The East Region shapes up to be arguably the toughest of the four in the NCAA Tournament this year. With 5 of the last 11 champions in the bracket (Duke twice, Florida twice, and Villanova once), there is plenty of experience and past success in the East this year. Who will cut down the nets at MSG next weekend on their way to the Final Four?? Let’s find out.
1. Villanova Wildcats (31-3)
How They Got There: Big East Conference Champion.
Season Review: The defending champs! Villanova has defended their title pretty well so far this season, only losing three times all season and winning the Big East regular season and conference tournament. They are a well deserving number one overall seed going into March Madness this year, as well as the top ranked team in the country in the AP Poll. Before winning the Big East, Nova beat a bunch of solid teams including Purdue, Notre Dame, and UVA in non-conference play. Their only Achilles heel has been the Butler Bulldogs this year, who found a way to beat them twice, which is crazy since they’ve only lost three times total since this date last year. The Wildcats’ uber efficient offense is led by 2016 hero and Wooden award finalist Josh Hart (18.9 PPG).
Tournament Prediction: No team has repeated as champions since Florida in 2007. Villanova is a very good team and well coached by Jay Wright, but this tournament is tough to win back to back years. The committee did not do them any favors as well, putting Vegas favorite Duke (see below), Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida, and even Baylor in their possible path to the Final Four. Nova will slip up at some point against one of these talented teams, but I still think they make it to the Elite Eight.
2. Duke Blue Devils (27-8)
How They Got There: ACC Conference Champion.
Season Review: It has been a roller coaster ride for everyone’s favorite team this year (dodges tomatoes). Coming into the season, they looked to have one of the most impressive rosters talent wise in the last decade filled with McDonald’s All-Americans including Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum. However, the team has dealt with injuries to almost every player on the team (including Coach K) and of course controversy in the name of the habitual linestepper Grayson Allen. In true Duke fashion, the Blue Devils have pulled themselves together at exactly the right time and are coming off an impressive ACC Tournament run with wins over UNC (1 seed), Louisville (2 seed), and Notre Dame (5 seed). Super sophomore Luke Kennard (20.1 PPG), senior big man Amile Jefferson, and those talented freshmen look to lead the Blue Devils back to the promised land once again this tournament. Oh yeah, in case anyone forgot, Duke beat #1 seed North Carolina twice this year.
Tournament Prediction: Duke is going to win it all. Book it.
3. Baylor Bears (25-7)
How They Got There: At-Large from the Big 12.
Season Review: Early in the year, the Bears were one of the best teams in the Big 12 (and country), starting 15-0 and peaking at #1 in the nation in January. They are balanced on offense and defense, but have slipped a bit down the stretch. Baylor has lost 6 of their last 11 games and did not win a game in the Big 12 tournament. To add injury to insult, their best player, Johnathan Motley, hurt his finger last week and may not be ready for this weekend’s game(s).
Tournament Prediction: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, call me a Baylor fan. The Bears have lost in the first round both of the last two years as a 3 seed (lost to Georgia State) and 5 seed (lost to Yale). While you should not feel safe penciling them in your brackets, I think they survive at least one round before losing to the red hot SMU Mustangs.
4. Florida Gators (24-8)
How They Got There: At-Large from the SEC.
Season Review: Florida has been one of the best defensive teams in the nation and was ranked in the top 15 for most of the season. Somehow, 3 of Florida’s 8 losses came to unranked Vanderbilt, but thankfully they won’t have to play the Commodores again this season. Florida did beat Kentucky once this year, so you know they can play with some of the top teams in nation. However their depth is a concern, especially with the injury to big man John Egbunu. Sophomore KeVaughn Allen (13.9 PPG) will try to lead a balanced offense for the Gators deep into the tournament.
Tournament Prediction: The Gators are a bit of a wild card as a 4 seed. On one hand, their defense could shut anyone down and help them make a run to the Elite Eight. On the other hand, they are not super deep and could be susceptible against a team with good big men. If they make it out of the opening weekend of games, I do not see them getting past Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen.
5. Virginia Cavaliers (22-10)
How They Got There: At-Large from the ACC.
Season Review: Another strong defensive team this year in Charlottesville, but not quite to the level of some of the past seasons. Also once again, UVA was one of the toughest teams to watch all season with their slow, methodical offense. UVA beat most of the top ACC teams this year (UNC, Louisville twice, and Notre Dame), but it remains to be seen if this team has enough to make a sustained run in a tournament. Senior London Perrantes may have to put the team on his back to give the Hoos a shot at making a run.
Tournament Prediction: Watch out for the Seahawks in Round 1, who gave Duke a scare last year. Assuming they make it past them, they should have a matchup with another defensive team in Florida (PSA: don’t watch if you like fun basketball). The winner of that game likely has the honor of playing Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen. I just don’t think UVA has enough horses this year to make it to the second weekend.
6. SMU Mustangs (30-4)
How They Got There: AAC Conference Champion.
Season Review: SMU has quietly been one of the most successful teams in the country this season under first year head coach Tim Jankovich. After starting the season 4-3, the Mustangs have won 26 of their last 27 games, including the AAC Conference Tournament last Sunday. They only lost once in conference play all season (at Cincinnati). Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye leads the team in scoring at 18.9 per game and was named AAC Player of the Year. SMU would probably have been given a much better seed if they were in a major conference.
Tournament Prediction: SMU should be able to beat the winner of the Providence/USC game in the opening round. After that, they are slated to play Baylor who have a habit of losing early in the NCAA Tournament. I think the Ponies beat the Bears and make a surprise Sweet Sixteen run before running into Ojeleye’s old squad.
7. South Carolina Gamecocks (22-10)
How They Got There: At-Large from the SEC.
Season Review: Frank Martin’s team makes their first tournament appearance since 2004 after a 22 win season. The Gamecocks have one of the better defenses in the country, but have struggled mightily down the stretch, losing 6 of their last 9 games (only one against a ranked team). They haven’t beaten a good team since January and, personally, I think they are one of the most overrated teams in the field, seed wise.
Tournament Prediction: South Carolina gets a de-facto home game in Greenville, SC to start the tournament. This might be enough to get them one win in the tournament, before getting throttled by Duke in the Round of 32.
8. Wisconsin Badgers (25-9)
How They Got There: At-Large from the Big 10.
Season Review: Wisconsin had yet another solid year, finishing towards the top of the Big 10 conference once again. The Badgers brought back almost everyone from last year and played the same style of basketball that they always do. Slow and methodical on offense and stifling on defense. All fundamentals all day. They are led by Nigel Hayes, who you probably remember from their Final Four run a few years ago. It is pretty surprising that the Badgers are only an 8 seed when 4 other other Big Ten schools are seeded 7 or better. Wisconsin finished 2nd in the Big Ten during the regular season and was the tournament runner-up, so I don’t see how the committee thought they were worse than all 4 of those teams. My best guess is that they were penalized for not beating anyone decent out of conference.
Tournament Prediction: The Badgers are always a tough out in March. They should be able to get by VT, setting up a matchup with the defending champs this weekend. I think Wisconsin will give them a tight game, but they just don’t have the talent this year to hang with Nova.
9. Virginia Tech Hokies (22-10)
How They Got There: At-Large from the ACC.
Season Review: The Hokies are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007, mostly due to their above average offensive efficiency. Forward Zach LeDay has averaged over 16 points per contest this season and shot 53% from the field. Virginia Tech has been able to play at a high level this season in the toughest conference in basketball. They beat Duke, UVA, and Michigan this year, so they can play with the big boys. Fans should at the least expect a competitive game from the Hokies no matter the opponent.
Tournament Prediction: It will be strength against strength as the defensive minded Badgers play the Hokies in the 8-9 game this Thursday. It should be a tight one, but I don’t see VT making it past Wisconsin.
10. Marquette Golden Eagles (19-12)
How They Got There: At-Large from the Big East.
Season Review: Marquette is one of, if not, the best shooting teams in the country this year. They shoot 43% from behind the arc and average 83 points per game as a team. They are also super balanced, which five players averaging double figures in scoring. However, the Golden Eagles are polar opposites on defense and struggle to make stops, which has been their biggest weakness all season in the Big East. Marquette did get some nice wins over Villanova and Creighton this year, but also lost to Georgetown and St. John’s, so you never know what to expect.
Tournament Prediction: Coach K disciple Steve Wojciechowski would love to have a shot at his mentor in the Round of 32, but I don’t think Marquette gets past South Carolina in what amounts to a road game for the Golden Eagles.
11. Providence Friars (20-12)
How They Got There: At-Large from the Big East.
Season Review: After losing star guard Kris Dunn to the NBA, expectations were pretty low for the Friars heading this season. However, Providence finished 3rd in the Big East, due in part to a strong 6 game win streak to close the regular season. Forward Rodney Bullock (15.7 PPG) has carried the Friars’ mediocre offense this season, but defense is the real strength of the team, and will need to be on display if they hope to advance. Bullock was ironically the the hero last year for the Friars in the first round of the tournament against USC, as he hit a game winning shot to advance Providence. Can he do it again this year against the Trojans?
Tournament Prediction: On the one hand, Providence is lucky to be in the tournament with 12 losses. On the other, they got stuck in Dayton for a play-in game with USC, which you never want to have. I think the Friars can take down the Trojans in this game, but don’t expect them to get much further in the “real” tournament.
11. USC Trojans (24-9)
How They Got There: At-Large from the Pac 12.
Season Review: USC’s season ended last year in the tournament with a loss to none other than the Providence Friars, their first opponent. The Trojans have been up and down in the second half of the season after starting 14-0 in their quest for redemption, but the committee rewarded them with arguably the last bubble spot in the big dance (cry me a river Boeheim). They did beat UCLA this year though, along with possibly future opponent SMU very early in the season. USC played in the Pac 12 so of course they can put the ball in the basket. Their defense will be a question mark as they attempt to advance in the tournament.
Tournament Prediction: The play-in game in Dayton versus the Friars should be a pretty competitive matchup. I think it will come down to making stops in the last two minutes, and the Friars have the better defense. Sorry Trojans.
12. UNC Wilmington Seahawks (29-5)
How They Got There: Colonial Athletic Conference Champions.
Season Review: You might remember the Seahawks from last year. They gave Duke a big scare in the first round, only losing by 8 points in the very first game of the tournament on Thursday. Well this year’s team brings back many of those same guys, including CJ Bryce who averages 18 points per game. Wilmington is actually one of the best offensive teams in the country and they make almost 10 threes per game. If they get hot, they can beat just about anybody.
Tournament Prediction: Sadly, the Seahawks get a bad matchup in the bracket with UVA this year. UVA has an excellent defense and should slow down the Wilmington 3 point attack. You never know in March, but things did not line up well for a patented 12 over 5 upset in the East.
13. East Tennessee State Buccaneers (27-7)
How They Got There: Southern Conference Champions.
Season Review: ETSU is back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2010. They rolled through the Southern Conference this year on the back of star senior guard TJ Cromer who averaged over 19 points per game. The Buccaneers did lose both of their matchups against other tournament teams this year (Dayton and UNCW), so they have not proved as of yet that they can compete on the highest level. They will have their chance against the Gators.
Tournament Prediction: Florida has not always been super impressive this season, but they should make quick work of ETSU later this week.
14. New Mexico State Aggies (28-5)
How They Got There: WAC Conference Champions.
Season Review: NMSU had another solid season and earned their fifth NCAA tournament bid in the last 6 years. The Aggies have only 5 losses on the year, but have also not really beaten anyone of note, so their record is a little deceiving. The team is led by guard Ian Baker who averages almost 17 points per game. In case you forgot or weren’t alive yet, the Aggies actually made a Final Four once way back in 1970. I wouldn’t get your hopes up for that to happen again this year.
Tournament Prediction: Although they do get to play the perennial chokers of Baylor, the Aggies do not have much of a chance for an upset this year. Expect them to go quietly into the night.
15. Troy Trojans (22-14)
How They Got There: Sun Belt Conference Champions.
Season Review: Troy has been solid on offense all season, but their defense is a major liability. They struggled at points in the Sun Belt Conference this year, only earning the #6 seed in the conference tournament. However, they put it all together last week and ran through the tournament to get back to big dance. Sophomore Jordon Varnado leads the Trojans in both scoring (16.5) and rebounding (7.1), and will need to play the game of his life to give Troy a chance for an upset.
Tournament Prediction: Sorry Troy, there will be no Trojan horse pulled on Coack K this year.
16. Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers (19-15)
How They Got There: Northeast Conference Champion.
Season Review: The Mount is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. They have been a #16 seed in all five of their previous appearances, and will do that again this year. Mount St. Mary’s scheduled a ton of tough away games to start the season, including tournament teams like WVU, Iowa State, Michigan, Minnesota, and Arkansas. They went just 1-11 during the period, but rebounded in conference play to get back over .500. The Mount is one of the worst actual rebounding teams in the country though, so they better get hot from the field if they want to have any success.
Tournament Prediction: A big win over New Orleans in the play-in game, followed by a humbling blow out loss to #1 seed Villanova Friday.
16. New Orleans Privateers (20-11)
How They Got There: Southland Conference Champion.
Season Review: After almost losing their Division I status a few years ago following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans basketball is one of the best stories of the year. The Privateers will be back in the tournament for the first time in two decades after dominating the regular season and postseason in the Southland. The team is led by Southland Player of the Year Erik Thomas who averages 20 points and 8 rebounds a game. New Orleans has had turnover issues all season though and were blown out in games against Northwestern and Oklahoma State (who they allowed 117 points to). The only team they beat that you have heard is probably Pac 12 bottom feeder Washington State.
Tournament Prediction: It will probably be one and done for New Orleans this tournament.
Photo Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports