As always, the East is interesting, stacked and occupied with two of the toughest, best teams in college hoops.
The region has first-weekend games in Buffalo, Orlando, Tulsa and Greenville. It has some weird seed decisions and perhaps the most tempting double-digit upset possibility that few are discussing. The big tease here is overall No. 1 Villanova at the top of the bracket, Duke at the bottom, and will both of those teams play their way into the regional final at Madison Square Garden?
The past two national champions, who probably deserve to meet in Phoenix, not New York City, might provide the biggest game of the tournament before the Final Four. But we gotta get there first. Let’s take a tour of the region and lay it all out. The thing that sticks out to me is that this region has three of the six really bad seeding gaffes in the whole bracket.
Three initial thoughts
1. I hate SMU’s seed. I gave Wichita State, but the Ponies went 30-4, ranked 11th at KenPom, oddly only landed a 6. I think they should have been a 4. It’s evident that SMU beating Cincinnati in Sunday’s AAC tournament championship game did not matter (Cincinnati, 1-2 vs. SMU this season, is also a 6). If league championship games offer opportunities to beat teams that are locks to make the Dance, they should be reflected in the overall body of work. That wasn’t the case with SMU, which is a shame. Baylor, if it beats New Mexico State, shouldn’t have to face a team as good as the Mustangs in the second round.to
2. I hate South Carolina’s seed. The Gamecocks went 22-10 and did not win a game away from home against an NCAA Tournament team. Yet they not only land a 7, they get to play right there in their home state of South Carolina (their pod is in Greenville). The committee got it right with putting the 68 teams into the field that deserved to be in, but there are six or seven seeding slip-ups that are hard to defend. Will say this, though: South Carolina-Marquette is one of the hardest games to call. USC has great D, while Marquette is a long-range shooting team.
3. Duke has the easiest path to the Elite Eight of any 2-seed. The Blue Devils get Troy in the first round, then shouldn’t have any issue with Marquette or South Carolina two days later. My guess at Duke’s average margin of victory after two games: 20 points. Then, either Baylor or SMU, most likely, in the Sweet 16. When you see how the other three 2-seeds have to navigate their way to a regional final, Duke’s potential road seems smoothest.
Bold prediction: The higher seed will win every first-round game in this quadrant. Think picking favorites isn’t bold? Go ahead and check how often a region has the 1-8 seed win every game on a Thursday/Friday. I think it happens here. Now, that’s not to totally dismiss upsets from happening (I detail those below), but for me, I like Virginia’s matchup with UNC Wilmington and Florida’s chances against a good East Tennessee State team, in particular.
Five best players
1. Josh Hart (Villanova): A top-three nationals player of the year candidate since late November, Hart is the best player on the No. 1 overall team. A classic Villanova senior, Hart is poised, strong, makes the right play and is as reliable as any guy in the country. He’s averaging 18.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.6 steals. Villanova’s great again because of its balance, but Hart has a knack for the right play at the right moment. It’s why you’ll see so many people putting the Wildcats back in the Final Four.
2. Luke Kennard (Duke): He has been Duke’s most valuable player and hasn’t slowed on Duke’s route to a 2. Kennard averaged 21.6 points and 6.5 rebounds in Duke’s last five games. A crafty left, Kennard’s feel, footwork and confidence have been crucial for Duke’s season. Grayson Allen was the preseason All-American, but Kennard was really good from the get-go. He is the primary reason for Duke having stability this year. He’s the No. 1 breakout player in college basketball this season.
3. Jayson Tatum (Duke): Kennard was Most Outstanding Player of the ACC tournament, but Tatum was the better player across four games, ever so slightly. He averaged 22.0 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 31-of-56 from the floor. He has, in the past month, shown so many reasons why he will be a very good pro. To me, he should go top-three in the NBA Draft. He is ready now. He’s a little too in love with his 18-foot fallaway, but other than that, there’s not much not to love. He plays defense, is a willing passer, has a long battery and has been a big asset with Grayson Allen turning into option No. 3.
4. Johnathan Motley (Baylor): Was a top-10 player of the year candidate nationally for most of the season. Motley averages 17.3 pints, 9.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists. He’s long and savvy. A very good player who, if the Bears didn’t have him, probably would be a 6 at best.
5. Semi Ojeleye (SMU): Speaks to the talent in this region that I didn’t list Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, Duke’s Grayson Allen, Villanova’s Jalen Brunson, South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell or Virginia’s London Perrantes. There is a lot of talent in this corner of the bracket, no doubt. But Ojeleye is extremely underrated. SMU has good talent across its starting five, with Ojeleye (18.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) being the leader. I like SMU to get to the Sweet 16, and in doing so, give Ojeleye his national moment.
Three most interesting potential matchups: The first is obviously Villanova-Duke. That goes without saying, but I write more on it below. The second: Villanova-Wisconsin. It’s a potential upset of a 1-seed that nobody’s really talking about. Wisconsin (yet ANOTHER mis-seeded team) has to get by Virginia Tech first, but I could see Nova having issues with Wisconsin’s big three of Happ, Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes. So just be on the lookout.
The third potential matchup that will bring a lot of interest is if Marquette can get past South Carolina. The Golden Eagles would almost certainly then face Duke. That means Mike Krzyzewski would be forced to coach against Steve Wojciechowski, whom he of course coached at Duke -- before Wojo spent 15 years on Duke’s bench as an assistant. Those men will dread that game.
The biggest first-round upset will be … None! I’m going chalk. But I won’t leave you empty-handed. If you want my pick on the upset (11 seed or lower) that’s most likely to win, I think I’d lean USC over SMU, but only if USC can first get by Providence in Dayton. That game will be played on Wednesday night at the First Four.
Another fun possible upset to watch for: Let’s jump ahead a round and declare SMU over Baylor. This would be an intra-Texas battle. The Bears have been roughed up in the NCAAs in recent seasons, remember. In 2016, Yale got ‘em. How does Yale outrebound Baylor, by the way?
In 2015, this happened to Baylor.
I don’t think the Bears get picked off by New Mexico State (who is good, by the way), but SMU presents enough challenges in the starting lineup that I’m inclined to believe Baylor won’t make the Sweet 16.
The lowest-seeded school to make the Sweet 16 will be … No. 6 SMU. Alongside Ojeleye, the Mustangs have talented senior Sterling Brown, a sophomore point guard in Shake Milton who is going to be a breakout player next season, and a good senior forward in Ben Moore. Tim Jankovich, who could be up for a bigger job in a week or so, has done well in his first season in charge of the program.
The player the country doesn’t know now but will know by Saturday is … Semi Ojeleye. Unless you’re a college hoops hardcore, you don’t know him. The tournament changes everything. Ojeleye’s road to this point is interesting, too, because he used to play at Duke but transferred after not cracking the rotation.
The Elite Eight showdown will be … No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 2 Duke. I think the talent and coaching is good enough that both of these teams should get there without too much difficulty (though I believe Nova will have a tough time beating Wisconsin, if the Badgers beat Virginia Tech). I don’t see Duke getting pushback in the first three rounds. Villanova’s three losses are the fewest of any team in the country except Gonzaga. The Wildcats are reigning national champions and have worn that target well all season. Duke was the preseason No. 1 team, remember. Now Nova is No. 1. It would be fitting to get these two in a regional final.
The champion of the East will be … No. 2 Duke. I think this is the toughest game to call of any potential game the bracket can offer up. I’m talking about anything between waffling over an 8/9 game or looking at who will face off in the national championship. Villanova-Duke in the Garden could be an epic. I will take Duke, barely, because the talent on that roster is better. If Kennard, Tatum and Allen keep playing the way they have been, and if Harry Giles can give Duke 15-18 really efficient minutes, then it’s probably going to be Mike Krzyzewski getting out of this region and making the 13th Final Four of his career.