Bracket Prep: East Region Analysis

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 17th, 2015

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Throughout Tuesday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (10:00 AM), South (11:00 AM), Midwest (1:00 PM), West (2:00 PM). Here, Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) breaks down the East Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC East Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCeastregion).

East Region

Favorite: #1 Villanova (32-2, 16-2 Big East). For as good as Virginia has been this season, Villanova enters the NCAA Tournament as hot and seemingly infallible as any team outside of Kentucky. The Big East champion Wildcats are currently riding a 15-game winning streak, including 11 victories by double-figures and two drubbings – an 89-61 win over Providence and 105-68 beat-down of St. John’s – against current Tournament participants. They boast the fourth-most efficient offense in the country thanks to a balanced lineup that sees six different players average between nine and 14 points per game, and have a true inside presence and rim protector in 6’11” big man Daniel Ochefu (9.2 PPG, 8.4 RPG). And even though Jay Wright’s team relies heavily on perimeter shooting, it happens to be one of the best three-point shooting teams in America at 38.9 percent. To boot, Villanova’s defense holds opponents to well under one point per possession.

Darrun Hilliard and the Wildcats are the team to beat in the East. (AP)

Darrun Hilliard and the Wildcats are the team to beat in the East. (AP)

Should They Falter: #2 Virginia (30-3, 16-2 ACC). Virginia could have been a #1 seed and very well might play like one if Justin Anderson (12.3 PPG) rounds into form over the coming days and weeks. Since the 6’6″ wing went down with a broken hand in February, the Cavaliers’ offense has sorely missed his outside shooting (46.9% 3FG) and ability to get to the rim. The junior returned (in a limited capacity) for the ACC Tournament, however, and could be in better basketball shape by this weekend. Either way, the regular season ACC champs should be fine in the early-going, since their defense is borderline impenetrable. No team in the country – not even Kentucky – touts better adjusted defensive efficiency numbers than Tony Bennett’s guys, a product of his pack-line system which thrives on eliminating access to the paint and forcing tough shots from perimeter. Outside of Villanova, it’s hard to envision many teams in the East mustering enough offensive production to topple the Wahoos – especially if Anderson again finds his footing.

Grossly Overseeded: #4 Louisville (24-8, 12-6 ACC). This wouldn’t be so bad if weren’t for the fact that Northern Iowa fell to the #5 line in this exact same region. Since dismissing point guard Chris Jones on February 22, Louisville has gone 3-2 (including a nail-biting victory over lowly Georgia Tech) and struggled to find consistent production on the offensive end. Sure, they beat Virginia last weekend, but the Cardinals’ RPI and KenPom ranking is lower than Northern Iowa’s, they’ve won fewer road games against NCAA Tournament competition (zero) than the Panthers (one) and they enter the Dance fresh off an ACC quarterfinal loss in which they scored just 0.86 points per possession. Louisville’s ceiling feels a bit too low for a seed this high, and many bracketologists agreed; the Cardinals’ aggregate seed entering Selection Sunday (according to Bracket Matrix) was 4.59, compared to Northern Iowa’s 4.23. Guess they’ll have to settle it on the court (if Rick Pitino’s bunch can get past 7’6” Mamadou Ndiaye and UC Irvine, first).

Dayton got hosed by the committee, but at least they get to play at home. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Post)

Dayton got hosed by the committee, but at least they get to play at home. (Credit: Washington Post)

Criminally Underseeded: #11 Dayton (25-8, 13-5 Atlantic 10). Most bracketologists had Dayton pegged as an #8 or #9 seed, so it’s baffling that the Flyers dropped to an #11 seed and must play a First Four game just to gain entry into the big bracket. The only saving grace – the one factor that prevents this from being a true crime – is that Archie Miller’s resilient bunch gets to play at home. That’s right, for as much as Dayton has the right to complain (and it does), so too does Boise State – the Flyers’ opponent on Wednesday night.

Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 seed or lower): #12 Wyoming (25-9, 11-7 Mountain West). Truthfully, this region lacks any obvious pick for a Sweet Sixteen sleeper and I’m not sure one actually exists. Still, Wyoming – which went on a special run through the Mountain West Tournament – might have the right kind of mojo working at just the right time. Playing against Larry Shyatt’s system demands patience, on both sides of the ball, and if the Cowboys can somehow upend Northern Iowa (no easy task), I think their snail’s pace offense – predicated on open three-point shots and back-cuts late in the shot-clock – along with a stingy half-court defense could give offensively-challenged Louisville trouble in the round of 32.

Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #7 Michigan State (23-11, 12-6 Big Ten). Look, if Justin Anderson plays even somewhat effectively, I don’t think Michigan State – or perhaps anyone on the bottom half of the bracket – can knock off Virginia. But he might not be able to get all the way back, and the Cavaliers’ recent struggles without him cannot be ignored. The Spartans, meanwhile, enter the NCAA Tournament playing their best basketball of the season. Travis Trice (15.1 PPG) has become a go-to scorer over the past couple weeks, frontcourt role players like Matt Costello (7.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG) have stepped up, and Branden Dawson – injured against Purdue just 12 days ago – played like his old self in the Big Ten Tournament. Their KenPom ranking (#17) is second-best among teams seeded #6 or lower and they have experience beating Virginia in March; Michigan State defeated the top-seeded Cavaliers in last season’s Sweet Sixteen. If they get past the Cavaliers, the field would completely open up. And did I mention Tom Izzo’s history in March? (sidenote: Northern Iowa is also a Final Four ‘sleeper’, although by this point I hope no one is sleeping on the Panthers).

Carmelo Anthony Award: Buddy Hield, Oklahoma (17.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG). I’m not your Buddy, guy! Aside from having one of the better names in college basketball, Hield is the most important offensive player for a team that is great at playing defense. Oklahoma, which boasts the fifth-best adjusted defensive efficiency mark in the country, needs its leading scorer to generate consistent and efficient offense in the NCAA Tournament if it hopes to advance to the second weekend for the first time since 2009. The 6’4” shooting guard takes nearly 30 percent of his team’s shots while on the floor and his output can range from perfect (27 points on 10-of-10 FG vs. Oklahoma State on January 17) to downright abysmal (12 points on 4-of-17 FG vs. Texas on February 17). We know Hield will get plenty of looks in the Sooners’ uptempo attack, so if he does get hot in the coming weekend(s), look for big numbers next to his name.

Stephen Curry Award: Derrick Marks, Boise State (19.3 PPG, 44% 3FG). Marks was forced to shoulder the load this season after fellow scoring-guard Anthony Drmic was lost to an ankle injury. All he’s done in response is put together one of the best campaigns in school history, leading the Mountain West in scoring, improving his three-point shooting by 15 percentage points and scoring 30-plus points six different times. The 6’3” Chicago native has the type of swagger and killer-instinct that could carry Boise State through the First Four, past Providence (Marks vs. Kris Dunn and company would be a joy to watch) and then, who knows? This is, after all, the Steph Curry Award, and last I checked Curry took Davidson to within one shot of the Final Four.

LSU vs. Mark Gottfried's Wolfpack makes for an intriguing matchup. (ehyman@newsobserver.com)

LSU vs. Mark Gottfried’s Wolfpack makes for an intriguing matchup. (ehyman@newsobserver.com)

Home Cooking: #11 Dayton, 0 miles to Dayton. That’s right, zero miles. Remind me again: What was the Selection Committee thinking? Not only will the Flyers play their First Four game in the city of Dayton, they will do so at the University of Dayton Arena, the same place home fans have watched them suit up 16 other times this season. The city has already earned a reputation for supporting this event in great numbers, regardless of participants, so I can only imagine what the energy will be like when Archie Miller’s group takes the court.

Can’t Miss Second Round Game: #8 North Carolina State vs. #9 LSU, 3/19 at 9:20 PM EST on TBS. The #8/#9 matchups are supposed to be competitive, and this one is no exception. The Wolfpack (#38) and Tigers (#43) rank within five spots of each other in KenPom, both possess intriguing talent (especially LSU’s frontcourt), and each have exhibited wild inconsistencies throughout the season, proving the ability to beat top-notch competition and play way down to lesser competition. LSU knocked off West Virginia on the road this season and nearly upset Kentucky. North Carolina State beat Duke, Louisville and North Carolina. Both teams lost to Clemson. That level of unpredictability – is one of these teams good enough to beat Villanova? – makes for the East Region’s juiciest second round game. And c’mon, Mark Gottfried always makes things fun.

Don’t Miss This One Either: #5 Northern Iowa vs. #12 Wyoming. 3/20 at 1:40 PM EST on TBS. First-to-50 wins? Seriously, this matchup features two of college basketball’s slowest offenses, which on the one hand might sound boring, but on the other hand seems absolutely fascinating. Both Northern Iowa and Wyoming happen to be two of the country’s better defensive teams, which means points will be especially hard to come by on Friday. Throw in Wyoming’s propensity for throwing down monster dunks late in the shot clock and you have a game – a grinder of a game – that should resemble few others.

Lock of the Year: Northern Iowa will advance to the Sweet Sixteen. But wait, I thought you said Wyoming was a Sweet Sixteen sleeper? Truthfully, I don’t think any of the #12-#16 seeds in this region can reach the second weekend. While the Cowboys might have a shot against a team like Louisville, neither they – nor the Cardinals – are good enough to beat Northern Iowa, a team that’s done nothing but stomp lesser competition this season. The Panthers’ crisp ball movement and stellar three-point shooting (39.7% 3FG) – along with penetrating guards like Wes Washpun (7.7 PPG) and the one of the country’s best forwards, Seth Tuttle (15.3 PPG, 6.8 RPG) – makes their offense operate like a well-oiled machine. The defense, one of the 20-most efficient in college hoops, is equally as potent. I can’t see Wyoming generating enough half-court offense to keep up with the Missouri Valley champs, nor can I picture Louisville forcing enough turnovers to keep from having to do the same. As a result, I fully expect Ben Jacobson to lead his program to its second Sweet Sixteen in six years.

Expect Northern Iowa to march on to the second weekend. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)

Expect Northern Iowa to march on to the second weekend. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)

Juiciest Potential Match-up – Purists: #1 Virginia vs. #5 Northern Iowa in the Elite Eight. Pack-line defense vs. pack-line defense. No one enters the paint and gets out alive. This matchup would feature two of the most principled defenses and patient offenses among teams legitimately vying to make the Final Four (and yes, I’m calling Northern Iowa a legitimate Final Four contender). Panthers’ head man Ben Jacobson employs many of the defensive principles that Tony Bennett’s father, Dick Bennett, literally invented decades ago. This game would feature long possessions and demand brilliant execution from its eventual winner.

Juiciest Potential Match-up – Media: #1 Villanova vs. #4 Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen. Think of the suits! You’d be hard-pressed to find a sexier matchup than two former Big East foes going at it with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line. The last time these two teams met, Louisville rolled the Wildcats in Madison Square Garden en route to an eventual National Championship. And who doesn’t want to see Jay Wright and Rick Pitino try and out-dress each other? Their wardrobes probably cost more than Lafayette’s entire basketball budget.

We Got Screwed: #11 Boise State (25-8, 14-4 Mountain West). Congratulations, Boise State! Not only do you have to win a First Four game just to reach the field of 64, but you must beat your opponent on its home court! Good luck!

Strongest Pod: Charlotte. The East is probably the weakest region overall, but this pod – featuring Virginia, Belmont, Michigan State and Georgia – has some meat to it. The Cavaliers are Final Four (and possibly National Championship) material if Anderson is back and semi-healthy. Michigan State is ranked 17th in KenPom and looking the best it has all season. Georgia (#36) also grades well according to Mr. Pomeroy and came fairly close to ending Kentucky’s undefeated run just two weeks ago. Even Belmont and its three-heavy offensive attack has some bite. Friday and Sunday in Charlotte should be fun.

Great Storyline: Albany’s Peter Hooley. The Aussie guard left Albany partway through the season to be with his sick mom, who passed away of cancer several weeks later. He returned to action on February 13, helped the Great Danes finish their run through the America East and wound up drilling the game-winner in Saturday’s conference title game. Hooley was overcome with emotion after the fact, so look for his story – one of the Tournament’s best – to gain further steam if Albany stuns Oklahoma on Friday.

So-Called Experts: Over at ESPN, Jay Bilas and Jay Williams picked Virginia to come out of the region, while Rece Davis went out on a limb and took Michigan State. Seth Greenburg went chalk and took Villanova. CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander also rolled with the Wildcats, noting: “Give me this team, the best Jay Wright has had at Villanova.” Gary Parrish took the Cavaliers, while Chip Patterson – also of CBS Sports – went with Northern Iowa to knock off Villanova and Oklahoma to advance to Indy.

Tommy Lemoine (220 Posts)


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One response to “Bracket Prep: East Region Analysis”

  1. Chris says:

    So who is your pick?

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