NCAA Tournament 2017 East Region Preview

by A.J. Applegarth
NCAA Tournament 2017 East Region Preview

March. Madness. Is. Finally. Here!  Woooooooooooooooo!  I LOVE me some NCAA Tourney Time where upsets occur on the regular, and the number of torn-up brackets increases after each game’s final buzzer! It literally is, “maddening,” but I’m happy to see it back for another year of headaches and heartaches...hopefully, for everyone other than myself!

While I’m definitely excited to get back into analyzing all of the games, and picking that “winning bracket,” I will admit that I still have not fully digested everything this year’s entire bracket has to offer just yet. But, one region I have seemingly paid more attention to than the others is this year’s East Region, not only because of the power-packed teams slotted here, but because of my general roots of college basketball fandom, as well. So, without further ado, let’s get to the East Region Preview!

NCAA Tournament 2017 East Region Preview

This region boasts last year’s defending champion as its No. 1 Seed, the Villanova Wildcats. The team who happens to own the Overall No. 1 Seed this year, and who also happens to reside a mere thirty minutes from my own hometown. This region also has tournament stalwarts of recent years in the No. 5 Seed Virginia Cavaliers and the No. 8 Seed Wisconsin Badgers, two teams who could each make a deep run in this bracket, if they can make it past the 1st Round.

Aside from those three, we see two other past Tourney Champions sitting in within the top four seeds of the East Region, with the No. 2 Seed Duke Blue Devils and the No. 4 Seed Florida Gators, a team I grew-up watching and rooting for any chance I could.  A few other middle-seeded teams that could make some noise in this bracket include No. 6-seeded SMU, a team that has not been on the losing end of a game since January 12th, and my Alma Mater, the Virginia Tech Hokies, sitting in the No. 9 Seed.  GO HOKIES!!

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The RPI numbers for the teams in this region is just plain ridiculous! You can see truly see just how stacked this region really is by these rankings, as all of the top four seeds rank in the Top-11 in RPI (Villanova at No. 1, Duke at No. 6, Florida at No. 10, and Baylor at No. 11).  Sixth-seeded SMU finished with an RPI of 13, while Virginia finished at 18 in the RPI Rankings. Basically, the two No. 16 Seeds, Mt. Saint Mary’s and New Orleans, along with the No. 15 Seed Troy, are the only teams in this region not ranked in the Top-61 for RPI. Shear. Madness!

Top Four Team Previews

No. 1 Villanova Wildcats

I feel that this Villanova team is not quite the same team as that Championship team from last season. Both teams finished as Big East Regular Season Champs, but this year’s team was able to avenge last season’s Big East Tournament Championship loss to Seton Hall by beating them in yet another tight match-up in the Semifinals before going on to win the Tourney Championship game against Creighton.

That team earned a No. 2-seed, but steamrolled to the Elite Eight game versus No. 1 Seed Kansas by beating No. 15 UNC Asheville, No. 7 Iowa, and No. 3 Miami…by a combined 72 points! Oh, and then they set an NCAA Final Four record in avenging an early-season loss to the No. 2 Seed Oklahoma (one of only four teams to beat Nova last season)…by 44 points…after beating Kansas by only five points. Lastly, as we know, they beat UNC on a buzzer-beater 3-pointer to claim the title.

But, this team still seems different…in a more-dangerous manner, if that’s even possible. They still have Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson, and last-season’s hero, Kris Jenkins, each with another full season together, and that Championship title under their belts. This team had no out-of-conference losses this season, and had only three in-conference losses, two of which, came at the hands of the Butler Bulldogs. This team is the first defending champion to earn the No. 1 Overall Seed since the 2007 Florida Gators…who were the last team to repeat as Champions. So, I ask, will this team match that feat, as well? Guess we’ll have to wait and see, but I have all the confidence that they can!

No. 2 Duke Blue Devils

Wow…just…wow! That’s about all I can, unfortunately, say about Duke’s end to the Regular Season, and unexpected run to the ACC Tournament Championship. Duke has had their fair-share of mishaps this season between Grayson Allen’s “Trip-Gate,” and the various injuries the team faced, both on-and-off the court, as Coach K missed time to recover from back surgery.

Some argued that after dispelling Louisville, UNC (for the second time in three games) and Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament, along with their stellar record against the nation’s top teams all season long (Eight Top-25 RPI Wins, 13 Top-50 RPI Wins), that Duke could/should have earned a No. 1 Seed. Even potentially over UNC, who had three-fewer Top-25 RPI Wins on the season. Duke is another team that relies on their strong triumvirate of players in Jayson Tatum, Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard. If the Blue Devils want to make a deep run in this tourney, they’ll need continued, strong contributions from all of these guys.

The problem with Duke is that they still have their faults and inconsistencies. I don’t see them falling to No. 15 Seed Troy in the First Round this season (like they did to Lehigh back in 2012). However, they will need to continue the momentum they gained in the ACC Tourney to make a deep run. Otherwise, they could see an early exit in a potential Sweet 16 match-up against either Baylor/SMU.

No. 3 Baylor Bears

Speaking of Baylor, let’s talk about their own inconsistencies! Here’s a team that just cannot seem to catch a break with their Tournament Seeding over the past few years after having strong regular seasons. Last season, the Bears were bounced as the team on the wrong end of the dreaded 5-12 upset. In 2015, they were also given a No. 3 Seed…and lost in the First Round against No. 14 Georgia State. Ouch!

Back to this season, we see a Baylor team that was not even included in the Preseason rankings, yet climbed all the way to the No. 1 ranking in Week 10. In that stretch, they posted wins against No. 4 Oregon, No. 24 Michigan State, No. 10 Louisville, and No. 7 Xavier, along with these other tourney-bound teams: Florida Gulf Coast, VCU, Texas Southern, Iowa State and Oklahoma State. That quite an impressive start to the season, for sure. However, they stumbled their way through the back-half of their Big 12 Conference games, going 5-5 in their final ten games, after starting 7-1. Oh, and they lost their opening round game of the Big 12 Tournament to play-in game bound Kansas State.

Assuming Baylor can find a way to get back on a consistent win-streak, they could find their way into the second weekend of the tournament for the first time since 2014. But, if they cannot get their turnover rate under control, they could be gone on the first weekend, yet again.

No. 4 Florida Gators

Ah, yes, my old friends, the Florida Gators! This is a tough section to write because the true fan in me wants to project this team as a clear Final Four favorite, while the realist in me knows that it’s a very, very tough road for this Gators team to make that kind of a run. Can it be done? Sure. Will it be done…doubtful.

After suffering three early-season losses to No. 11 Gonzaga, No. 5 Duke, and an at-the-time-unranked Florida State team, Florida was a strong team for the majority of their SEC Conference games, losing only four games to Kentucky, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt (twice). But, the Gators then fell to Vandy…for the second time in six days, and third time this season…in their first game of the SEC Tournament.

The biggest problem for Florida is finding a way to overcome the loss of leading-rebounder, John Egbunu. His presence has already been missed, as the Gators are only 1-3 in their last four games, and 3-3 in the six games they have played without Egbunu. That is not a good way to enter the NCAA Tournament at all!

Phoenix, AZ Bound

As stated above, I think Villanova has the best chance to come out of this region. They are the most complete team, they have the experience, they have a calm, cool, and collected head coach in Jay Wright, and they even have a little history on their side.

All that being said, they will be challenged along the way, and as early as the Second Round, where they will face the winner of the 8/9 match-up between Wisconsin/Virginia Tech. After that, it could be a rematch against No. 5 Virginia, a team they beat 61-59 earlier this season. Then, they could have to get through the suddenly-surging Blue Devils for a date in the Final Four against the winner of the West Region. Tough road…definitely, but can this Villanova team get through it…absolutely!

Dark Horse

Wisconsin Badgers

I think, along with most everyone else, the Badgers got a raw deal “earning” an 8-Seed after their tumultuous season and Big Ten Tournament run to the Championship Game. They started off 21-3, but finished the regular season going only 2-5.

They draw a tough opening round match-up against a tough Virginia Tech team, led by Zach LeDay (16.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG) and Seth Allen (13.4 PPG, .451 3P%). LeDay and Allen helped VT beat Duke (albeit, without Grayson Allen), and Virginia, two teams that could block the Badgers path to the Final Four (assuming they can get past Villanova in the 2nd Round, that is).

As previously stated, Wisconsin is a tournament mainstay in recent years, and they pose a major threat to this region if they can find that spark from the first ¾ of the regular season. Buyers beware, though!

Players to Watch

Josh Hart, Villanova Wildcats

Back to the Wildcats we go! Josh Hart is not only the Big East Player-of-the-Year, but he is also a Finalist for the NCAA Player-of-the-Year award, thanks to the big-play ability he’s shown all season. The most-recent of his big plays was the offensive rebound turned into the game-winning three-point play in the Big East Semifinal game against Seton Hall. After Hart came up with the ball in transition, he kicked it over to Kris Jenkins, who missed a fairly wide open 3-pointer. But, Hart was right there, crashing the boards to get the ball and put it back in the basket, while collecting a foul in the process.

That is the type of hard-nosed player Hart is, and has been throughout his career at Villanova. His 18.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.1 APG, and .407 3P% are not the best numbers compared to some of the other players in this tournament, but they will be good enough, along with the other intangibles he brings to the court each day, to get this team back to the promise land!

Semi Ojeleye, SMU Mustangs

The former Duke Blue Devil Ojeleye is a 3-point machine, connecting on .428 3P%, and his pinpoint accuracy has helped lead the way for the Mustangs this season. SMU tends to play at a slower pace, though, and that also lends itself to Ojeleye’s lower turnover numbers (1.4 TO).

He’s an agile player whose season numbers are very similar to the player I just mentioned, Josh Hart. Ojeleye also managed to hit 18.9 PPG, had a slight uptick in RPG over Hart at 6.8, but only about half as many APG with 1.6. He will continue to lead this team, and could be the catalyst to propel the Mustangs into an Elite Eight match-up against Hart’s Wildcats.

Johnathan Motley, Baylor Bears

Talk about a meteoric rise to prominence! Motley started his Baylor career as a redshirt in 2013-14, and was not even starting for the Bears until late last season. Now, his 17.3 PPG, 9.9 RPG, and 2.4 APG have him eying the First Round of the 2017 NBA Draft! He has really excelled in the second half this year by getting more involved in the offense, and grabbing more offensive rebounds. He’s a force on the inside, and will draw a ton of fouls, so getting him the ball inside early and often will be key for Baylor to move forward in this region.

Grayson Allen / Luke Kennard /  Jayson Tatum, Duke Blue Devils

I won’t dwell too much on Allen here, as we know how good he is…at tripping his opponents…not by “breaking their ankles” with his moves…but, by literally tripping them on the floor! It’s a shame that he’s deemed a dirty player, but it’s also warranted. Regardless, Allen is still a force on this team, and his emotional play will hopefully continue to rub-off on the younger tandem of Kennard/Tatum in a positive way for this year’s tournament.

Kennard is going to put up points for this team, proven by his 20.1 PPG rate on the season. He’s having a breakout sophomore campaign, and he is dangerous from beyond the arc, hitting .443 3P%. He’s also dangerous from the charity stripe, hitting .849 FT%, so if the games are close at the end, he’s not the guy the opponents want to have to foul in order to get back into the game.

Lastly, and possibly, the best player in this section is Jayson Tatum. He doesn’t have the high PPG rate that Kennard does (only at 16.9 PPG), but he’s a great rebounder (7.3 RPG), and he’s really stepped up his scoring on shots inside the arc. He managed to hit 68% of those shots through the entire ACC Tournament, and looks to be peaking at the right time for this team to succeed.

Best Game in First Round

Virginia vs. UNC Wilmington

I really think the 8/9 match-up between Wisconsin/Virginia Tech is going to be an exciting, back-and-forth game, but the 5/12 match-up between Virginia/UNC Wilmington is my pick for the best game in the First Round.

Being a VT alum/fan, it’s in my blood to root against UVA, and the fact that they drew the No. 5 Seed makes it even easier to root for the upset here. But, I’m just not sure that it will happen that way. UNC Wilmington is an in-your-face team that averages 85.2 PPG, and they are very good at not turning the ball over. But, UVA has the most-efficient defense in the best league in the country.

Their downside, though, is maintaining leads after halftime, which is something that UNC Wilmington’s high-power offense could make a reality…as long as they can actually get points on the board. It’s Defense versus Offense…who will come out on top? My guess is Defense, but I’d also be OK with the Offense pulling the upset!

Biggest Storyline

In my personal opinion, the East Region’s biggest storyline is the potential Elite Eight match-up between the NCAA’s last two National Champions in Villanova (2016 Champions) and Duke (2015 Champions).

I do, however, think that particular storyline goes even deeper on the Duke side, though. In order for that “Clash of Champions” match-up to occur, the Blue Devils need to get past, well, their past! A potential Second Round match-up against former Duke Assistant Coach, Steve Wojciechowski, the current Head Coach of a strong, 10th-seeded Marquette awaits.

The Golden Eagles have the experience to get past the No. 7 Seed South Carolina Gamecocks, who enter the tournament losing 6-of-9, thanks to their poor offensive output. Then, the Blue Devils could see another familiar face in former teammate, Semi Ojeleye, who now plays for a very strong SMU team, as mentioned above. If SMU gets into this game, it could definitely spell trouble for Duke! Keep an eye on these former-friends-turned-foes, as they could be the reason that all of the “Duke as Champion” brackets will go “POOF!”

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