in the country in BPI. Still, this doesn’t appear to be as strong of a team as they’ve had in recent years. Once known for their stout team defense, the Shockers now give up 71.3 points a game; they also score more, though, putting up 83 a game while still maintaining their old knack for attacking the glass and sharing the ball. They’re lined up to face the winner of the West Virginia–Murray State game, and neither matchup bodes well for them–assuming they make it past Marshall.
The Marshall Thundering Herd profile similarly to the Shockers: high scoring, and defensively challenged. The thing is, they have two players averaging over twenty points a game, in junior guards, C.J. Burks and John Elmore. Game-changing guard play is a well known x-factor in the tournament, and the Shockers could be in for–wait for it–a shock. Pick: Marshall
5 West Virginia vs 12 Murray State
The West Virginia Mountaineers are tough and talented. Senior guard Jevon Carter is a bona-fide floor general, and one of the best two-way guards in the nation; 6’8″ sophomore Sagaba Kanate is a shot-blocking machine who doesn’t always swat it out of bounds (though he does that, too)–he often pins it against the glass or controls a blocked shot to create a turnover. The Mountaineers’ well known “Press Virginia” defense can wreak havoc, but it can also be surprisingly leaky: they’ve lost several games in which they’ve led by double-digit points in the second half.
The first team to clinch a berth, the Murray State Racers went 22-5 playing in the Ohio Valley Conference. Senior guard Jonathan Stark averages 21.8 points a game, along with 2.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists. The Racers are balanced: they score 78.9 a game while only allowing 65.5, and they grab 37.1 rebounds a game while dishing out 14.8 assists. 6’8″ senior forward Terrell Miller, Jr. averages 14.7 points and 8.3 rebounds and can shoot from the perimeter; and senior guard Jonathan Stark leads the team with 21.8 ppg. The Racers and Mountaineers could produce one of the highest scoring games of the first round. Pick: West Virginia
6 Florida vs 11 St. Bonaventure/UCLA
A classic example of a Jekyll/Hyde team, the Florida Gators can beat practically anyone and seem capable of losing to practically anyone. They can rain threes from the parking lot, but they can also struggle to score from the paint; they have a talented backcourt, headlined by Jalen Hudson, but they also can struggle to score from the paint and they don’t rebound well enough to extend possessions if their jumpers aren’t on target. They’ve also got a tough draw with whomever wins the play-in game between UCLA and St. Bonaventure.
As I’ve previously explained, the idea of an 11 seed being decided by a play-in game is ludicrous; and this matchup is Exhibit A. The St. Bonaventure Bonnies went 25-7 while playing in a tough, underrated Atlantic 10 Conference; they have a game-changing guard in senior Jaylen Adams, and they won 13 in a row before losing to Davidson in the conference semifinal. The UCLA Bruins took Arizona to overtime n the Pac-12 semifinal, and they’re athletic, balanced, and like to run the floor. They score 81.9 a game, pull down 38.8 rebounds a game, and they’re led by Aron Holiday, who averages 20.3 a game and can do it all. 7-foot senior center Thomas Welsh averages 13 points and 10.7 boards, and he’s a good passer and defender. These two teams got hosed, because one of them will only last one day. Pick: UCLA *(postscript: yes, I picked UCLA to win a close one against the Bonnies, and I’m leaving it here; but since the Bonnies won said close one, I’ll go with them over Florida.)
7 Arkansas vs 10 Butler
The Arkansas Razorbacks reflect the toughness of the eight-bid SEC Conference. They’re a senior-heavy squad, whose backcourt is a year removed from nearly pulling off a huge upset of eventual champs North Carolina; that experience, along with remarkable intensity on offense and defense, will allow them to compete with most opponents. They’ve also got 6’11” freshman sensation Daniel Gafford, a rim-rocker who can run the floor and protect the paint.
The Butler Bulldogs are one of the surprise at-large bids in the tournament, having lost three of their last four and six of their last nine. They opened their final Big East Tournament appearance by going down a whopping 19-0 to Villanova, before losing by the same margin. 6’7″ forward Kelan Martin is their standout on offense, and the Bulldogs do score 79.1 a game; but they don’t defense particularly well, and don’t have enough firepower to carry them very far this March. Pick: Arkansas
8 Alabama vs 9 Virginia Tech
The Alabama Crimson Tide reflect the hustle and tenacity of their coach, Avery Johnson. Unfortunately, not much else about them stands out–except 6’3″ freshman sensation Collin Sexton, who’s one of the most exciting players in the country. Sexton can take over a game from the perimeter or the paint, and scored 31 against Auburn in the SEC Tournament to help keep their bubble from bursting; he’ll have to stay red-hot for the Tide to roll onward.
The Virginia Tech Hokies beat Duke, UNC, and Virginia; they also still managed to lose 11 games and are 5-7 in their last 12. They have five double-digit scorers, and can get up and down the floor when they get hot, but they sometimes also get torched on defense. They’re one of the more hard-to-predict teams in the tournament, and this 8-9 matchup is a crapshoot. Pick: Virginia Tech
Upset alert: Marshall, UCLA.
Sleeper alert: UCLA.
Best player you might not have heard of: Joel Hernandez, Daniel Gafford.
Who makes the Final Four? Purdue’s backcourt will play well enough to complement its big men and take them to the final weekend.