The NCAA Tournament bracket is set, and if you've seen it, there's no doubt that you've spent some time pouring over the East Region when filling out your bracket game entry. The East has three teams that, before the field was revealed on Selection Sunday, came to mind as "Final Four contenders."
But the thing about this tournament is that only one team from each region can make it to the Final Four. So will it be the No. 1 seed Michigan, the No. 2 seed and SEC Tournament champion Alabama, No. 3 seed and Big 12 Tournament champion Texas or any one of the "none of the above" options that would bring fascinating storylines to the forefront.
Florida State is capable of reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1972 and getting Leonard Hamilton, 72 years young in his 19th year with the Seminoles, his first Final Four appearance as a head coach. The No. 5 seed Colorado is a tough out and No. 6 seed BYU proved it can hang with the best in the WCC title game against Gonzaga, but just as interesting would be Cinderella runs from their first-round opponents. Patrick Ewing leading No. 12 seed Georgetown into the tournament is one of the best stories of March, and BYU will wait to play the winner of Michigan State and UCLA, two programs with extensive NCAA Tournament success starting their campaign in the First Four after falling short of expectations this season.
Speaking of former national title winners, the East Region also includes UConn and Maryland facing off in the 7-10 game, with the winner moving on to likely challenge Alabama in the second round. While not all of these iconic programs had the kind of seasons that line up with championship expectation, getting them all in one corner of the bracket promises for a passionate two weeks of competition in Indiana.
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Now let's dive into some superlatives and storylines for the East Region.
Best first-round game
(8) LSU vs. (9) St. Bonaventure: The entertainment value on LSU alone is worth noting in your bracket, as evidenced by not only the SEC Tournament final against Alabama, but by a season's worth of fielding a top-five offense, an up-tempo pace and multiple elite weapons with Cam Thomas, Javonte Smart and Trendon Watford. St. Bonaventure doesn't necessarily bring the same high-powered attack, but it's got a defense that could cause some problems for LSU and enough gamers to hang in a shot-making contest down the stretch.
Top potential matchup
(1) Michigan vs. (4) Florida State: The West Region was a bit of a chaos bracket in 2018, with the top two seeds losing in the second round. Florida State knocked off No. 1 seed Xavier and Texas A&M took down No. 2 seed North Carolina. The Seminoles went on to beat No. 4 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 and then had a chance to complete the memorable Final Four run as a No. 9 seed before getting stopped by No. 3 seed and eventual national runner-up Michigan in the Elite Eight. The game was a grind, a 58-54 Michigan win, with both teams able to match the athleticism and size usually used to overwhelm their opponents. Though Michigan has a new coach and many of those players are gone, both teams have athleticism, depth and (at least) a couple of future pros. It'd be a heavyweight bout, with the winner moving one step closer to the Final Four.
Upset lock of the regional
Michigan bounced too early: Fading Michigan. The Wolverines were one of my favorite teams in college basketball. But the team that's entering the tournament is not the one that made it a No. 1 seed. The Wolverines jumped ahead of Baylor in the argument for best non-Gonzaga team during the season, and their ceiling remains winning the national championship, but the status of Isaiah Livers is enough to fear that Michigan's best basketball in 2021 has already been played. For the record, I don't enjoy making this prediction, but it's a hunch and there's two opponents -- LSU and Florida State -- that can take advantage of a Michigan team playing without its senior leader.
Cinderella team that will surprise
(11) Michigan State or UCLA: Coaches are great and the ceiling of both teams is being able to beat BYU and Texas. From First Four to Sweet 16 is always a great story, regardless of whether national championship-winning programs even qualify for Cinderella status. A run from No. 12 seed Georgetown carries similar sentiment for college basketball fans, but a call back to NCAA Tournament history is in order if either can make it through the first two rounds.
Team that will make a far-too-early exit
(3) Texas: It's easy to latch onto teams that win their conference tournaments and think their momentum will carry into the NCAA Tournament, but there is plenty of data to suggest that's not a surefire way to predict first weekend winners. Everything with the Longhorns is a sweat. Just look at their 19-7 record but a deeper five reveals they carry just the 58th best scoring margin in the country at +6.4. It doesn't seem to matter the way the games are always close, whether it's the one-point, low-scoring win against Texas Tech in the Big 12 quarterfinals or the 91-86 track meet against Oklahoma State in the title game. Abilene Christian, on the other hand, cruised to easy wins in the Southland. The Wildcats are dangerous and rank No. 6 nationally in scoring margin. They will be a very tough out, riding an aggressive defense that ranks No. 30 nationally and No. 1 in turning over the opponent. Even if predicted results for the Longhorns hold, the second round opponent, BYU, Michigan State or UCLA, is capable of winning and stealing a spot in the Sweet 16.
Six players to watch
- Hunter Dickinson, Michigan: The freshman was among the best big men in a Big Ten stacked with talent near the rim. Dickinson is the team's leading scorer -- doing so while carrying 59.9% field goal percentage -- and leading rebounder, and he'll be the face of the Wolverines' march to the Final Four.
- Scottie Barnes, Florida State: The Seminoles once again have a top NBA prospect coming off the bench. Barnes was named the ACC Rookie of the Year and ACC Sixth Man of the Year.
- James Bouknight, UConn: The Huskies were a different team when Bouknight was out of the lineup. Bouknight was the best player in the Big East and showed it when UConn won six of its final seven games to close out the regular season.
- Cam Thomas, LSU: The freshman can absolutely fill it up. Thomas ranks No. 4 nationally averaging 22.6 points per game and will beat you off the dribble, from behind the arc or by getting to the free throw line.
- Herbert Jones, Alabama: It's not often that we see four-year players really flourish and become a star in their senior season, but that's exactly what's happened with Jones. Noted for his defensive prowess in 2020, he's become a big piece of the entire operation helping lead Alabama to a regular season and conference tournament title.
- McKinley Wright, Colorado: The senior guard could be a fun story to follow. The Buffs are a tough and physical team that will bring the fight to anyone, and Wright is the player with the ball in his hands in crunch time.
East Region winner
(2) Alabama: The Crimson Tide play at a relentless pace, shoot a ton of 3-pointers and defend at an elite level. In an NCAA Tournament, that may be mentally exhausting at times because of the strict protocol and bubble-ish existence in Indiana, the last opponent you want to face is Alabama. The Tide want to run and get up in your face on defense. They can change the fortunes of a game in three minutes or less if they get hot from deep or force a couple quick turnovers. It's a blue-collar team that welcomes the grind, and that mentality will pay off during the ups and downs of an unprecedented NCAA Tournament.
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