Bracket Prep: East Region

Posted by Brian Otskey on March 14th, 2016

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On Monday and Tuesday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: Monday (East and West); Tuesday (South and Midwest). Here, Brian Otskey (@botskey) 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: No. 1 North Carolina (28-6, 14-4 ACC). Although this region is loaded from top to bottom, the ACC regular season and tournament champions are the clear favorite. Roy Williams has one of the nation’s most talented teams with seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige leading the way. Contending with Johnson is a nightmare for most teams. A relentless rebounder who averages a double-double, Johnson is one of the nation’s most efficient players. Carolina has weaknesses — namely three-point shooting and three-point defense — but the way it utilizes great athleticism to speed up the game makes the Heels hard to beat.

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The ACC regular season and tournament champions are the favorite to take the East Region. (Photo: Todd Melet)

Should They Falter: No. 4 Kentucky (26-8, 13-5 SEC). Yes, we’re going to roll with the Wildcats here. John Calipari’s team has made Final Fours from lower seeded positions — most notably in 2011 and 2014. This is not a vintage Kentucky team by any means, but it is highly talented and Coach Cal has proven that he can push the right buttons in March. College basketball is a guards’ game and Kentucky has that in spades with Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe. The lack of a major threat inside and occasionally spotty defense are definite concerns, but Kentucky has the talent and athletes to get by North Carolina in a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup.

Grossly Overseeded: No. 11 Tulsa (20-11, 12-6 AAC). This shouldn’t even be a discussion because Tulsa does not belong in this field. Period. The only possible rationale for its selection was its five wins against NCAA Tournament teams (six if SMU was eligible). The Golden Hurricane got drilled by Memphis in the AAC quarterfinals and have a home loss to Oral Roberts on their resume. This team is the most puzzling selection in the entire field.

Criminally Underseeded: No. 5 Indiana (25-7, 15-3 Big Ten). Sure, the Big Ten was awful at the bottom this year but Indiana went 15-3 in a power conference with wins over Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Iowa, Maryland and Purdue on its resume. Did the early losses to Wake Forest and UNLV, combined with the puzzling Penn State clunker, knock Tom Crean’s team to the #5 line? That would seem to be the only reason. Indiana can light up the scoreboard and will be a tough out for Kentucky in round two or North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen, should the Hoosiers advance.

Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (No. 12 seed or lower): No. 14 Stephen F. Austin (27-5, 18-0 Southland). You could make a strong case that Stephen F. Austin is also criminally underseeded. Ranked 33rd by KenPom, the Lumberjacks have the nation’s highest defensive turnover percentage and can put up a bunch of points. This is an experienced basketball team with Thomas Walkup, a senior (17.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG) whg will be playing in his third NCAA Tournament with the program, leading the way. This team has no wins of note, but its statistical profile suggests it can be a threat to pull off an upset or two.

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For a third consecutive season, Stephen F. Austin is in the NCAA Tournament…and is dangerous. (Photo: AP)

Final Four Sleeper: No. 4 Kentucky (26-8, 13-5 SEC). In a loaded region like the East, there are plenty of capable Final Four teams. Indiana would have to go through a murderer’s row of Kentucky, North Carolina and probably Xavier, West Virginia or Wisconsin to advance to the Final Four. Kentucky has the requisite talent and coaching to create an opening through that minefield. In the bottom half of the bracket, Notre Dame doesn’t play nearly good enough defense to make a sustained run and Wisconsin, while a good team, will have a hard time navigating this region. The winner of the potential North Carolina-Kentucky Sweet Sixteen game will likely go to the Final Four.

Carmelo Anthony Award: Jamal Murray, Kentucky (20.2 PPG, 42.6% 3FG). If Kentucky is going to make a run, Murray can throw the Wildcats on his back and get them to Houston. The highly talented Canadian has averaged 24.6 PPG since the calendar flipped into February.

Stephen Curry Award: Yogi Ferrell, Indiana (17.0 PPG, 5.5 APG, 41.7% 3FG). Now a senior, Ferrell has extra motivation to make a March run. Indiana received a lot of deserving criticism earlier this season but the Hoosiers proved the doubters wrong by winning the Big Ten regular season title. Ferrell will play significant minutes, make his teammates better and take over the game when necessary. He’s the type of complete player that a team needs to make a deep run.

Home Cooking: No. 1 North Carolina, 22 miles to Raleigh. This was a foregone conclusion. Doesn’t it seem like there is a Tournament site on Tobacco Road every year? The Tar Heels are obviously a protected seed and have earned their placement right down I-40 East from Chapel Hill.

Can’t Miss First Round Game: No. 8 USC vs. No. 9 Providence, 3/17 at 9:50 PM EDT on TBS. Both of these teams faltered in February but seemed to stabilize once March began. If you like dynamic playmakers and up-tempo basketball, this matchup late on Thursday night is for you. Jordan McLaughlin, Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn will be worth the price of admission for the fans in Raleigh.

Don’t Miss This One Either: No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 14 Stephen F. Austin, 3/18 at 7:10 PM EDT on CBS. If you’re looking for a major upset in the East region, take a good look at this game. Lumberjacks head coach Brad Underwood was on Bob Huggins’ staff at Kansas State for one season, and this is not as big of a mismatch as the seeding would suggest. Stephen F. Austin can play and what’s more fascinating is these are the top two teams nationally in defensive turnover percentage. West Virginia is known for creating turnovers and rightfully so, but the Mountaineers have trouble taking care of the ball on their end. That plays right into the hands of the Lumberjacks. Add in the fact that West Virginia fouls opponents at the highest rate in the country and you may have the recipe for a shocker. This game bears watching and should be entertaining no matter who wins.

Lock of the Year: The winner of this region will come from the top half of the bracket, whether it turns out to be North Carolina, Kentucky or Indiana. Given its draw, it’s hard to see Xavier advancing all the way to Houston. The Musketeers are a tough team that can put up points but they have several flaws on the defensive end. Unless they play better than expected there, they will not advance past the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight. Elsewhere, Notre Dame doesn’t play enough defense so that’s enough of a reason to keep them out of the Final Four. Wisconsin, the #7 seed, has great pedigree but will have a tough time advancing past Pittsburgh and Xavier.

Juiciest Potential Match-up – Purists: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen. Does it get any more blue-blooded than this? Carolina Blue vs. Big Blue. Aside from being a great matchup from a historical program perspective, these two teams have the most talent of any teams in the region. How will Kentucky contend with Brice Johnson up front? Can North Carolina contain Kentucky’s dynamic backcourt? There are so many questions amid a contrast of styles. North Carolina operates almost exclusively inside the arc while Kentucky is guard-dependent and dribble-drive oriented. Plus you have the coaching matchup between legends. This would be a great game if it comes to fruition.

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Intriguing future matchups with Indiana and North Carolina are possible for John Calipari and Kentucky. (Photo: Getty)

Juciest Potential Match-up – Media: No. 4 Kentucky vs. No 5. Indiana in the Second Round. Ever since Christian Watford hit the shot in December 2011, John Calipari and Tom Crean have refused to renew one of college basketball’s best non-conference rivalries. The two schools are separated by fewer than 200 miles in a region of the country where college basketball is king. Whether contrived or not, the Selection Committee has forced these proud programs to play each other again, assuming each advances to the Second Round. The media will eat this up and with good reason.

We Got Screwed: No. 8 USC and No. 9 Providence. These teams can only blame themselves for falling into the dreaded #8/#9 game but the winner facing North Carolina in Raleigh is not a desirable situation. Should one of these teams actually upset the Tar Heels, its reward would be a trip to the Sweet Sixteen against the likes of Kentucky or Indiana, two underseeded blue-bloods loaded with talent and legions of fans willing to follow them anywhere. Good luck with that, Trojans and Friars.

Strongest Pod: Raleigh. Between North Carolina, USC and Providence, there will be plenty of potential NBA talent on the floor. You could argue for any of the four pods in this region but the First Round game between USC and Providence will be entertaining. No matter the result there, the Second Round game against UNC should be competitive as well.

Great Storyline: Xavier and Edmond Sumner. The Musketeers’ freshman point guard suffered a frightening fall against Villanova on New Year’s Eve, causing him to miss three consecutive games. He had been leading the way for an undefeated Xavier team to that point and did not miss a beat when he returned. Sumner had his best performance in his return game against Villanova on February 24 and will try to lead Xavier to its first Final Four in program history, a surprising truth given how consistent the Xavier program has been over the years.

Brian Otskey (268 Posts)


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