The East Region of this year’s tournament might have the two best teams in the country and SMU is pretty good, too. Who will emerge from the East?
Can Villanova repeat as national champions? Which version of Duke will show up during the tournament? How did Wisconsin get stuck with an eight-seed? These are just three of the questions that loom over the East region in the 2017 NCAA tournament.
In a year where the title seems so wide open, the East might possibly possess the two best teams in the field. At the very least, it does have the current near-unanimous No. 1 team in the AP poll, and the preseason No. 1 team that finally looks like it has put it all together: Villanova and Duke. The Wildcats look primed to become the first back-to-back winner since Florida in 2006 and 2007, and Duke — despite all of the in-season injuries and controversy — is coming off an ACC tournament title that saw it beat Louisville, North Carolina, and Notre Dame in consecutive nights.
Never fear, though. A Duke-Villanova Elite Eight matchup at Madison Square Garden may be the game most people want to see, but there are a couple teams in this region that will do everything in their power to play the spoiler, SMU chief among them. The Semi Ojeleye-led Mustangs may not play in what is considered a “major” college basketball conference, but they have not lost in more than two months and have looked dangerous during that streak. This team can play and Ojeleye, a Duke transfer, will look to ruin your bracket if SMU and Duke meet in the Sweet Sixteen.
Throw in an under-seeded Wisconsin team, at least three different double-digit seeds with a realistic chance at pulling off an upset, almost too many uber-talented players to keep track of, and the return of Virginia Tech to the tournament for the first time in a decade and you have one hell of a region that you will not want to take your eyes off of for the next two weeks.
Best Player: Josh Hart, G, Villanova
Picking the best player in this year’s East region is an incredibly difficult task because there is an absurd amount of elite basketball players in the region. The East boasts four of the 10 Naismith Award semifinalists (Villanova’s Josh Hart, Duke’s Luke Kennard, Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, and Baylor’s Johnathan Motley), the SEC Player of the Year (South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell), the AAC Player of the Year (SMU’s Ojeleye), and one of the most offensively gifted freshmen in the country (Duke’s Jayson Tatum).
But if I had to pick one of these players to top the group, it would be Hart by a very slight margin.
The runner-up is Kennard, who has been absolutely astounding this season. He is averaging 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 49.9 percent from the field, 44.3% from deep (third in the country among players who have taken more than 190 threes), and 84.9% from the line. He is tantalizingly close to becoming the first Duke player since Christian Laettner to average 20.0 or more points and shoot better than 50.0% from the floor.
Kennard has a knack for stepping up when Duke needs him most. He went for 30 points in the second half against Wake Forest including the game-winning three-pointer back in January. Against Louisville and North Carolina in the ACC tournament he was lights out and instrumental in leading double-digit second half comebacks.
But, as good as Kennard has been ths year, the Big East Player of the Year gets the nod here.
Hart is averaging 18.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 50.8% from the floor, 40.7% from three, and 75.3% from the charity stripe. Hart is just a little bit better than Kennard at the other aspects of the game aside from scoring.
He is capable of running the offense and setting up for teammates, he gets after in on the offensive glass, he is a tenacious defender, and he has the clutch gene, too. Hart is the lifeblood of this Villanova team, the senior leader that takes control in the tensest situations and makes sure the Wildcats get a bucket when they need it late in a game.
There is a plethora of talent in the East, but Hart, a surefire Naismith finalist, tops the list.
Most Likely First-Round Cinderella: No. 12 UNC Wilmington
The Colonial Athletic Association champions can score the basketball. The Seahawks rank 16th nationally in points per 100 possessions (adjusted offensive efficiency) according to KenPom.com, 10th in points per game, and 21st in team field goal percentage. Sophomore forward Devontae Cacok led the country in field goal percentage at 79.9%, and three other players in addition to Cacok — sophomore guard C.J. Bryce, senior guard Chris Flemmings, and senior guard Denzel Ingram — are averaging points in the double-digits.
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UNC Wilmington’s ability to score the ball with potency and efficiency will be critical against its first-round opponent, famously defensive Virginia.
Virginia is having a down year this season. After finishing either first or second in the ACC each of the past three years, the Cavaliers finished sixth this season, although the defense has been just as good as it’s always been. Virginia is ranked first in both points allowed per 100 possessions (adjusted defensive efficiency) and points allowed per game. However, the offense has been a real issue for much of the year.
Wilmington is not a strong defensive team. The Seahawks rank 189th in adjusted defensive efficiency, 242nd in points allowed per game, and 333rd in field goal percentage allowed. How can a team that porous defensively pull off a first-round upset? By facing off against an offensive that is mediocre at its best and straight-up abysmal at its worst.
During a three-game stretch in mid-February, the Cavaliers were held to 55, 41, and 48 points. Virginia has sort of corrected the problem since (it has won four of its last five games but was held under 60 points twice in those five games), but if the Cavaliers fall back into old offensive ways, they’re doomed.
The Seahawks are much better at defending the three-point line than the field in general. They rank 105th in three-point field goal percentage allowed, which is not shut-down by any means but clearly their goal is for you to beat them inside rather than on the perimeter. Considering Virginia’s big men are, for lack of a better word, bad, and one of those big men is dealing with a lingering illness, check off another box on the potential upset checklist.
The Seahawks have multiple offensive threats that can score in transition, in the half-court, on pick-and-rolls, and in the mid-range. If they can knock down some threes — they rank 102nd in three-point field goal percentage — they’ll be in an even better position to pull off the upset.
Wilmington isn’t afraid to shoot the three. Flemmings attempted 190 triples this season and Ingram attempted an astonishing 287, tied for eighth-most in the country. Both shot about 36.0% from distance on the year and if either one of them gets hot, Virginia is in trouble. The wild-card here is fellow senior guard Ambrose Mosley, the lone 40-plus percent three-point shooter on the team. Mosley only averages 24.3 minutes per game, but of his 217 field goal attempts, 173 were threes, and he hit 70 of them, good for 40.5 percent.
Being able to run high ball screens to set up good looks for threes (and of course hitting those threes) is a great way to beat Virginia’s pack line defense.
The last component Wilmington has going for it is experience. The Seahawks have been here before. They played a tough game against Duke in last season’s first round that saw them fall to the Blue Devils by just eight points. Wilmington returned almost that entire squad, so virtually all of the key contributors have valuable tournament experience, not something you normally see in a mid-major double-digit seed.
This Seahawks team could very well upend Virginia and if it does, don’t be shocked if it ends up in New York for the tournament’s second weekend. With a win, Wilmington would play either Florida, a defense-first team that has stumbled since losing its starting center for the season, or East Tennessee State, a fellow mid-major double-digit seed.
Other upsets to look out for: ETSU over Florida and New Mexico State over Baylor
Since losing center John Egbunu for the year, Florida is 3-3 with a pair of losses to a mediocre Vanderbilt team that just broke the NCAA record for at-large team with the most losses entering the tournament. ETSU plays a harassing press, is strong defensively, and has strong guard play, particularly from senior T.J. Cromer.
New Mexico State defends well, particularly from the perimeter where Baylor has struggled to find consistency all year. It also ranks 52nd in points per game despite falling outside the top-200 in adjusted tempo and crashes the boards with the best of them. Baylor hasn’t been on solid footing since mid-January and has lost six of its last 11 games. Watch out.
Most Likely to be Upset During the First Weekend: No. 3 Baylor
Baylor started out the year 15-0 and looked like one of the strongest teams in the nation. Naismith semifinalist Johnathan Motley was dominating in the paint, transfer point guard Manu Lecomte was draining threes and dishing out the ball with efficiency, and Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. emerged as a second force in the paint for the Bears. Things haven’t gone as smoothly since mid-January.
Baylor is still one of the more talented teams in the country, but it has not looked nearly as infallible as it did in November and December. The Bears are 10-7 in their last 17 games, including a 3-6 record against tournament teams and a quick exit in the Big 12 tournament against Kansas State. They also saw their points per game fall from 77.1 to 68.8 and their points allowed per game to rise from 58.3 to 66.6.
And in just about all of its seven losses, Baylor lost because its defense let it down, particularly around the perimeter. In their seven losses, the Bears allowed their opponents to shoot 47.5% from the floor and an astonishing 40.5% from three-point range.
Baylor’s first-round opponent is New Mexico State, a team that similarly likes to play defense and bang on the boards, meaning there’s a chance this game is close down the stretch, and anything can happen in March when games are close at the end. Where Baylor is most likely to be upset, though, is in the second round.
The Bears’ most likely second-round opponent is SMU, a team that is similarly solid on defense, but is also very efficient on offense. The Mustangs rank 11th in adjusted offensive efficiency, 39th in team field goal percentage, and eighth in three-point field goal percentage. They have a legitimate stud in Semi Ojeleye that can take over a game, and the role players around him can shoot, drive, and rebound.
It’s also worth noting that in his 13 previous seasons as Baylor’s head coach, Scott Drew has made the tournament six times and lost in the first round three times.
Baylor is a talented team, but it has struggled to maintain a high level of play as the season has worn on and when it has faced a quality opponent since the new year, like it almost certainly will in the second round, it has lost. Don’t be shocked when Baylor isn’t heading to Madison Square Garden next week.
Dangerous Wild-Card: SMU
Speaking of SMU, there’s a chance this team could blow up your bracket. I have been on the SMU bandwagon since November, and I have not gotten off. If anything, I’ve doubled down on the Mustangs. This team can flat out play with anybody.
KenPom.com ranks SMU 11th in adjusted overall efficiency, 11th in adjusted offensive efficiency, and 29th in adjusted defensive efficiency. For reference, that overall ranking is better than Duke, UCLA, Oregon, Arizona, Baylor, and Florida State, all of which received top-three seeds in the tournament and some of which are title favorites! They’re also only one spot behind Kansas. So yeah, they’re legitimately good.
Ojeleye was a four-star recruit originally signed by Duke who is now averaging 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 49.1% from the floor and 42.8% from three. He can drive to the basket, he can shoot from the outside, and he isn’t afraid to do some dirty work on defense and on the boards. His teammates Shake Milton, Sterling Brown, and Ben Moore are all averaging more than 10.0 points per game, too, which means Ojeleye doesn’t have to do it all by himself.
And while all of that offensive prowess is great, what makes them most dangerous in March is their defense. The Mustangs are third in the country in points allowed per game and seventh in field goal percentage allowed. They will smother you. SMU doesn’t run at a high pace and makes every possession count, similar to Virginia or Wisconsin except unlike the Wahoos and the Badgers this season, the Mustangs are solid offensively as well.
This team should wipe the floor with USC, will probably beat Baylor in the second-round, and then if the Mustangs get Duke in the Sweet Sixteen, at the very least they will give them a game. But if you’re looking for a higher seed to stick in your Final Four or if you want to bet on a “long shot,” this is the horse (yes, I just did that) to put your money on.
Region Champion: Duke
When most of the country filled out their brackets this week, almost everyone had Duke against Villanova in the Elite Eight. Duke versus Villanova at the Mecca of Basketball. What more could a college basketball fan ask for?
Picking the winner of that game is, quite frankly, a crapshoot. If you played that game 100 times, chances are these two teams would split them 50-50. But if you’re going to make me pick one to advance to the Final Four, I’m going to pick Duke.
The Blue Devils were the preseason favorite for a reason. This team is loaded with talent and it is finally starting to come together. Duke is coming off an impressive ACC tournament championship as it became the first team to ever win the ACC tourney title by winning four games in four days.
Kennard continues to do what he has done all year, which is get buckets from all over the court; Tatum has become an offensive standout, scoring 19 or more points in seven of his last 10 games; and Allen has started to find himself again both as a scorer and facilitator.
This trio is absolutely lethal and going into a game against a team as high quality as Villanova, having three players on the court at the same time that can go get a bucket from anywhere on the floor makes Duke nearly unguardable.
What helps even more is the emergence of two freshmen that have stepped up in recent weeks: point guard Frank Jackson and forward Harry Giles.
Jackson may not be the pure, pass-first point guard that Duke wants/needs, but he has been a more than adequate passer in recent weeks and he has really stepped up scoring the basketball, scoring 15 or more in five of his last seven games. His ability to become a scoring threat has helped open up lanes and shooting space for Kennard, Allen, and Tatum, which is crucial to Duke’s recent success.
Giles was the No. 1 high school recruit in the country, but never found a real role with this Duke team because of lingering injuries. He never looked particularly comfortable on the floor, and he ended up assuming a seventh man bench role. He still holds that role, but now that seventh spot is more productive. He is still not averaging a ton of minutes, but his 13.3 minute average in his last three games is more than he was getting back in mid-February. He looks more comfortable getting defensive rebounds (his main reason for being out there), collecting seven in the ACC semifinal against a loaded North Carolina front court.
Sixth-year senior forward Amile Jefferson has been great as essentially Duke’s lone big man doing all of the dirty work on defense and on the boards, but having Giles give more than serviceable minutes either alongside Jefferson or when he’s on the bench makes this Blue Devil all the more dangerous.
Then there’s a little bit of history. Since UCLA went on its absurd run of 10 championships in 12 seasons from 1964-75, only two teams have repeated as champions. Duke did it in 1991 and 1992, and Florida did it in 2006 and 2007.
I’m not saying that Villanova can’t repeat this year — the Wildcats have some of the hallmarks of those Duke and Florida teams, namely they brought back many key contributors from last year’s team — but it is a rare occurrence, and that’s because it’s really hard to win a national championship. You have to be nearly perfect for six straight games and that is incredibly difficult to do two years in a row.
Duke-Villanova has the potential to be one of the all-time great NCAA tournament games, and hopefully we all get to see it come Mar. 26. The East region is stacked this year. Pay attention to every minute in this section of the world’s greatest tournament and you will be guaranteed an incredible March Madness experience.
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