NCAA Regional Reset: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2018

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks. Today and tomorrow we reset each of the four regions. 

New Favorite: #1 Villanova (32-4). The Wildcats did nothing to put their ‘favorite’ status into question over the weekend. In fact, they may have actually established themselves as the new odds-on favorite to win the whole thing. After handling #16 seed Radford by 27 points in the First Round, Villanova put on a second half clinic against #9 Alabama in the Round of 32, outscoring the Crimson Tide 49-21 over the final 20 minutes and finishing the game with 17 made three-pointers. On the weekend, in fact, Villanova shot a combined 31-of-68 (46%) from long range, its spread offense looking more lethal than ever. Now ranked #1 by KenPom with the most efficient offense in America, the Wildcats roll into Boston looking Final Four ready — especially considering the season-ending injury to Purdue center Isaac Haas in the other half of this bracket.

Meet the new favorite, same as the old favorite. (Yahoo Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #5 West Virginia (26-10). We had to put someone here, right? In an overall bracket riddled with chaos, the East Region remained more uniform than most, leaving #5 West Virginia as the “dark horse” if there is one. Entering the NCAA Tournament, KenPom gave the Mountaineers only a 42.6 percent chance of reaching the Sweet Sixteen, odds that changed dramatically once Marshall upset #4 Wichita State on Friday. West Virginia now heads to Boston where it will be a clear underdog against #1 Villanova, which is probably just how Bob Huggins and his aggressive group likes it.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #13 Marshall (25-11). Hunter became the hunted in San Diego, where #4 Wichita State — usually the one busting brackets — fell victim to Marshall’s high-powered attack. Entering Friday, the Shockers had won at least one game as a lower-seeded team in five of the last six NCAA Tournaments, including a run to the Final Four as a #9 seed in 2013. Simply put, Wichita State feels comfortable wearing the underdog hat — even in games in which it is favored, like that 2014 classic against #8 seed Kentucky. But this time around, Gregg Marshall’s group felt like Goliath, and perhaps that unfamiliar pressure wore on the Shockers down the stretch. While Wichita State tightened in the second half, the Thundering Herd just kept on shooting. The result was an upset we did not see coming.

Completely Expected (First Weekend): #2 Purdue. We fully expected Purdue to reach the Sweet Sixteen. What we did not expect was how much uncertainty it would endure to get there. After pounding Cal State Fullerton in the First Round, the team announced that senior Isaac Haas — the Boilermakers’ second-leading scorer and premier post-threat — would miss the remainder of the NCAA Tournament with a fractured elbow. Subsequent reports revealed that he might see limited action. Finally, his arm brace failed to clear NCAA safety standards, meaning the Boilermakers would have to beat Butler without him. They did, thanks in large part to the brilliance of Vincent Edwards (20 points), but not before two days filled with doubt.

I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient. I made note of Stephen F. Austin’s proximity to Dallas and suggested things could get interesting in its tilt with Texas Tech. Sure enough, Lumberjack fans made a good showing and the Southland Conference champions pushed the Red Raiders to the bitter end. “That’s not a #14 seed. That’s one of the best teams this year,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said afterwards.

Except When I Make Stupid Decisions. #12 Murray State a Sweet Sixteen sleeper? The Racers turned the ball over at a 24.2 percent clip and lost to West Virginia by 17 points. #6 Florida a Final Four sleeper? The Texas Tech defense and pro-Red Raiders’ crowd proved too much for the Gators in Dallas, especially considering their poor three-point shooting (6-of-22 3FG). No true sleeper emerged in this region, which turned out to be the chalkiest of them all.

Keenan Evans put on a show in Dallas last weekend. (Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

First Weekend MVP: Keenan Evans, Texas Tech. It wasn’t so much Evans’ scoring totals (23 and 22 points, respectively) as it was the timeliness of his points. Against Stephen F. Austin, the senior scored eight points in the final 4:40 of game time, including an acrobatic layup in traffic with one minute left that proved to be the dagger. Two nights later, Evans drilled a jab-step three-pointer to give Texas Tech the lead on Florida, then tossed a monstrous alley-oop to Zhaire Smith to put the Gators away. Purdue’s Vincent Edwards, West Virginia’s Javon Carter, and Villanova’s Mikal Bridges were also fine candidates, but Evans was the clear East Region MVP over the weekend.

Breakout Star: Jon Elmore, Marshall: He only lasted two games and he was by no means a “breakout” star if you followed Conference USA basketball this season. Still, Elmore’s 27-point (4-of-8 3FG) performance in Marshall’s upset win over #4 Wichita State showed America just what the point guard is made of. Elmore knocked down big shot after big shot in the second half against the Shockers, including a three-pointer so deep Steph Curry would have blushed in taking it. Considering he’s only a junior and Marshall’s entire roster should return next season, don’t be surprised to see Elmore scorching the nets again next March.

More Home Cooking: Villanova, 310 miles to Boston. Philadelphia isn’t that close to Boston, but it’s sure as heck more convenient for Villanova fans than any other school in the East Region. Whereas Purdue and Texas Tech faithful will surely have to fly to the Northeast, Wildcat fans have only a five-hour drive or a hassle-free train ride. For West Virginia fans, it would require a 10-hour drive or a perhaps a $2,000 Uber to catch the Mountaineers in action.

Best Regional Semifinal Game: #1 Villanova vs. #5 West Virginia. Will all due respect to Purdue and Texas Tech, this is the game to watch on Friday night. It will feature two of the country’s most efficient and vastly different offenses matching up. The Wildcats rely heavily on spacing, ball movement and perimeter shooting to score their points. The Mountaineers use their relentless pressure defense and pound the offensive glass to create extra possessions and generate easy looks. As it often does for West Virginia, this game may be decided by how effectively it can rattle Villanova’s guards — no easy task against an elite point guard like Jalen Brunson, who turned the ball over at the seventh-lowest rate in the Big East this season despite heavy usage.

Best Regional Final (Projected): #1 Villanova vs. #2 Purdue. Even without Haas, Purdue’s offense is still really good — especially behind the the three-point line, where the Boilermakers shoot a sizzling 42.1 percent (second nationally). Not to be outdone, Villanova leads the country in effective field goal percentage (59.8% eFG) thanks to outstanding shooting from both inside (59.5% 2FG) and outside (40.2% 3FG) the arc. Not only would college basketball’s two most efficient offenses match up, two of its most electric point guards — Villanova’s Brunson (19.1 PPG) and Carsen Edwards (18.2 PPG) — would be too. This would be a beautiful game to watch.

Purdue must adjust to life without Isaac Haas. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Top Storyline: Purdue’s Isaac Haas. Haas’ fractured elbow is easily the top storyline of this region on a couple different levels. For one, it remains to be seen whether Purdue can maintain its high level of offensive efficiency without the 7’2″ senior roaming the paint. Although Sunday’s 1.27 point per possession effort against Butler was a very good sign, the Boilermakers’ upcoming matchup with Texas Tech — the nation’s fourth-stingiest defense — may be a different story. Haas was a match-up nightmare. Secondly, there still seems to be underlying hope that he might actually see the floor at some point during this NCAA Tournament. Head coach Matt Painter announced on Monday that he does not expect Haas to play even if his arm brace is eventually approved by the NCAA. Then again, the team announced he was out for the entire Dance on Friday only to suggest later that he might give it a go. These next few days should be interesting.

Top Storyline for Contrarians: Matt Painter and the Boilermakers out for revenge. Two seasons ago, Purdue entered the NCAA Tournament with a deep roster and one of the best frontcourts in college basketball (Caleb Swanigan, AJ Hammons, Isaac Haas). They ranked among KenPom‘s top 10 in America and looked capable of making a fairly deep run. That is, until Chris Beard’s Arkansas-Little Rock pulled off one of the more remarkable comebacks in recent memory, storming back from 14 points behind with under five minutes left to beat the Boilermakers in double-overtime. “Don’t ever count the little guys out,” Beard said afterward. Beard and Painter meet again, this time with the stakes even higher. Don’t think for a second that Painter isn’t seeking his revenge.

Who wins: Villanova. In nine NCAA Tournament appearances since 2009, Villanova has either lost in the first weekend or reached the Final Four. There has been no middle ground. This year, the Wildcats did not lose in the first weekend. You guess what happens next. Independent events aside, Villanova is loaded and hasn’t done anything to suggest it will falter in Boston. It boasts college basketball’s second-most efficient offense in the KenPom era. It’s top two players, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, are among the two most efficient individual offensive players in the country. It has won seven straight games entering Friday and has only lost twice this season when playing at full strength. The Wildcats are at full strength right now and they should wind up in San Antonio.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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One response to “NCAA Regional Reset: East Region”

  1. How funny would it be for a Kansas vs Kansas State final?

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