NCAA Regional Reset: East RegionPosted by Brian Otskey on March 26th, 2014
Brian Otskey (@botskey) is the NCAA Tournament’s East Region correspondent, which begins Friday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City with Iowa State vs. Connecticut followed by Virginia vs. Michigan State. The South Regional Reset and the West Regional Reset published yesterday, and the Midwest Regional Reset earlier today. Make sure to also follow @RTCEastRegion for news and analysis from New York throughout the weekend.
New Favorite: #1 Virginia. You can conceivably make an argument for any of the four teams to come out of this region and advance to Arlington but I picked Virginia as the favorite when the brackets came out so there is no reason I should change at this point. Could the Cavaliers lose to Michigan State? Of course they could. But they have been the better team this year and earned that #1 seed for a reason. The Wahoos got the top seed jitters out of their system in a closer-than-expected opening round encounter with Coastal Carolina and proceeded to dispatch Memphis in methodical yet impressive fashion on Sunday night. With a stifling defense and an offense better than most observers give it credit for, top-seeded Virginia remains the team to beat in this region.
Horse of Darkness: #7 Connecticut. The Huskies survived St. Joe’s and dismantled Villanova in the second half on Saturday night thanks in large part to the Shabazz Napier Show (25 points). Connecticut is back at Madison Square Garden for the first time since winning the 2KSports Classic this past November, a place where it has been highly successful over previous years in the Big East. This team may very well have the biggest fan presence of the four teams in this region given the school’s proximity to New York and history of success in the building. It is never wise to count out a team with a star player and intangibles going in its favor, despite being the lowest seeded team remaining in the region.
Biggest Surprise: #7 Connecticut. Kevin Ollie’s team wins this by default as it is no surprise that #1 Virginia, #3 Iowa State and #4 Michigan State have advanced to the regional semifinals. Even though a lot of people picked the Huskies to beat Villanova in the round of 32, it was still a surprising result given how the game played out. The Wildcats never posed much of a threat and the Huskies asserted themselves down the stretch to complete the win and advance. Connecticut could have easily lost to St. Joe’s in its opener, but here it is in the Sweet Sixteen.
Completely Expected: #1 Virginia. Tony Bennett and his group received a fairly easy draw as the top seed, getting by Coastal Carolina before throttling eighth-seeded Memphis in Raleigh. The Cavaliers had the home court advantage roughly three hours south of Charlottesville and their fans turned out in droves. Virginia’s brand of half-court defense is rivaled only by Arizona and Florida and this will be a team focused on the goal of advancing to the Final Four after achieving the program’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1995. UVA held its first two opponents to 59 and 60 points, respectively — if the Cavaliers bring that same effort on Friday night, it is going to be hard for Michigan State to top them.
I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient: I did tell you that North Carolina versus Providence would be the “Can’t Miss” first round game in this region and boy did it come through. North Carolina won a battle of contrasting styles and mismatches in a game that featured drama and offensive fireworks. Providence’s Bryce Cotton absolutely went off for 36 points but it was not enough as the Tar Heels overcame a late seven-point deficit after a furious Friars run gave them the lead. It was one of the best round of 64 games in the entire Tournament.
Except When I Make Stupid Predictions: In the regional preview last week I said Villanova’s toughest competition “likely won’t arrive” until the Sweet Sixteen. Oops. The Wildcats were picked apart on Saturday night in Buffalo by a hungry Connecticut team eager for the chance to dispatch its former Big East rival. Villanova’s cold shooting continued and the Wildcats had absolutely no answer for Shabazz Napier while being outrebounded by six.
First Weekend MVP: Shabazz Napier, Connecticut. This was a tough call between Michigan State’s Adreian Payne and Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane but Napier put his seventh-seeded Huskies on his back and carried them to the Sweet Sixteen. Napier averaged 24.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in two wins over St. Joe’s and Villanova. Against the Wildcats, Napier shot the ball exceptionally well (something he usually does not do), making 9-of-13 shots against Jay Wright’s team. The Huskies will need a performance or two like that if they are to emerge on top of this tremendously talented region.
Breakout Star: Anthony Gill, Virginia. It was a tough choice between Gill and Branden Dawson of Michigan State but I went with the 6’8” Cavaliers sophomore. Gill scored 30 points in two games off the bench for Tony Bennett and was highly efficient in doing so, making 12 of his 17 field goal attempts. Gill also played a major role in Virginia’s stifling interior defense as he blocked four shots over two games and altered many more. The High Point, North Carolina, native showed out for the home folks who gathered to see him in Raleigh over the last few days. Remember his name because he will take on an even larger role with next year’s Virginia team.
More Home Cooking: #7 Connecticut, 139 miles from Madison Square Garden. It is rare when the lowest seeded team has the home court advantage, so to speak, in a regional, but this will be the case in New York on Friday. The Huskies have played countless games at Madison Square Garden over the years and you can bet an energized fan base will be making the trek down to the city from Storrs for this one. The three other programs will undoubtedly bring strong contingents but the Huskies may have the largest and will certainly add some local flavor to the event.
Best Regional Semifinal Game: #1 Virginia vs. #4 Michigan State (Friday, March 28 at approx. 9:57 PM ET on TBS). I mentioned this as the best potential match-up in my regional preview and here we are. This is a basketball purist’s dream as two fundamentally sound teams will lock horns. This will be a good old-fashioned slugfest and we can only hope the referees will allow them to play. Buckets in the paint won’t come easy, nor will rebounds. Whoever wins this game will have earned it and I cannot wait to see how it plays out. The Spartans are many people’s favorite to win the entire NCAA Tournament, but this will be their stiffest test yet.
Best Regional Final Game (projected): #3 Iowa State vs. #4 Michigan State (Sunday, March 30). Also mentioned in the regional preview, this game would feature future professionals all over the place with two likable teams and head coaches. It would be interesting to see how Iowa State contends with Adreian Payne given the Cyclones’ undersized roster, but by the same token it seems like it would be difficult for Michigan State to stop DeAndre Kane and company. This would be a fun basketball game with everything on the line. Sign me up for any combination of potential regional finals in this region, but especially this one.
Top Storyline: The NCAA Tournament returns to Madison Square Garden for the first time since 1961. Can you believe the World’s Most Famous Arena has not hosted a single game of college basketball’s premier event in 53 years? How was this allowed to happen?! Despite not hosting since the Kennedy administration, MSG has hosted over 70 tournament games in its history. New York City on a Friday night in March. Four good basketball teams. Man, I cannot wait to see what the atmosphere is going to be like in the arena for this one. Start the countdown, just four days to go.
Top Storyline for Contrarians: How will Iowa State perform without Georges Niang available? The Cyclones were able to get by North Carolina on Sunday without the services of their stud 6’7” sophomore, but it was not an easy victory. Iowa State needed a big comeback down the stretch just to get by the sixth-seeded Tar Heels. Fred Hoiberg is a fantastic coach and he has intelligent players so adjusting to life without Niang may not be so difficult for them, but in the end it is going to hurt the Cyclones when going up against better teams. Iowa State should have enough to get by Connecticut, but defeating Virginia or Michigan State will be such a tall task.
My Pick: I like Virginia to come out of this regional. Truthfully it could be any of the four teams, but Virginia brings the best defense and I think that is the primary factor in March. Despite what Michigan State did in the Big Ten Tournament, it is the Cavaliers that are playing the best basketball of late. While offensive droughts do concern me, UVA’s defense will keep it in every game and they have the bodies to match up with Michigan State in the paint. Whoever wins that game should come out of MSG and I think it will be the ‘Hoos.
Revised Vegas Odds to Win Region: