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East Regional Preview: Plenty split on Virginia or Michigan State

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

Regional previews: South | Midwest | West | More NCAA tourney

The East Region almost held to form. If not for an old-school Big East rivalry wrinkling the bracket, we would have all top four seeds headed to Manhattan.

As it is, No. 1 Virginia, No. 3 Iowa State, No. 4 Michigan State and No. 7 Connecticut will play Friday night in Madison Square Garden. The NCAAs haven't held in New York City since 1961. It's going to be an incredible scene in that building, considering how well UConn and Iowa State fans will certainly travel for it.

And you know MSU fans should show in hordes. Will top-seeded Virginia, the ACC's only remaining team, impress as well? I'm sure it well. That building will be electric.

This region gave us a few upsets, some really good games, and even a 16-over-1 scare on Friday night, when Coastal Carolina led the Cavaliers by double digits in the first half. We see a game like that every four or five years. But as it always goes, the No. 1 picks itself up and proceeds to get out of there without becoming a victim.

This is what remains of the East. Let's look back at a few more things from the past four days, then glance at what lies ahead for Friday night.

Three thoughts from the weekend

1. Bryce Cotton brilliantly ends his career -- but in a loss

It's getting buried amid a lot of other headlines/developments from the past four days, but I maintain North Carolina-Providence was one of the three best games of the weekend. Only Kentucky-Wichita State and Oregon-Wisconsin top it. Cotton, the Big East tourney's Most Oustanding Player, scored a career-high 36 points in a losing effort. PC, a No. 11 seed, fell 79-77. Cotton probably saved the best game of his career for his last. It was in direct contrast to what happened to Doug McDermott on the other side of the bracket.

Cheers to Cotton, a player that got better and better and only in the past 10 days started to earn the ink he deserved for all he had done for that school.

2. Villanova never seemed like an elite team all season

The Wildcats were the No. 2 seed, but few ever bought this team to win more than two games. Turns out, it couldn't even get that far. I don't disparage Nova, though. This team has no future NBA players on it. Jay Wright went wire to wire with five total losses, amounting to arguably his best coaching job ever. It's plausible Villanova will be back in the mix for a No. 4 or 5 seed next year, too. Losing to UConn was a sting, but for neutral observers, it felt like the least-surprising No. 7 over a No. 2 ever.

3. Harvard was a lot of fun -- and a lot of scary -- for two teams

The Crimson have made three consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Last season Tommy Amaker's guys won as a No. 14 seed over New Mexico before bowing out. This time, Harvard beat Cincinnati 61-57 before going up against Michigan State and giving Sparty a real test to the end. It was an 80-73 loss, but the Crimson actually took the lead late in the game, following a rally. This is the class of the Ivy League, and if Tommy Amaker opts to stay at the school (and not take the Boston College job), we should expect a Penn/Princeton type run from the Crimson over the next half-decade.

Three players to watch

1. Shabazz Napier (UConn): The past four days had a flurry of positively terrific individual showings for a lot of players, win or lose. I'm not sure any player had a better game -- aside from Cotton in that loss -- than Napier against Villanova on Saturday night. And now he gets the MSG stage, a stage he's very familiar with, to have a huge moment. This could get not good -- but classic. Napier is an All-American, one of the five most valuable players in college basketball.

2. DeAndre Kane (Iowa State): Kane rallied and helped Iowa State rally against UNC on Sunday. You know, most of Twitter was burying the Cyclones despite ISU trailing by just five points with less than four minutes to go. It was weird; Twitter's an echo chamber. Point is, never count out ISU with Kane. Even though the team has lost Georges Niang for the rest of the tournament due to a broken foot, it still has enough to give UConn a challenge for sure. I think that game's a tossup. Kane does it all for the Cyclones. Did you see this dime?

3. Adreian Payne (Michigan State): He had 41 against Delaware on Thursday, which is a high for this tournament. He's multi-faceted; I don't think there's another player like him in college hoops. Michigan State has a few weapons -- it's why so many picked MSU to get out of this region -- but Payne has proven to be the most vital of any Spartan this season. He'll need to continue to be that for Tom Izzo to reach a seventh Final Four.

Three bold predictions for the East Regional

1. Michigan State will beat Virginia by double digits.

This will rankle Virginia fans, but it has nothing to do with their team. I think Tony Bennett has started a course that will bring him to just about every NCAA Tournament over the next decade. I simply believe MSU's going to get through this game by matching up with Virginia at every position. I think it has the point guard in Keith Appling, and the backup point guard in Travis Trice, to match UVA's pack-line defense.

And I'll take Payne and Branden Dawson over Mike Tobey and Akil Mitchell. This will be the biggest game of the Cavs players' lives on Friday. Michigan State's vets have taken a turn or six through the squeeze of the mainstage.

2. UConn-Iowa State will be in doubt with a minute to go.

If Niang was playing, I would probably take ISU by double digits as well. But without him, and with Napier, I have to think it's going to be close. I CANNOT WAIT for this game. I think the crowd's going to be incredible. I think UConn's bigs have come along far enough that ISU's no guarantee to own the paint. Melvin Ejim will likely need a 16-point, 10-rebound performance, too. Just give me Napier vs. Kane, back and forth for 40 minutes, 72-71 with 45 seconds to go. Is that too much to ask?

3. The champion of the East will be ... Michigan State.

I don't want to rehash what I've said. I'm taking the most experienced coach -- by a wide margin -- in this region to get out. MSU has been the groupthink pick as you know. My bracket is so brutal, this might as well be a pick that's coated in poison. Because I am ... AWFUL at picking the bracket this year. But I liked MSU for most of the season, and I'm riding it out here. Gary Harris, a future pro, has a chance against some really nice guards to step up big as well.

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