It's the region with one of the best stories of the season (FAU) and one of the best Cinderella stories of the past 10 years (Oral Roberts, 2021). It's the corner of the bracket with the likely National Coach of the Year: Either Purdue's Matt Painter or Marquette's Shaka Smart ... or perhaps Kansas State's Jerome Tang? It's also the region with two more great coaches, both of whom have national championships and are in the Hall of Fame: Kentucky's John Calipari and Michigan State's Tom Izzo.
It's the spot with yet another veteran coach with a Final Four to his name, and making his 26th tournament appearance: Tennessee's Rick Barnes.
It's also the place where the reigning Naismith Player of the Year (Oscar Tshiebwe) is occupying space near the likely successor to that honor (Zach Edey).
It's the place on your bracket where you'll see the two most prominent programs in college hoops: Duke and Kentucky. It's the region that has two Golden Eagles (Marquette, Oral Roberts), two Wildcats (Kentucky, Kansas State) and two Tigers (Texas Southern, Memphis). More feline familiarity abounds with the Bobcats of Montana State and the Catamounts of Vermont. There are also Spartans and Trojans due to clash in the 7/10 matchup.
There's also a 20-loss team (Texas Southern) playing a team that didn't even win its conference tournament (Fairleigh Dickinson). I smell chaos in these parts, people. It's the quadrant of the field of 68 where you'll find feisty Friars and Ragin' Cajuns.
It's the East Region, and it's going to be must-see TV. Let's go!
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Best first-round game
(8) Memphis vs. (9) FAU: Memphis should have been a 7-seed and FAU maybe even a 6-seed, but putting that aside: This is a tremendous 8/9 affair. The Tigers are coming off a win over top-seeded Houston to win the American Athletic Conference Tournament. Penny Hardaway's team is led by Kendric Davis, who's one of the best point guards in college basketball. As for FAU, I profiled Dusty May's admirable team earlier this season. It's an older group, one that's done a lot of winning in recent years. Here's a team that shoots the 3 well, can play 10 guys real minutes and has great interior defense. The best 8/9 game on the board, without question. I expect a barnburner.
Top potential matchup
(1) Purdue vs. (5) Duke: I like to avoid the obvious 1-vs.-2 pick; those go without saying. That in mind, this regional semifinal is what offers up the tastiest potential. A perennial power in its first year under Jon Scheyer going up against the most dominant player in the sport, Zach Edey, plus a Purdue team trying to shed its negative March voodoo? Yeah, that would be a good watch. If this game happens, it'll go down at Madison Square Garden. Duke and Purdue fans will pay good money to get in the building. Purdue guarding Kyle Filipowski would be one of the key factors. Freshman Dereck Lively II facing up on Edey would be outstanding. The guard matchups would certainly favor Duke, and that's why you're seeing the Blue Devils as a trendy choice to at least make it to the Elite Eight.
Cinderella team that will surprise
(12) Oral Roberts: Is ORU all that much of a surprise? After its Sweet 16 run as a 15-seed in 2021, maybe not. Still: The Golden Eagles get Duke in the first round, so they are far from the most popular 12-over-5 pick. That's exactly where I'm going, and I'll do one better: Oral Roberts is making the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years. I've got it beating Tennessee in the second round. Paul Mills' team enters March Madness with a 17-game winning streak, longest in the sport. In fact, ORU has one loss since Thanksgiving. Max Abmas (22.2 ppg) is a certified bucket-getter, and did you know that this team has a 7-foot-5 lurker in Connor Vanover? There's no room for debate here; this is the East's prime Cinderella candidate.
Team that will make a far-too-early exit
(5) Duke: The Blue Devils are a chic Final Four pick in a region that's got people eagerly fading Purdue. I get that. But if I'm going to pick Oral Roberts in the category above, then logic dictates I've got to take Duke here. Credit to Scheyer: He's won more games in his first season than any Duke or ACC coach in history. The Blue Devils have won nine straight — and it would've been 10 had a foul been called in that controversial ending at Virginia in February. However, Duke doesn't turn teams over so much as it baits teams into tough shots. Oral Roberts run great offense and gets off good shots. The Blue Devils could make a Final Four run, but they could just as easily get picked off Thursday night. I'd love to be a fly on the wall to see how Scheyer and his staff scout ORU.
Six players to watch
- Zach Edey, Purdue: The National Player of the Year. Not officially, but all of those awards are coming. Edey (22.3 points, 12.8 rebounds per night) is a mastodon. Nobody like him in the sport. I wrote a feature on him not so long ago that I suggest you check out.
- Kendric Davis, Memphis: One of the biggest additions in the transfer portal last year. The Tigers would not be dancing if not for the former SMU floor general moving to Bluff City. Davis (22.1 ppg, 5.6 apg, 3.7 rpg) is the engine on a fun sleeper Sweet 16 pick.
- Kyle Filipowski, Duke: This Blue Devils power forward has been one of the top five freshmen in college hoops. Filipowski (15.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg) essentially kept Duke's respectability level high in the early part of the season, when injuries prevented the team from finding stability. He can shoot and bruise in the paint. He'll be off to the NBA soon.
- Max Abmas, Oral Roberts: The nation's seventh-leading scorer (22.2 ppg), Abmas is back and looking to improve upon the 26.7 points he averaged in three games during the 2021 NCAA Tournament. At 6-foot, Abmas is a great rebounder for his size (4.0 per game) and still finds ways to average four assists per night, too.
- Keyontae Johnson, Kansas State: Kendric Davis was one of the best transfers this season, but Johnson was the best. He's averaging 17.7 points and 7.0 rebounds for one of the great stories in the sport this season. K-State was picked last in the Big 12, and here it is on the 3-line.
- Tyler Kolek, Marquette: Not many players lay claim to having won Big East Player of the Year and Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player, but Kolek is one of them. The Marquette point guard (13.3 ppg, 7.7 apg) has a Fall Out Boy haircut and a punk-rock approach to hoops: Keep it simple, and destroy everything in your path.
East Region winner
(1) Purdue: I like this storyline: A No. 1 seed with the NPOY makes the Final Four. We don't get that every year. Purdue has the best player in college basketball. It has terrific offense, great rebounding and plays with discipline. There are flaws; the Boilers might not get out of the first weekend thanks to that vicious 8/9 winner that will await. But Matt Painter is right up there among the top 10 coaches in college hoops. I think Purdue avoids Duke in the Sweet 16, which helps with the scenario I'm putting together here. I think Purdue can score on Marquette — and Marquette has major problems with teams that have size advantages. So here goes: I believe the Boilers end their March hex and finally break through to their first Final Four in 43 years, doing so with a heroic/dominant run from Edey in the process.
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