RTC Bracket Prep: East RegionPosted by Tommy Lemoine on March 13th, 2017
All day Monday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. 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).
Favorite: #1 Villanova (31-3, 15-3 Big East). Sure, Duke’s ACC Championship run over the weekend was impressive, a sign that perhaps its unreasonably-high preseason expectations weren’t so unreasonable after all. But Villanova—the reigning National Champion, let’s not forget—has been more consistent, more dominant, an outright better team from start to finish. Senior Josh Hart (18.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG) has arguably been college basketball’s best player, making key plays in key moments for an offense that ranks second nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Former five-star recruit Jalen Brunson (14.8 PPG, 4.2 APG) is realizing his potential at point guard. Mikal Bridges, whose effort against Kansas last March helped propel the Wildcats to the Final Four, has helped Jay Wright’s club hold Big East opponents to a paltry 0.98 points per possession this season. And, oh yeah, Kris Jenkins (86 made three-pointers) is still on the roster. Remember him? Balanced, experienced, and tough-as-nails, Villanova has all the pieces for a trip to Glendale.
Should They Falter: #2 Duke (27-8, 11-7 ACC). Equipped with one of the most talented rosters in recent memory, the injury-plagued and controversy-laden Blue Devils bungled their way through ACC play, only to rediscover their mojo just as the calendar flipped to March. That’s bad news for the bottom half of the East Region. Preseason All-American Grayson Allen seemed to recoup some confidence in the ACC Tournament after struggling through the month of February. As did soon-to-be lottery pick Jayson Tatum, who averaged 22.0 PPG in Duke’s four-game championship run in Brooklyn. Luke Kennard (20.1 PPG), the ACC Tournament MVP, continued his season-long excellence, while even Harry Giles—a hyper-talented forward beset by knee injuries—showed why he was once considered the future #1 overall pick. With a remarkably talented supporting cast to boot, there’s no reason the Blue Devils can’t vie for a National Championship—especially if Villanova stumbles up top.
Grossly Overseeded: #7 South Carolina (22-10, 12-6 SEC). Non-conference victories over Michigan, Syracuse, Vermont and Monmouth are nice, and South Carolina did beat Florida, but a #7 seed? The Gamecocks went 3-6 over their final nine games of the season, failing to beat a team better than Georgia (at home) from February 1 onward. This team lost to Alabama twice—including an 11-point defeat in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals—fell at Ole Miss, and was down by 16 points in December to a Memphis team that had just ended its season in historically bad fashion. Meanwhile, Wisconsin—a team with fewer losses and a higher volume of quality wins—was slapped with a #8 seed.
Criminally Underseeded: #8 Wisconsin (25-9, 12-6 Big Ten). Of the 73 expert brackets featured on BracketMatrix.com, 60 had Wisconsin pegged as a #6 or #5 seed (average seed line: 6.08). Instead, the Badgers were hit with a #8 seed and now face the prospect of facing #1 overall seed Villanova in the Round of 32—if they can’t get past Virginia Tech on Thursday. Wisconsin’s lack of elite wins probably sealed its fate, but it remains surprising that victories over Minnesota (twice), Northwestern, Michigan, Maryland, Marquette and Syracuse didn’t count for more.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper: #13 East Tennessee State (27-7, 14-4 Southern). UNC Wilmington might have been the choice here, but Virginia’s stifling, pace-defining defense may prove too much for the Seahawks. East Tennessee State, on the other hand—the seventh-oldest team in America—has enough length and athleticism to hang with Florida for 40 minutes. The Buccaneers are aggressive on both sides of the ball, wreaking havoc in passing lanes on defense (22% defensive turnover rate) and relentlessly attacking the basket on the other end (21.4% of their points are derived at the free throw line). If point guard T.J. Cromer (19.1 PPG) gets hot from long range and transfers Hanner Mosquera-Perea (Indiana) and Tevin Glass (Wichita State) hold their own in the frontcourt, Steve Forbes‘ gritty group is capable of pulling off one or two upsets. And don’t forget—the Gators enter Thursday’s opener having lost three of their last four contests.
Final Four Sleeper: #6 Southern Methodist (30-4, 17-1 AAC). SMU’s schedule was weak, so the surprisingly-low seed for a 30-win conference champion is somewhat understandable. But Tim Jankovich’s crew is anything but your average #6 seed. The Mustangs have lost only once since December 1, winning 26 of their last 27 games and pounding AAC opponents by an average of 16.8 points per game during regular season play. They made a very good Cincinnati team—a fellow #6 seed, mind you—look helpless in Sunday’s conference title game. As for the metrics? SMU ranks 11th and 29th, respectively, in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, and #11 overall in KenPom. The Mustangs will be favored in every game they play until a potential meeting with Duke in the Sweet Sixteen, and even that will be a dead heat in Vegas. Don’t be surprised if the American conference champs make a run to win this region.
Carmelo Anthony Award: Josh Hart, Villanova (18.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 40.7% 3FG, 1.6 SPG). If you’re into traditional evaluations, Hart meets every criteria. He led the Big East in scoring, ranked third in rebounding, sixth in steals, and knocked down three-pointers at the 11th-highest clip. As we mentioned before, he also hits big shots in big moments. If advanced stats are your thing, Hart may seem even better, ranking among the Big East’s top 15 players in nearly every significant offensive (and in some cases defensive) category. According to KenPom’s Player of the Year standings (kPOY), he’s been far and away college basketball’s best player this season — the type of player who can lead Villanova to a repeat National Championship.
Stephen Curry Award: T.J. Cromer, East Tennessee State (19.1 PPG, 40.4% 3PT). At times, Cromer comes across as a gunner—the senior averages over 14 shots per game, taking a whopping 31.8 percent of ETSU’s shots while he’s on the floor (which is often). But don’t be fooled. Out of the 27 college basketball players who attempted more than 250 three-pointers this season, only six shot a higher percentage than Cromer. He also ranked among the top 10 in his league in free throw percentage (82% FT) while finishing second overall in scoring. In the Buccaneers’ SoCon Tournament semifinal victory over Samford, the former JuCo transfer poured in 41 points on 9-of-12 threes (10-for-11 FT). If he catches fire, look out.
Home Cooking: #7 South Carolina, 103.5 miles to Greenville, SC. Not only were the Gamecocks given a generous seed, buy hey, look at that! They get to play in their own state, closer to home than any other team in the region (including Florida, which heads to Orlando). Perhaps it’s the Selection Committee’s way of apologizing to South Carolina after snubbing the Gamecocks last March in favor of Tulsa.
Can’t Miss First Round Game: #8 Wisconsin vs. #9 Virginia Tech, 3/16 at 9:40 PM EST. Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams, who went 3-3 against Wisconsin during his time at Marquette, finally gets a chance to break the tie. The Hokies boast the 21st most efficient offense in the country, shooting three-pointers at a high rate (39.9% 3PA/FGA) and making them at an even higher rate (40.3% 3FG). Conversely, the Badgers are an elite defensive unit, holding opponents to an adjusted 0.91 points per possession on the season. Virginia Tech plays fast, Wisconsin plays slow, and there’s a 99.9 percent chance Williams sweats completely through his shirt by game’s end. Don’t miss this one.
Don’t Miss This One Either: #7 South Carolina vs. #10 Marquette, 3/17 at 9:50 PM EST. For virtually the exact same reasons Wisconsin vs. Virginia Tech is so enticing, this match-up is too. Marquette is the nation’s best three-point shooting team (43.0% 3FG), enabling it to score at a ridiculous 1.21 PPP clip during the season (seventh-best adjusted offensive efficiency). South Carolina, meanwhile, boasts the sport’s third-stingiest defense, highly adept at forcing turnovers and taking away the three-point line. Elite defense vs. elite offense. Frank Martin’s mean mug vs. Steve Wojciechowski’s boyish visage. Tune in.
Lock of the Year: SMU to the Sweet Sixteen (or beyond). Baylor has had an awesome year and deserves every bit of the #3 seed it was given on Selection Sunday, but it’s hard to see the Bears—losers of six of their last 11 games—beating SMU at this point in the season. The Mustangs, despite their thin bench and seemingly position-less lineup, are better offensively and have the length and athleticism to contend with Baylor’s towering frontcourt. Assuming both advance to the Round of 32 (SMU should wallop either Providence or USC), count on the AAC champs to roll.
Juiciest Potential Match-Up: Purists: #4 Florida vs. #5 Virginia in the Second Round. This would be a bruising matchup between two of the country’s elite defenses. Virginia, tops nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, employs Tony Bennett’s hyper-disciplined pack-line approach, sealing off the interior and forcing opponents to beat it with jump shots. Florida is more aggressive—especially on the perimeter—pressing and trapping and completely taking away the three-point line. If free-flowing offensive basketball is your thing, don’t bother tuning into this one.
Juiciest Potential Match-Up: Media: #2 Duke vs. #10 Marquette in the Second Round. Mike Krzyzewski taking on one of his former assistants isn’t new, but this match-up—against former guard and right-hand man Steve Wojciechowski—would be. Wojo played for Coach K from 1994-98 before working his way up the bench from 1999-2014, becoming such a fixture on the Duke sideline that it’s hard not to double-take every time Jon Scheyer stands up. Much to the chagrin of Blue Devil haters, the media will eat up this game.
We Got Screwed: #14 New Mexico State. New Mexico State’s standout trait is its outstanding length and athleticism, especially for a WAC program. Had they drawn a more normal-sized #3 seed, the Aggies may have had a shot. Instead, Paul Weir’s club gets Baylor, an opponent whose frontcourt consists of two trees (Johnathan Motley and Jo Lual-Acuil) with a combined wingspan totaling 14-feet, 7.5 inches. Luckily, the Bears are a surprisingly weak defensive rebounding team, so perhaps Eli Chuha and Jemerrio Jones—a pair of premier offensive rebounders—will keep New Mexico State competitive.
Strongest Pod: Orlando. It’s about quantity over quality here. While none of these four teams—Florida, Virginia, UNC Wilmington, East Tennessee State—are likely to reach the Final Four, all are among the top 65 teams in KenPom. While the Cavaliers (#7) and Gators (#9) rank in the top 10 (perhaps they are Final Four threats after all), both the Seahawks and Buccaneers were viewed as potential bracket busters heading into Selection Sunday. Realistically, any four of these teams are talented enough to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
Great Storyline: New Orleans basketball. The #16 seed Privateers will take on Mount St. Mary’s in the First Four on Tuesday night, which in itself would have seemed unfathomable just eight years ago. As Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg recounts, New Orleans announced its intention to drop from Division I to Division III in 2009, partially the result of large debts brought on by Hurricane Katrina.