NCAA Regional Reset: East RegionPosted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2017
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New Favorite: #4 Florida (26-8). Florida’s 65-39 drubbing of #5 Virginia on Saturday should put the rest of the remaining field on notice— the Gators are really, really difficult to score against. Mike White’s aggressive group held to Cavaliers to a paltry 0.65 points per possession, limiting its ACC foe to just 1-of-15 shooting from behind the arc and preventing any Virginia player from reaching double figures. Wisconsin, which is somewhat similar to Virginia stylistically, could be in for a rude awakening on Friday night. 6’8” swingman Devin Robinson, a supremely gifted athlete, is playing some of his best basketball of the season (19.0 PPG in the NCAA Tournament), and only West Virginia and North Carolina possess more depth than Florida of the teams remaining. Now ranked third nationally by KenPom, the Gators are as good a threat as any to win the National Championship.
Horse of Darkness: #8 Wisconsin (27-9). Despite being underseeded, Wisconsin outlasted Virginia Tech in the First Round before knocking off the reigning National Champion in the Round of 32. Saturday’s unexpected, high-drama victory over Villanova highlighted the Badgers’ strengths — patience, veteran leadership, stingy defense — and firmly establishes them as a threat in the East Region. Greg Gard’s club, now in its fourth straight Sweet Sixteen, will again enter Friday’s match-up with #4 Florida as an underdog. With a pair of seniors (Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes) and a First Team All-Big Ten forward (Ethan Happ) leading the way, bet against the dark horse Badgers at your own risk.
Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #7 South Carolina (24-10). #11 USC shocked #6 SMU and #8 Wisconsin upended the reigning National Champion — both huge surprises in their own right. But it was the other USC — #7 South Carolina — that pulled off the biggest stunner in the East, and perhaps the entire Big Dance. #2 Duke entered the Thursday as the betting favorite win the NCAA Tournament, a testament to both its supreme talent and undeniable momentum heading into the event (the Blue Devils had just won the ACC Tournament). The Gamecocks, meanwhile, entered Friday having lost six of its previous nine games, including an 11-point stinker against Alabama in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. And yet, Frank Martin’s defensive-minded group pounded Duke in the second half on Sunday night, scoring 65 points in the final 20 minutes and knocking off the Blue Devils in front of a home-state crowd filled with South Carolina fans and North Carolina fans (otherwise known as Duke haters) alike. Few people saw this coming.
Completely Expected (First Weekend): #3 Baylor. The Bears faced the prospect of seeing a very talented (and very underseeded) SMU team in the Round of 32 before #11 USC went ahead and did them a favor, upsetting the Mustangs in dramatic fashion and clearing the path for Baylor’s return to the Sweet Sixteen. Of course, Scott Drew’s team still had to beat the Trojans — which proved more difficult than expected — but it got the job done nonetheless, and now heads to Madison Square Garden to face another unexpected (and lower-seeded) opponent in #7 South Carolina. If both Baylor and Wisconsin win this week, the Bears will have a chance to reach the Final Four without ever having to play a team seeded better than #7.
I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient. I told you Wisconsin was grossly underseeded! Truth be told, I botched most of this region, but at least the Badgers — which were slapped with a #8 seed despite being widely projected as a #6 — proved their true value by taking down the reigning National Champion on Saturday. The advanced metrics love Wisconsin, which is ranked 17th by Sagarin and 20th by KenPom. A win over #4 Florida in Madison Square Garden would only further prove the analytics right and the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee wrong.
Except When I Make Stupid Decisions. I called #6 SMU a Final Four sleeper — a lock for Madison Square Garden, in fact —and it was promptly upset by #11 USC in the Round of 64. I suggested that East Tennessee State was a Sweet Sixteen sleeper, capable of beating Florida in Orlando. The Buccaneers lost by 15 points as the Gators cruised to the second weekend. Perhaps worst of all, I had zero reservations about deeming #1 Villanova the favorite in the East. Put simply, I got this region wrong. Dead wrong.
First Weekend MVP: Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina. The coaches’ selection for SEC Player of the Year played like it (and then some) in Greenville. After tallying 29 points and 11 rebounds against #11 Marquette, Thornwell finished with 24 points, six rebounds, and five assists in South Carolina’s stunning upset over #2 Duke. His offensive aggression — the 6’5” senior earned 12 attempts at the free throw line — helped the Gamecocks maintain its momentum in the second half against the Blue Devils, the type of relentless effort you might expect from a star player coached by Frank Martin.
Breakout Star: Terry Maston, Baylor. Before Friday, Maston (6.8 PPG, 3.7 RPG) had not seen more than eight minutes of game action since February 13. In fact, he had scored only two points since February 13, a six-game stretch that included a DNP against Texas in Baylor’s final regular season game. So how did the 6’8” forward fare on the sport’s grandest stage? By logging back-to-back 19-point, nine-rebound performances, naturally. Maston, one of several big bodies on the Baylor frontcourt, finished the weekend 16-of-25 from the field, hardly outdone by his First Team All-Big 12 teammate Johnathan Motley. The Bears may need more where that came from against South Carolina’s bruising defense on Friday.
More Home Cooking: None. Madison, Wisconsin is 935 miles from New York City. Gainesville, Florida is 998 miles away. Columbia, South Carolina is closest at 703 miles, while Waco, Texas — Baylor’s home land — is good 1,642 miles from the Big Apple. There will be no home cooking in Madison Square Garden this weekend.
Best Regional Semifinal Game: #4 Florida vs. #8 Wisconsin. No, this is not a New Year’s Day bowl game, but it certainly might resemble one. Florida and Wisconsin are two of college basketball’s stingiest defenses, ranking third and seventh, respectively, in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Gators are aggressive on the perimeter and do everything in their power to take away the three-point line (#5 Virginia went 1-of-15 from three-point range on Saturday). The Badgers tend to pack the paint and force opponents to beat them with jump shots. Basically, this game should very much resemble Florida’s match-up with the Cavaliers in the Round of the 32, except instead of limited big men like Virginia’s Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite manning the paint, it will be All-American caliber forwards Ethan Happ (13.8 PPG, 9.1 RPG) and Nigel Hayes (13.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG).
Best Regional Final (Projected). #4 Florida vs. #7 South Carolina. These teams split their two meetings in the regular season, each holding serve on their home floor. A Regional Final rubber match in Madison Square Garden, with a Final Four berth on the line, would be awesome. The Gators and Gamecocks rank third and fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency, both aggressive-as-hell and unwilling to give shooters any space. With everything on the line, the physicality in this game would be unmatched, a knock-down, drag-em-out affair that could come down to free throw shooting. Goodness knows there would be plenty attempts from the charity stripe.
Top Storyline: South Carolina’s magical ride. This will mark South Carolina’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1973, an under-the-radar narrative that was suddenly thrust into the spotlight following its shocking victory over Duke. With a mean-mugging coach who used to be a bouncer and a star player who doubles as a redemption story, the Gamecocks’ run to Madison Square Garden — and potentially beyond — will be the top storyline in the East Region this week.
Top Storyline for Contrarians: Under-seeded Wisconsin out to prove everyone wrong. Following Wisconsin’s upset over Villanova, senior Nigel Hayes had a message for the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee: analytics can’t calculate heart, desire or the will to win. His comments, of course, were in reference to the surprisingly-low #8 seed the Badgers received on Selection Sunday, a slap-in-the-face-turned-chip-on-the-shoulder for Greg Gard’s tested group. If Hayes and company can continue to channel that vengeful spirit against Florida on Friday, they will be one step closer to reaching the Final Four and finishing what they couldn’t just two seasons ago.
Who wins: Florida. It’s hard to beat a Tony Bennett-coached team as badly as Florida did on Saturday night. The Gators simply shut down nearly every element of the Cavaliers’ game, prompting Bennett to say afterwards, “you can see why they’re good — their quickness, their athleticism… they’re potent.” Much like Virginia, Wisconsin, South Carolina nd Baylor are defensive-minded teams susceptible to losing offensive rhythm when shots don’t fall. Assuming Florida itself doesn’t go ice cold this week, count on the Gators to continue shutting down opponents all the way to Glendale.