The East Region, which will play its regional games in Washington D.C., may be the toughest region to figure out in this year’s bracket. Top seed Indiana has been vulnerable down the stretch; Miami has been great all year, but they’ve never been this much of a favorite; Marquette isn’t as talented as the other teams, but plays with great effort; Syracuse has struggled at times, but could be peaking right now; and most of the teams between 5 and 14 are capable, but not reliable. This will make the East Region mysterious, but interesting to watch unfold.
Top seed: Indiana
The Hoosiers appeared beatable down the stretch, losing three of their final six games, but they are well deserving of a 1 seed. Indiana has one of the most potent and well-balanced offenses in the country, led by Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. Oladipo is one of the top athletes in the country, while Zeller gives the Hoosiers a great post presence, which goes great with four players that shoot over 35% from beyond the arc, including Oladipo and senior Christian Watford. The Hoosiers came on strong last year, making the Sweet 16 last year, and they’ve been one of the top teams in the country all season; and now Indiana is ready to make a run towards a national championship.
Main competition: Miami
The Hurricanes have a right to be upset over not getting a 1 seed after winning the ACC regular season and tournament championships, but they remain a threat to win this region. Miami isn’t accustomed to being on this stage, and they’re certainly not accustomed to being such a big favorite, and that’s going to be a challenge that they’ll have to deal with. However, the Hurricanes are loaded with seniors that have played a lot of basketball over the past four years. Miami also has one of the nation’s elite point guards in Shane Larkin, as well as a coach in Jim Larranaga that took George Mason to the Final Four and should know how to prepare a team that must feel under-rated after not receiving a 1 seed. With Larkin leading the way, the Hurricanes have been one of the most impressive teams in the country this season, and are as capable as anyone of reaching the Final Four.
The second half of the Big East championship game notwithstanding, Syracuse is peaking at the right time, which makes them a dangerous 4 seed, even in a region with Indiana and Miami. The Orange have been great on defense all year, and playing zone defense is usually beneficial to them in the tournament, as most teams are unfamiliar with zones, especially ones that are as big and as active as the zone Syracuse plays. If the Orange can continue the offensive efficiency they had in the Big East Tournament, their defense will be good enough to carry them throughout the NCAA Tournament, and possibly to the Final Four.
Tough out: Butler
The names on the back of the jerseys have changed, but the team remains the same. Butler is one of the toughest teams in the country to play, as they still play with a chip on their shoulder and play with great effort and intensity, especially on the defensive end of the floor. The Bulldogs may not be able to make another run to the Final Four, but they’re capable of winning a couple games in this tournament, and no matter what team they’re playing they will fight and scratch for every point, which won’t make it easy on whichever team ultimately knocks them out.
Possible Cinderella: N.C. State
It’s been exactly 30 years since the late Jim Valvano led N.C. State on an improbable run in the NCAA tournament, so wouldn’t it be poetic if this year’s Wolf Pack were able to pull off something similar. This year’s N.C. State team is loaded with talent and potential, starting with C.J. Leslie, who will be a handful for any defense. Leslie is joined in the frontcourt by senior Richard Howell, who averages a double-double. The team also has a couple sharpshooters in Scott Wood and Rodney Purvis, who help to stretch out the floor and open things up inside for Leslie and Howell. The Wolf Pack haven’t played to their full potential this season, but if they can put it all together they have the talent to win multiple games and make a deep run, just as Valvano and N.C. State did 30 years ago.
Upset alert: California over UNLV
This is the classic 12 over 5 upset. These two teams met back in December with the Rebels winning 76-75 on Cal’s home floor. The Bears will once again have the home-court advantage, playing in San Jose less than an hour away from their Berkley campus. UNLV needed a put back on an air ball in the closing seconds and for Cal to miss a lot of free throws in order to win that game, and they may not be so lucky this time. The Rebels also needed 25 points from Anthony Bennett and 22 points from Bryce Dejean-Jones to secure the win. The Bears will have a sour taste in their mouth from the way that game ended, and it’ll be Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs lighting up the scoreboard as Cal wins in front of a partisan crowd.
Player to watch: Cody Zeller, Indiana
There are very few true post players in college basketball, and Zeller is one of them. A lot of the teams in the NCAA Tournament rely on making outside shots, but an effective post player is something you know will carry over from game to game, which is what Zeller can provide for Indiana. Zeller makes 57% of his field goals and 75% of his free throws, which means he is an incredibly efficient scorer. He also grabs eight rebounds a game and blocks shots at the defensive end without getting into foul trouble. As important as guard play is during the tournament, there is no substitute for a post player that can dominate like Zeller, who could end up being one of the biggest difference makers in this tournament if Indiana makes a deep run.
What to watch for:
The thing to watch in the East Region is which teams play to their potential. Indiana has national title aspirations but lost a few games down the stretch and in the second round they will have to face either a talented N.C. State team or a Temple team with the reputation of being a giant killer. Miami has played like one of the nation’s best teams all season, but playing in the NCAA Tournament will be a much different experience than playing in the NIT each of the past two years. Syracuse could have Final Four potential, but only if the same team that played in the Big East Tournament shows up in this tournament.
Marquette and Butler could be one of the opening weekend’s more intriguing games, and the winner has a chance to go even further, but both teams have tough first round games against Davidson and Bucknell respectively that they need to get past first, and neither can afford to play anything but their best basketball this weekend. Bottom line, this region will feature a lot of intriguing matchups before the first weekend is over, and even the top teams are going to have to be at their best in order to survive and advance.