East Region Preview: Are Michigan State and Iowa State the two best teams?

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In a move that surprised many when the bracket was announced, it was Virginia and not Michigan that ended up getting the No. 1 seed in the East Region. Did they deserve it? Well, when you win the ACC regular season title outright and back that up with an ACC tournament title, I think you’ve made all the statements that you need to make.

The problem?

Their reward was getting stuck in a bracket with a No. 4 seed that just so happens to be one of the most talented teams in the country and, thanks to the long-awaited arrival of overall team health, peaking as the the tournament begins.

That would be Michigan State. The same Michigan State that’s coached by Tom Izzo. Them’s the breaks.

MORERead through all of our bracket analysis here

Three story lines to watch

  • 1. Can Michigan State’s seniors get a Final Four?: One of the coolest streaks in college basketball is that Tom Izzo has never had a four-year senior graduate without reaching a Final Four. That will end this season if Keith Appling and Adreian Payne cannot get Sparty to North Texas.
  • 2. Does Hilton Magic reach the east coast?: Iowa State has been one of the best teams all season long. Fred Hoiberg is a wizard. The Cyclones are one of the most entertaining teams in the country. Can they ride the wave all the way to the Final Four?
  • 3. Is this where the upsets are?: The consensus on Monday morning will be that the East’s No. 3 and No. 4 seeds are better than their No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. Does that mean that we’ll see Virginia and Villanova falling early?

The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Iowa State

How much fun would that be? I’m not sure that there is a matchup in this entire tournament that I would look forward to more than seeing Tom Izzo match wits with Fred Hoiberg with a trip to the Final Four on the line. We’ve said all season long that the Spartans are a title favorite once they get back to 100%, and I think they proved they are by steamrolling No. 2 seeds Wisconsin and Michigan in the Big Ten tournament. And Iowa State? Well, they just won the tournament of the toughest conference in the country.

MOREEight teams that can win the national title, and why.

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Final Four sleeper: North Carolina

The problem with relying on North Carolina is that you never quite know which North Carolina is going to show up. This is a team that beat the preseason top four teams in the country during the season — including Final Four favorites Michigan State and Louisville — but also lost to the likes of Belmont, UAB and Wake Forest. Here’s the perfect example: they dug themselves a 20-point hole against Pitt in the ACC quarterfinals. They nearly erased that deficit in the final 10 minutes. Good UNC is really good. Bad UNC could lose to No. 11 seed Providence in the Round of 64.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 12 Harvard vs. No. 5 Cincinnati: The Bearcats are one of the toughest, most physical defensive teams in the country. But they can’t score. Harvard is tough and physical as well, loaded with the kind of talent you never see in the Ivy League these days. Slow down Sean Kilpatrick, and the Crimson could land another tournament upset.
  • No. 11 Providence vs. No. 6 North Carolina: Bryce Cotton vs. Marcus Paige. Yes, please.

Matchups to root for

  • No. 7 UConn or No. 10 St. Joseph’s vs. No. 2 Villanova: Take your pick: either two former Big East rivals square off, or we get ‘The Holy War’ in the NCAA tournament. Either way, that will be fun.

The studs you know about

  • Gary Harris, Michigan State: The Spartans are loaded, but for my money, Gary Harris is their best player and their best potential pro.
  • Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: I’ve been trumpeting Kilpatrick for months. He’s had a superb season made all-the-more impressive by the fact he’s the only offensive option on his team.
  • Shabazz Napier, UConn: There aren’t five players in the NCAA tournament I’d rather have with the ball in his hands in a critical moment than Napier. Will he have his Kemba Walker moment?
  • Marcus Paige, North Carolina: Outside of a rough stretch at the start of ACC play, Paige has been one of the best guards in the country this season.

MOREAll-Americans | Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | Freshman of the Year

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia: The Cavs have been a bit under-the-radar all season long, but Brogdon has been their best player this season and it’s not really all that close.
  • Bryce Cotton, Providence: College basketball’s ironman. He averaged 41.9 minutes in Big East games and carried the Friars to their first tournament in a decade.
  • Jeremy Ingram, North Carolina-Central: Ingram might be the most dangerous scorer in the region. He went for more than 30 points five times and hit for 25 points on six different occasions.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 12 Harvard over No. 5 Cincinnati: The Crimson picked off No. 3 seed New Mexico in the Round of 64 last season, and I think their defense is strong enough that they can land another upset this year. Siyani Chambers is the truth.
  • No. 2 Villanova won’t get out of the first weekend: I don’t know what to make of Villanova this year, but I do know this: their only elite win came against Kansas when the Jayhawks were sputtering and they got blown out by Syracuse and Creighton twice and lost to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • No. 13 Delaware over No. 4 Michigan State: The Blue Hens have three really talented scorers on their perimeter. It’s a shame they are running into this Spartan team.

Feeling like gambling?

  • No. 14 North Carolina-Central vs. No. 3 Iowa State: NCCU is going to have to hope that Iowa State has an off-night, but remember: this team won at N.C. State this season. They’re not a pushover.

CBT Predictions: No one gets in the way of the Michigan State freight train, not even Tony Bennett and his vaunted packline defense.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.