2019 NCAA Tournament East Region Preview

by A.J. Applegarth
2019 NCAA Tournament East Region Preview

Yesterday was one of my favorite holidays of the year! No, I am not talking about St. Patrick's Day. That was just an added bonus this year. Yes, fans, I am talking about the NCAA Tournament's Selection Sunday! The 2019 NCAA Men's Bracket is officially released, and productivity at work today will be at an all-time low.

For me, March Madness beats out Christmas, New Year's Eve, and Thanksgiving combined! The past two NCAA Tournaments have been even sweeter, as my Alma mater, Virginia Tech, played in the big dance. Granted, the Hokies lost in the 8-9 match-up to Wisconsin and Alabama in 2017 and 2018, respectively. However, 2019 could be very, very different. More on that later, though.

Let's get to the 2019 NCAA Tournament East Region Preview!

2019 NCAA Tournament East Region Preview

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Breakdown of the Top-4 Seeds

#1-Seed Duke Blue Devils

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Not surprisingly, the Duke Blue Devils earned the top overall seed in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Duke was one of the strongest teams in the country all season long. But, they faltered down the stretch when Zion Williamson missed five games due to a knee injury. Williamson (22.1 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 1.8 BPG) was back to his dominant self in the ACC Tournament, though. His presence is a big reason why Duke claimed the overall top seed.

That being said, Duke also has one of the most experienced and best coaches in the NCAA in Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K has put together yet another stellar squad, featuring RJ Barrett (22.9 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 4.1 APG) and Cam Reddish (13.7 PPG, 32.7 3P%) to complement Williamson. This team is well-deserving of their seed, but they have a pretty tough road to the Final Four.

#2-Seed Michigan State Spartans

Like Coach K and Duke, Coach Tom Izzo and Michigan State are March Madness stalwarts. This year, Izzo has the Spartans riding high after winning both the regular season Big Ten Title, as well as the Conference Championship. After beating a strong Michigan team three times this season, I felt Michigan State should have been awarded the fourth #1-Seed ahead of Gonzaga. Alas, they have to continue to prove themselves by trying to dismiss the Blue Devils to get to Minneapolis.

Michigan State's offense runs through Guard Cassius Winston, who leads the team in points (18.9), assists (7.6), and steals (1.0) per game. Winston, who converted the go-ahead bucket against the Wolverines on Sunday, had a lot of help from Matt McQuaid. The Senior Guard scored a career-high 27 points in Michigan State's comeback win. McQuaid will need to be on-point in the NCAA Tournament, as well, if the Spartans want to make a deep run.

#3-Seed LSU Tigers

The Tigers are one of the more interesting seeds in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. This LSU team notched home wins over Auburn, St. Mary's, and Tennessee, and also took down Kentucky in Lexington. They won the SEC regular season title but lost to the Florida Gators, 76-73 in the quarterfinals of the SEC Conference Tournament.

Their success aside, LSU enters the tourney under a cloud of controversy thanks to Coach Will Wade's suspension.  Wade was placed on administrative leave on March 8th for comments he reportedly made on a wiretapped phone call that was intercepted by the FBI. As of now, Wade is not likely to coach the Tigers in the NCAA Tournament, and his future with the team is also to be determined.

Regardless of losing their coach, LSU still boasts a powerful lineup, backed by Freshmen, Naz Reid and Javonte Smart. Reid leads the team in rebounds per game (7.2) and also in 3-point percentage (37.0%), and is second on the team with 13.7 PPG. Smart and Sophomore Guard, Tremont Waters (15.1 PPG, 5.9 APG, and 3.0 SPG) represent a fierce back-court whose talent outweighs their age/experience. If LSU plans to make some noise in the tourney, all three of these guys will need to step up for the Tigers.

#4-Seed Virginia Tech Hokies

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Ah yes, we finally come to my beloved Hokies! Coach Buzz Williams had this team firing on all cylinders to start 2019, with VT going 11-1 in non-conference play. They had quality wins over Purdue and Washington, coupled with a 1-point loss at Penn State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The Hokies finished ACC-play in 5th Place, with their biggest conference win coming at home against the Zion Williamson-less Duke Blue Devils. However, Virginia Tech was also shorthanded in that game, playing without their star point guard, Justin Robinson.

The good news for the Hokies, Robinson is slated to return for the NCAA Tournament. The bad news, Robinson has missed the last 12 games since injuring his foot in a road win against Miami in late-January. So, it is conceivable that Robinson will have some rust to shake off in VT's first round match-up against the #13-Seed St. Louis Billikens. Just having Justin Robinson on the court will be a huge confidence-builder for the Hokies, though.

While playing without Robinson, Virginia Tech's core really came together to finish out the season on a positive note. Seniors Ty Outlaw (46.0 3P%) and Ahmed Hill (37.8 3P%), and Sophomore Nickeil Alexander-Walker (38.1 3P%) crushed teams from behind the arc all season long. Junior Kerry Blackshear Jr. really turned up his game after Robinson's injury, establishing himself as one of the best big men in the ACC.

I am very excited to see how this team gels with Robinson back in the fold, but I think they pose a major threat to #1-Seed Blue Devils in a potential Sweet-16 tilt. Don't sleep on the Hokies to do some damage and potentially break some brackets along the way!

Dark Horse Team of the Region

#11-Seed Belmont Bruins

Dare I say that we are going to see a repeat of last year's #11-Seed Cinderella Story, Loyola-Chicago, with this season's #11-Seed Belmont? In a word, no. I am not that bold. But, more so because of the top-heavy nature of this region, as just described. However, I do like Belmont to make the most of their controversial at-large tournament bid and escape the first weekend unscathed.

Belmont led the nation in assists (19.9 APG) and finished second in the nation in scoring (87.4 PPG) behind only Gonzaga (88.8 PPG). Led by Senior Guard, Dylan Windler (21.4 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 43.0 3P%), the Bruins finished the regular season at 26-5 and tied for first place (16-2) in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Belmont's offensive acumen alone should allow them to get past #11-Seed Temple in the First-Four on Tuesday night.  Then, the upset train will continue against both #6-Seed Maryland and the winner of the #3 LSU vs. #14 Yale match-up.  Unfortunately, I do not see Belmont moving past the Sweet-16.

Best Game of the First Round

#5-Seed Mississippi State Bulldogs vs. #12-Seed Liberty Flames

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This was a bit of a toss-up for me, as I love the storyline behind the match-up between the#7-Seed Louisville Cardinals and the #10-Seed Minnesota Golden Gophers. The "Pitino" connection is intriguing, and whichever team wins gets a rematch with #2-Seed Michigan State. It almost writes itself.

But, for this segment, I want to highlight the dreaded 5-12 match-up between Mississippi State and Liberty. The SEC was one of the strongest conferences all season, sending seven teams to the 2019 NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs have quality wins over St. Mary's, Wofford, Cincinnati, Florida and Auburn, all of whom made the big dance. Mississippi State is not afraid of putting up the three-ball, noted by their team's 37.8 3P%. Keep an eye on Quinndary Weatherspoon to get the Bulldogs going early and often.

On the flip-side, the Liberty Flames are quite a worthy adversary to the Bulldogs. The Flames finished the regular season tied atop the Atlantic Sun Conference with Lipscomb at 16-2, then beat Lipscomb for the ASUN Conference Title. Led by their trio of double-digit scorers, Scottie James, Caleb Homesley, and Lovell Cabbil Jr., the Flames will look to continue the trend of the #12-Seed upset against Mississippi State.

Other Players to Watch from the East Region

Jordan Norwa, Louisville Cardinals

Norwa leads the Cardinals in minutes per game (32.0 MPG), points per game (17.2 PPG), rebounds per game (7.5 RPG), steals per game (1.0 SPG), and three-point percentage (37.1 3P%, min. 10 games played). However, he also leads the team in turnovers with 2.4 per game. Louisville will continue to run their offense through Norwa in the tourney, but if he gets careless, it could lead to an earlier-than-expected exit for the Cardinals.

Anthony Cowan Jr., Maryland Terrapins

Cowan Jr. is to the Terrapins as Jordan Norwa is to the Cardinals, as Cowan Jr. leads Maryland in nearly all of the same stat categories. He leads in minutes per game (34.6 MPG), points per game (16.0 PPG), assists per game (4.3 APG), steals per game (0.9 SPG), and turnovers per game (2.9 TO). As mentioned above, I think Belmont will upset Maryland. However, if Cowan Jr. can get the Terps scoring at a high percentage, he could help Maryland prove me wrong.

Pack Your Bags for Minneapolis

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As I much as I would love for the Virginia Tech Hokies get past Zion Williamson and Duke en route to Minneapolis, I just do not see it happening. The Blue Devils have been one of, if not, THE best team in the country with Zion on the court. There is just no denying Williamson's sheer athletic ability and talent, and his supporting cast is well equipped to help him carry this team to the National Championship. Duke is the heavy favorite, and I think they will be the last team standing in Minneapolis on April 8th, 2019.

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