East Region Breakdown: Virginia Better Beware of Other Heavy Hitters
The East Region is one of the two regions absolutely loaded with talent. Chances are Virginia is the #1 seed you know the least about even though they can’t be taken lightly after winning both the ACC regular season and the ACC tournament. The Cavaliers have lost one game since losing a close game to Duke at Cameron Indoor on January 13 and that was an overtime loss at Maryland. They run a patient offense with Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon having the ability to make shots. Foul shooting could end up hurting Virginia as their slow-paced offense creates a lot of close games with a limited amount of possessions. Tony Bennett can coach with anyone in the country, but this reminds me a little of his old Washington State teams. They were solid through the season, but never exceeded expectations in the NCAA Tournament.
Virginia should be worried about facing another good defensive team with a slight edge in half-court offense. Unfortunately for them, that team exists in their region. Michigan State is taking as much juice as a Final Four contender as any team in the country. Michigan State showed this week what they can do with a fully healthy team. This is the team we expected from Michigan State at the beginning of the season before Adriean Payne, Branden Dawson, and Keith Appling dealt with injuries. That allowed the Spartans to build a deeper bench and expand their players’ roles so that they could get called upon if needed. Michigan State is good enough to win the low-scoring, limited-possessions game against Virginia while also taking down an Iowa State team who’s not nearly as defensive minded. It won’t be easy, but the Spartans are peaking at the right time to make the Final Four in Dallas.
Iowa State is certainly no slouch. They won the toughest conference tournament in the country and certainly have quality non-conference wins against Michigan and Iowa. I’d like Iowa State if they weren’t in the same region as Michigan State because they have three really good options on offense with role players surrounding them who can also step up when their number is called. They’ll face Villanova in the second weekend if both teams win out and Nova’s fans probably feel like they’re not getting any respect despite being a #2 seed. Nova only lost to two teams not named Creighton this year, but they don’t have make you feel at ease despite having three good scorers as well. My thinking is Iowa State should light them up in the same way Creighton did.
Finally you have two teams from the American Athletic Conference, a conference that got no love from the selection committee. (Sorry SMU. You should’ve been in.) Cincinnati was seen as a top team through most of the season, but struggled late because they really don’t have much offense outside of Sean Kilpatrick. UConn has top level talent, but haven’t put everything together. Could Shabazz Napier pull a Kemba Walker? Don’t wait for it. And I haven’t even mentioned North Carolina. That shows you what we’re dealing with here in the East.
First round upset that will happen: Harvard over Cincinnati
As mentioned above, Cincinnati struggles to score. They play hard-nosed defense and might have the best player on the floor, but Harvard is disciplined and skilled enough offensively to get the shots they want. You’ll remember this Harvard team as the same team that upset third seeded New Mexico last year, but this year’s version is actually more talented with players returning from suspension. Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry add an extra layer of talent to Harvard, who is led by the dynamic duo of Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders. Like the committee I have no faith in the AAC.
First round upset that won’t happen: Providence over North Carolina
Providence made a great run to make the Big East tournament finals, but let’s remember the Big East isn’t nearly as good as what it used to be. The Friars have been fighting an uphill battle all year with limited depth due to two players being thrown off the team. The team is so thin that Bryce Cotton basically plays every minute of every game. He does it well too with 21.4 points a game, but it won’t be enough in this one. Providence struggled with Kentucky’s athleticism earlier this year and Carolina brings a similar set of skills to the table. Providence hasn’t seen a team this talented and athletic in conference because those teams don’t really exist in the Big East anymore. People want to buy their recent run as momentum for a tourney run, but I’m not buying.
Best Non-Bracket Bets:
Harvard +2.5 over Cincinnati – The game will be close and you need to be able to create offensive opportunities in those late game situations.
George Washington +2.5 over Memphis – Memphis isn’t the smartest team, doesn’t have a good game-management coach, and just finds ways to lose games.
Iowa State to make the Final Four (+600) – I think Michigan State will make the Final Four, but they’re odds aren’t worth touching. This is the best value you’ll get in the region and you can always hedge in the Elite Eight.