2017 NCAA Tournament East Region Preview

March Madness has arrived and the East Region has a ton of talent. Will the underdog prevail or will the favorite reign superior?

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JOHNSON CITY, TN - DECEMBER 22, 2016 - Wide shot of the arena during the game between the ETSU Buccaneers and the Tennessee Volunteers at Freedom Hall Civic Center in Johnson City, TN. Photo By Alison P. McNabb\Tennessee Athletics

It’s the best time of the year: March Madness has finally returned. Cinderella teams look to ruin brackets, while the top dogs look to assert their will and prove they’re worthy of your bracket pick. The seeds and the matchups are locked in, so let’s breakdown the East Regional.

The Favorite

As the defending national champs, the Villanova Wildcats are the No. 1 seed in the East Regional and the favorites to make it to the Final Four out of this section of the bracket. Led by senior Josh Hart, the Wildcats are the No. 1 overall seed in the entire bracket after going 31-3 during the regular season. As one of the most efficient players in the country, Hart is averaging 18.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.6 steals per game. With his senior leadership and ability to always make the right play, Hart is the most reliable player in the country. Kris Jenkins and sophomore Jalen Brunson flank Hart as the play-makers of the team, allowing Villanova to go small and really spread the ball around. In 2016, the Wildcats proved they can win it all. The pieces are in place for a title in 2017, but can Nova complete the most difficult task in sports and win back-to-back national championships? They’ll have to make it past some tough teams in the East first.

Contenders

Villanova isn’t the only top dog in the East region. Duke, Baylor, Virginia and Wisconsin all headline the East with the Wildcats.

The Blue Devils season has been quite the roller coaster. From Coach K missing games due to back surgery to the Grayson Allen saga, Duke fans have had their fair share of heartburn in 2016-17. Now after winning four straight games in Greensboro and capturing the ACC Tournament crown, the Blue Devils are one of the favorites to win the entire dance. Some even thought Duke was deserving of a No. 1 seed despite its eight losses because of its recent hot streak. The Blue Devils have been turning the corner for quite some time now. With the most talented roster in the country, Coach K will have his team ready to go for the final run.

Despite low preseason expectations, Baylor proved to be one of the best teams in the country. Led by Johnathan Motley, the Bears are one of the best defensive teams in the country. Motley averages 17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. As one of the best two-way players in the country, Motley will look to lead the Bears to the promise land in the big dance.

Though effective, Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers soothe fans to sleep with their boring style of play every year.  As the country’s No. 1 defense, Virginia suffocates their opponents by forcing bad shots, turnovers and multiple mental mistakes. Despite the tenacious defensive efforts, the Cavaliers lack a true post threat, putting a ton of pressure on their guards. While their games won’t be high-scoring, Virginia’s defense is good enough to make an Elite Eight run, or even, a Final Four

Led by Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin spent most of the season as a perennial top-10 team. Despite the hot start to the season, the Big Ten favorites have struggled to find a level of consistency needed to make a run in the tournament over the last several weeks. The Badgers’ shooting woes led to the struggle down the stretch. If shots don’t start falling, Wisconsin’s tournament run will end up more like a jog.

Pretenders

The SEC schools. Yup, Florida and South Carolina are the pretenders in the Eastern Regional. The Gators were having a fantastic season until they lost their luster when big man John Egbunu went down with a torn ACL. As the leading shot-blocker, Egbunu set the edge on defense for the Gators, something Florida hasn’t been able to find of late. If the Gators can rekindle their early season magic, it’ll be in thanks to efforts from KeVaughn Allen (13.9 PPG) and Kasey Hill (9.8 PPG).

Like Florida, South Carolina enters March Madness having struggled of late. A year after being snubbed of the big dance, the Gamecocks have reached the tournament for the first time since 2004. Forget the streak of not making the tournament for eleven years in a row, South Carolina hasn’t won a single NCAA Tournament game since 1973. SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell (21.0 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.8 APG, 2.2 SPG) will look to snap the Gamecocks out of their woes on offense and put the team on his back throughout March.

The “Cinderella”

The East Tennessee State Buccaneers have the potential to be this year’s “Cinderella” team in the Eastern Regional. Senior guard T.J. Cromer (19.1 PPG) is a nightmare to guard for opposing teams. Cromer enters the tournament after scoring 41 in the SoCon semifinals and 23 in the title game. The Buccaneers are tenacious on defense, blocking shots, tallying a ton of steals and giving opposing offenses nightmares. ETSU has a ton of size in their backcourt and frontcourt which will create a lot of problems for Florida in their opening game. If the Bucs aren’t turning the ball over themselves, they can make a run in the tournament.

The Sleeper

Virginia Tech is the Eastern Regional’s sleeper. Led by senior forward Zach LeDay (16.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG), the Hokies have overachieved in 2016-17. LeDay’s perimeter shooting and versatility have been instrumental to Virginia Tech’s breakout season. Without much depth on the roster, senior Seth Allen (13.4 PPG) will have to continue to play well and provide leadership if the Hokies want to make it out of the opening round of the tournament.

Players to Watch

1) Josh Hart (Villanova): Hart is the best player on the best team in the country. Averaging 18.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 1.6 steals, Hart always finds a way to make the right play at the right time.

2) Grayson Allen (Duke): Despite your perception of Allen because of his recent antics, there’s no debating how good of a basketball player he is. Allen has had an up-and-down season, but when he’s on top of his game, he’s as good as anyone in the country. The junior is averaging 14.1 points per game for the Blue Devils.

3) Luke Kennard (Duke): Kennard has been the key to the Blue Devils’ success this season. As a lefty, Kennard had a fantastic ACC Tournament, averaging over 20.0 points per game. With Grayson Allen’s inconsistent play throughout the season, Kennard is the reason Duke has been able to keep their head above water.

4) Semi Ojeleye: (SMU): You don’t know who Semi Ojeleye is, but after the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament is over, I guarantee you will. At 18.9 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game, Ojeleye is the leader of the SMU squad.

What I Think Will Happen

I don’t believe the Eastern Regional will have any ground-breaking upsets. The one upset I’m rolling with in the opening round is East Tennessee State over Florida because of the Buccaneers size and the Gators’ loss of Egbunu. Aside from that one, I think the higher ranked seeds will advance out of the first round. However, USC will give SMU problems and UNC Wilmington will keep it close with Virginia.

The Eastern Regional’s Sweet Sixteen matchups will consist of Villanova vs. Virginia and SMU vs. Duke on the bottom half of the regional. Yes, SMU will upset Baylor in the round of 32. I think SMU’s starting five present too many problems for the Bears’ starting five.

In the Sweet Sixteen, Villanova will defeat Virginia as the Wildcats create too many matchup problems for the Cavaliers. Virginia won’t be able to keep up with Villanova on offense. On the bottom half, Duke will continue its hot streak, defeating SMU and setting up an Elite Eight matchup with Villanova.

With a trip to the Final Four on the line, Villanova will beat Duke. The Blue Devils have the more talented roster, but the Wildcats are for more experienced and consistent. Regardless, Villanova vs. Duke in the Garden will be an epic Elite Eight game.

Edited by David Bradford

Featured image by Alison P. McNabb, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

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