RTC Bracket Prep: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 12th, 2018

Today and tomorrow we will be rolling out our region-by-region analysis for the 2018 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 over the next two weeks (@RTCEastRegion).

East Region

Favorite: #1 Villanova (30-4, 14-4 Big East). Sound familiar? Villanova enters the NCAA Tournament as a #1 or #2 seed for the fifth straight season, a remarkable run that has included great success (see: 2016 National Championship) and bitter disappointment, with the Wildcats failing to reach the Sweet Sixteen in 2014, 2015 and 2017. This year, expect something closer to the former. While less defensively stout than in recent seasons, Villanova boasts the second-most efficient offense in the KenPom era behind only Wisconsin in 2014-15. Big East Player of the Year Jalen Brunson (19.4 PPG) might be the most reliable late-game scorer in college basketball, while 6’7″ wing Mikal Bridges (18 PPG, 1.6 SPG, 1.1 BPG) — a projected lottery pick — is among the sport’s premier two-way players. Jay Wright’s club may not be deep, but its 7-to-8 man rotation is cohesive and often blisteringly lethal. A potential Sweet Sixteen match-up with West Virginia could present some challenges, but it’s hard to see the Wildcats stumbling until a possible Elite Eight game with Purdue.

Villanova Adds Some More Hardware to Its Trophy Case (USA Today Images)

Should They Falter: #2 Purdue (28-6, 15-3 Big Ten). As recently as early February, Purdue ranked among the top 10 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency while arguably looking like the best team in America. Then it lost three games in a row, battled injury concerns and looked prone to fatigue. Lucky for the Boilermakers, this year’s early Big Ten Tournament means they will have had a full 11 days of rest by the time they tip off against Cal State Fullerton on Friday. That bodes well for an offense — the country’s second-most efficient behind Villanova —predicated on lights-out three-point shooting (42% 3FG) and pounding it underneath to 7’2″ center Isaac Haas (14.9 PPG). The extra rest should also help Purdue’s struggling defense clamp down more like it did for the first three months of the season. Between the match-up problems Haas and guard Carsen Edwards (18.5 PPG) present in addition to a manageable bottom half of the bracket, Matt Painter’s group is the next best bet after the Wildcats.

Grossly Overseeded: #9 Alabama (19-15, 8-10 SEC). There was nothing too egregious in the East Region, but it’s still hard to look at Alabama’s 15 (15!) losses and sub-.500 conference record and feel good about the Crimson Tide as a #9 seed. On Thursday, they were one Collin Sexton missed-layup away from the NIT. Two SEC Tournament wins later — albeit against quality opponents — and they are seeded higher than a Butler team that’s been an NCAA Tournament lock for weeks (with wins over Villanova and Ohio State to boot).

Criminally Underseeded: #5 West Virginia (24-10, 11-7 Big 12). The fact that Texas Tech is a #3 seed in this region is an extra slap in the face for West Virginia, which beat the Red Raiders twice this season and finished with the same conference record in the rugged Big 12. The Mountaineers’ eight Quadrant 1 wins were good for sixth-most in the country (two more than Texas Tech) and they were the only team outside of the ACC — the only team besides Virginia Tech, in fact — to beat #1 overall seed Virginia. According to BracketMatrix.com, the majority of projections pegged West Virginia as a #3 or #4 seed (average: 3.83). Instead, they are a #5 seed tasked with facing a very good Murray State squad that hasn’t lost since mid-January.

West Virginia Has Reason to Complain About Its Seeding (USA Today Images)

Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 or lower): #12 Murray State (26-5, 16-2 Ohio Valley). If strong guard play is the key to NCAA Tournament success, than Murray State could be in for a memorable March. In Ohio Valley Player of the Year Jonathan Stark (21.8 PPG) and assist maven Ja Morant (6.4 APG), the Racers possess a backcourt capable of weathering West Virginia’s press and making open shots in transition. For the first time in years, they also have a defense capable of making stops on a consistent basis. If Stark’s group can handle the pressure and pull off the upset, a potential Second Round bout with Wichita State — whose defense surrenders more points per possession than Murray State’s — would not be insurmountable.

Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #6 Florida (20-12, 11-7 SEC). Before rolling your eyes, consider this: prior to its SEC Tournament loss to Arkansas, Florida had just beaten Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky by an average margin of 13.3 points per game. The Gators also own neutral court victories over Gonzaga and Cincinnati this season too, in addition to another win over Kentucky — in Rupp Arena — earlier this season. Point being that the Gators are capable of beating some of college basketball’s best. If wing Jalen Hudson plays the way he did in those three wins to close the regular season (22.6 PPG), Florida has the defensive chops and veteran guard play needed to make another deep run.

Carmelo Anthony Award: Jalen Brunson, Villanova (19.4 PPG, 4.7 APG). Brunson is so lethal in that paint that you sometimes forget he’s an excellent outside shooter (41% 3FG). At just 6’3″, his ability to break down defenders and create his own shot in traffic — at times posting up bigger defenders — is perhaps unrivaled in college hoops. Most notable is Brunson’s back pivot move, which has time and again proven to be Villanova’s best weapon late in games. He’s also adept at sucking defenders in to create wide-open looks for his teammates under the basket. With four 30+ point games already under his belt this season, expect the Big East Player of the Year to post impressive numbers throughout the NCAA Tournament and possibly carry the Wildcats to San Antonio.

Stephen Curry Award: Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure (19.8 PPG, 5.4 APG). The senior point guard shoots 46 percent from three-point range on the season and scored 40+ points in back-to-back games in early February, including an 18-of-26 showing from behind the arc. In fact, Adams averaged 28 points per game during the month of February, which could spell trouble for UCLA and Florida if he rediscovers that scoring groove next week. Like Curry, Adams is confident, lightning-quick, and possesses excellent passing skills — which is why many NBA scouts view see him as a legitimate pro prospect.

Jaylen Adams is a Name to Remember in the East Region (USA Today Images)

Home Cooking: #14 Stephen F. Austin, 162.8 miles to Dallas. Believe it or not, Stephen F. Austin is geographically closer to its First Round site than any other team in this region — Villanova included. So even though Texas Tech will play in its home state, the Red Raiders must deal with a #14 seed whose fan base (a very good one, at that) only has to travel half the distance. It could get interesting in Dallas.

Can’t Miss First Round Game: #8 Virginia Tech vs. #9 Alabama, Thursday 3/15 at 9:20 PM ET. Who doesn’t want to see Collin Sexton trade buckets with a Virginia Tech squad that’s more than happy to push the pace? Expect the super-freshman to exceed his 19.0 PPG average and don’t be surprised if either the Hokies or Crimson Tide (or both) hit triple-digits. And don’t forget those guys pacing the sidelines either: Buzz Williams and Avery Johnson are two of the more interesting (and in Buzz’s case, sweaty) coaches in college basketball.

Don’t Miss This One Either: #5 West Virginia vs. #12 Murray State, Friday 3/16 at 4:00 PM ET. On one hand, this game seems anticlimactic. As many folks commute home on the east coast,  West Virginia and Murray State — thousands of miles away from their campuses — will tip off in San Diego. On the other hand, watching the guard-oriented Racers work against West Virginia’s press should make for some excellent television. Expect this game to remain competitive for the duration.

Lock of the Year: Villanova to the Elite Eight (at least). Virginia Tech’s offense is good but Villanova’s is much better. Same goes for Alabama, and pretty much any other opponent in the top half of this bracket. If Villanova meets West Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen, don’t expect its vaunted press to overwhelm the Wildcats: at a 14.6 percent turnover rate, Jay Wright’s club boasts the eighth-lowest mark in college hoops. Outside of maybe Purdue, there doesn’t seem to be an East Region opponent good enough to simultaneously slow down Villanova’s offense and score enough points to win.

Juiciest Potential Match-Up: Purists: #1 Villanova vs. #2 Purdue in the Elite Eight. This is both the obvious choice and the correct choice. In a region brimming with great offenses, this match-up would feature the two most efficient offenses in all of college basketball. While the perimeter ball movement and shooting would be a sight to see — Villanova leads the country in effective field goal percentage while Purdue ranks fifth — it’s the tit-for-tat matchup between guards Carsen Edwards and Jalen Brunson that would make any basketball fan giddy.

Juiciest Potential Match-up – Media: #5 West Virginia vs. #13 Marshall in the Second Round. Fire up the John Denver, folks. A Second Round match-up between the Mountaineers and Thundering Herd would feature the state of West Virginia’s only two Division I college basketball programs. It would be the first NCAA Tournament game between the two, which is no surprise considering that Marshall hasn’t reached the Big Dance since 1987. California is a long way from the Mountain State, but you can bet ‘Take Me Home, Country Road’ will be playing loud and proud in San Diego.

We Got Screwed: #5 West Virginia. It’s one thing to be underseeded; it’s quite another to be underseeded and shipped 2,500 miles west. Luckily, Bob Huggins is not one to mince words or hide his distaste, which should make for some fun press conferences in San Diego.

Strongest Pod: Dallas (Texas Tech, Florida, St. Bonaventure/UCLA, Stephen F. Austin). Both Texas Tech and Florida rank inside the KenPom top 25. The winner of St. Bonaventure vs. UCLA will be talented enough to hang with Florida, while Stephen F. Austin knocked off an SEC squad (LSU) and nearly another (Missouri) in its own right this season. We should see some competitive basketball in Dallas.

Marshall’s 31-Year NCAA Tournament Drought Has Ended (USA Today Images)

Great Storyline: Marshall basketball. The uptempo Herd snapped a 31-year NCAA Tournament drought on Saturday by beating Western Kentucky in the Conference USA title game. That’s a cool story in its own right. Throw in the fact that they’re coached by Dan D’Antoni — longtime NBA assistant and brother to Houston Rockets head coach, Mike D’Antoni — and have a chance to play in-state foe West Virginia in the second round? Marshall has ‘great story’ written all over it. Also, Jon Elmore can light it up.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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