NCAA Regional Reset: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 24th, 2015


Your bracket is busted and the Sweet Sixteen is set. Let’s do a Regional Reset. Follow @rtceastregion for reporting from Cleveland this week. Check out all of the regional resets for the Sweet Sixteen here.

New Favorite: #3 Oklahoma. There was mayhem at the top, and now Oklahoma – the highest seeded team remaining – becomes the team to beat in Syracuse. The Sooners were in control from start to finish against #14 seed Albany on Friday, then flexed their defensive muscle in a comeback victory over #11 seed Dayton on Sunday, holding the close-to-home Flyers scoreless for a nine-minute stretch late in the game. Make no mistake – Lon Kruger’s group was never dominant – but it also didn’t rely on any one, dominant offensive performance in order to win. The contributions were across-the-board (Frank Booker even dropped 12 points off the bench on Sunday) and big men TaShawn Thomas and Ryan Spangler provided key physicality down low. Michigan State, Oklahoma’s upcoming foe, also made a good case for ‘favorite’ status after beating #10 seed Georgia and #2 seed Virginia, but it’s about time we give the Sooners their due.

Oklahoma is the new favorite in the East. (Jamie Sabau/Getty)

Oklahoma is the new favorite in the East. (Jamie Sabau/Getty)

Horse of Darkness: #8 North Carolina State. Dayton looked well on its way to becoming the Horse of Darkness (yet again) before Oklahoma laid down the defensive hammer in the second half in Columbus. So now we turn to North Carolina State, whose last-second, comeback victory over LSU on Thursday seemed to light a fire under a team that’s often struggled to play up to its potential. The Wolfpack didn’t merely ‘upset’ top-seeded Villanova on Saturday; it controlled the game. It played with confidence. Its modest frontcourt played as well as it has all year. It looked like the better team. Mark Gottfried’s group held the Wildcats – among the most explosive and efficient offenses in college hoops – to just 1.06 points per possession on 31.1 percent shooting (9-of-28 3FG), outmanning the Big East champs on the perimeter and outmuscling them in the paint. The effort was so rock-solid that it makes you wonder just how high this team’s ceiling is. With wins over Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and now Villanova under its belt, perhaps a trip to Indianapolis isn’t out of the question for Mark Gottfried’s Pack.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #8 North Carolina State. Look, we knew North Carolina State had talent – you don’t beat Duke and North Carolina without it – but I’m still not sure anyone saw this coming. The Wolfpack entered the Dance fresh off a 24-point beatdown against the Blue Devils in the ACC Tournament, just two weeks after losing by 16 points to Boston College. To call the team ‘mercurial’ would have been giving it too much credit; Gottfried’s bunch looked downright mediocre. And it looked something less than mediocre for the first 30 minutes against LSU, struggling to contain the Tigers’ loaded frontcourt and digging itself a big hole. Then Kyle Washington exploded with a flurry of points off the bench. And Abdul-Malik Abu went to work down low (13 points). And BeeJay Anya happened. Despite its heavily relied-upon guard trio of Cat Barber, Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner combining on a 4-of-21 three-point shooting night, Noth Carolina State survived and advanced. Two nights later, it came out more confident than ever, jumped on #1 seed Villanova early and never conceded control, upending the Wildcats 71-68. And now the once-middling Wolfpack are just two wins away from reaching the Final Four. Where did that come from?

Completely Expected (First Weekend): #3 Oklahoma. I guess? Truthfully, there were plenty of folks who thought the Sooners would stumble early – maybe to #6 seed Providence – but it just didn’t play out that way. The Sooners wound up playing a pair of double-digit seeds, taking care of business and doing nothing to make us question their #3 stature. But to say that any of the East’s four remaining teams were completely expected to be here would be a lie; Oklahoma just happened to be the one that met expectations instead of vastly exceeding them.

I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient: I called Michigan State a Final Four sleeper, and while Sparty is not there yet, it is hard to argue that the #7 seed Spartans don’t have an excellent chance of reaching Indianapolis. After nearly beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, Tom Izzo’s club kept the momentum rolling over the weekend, handling #10 seed Georgia with relative ease before outdefending #2 seed Virginia, one of the best defensive teams in the country. Sleeper no more – Michigan State should now be considered one of the East Region favorites.

Except When I Make Stupid Predictions: Lock of the Year, I said. Louisville couldn’t generate enough scoring, I said. Boy was I wrong. After guaranteeing that #5 seed Northern Iowa would advance to the Sweet Sixteen, I’m left eating crow following the Cardinals’ wire-to-wire, double-figure victory over the Panthers on Sunday in which Rick Pitino’s team scored 1.2 points per possession. It took a virtuoso performance from Terry Rozier (25 points) and a narrow escape against UC Irvine on Friday, of course, but credit Louisville for rallying in wake of a tumultuous end to the regular season and proving me wrong.

#4 Louisville is all smiles as it gears up for the Sweet Sixteen. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

#4 Louisville is all smiles as it gears up for the Sweet Sixteen. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

First Weekend MVP: Terry Rozier, Louisville. Michigan State’s Travis Trice (19.0 PPG), Oklahoma’s TaShawn Thomas (13.5 PPG, 7 RPG) and several others had nice weekends, but no one single-handedly carried their team offensively quite like Rozier did for Louisville. After scoring 12 points against UC Irvine on Friday, the sophomore guard shredded Northern Iowa’s usually-tough defense for 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting (8-of-9 FT) on Sunday, adding seven assists and five rebounds to boot. If you do the math on it (Louisville scored 66 points), Rozier had a hand in upwards of 60 percent of his team’s scoring, provided high-efficiency offense for a team that’s often struggled to score this season.

Breakout Star: Abdul-Malik Abu, North Carolina State. Despite scoring in double-figures just six times this season and only securing 10 or more rebounds twice, the 6’8” freshman dropped 13 points against both LSU and recorded his second career double-double against Villanova (13 points, 12 rebounds). His relentless aggression on the glass against the Wildcats was especially crucial, providing the Wolfpack with key second-chance opportunities and preventing the #1 seed from ever assembling a big run.

More Home Cooking: Nobody. Michigan State is closest to Syracuse at 465 miles away – which is to say, no one will have home cooking at the Carrier Dome. And frankly – after watching Dayton benefit from true home-court advantage in the First Four and de facto home court in Columbus – that’s kind of a relief. The NCAA ostensibly aims to keep things as even and neutral as possible, and while it doesn’t often play out that way, it’s nice to see a region where it did. May the best team win.

Best Regional Semifinal Game: #3 Oklahoma vs. #7 Michigan State (Friday, March 27, 10:07 PM ET on TBS). I’m sure North Carolina State and Louisville’s fan bases will disagree – heck, the ratings may end up disagreeing – but from a pure basketball standpoint, this is the main event. Oklahoma and Michigan State – ranked #11 and #17 in KenPom, respectively – both push the tempo on offense, shoot a healthy number of three-pointers, and like to get after it on the defensive end. The Sooners boast the better defense, especially inside (42.4% 2FG), while the Spartans’ stellar perimeter shooting (38.8% 3FG) has helped them become the 14th-most efficient offense in America. Both coaches have been around the block a few times – Lon Kruger takes his record fourth different program to the Sweet Sixteen; Tom Izzo’s March success is well-documented – and there’s a very good chance that whichever team emerges from this one winds up marching on to Indy. Michigan State made easy work of Oklahoma in last season’s Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, but both rosters look very different this time around. Expect an exciting, high-level and hotly-contested basketball game on Friday night.

Best Regional Final Game (projected): #4 Louisville vs. #7 Michigan State (Sunday, March 29). Rick Pitino. Tom Izzo. Final Four on the line. Not only would this game provide one of the best coaching matchups college basketball has to offer, but it would be a rematch of the 2009 Midwest Region Elite Eight game in which the #2 seed Spartans trounced the top-seeded Cardinals in Indianapolis. This time, they would be playing for a trip to Indianapolis, with even more coaching history on the line; a Michigan State victory would give Izzo his seventh Final Four appearance, pulling him even with both Pitino and Roy Williams for fourth all-time. A Louisville triumph and Pitino would join John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith as the only coaches with at least eight appearances. The stakes would be high, the coaching would be excellent and there’s no doubt the fan bases – both of which travel well – would show out in Syracuse.

Tom Izzo vs. Rick Pitino would be an awesome Elite Eight coaching matchup. (Mike Mulholland |

Tom Izzo vs. Rick Pitino would be an awesome Elite Eight coaching matchup. (Mike Mulholland/

Top Storyline: Pitino, Louisville winning in spite of Chris Jones’ departure. This storyline will continue building steam as we approach Friday night. After Louisville’s point guard and best outside shooter was kicked off the team in late February, the media largely wrote off the Cardinals, citing their lack of offense and relative lack of talent. Now – with the East Region ripe for the taking – Pitino has a legitimate chance to lead his program to the Final Four for the third time in four seasons. Expect a lot of praise for the Hall of Fame head coach and his embattled unit this week (and possibly beyond).

Top Storyline for Contrarians: Has North Carolina State finally put the pieces together? Following North Carolina State’s upset over Villanova, Twitter was abuzz with discussion about the Wolfpack and its talented but inconsistent roster. Some folks were even saying that Gottfried’s bunch was more talented than the Wildcats, that his team always had the pieces to be great but hadn’t yet put it all together. If that’s true, the question becomes twofold: Are they finally playing up their potential? And if so, just how high is their ceiling? Expect this storyline – murmurs about Final Four-caliber talent – to take serious hold if North Carolina State upends Louisville on Friday.

My Pick: Oklahoma. Michigan State and Louisville are the brand names with the superstar coaches. North Carolina State might be the closest thing to Cinderella we have remaining in this tournament. Then there’s Oklahoma – perhaps the least sexy, least talked about and best team left in the East Region. The Sooners have a big time offensive (and defensive) talent in guard Buddy Hield (17.3 PPG) along with a pair of excellent defensive forwards in TaShawn Thomas and Ryan Spangler. They are capable of winning games with their defense – even when the offense sputters – and they’ve proven the ability to overcome in-game adversity [See: Sunday’s game vs. Dayton]. On top of that. Kruger’s guys have beaten a bunch of really good teams this season (Butler, UCLA, Baylor, West Virginia, Kansas… the list goes on). I expect Oklahoma to edge Michigan State in a barnburner on Friday, win by an even wider margin against Louisville or North Carolina State on Sunday, and get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2002.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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