The East Region is going to be fascinating, particularly in the top half of the bracket, which features North Carolina, Providence, Indiana and Kentucky. We could very easily get a second round that sees UNC play the Friars and Indiana face those Wildcats, meaning that one of Tom Crean or John Calipari will be headed home the first weekend.
I’m unnecessarily fired up to see that postgame handshake.
THREE STORYLINES TO WATCH
- North Carolina’s “toughness”, and tough draw: The knock on this North Carolina team this season has been their “toughness” or lack-there-of, and while it seemed like they answered those questions this week in Washington D.C., one weekend may be enough to change a narrative but it may not be enough to change who a team is. And UNC is going to have to hope they have changed, because they got the toughest draw of just about anyone. They’re looking at Providence and Kris Dunn in the second round and either a hot Kentucky team or Big Ten regular season champion Indiana in the Sweet 16.
- Kentucky’s resurgence: Speaking of Kentucky, the Wildcats won a share of the SEC regular season title and took down the SEC tournament title this season despite all of the question marks we had with this group back in January. Tyler Ulis was an all-american this season, Jamal Murray has been a flame-thrower for the last month, Derek Willis is suddenly a sniper at the four and Skal Labissiere is finally playing something like the kid that was a consensus top two recruit. This will be a popular Final Four pick.
- Xavier’s guard play: There are two major question marks in regards to this Xavier team: Can they handle a team that is going to press them, and can they slow down a team with a dynamic point guard? And while the Musketeers got a good draw through the first weekend, they’re looking at a matchup with Notre Dame (Demetrius Jackson) or West Virginia (Press Virginia) in the Sweet 16. That’s not ideal.
THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … ?: No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 4 Kentucky
The Mountaineers don’t have an easy road by any stretch of the imagination. Stephen F. Austin is a damn good No. 14 seed — we’ll get to that in a second — and Notre Dame matches up really well with them — we’ll get to that as well. But I think WVU can get out of the first weekend, and if they do, they’ll likely draw a tantalizing matchup with a Xavier team that struggles against the kind of pressure that WVU plays with.
Kentucky, on the other hand, is staring at future matchups with Indiana and North Carolina, which is probably why John Calipari was so aggravated about Kentucky’s draw. That said, I think that UK is playing as well as just about anyone in the country this days, and I think they have the horses to make a run.
FINAL FOUR SLEEPER: No. 6 Notre Dame
Assuming the Irish can get past whichever questionable bubble inclusion gets out of the play-in game, they have a terrific draw against, potentially, both West Virginia and Xavier. The Irish have good, veteran guards that haven’t been turnover prone in their back court, and if they attack WVU’s press to score, they should get a myriad of open threes early in the shot clock. And against Xavier, they’ll ask Demetrius Jackson to break down the Musketeer defense since the Irish have the shooters to force Xavier out of their 1-3-1 zone. Last year’s Notre Dame team was unequivocally better than this year’s, but I think this year’s team has a better chance of getting to the Final Four.
UPSETS THAT CAN HAPPEN
- No. 14 Stephen F. Austin over No. 3 West Virginia: The Lumberjacks are 58-1 in Southland play the last two seasons and won a game in the tournament two years ago against a VCU team that ran a similar press to WVU. When two teams with similar strengths go head-to-head, I usually bet on who does it better, but SFA is really, really good.
- No. 9 Providence to the Sweet 16: UNC has been much, much improved defensively, but they still don’t have the ideal personnel to guard ball-screens. Providence loves to run ball-screens for Kris Dunn, and there’s an argument to be made that the Friars will have the two best players on the floor with Dunn and Ben Bentil.
UPSETS THAT WON’T HAPPEN
- No. 13 Stony Brook over No. 4 Kentucky: Stony Brook is really good and has one of the nation’s best mid-major players in Jameel Warney, but Warney is basically the size of Alex Poythress and I don’t know who on the Seawolves can slow down that back court.
- No. 12 Chattanooga over No. 5 Indiana: This will be a popular pick, but I just can’t see it. Chattanooga beat Georgia and Illinois with Casey Jones in the lineup, and I think Yogi Ferrell plus Indiana’s shooters will be enough to handle Chattanooga’s zone.
FEEL LIKE GAMBLING?: No. 2 Xavier to the Final Four
While I don’t love Xavier’s matchups in the later rounds, I do love this Xavier team. They’ve got so many guys that can beat you in so many different ways. Trevon Bluiett can play the three or small-ball four, Jalen Reynolds and James Farr and big, strong and mean, and Edmond Sumner is a total difference-maker when he plays well. Head coach Chris Mack also has a reputation for winning games in March. Again, the issue for Xavier in this even isn’t their players, it’s the matchups they drew.
THE STUDS YOU KNOW ABOUT
- Kris Dunn, Providence: He really struggled late in the season, but Dunn is probably the most talented point guard in the country. And he’s one of the nation’s best on-ball defenders.
- Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Ferrell has been the heart and soul of this Indiana team this season, leading them through a horrid start to the season and to a Big Ten regular season title.
- Brice Johnson, North Carolina: Johnson’s a 6-foot-11 pogo stick that averages a double-double.
THE STUDS YOU’LL FIND OUT ABOUT
- Ben Bentil, Providence: Dunn gets the headlines, but it’s Bentil that’s been the best player for Providence over the course of the last three months. He’s a 6-foot-8 stretch-four that’s built like a wrestler.
- Jameel Warney, Stony Brook: Anyone that saw Warney put the Seawolves on his back in the America East title game already knows. He had 43 points on 18-for-22 shooting. He’s the only reason we can entertain Kentucky getting upset.
- Jaysean Paige, West Virginia: He’s the leading scorer for the Mountaineers but he comes off the bench. Paige is the reason they’re been effective at times in the half court offensively.
BEST OPENING ROUND MATCHUP: No. 3 West Virginia vs. No. 14 Stephen F. Austin
We already touched on this game, but it’s going to be an intense, physical, up-and-down game that should be a terrific watch.
MATCHUPS TO ROOT FOR
- No. 5 Indiana vs. No. 4 Kentucky: These two blue blood programs haven’t squared off since the Sweet 16 in 2012, which came three months after Kentucky lost at the buzzer to Indiana in Bloomington.
- No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 1 North Carolina: Do I really need to explain this one?
CBT PREDICTION: Kentucky continues to play great basketball as they advance through the region and to the Final Four.