NCAA March Madness: East Region Preview (Pt. 1)

NCAA

Mar 11, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Villanova Wildcats guard Josh Hart (3) reacts while cutting down the net after defeating the Creighton Bluejays in the Big East Conference Tournament final game at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The March Madness season officially kicked off on Sunday, when the ranking and seeding of all 68 men’s teams who made the NCAA tournament bracket were announced in the annual “Selection Sunday” broadcast show. This is the time where college hoops comes to the forefront of the basketball landscape, with excitement and upsets abound.

Every fan filling out a bracket wants to know the inside scoop — what do all the numbers mean? Who matches up well with who? What team could be this year’s Cinderella? What top seeds are most susceptible to being knocked out early?

We know you don’t have time to watch every team and study them in depth — but here at BBALL BREAKDOWN, we do! So we have compiled information and summaries on each team to help you prepare for the tournament, make the best bracket choices available and enjoy the most exciting time of the year in sports.

Here is a look at the East Region, featuring number one seed Villanova, a hot Duke Blue Devils team at the two, and a tough test of mid-majors and solid seeds throughout.

The following games will be played Thursday and Saturday from Buffalo, NY

1. Villanova Wildcats vs. 16. (Mount St. Mary’s or New Orleans)

The 31 wins from a defending national champion is the most ever, and it’s telling of the firepower that Villanova returns, as well as the business-like aura of coach Jay Wright, who hasn’t allowed ‘Nova to slip at all. Their offensive attack has remained top-notch, with only a few plays and simple motion actions that are all predicated on dribble penetration by their guards. They have some of the best spacing in all of college basketball with a lot of three-point shooters and are great at scoring with patience inside the arc. KenPom rates their offense as the second most efficient in the land.

Leading the attack is National Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart. Hart plays three positions, is impactful with and without the ball in his hands, has become an excellent defender and is always poised in big moments. Flanking Hart in the backcourt are sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson, one of the top finishers for a point guard in the entire country, and Mikail Bridges, who is shooting above 70 percent from two-point range this year. Good luck keeping all three guards out of the paint — with stretch-shooting big man Kris Jenkins ready to open the floor for attack, these Wildcat guards get to the rim at will. As a team, Nova is just beneath 80 percent in free throw shooting, another sign of a veteran, guard-led team that will help them win close games in March.

Focusing on Villanova’s offense to the neglect of their defense doesn’t tell a complete story about how they have been a top-five team this entire season. The Wildcats play defense without fouling, which allows them to not only limit easy chances for their opponents, but not get in foul trouble and have to dip beyond their seven-man rotation. They cover up the three (opponents shoot just 31 percent against them) and block shots on the interior at a high rate despite not having a go-to shot blocker.

Hart and Brunson are likely low-level draft prospects that fall somewhere in the second round when all is said and done. Neither are explosive point guards; Hart lacks a true position, while Brunson has some work to do in ball screens to prove he’s an NBA-caliber guard. The best name to know might be youngster Mikail Bridges, a deadly slasher with the ability to get into the paint and finish through contact at any moment.

So what will it take to beat Villanova? Just ask Butler, who did it twice. Butler controlled the pace of the game each time, neutralized the Wildcats’ shot blocking prowess by going off two feet in the lane, converted on their few trips to the foul line and got Josh Hart in foul trouble both times. The Wildcats go as Hart goes, and if he can be taken away or out of the game completely, the Wildcats might not make it back to the Final Four for consecutive seasons. — Adam Spinella

Villanova will get the winner of the Mount St. Mary’s and New Orleans opening round game on Tuesday night.

Be ready for some ball screens when going against the Mountaineers. Coach Jamion Christian loaded up on a brutal non-conference schedule against mid-majors this year in hopes of preparing his team for March. That gamble paid off after starting the season 1-11, as the Mountaineers won their conference tournament in the Northeast and closed out their season winning five of their last six. The gauntlet of early season foes included West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan, Arkansas and tournament team Bucknell. The Mountaineers still managed to win 19 games and are more tested against major conference opponents than any 16seed in recent memory.

Leading the attack on offense is Elijah Long, the team’s speedy point guard who rarely gets a reprieve. He and 5’5” guard Junior Robinson are the only backcourt players the Mountaineers have. Up front is a more staggered attack, with swing forwards popping in and out of the rotation — still, Christian only plays seven or eight consistently. The hot streak of freshman Miles Wilson as a third cog on offense has brought the Mountaineers attack up from beyond the three point line, easing Long’s creative burden.

Long and Robinson log heavy minutes and have the gaudiest numbers as a result, but The Mount plays with a great deal of offensive balance. Battle tested, well-rounded and quick in the backcourt, these Mountaineers will need to get a whole lot bouncing their way if they look to do the impossible — Adam Spinella

It’s been a feel-good story for the Pioneers, who were picked to finish ninth in the Southland and ended up winning both the regular season and conference tournament. A team that plays all juniors and seniors, New Orleans has played with the determination of a team refusing to let their journey end. They play with a reckless abandon that only a team with nothing to lose can — they force a ton of turnovers in the full court, but also give up easy baskets and are turnover prone themselves.

The Pioneers don’t have one go-to playmaker; their starting center Tevin Thibodeaux averages the most assists on the team, and five guys average at least two dimes per game. It’s a good thing New Orleans plays in transition — they have a supreme lack of outside shooters. Without that spacing, they get less than 20 percent of their total points from beyond the arc, one of the lowest numbers in all of Division I.

Remember the name Erik Thomas. The senior wing is a good athlete that can make plays happen and could single-handedly push the Pioneers into the game against Villanova. But speeding up the Wildcats and their multi-guard look is easier said than done. There are better bets for a sixteen seed in this tournament to make history than New Orleans. — Adam Spinella

8. Wisconsin Badgers vs. 9. Virginia Tech Hokies

Wisconsin stumbled in its regular season finish, winning only five of its last seven games. They recovered in the Big Ten Tournament, though, getting all the way to the championship game before losing to a red-hot Michigan team. Wisconsin enters this year’s tournament as pretty much the same team they are every year. They combine a deliberate, efficient offense with a stifling defense that makes you work hard for everything you get.  

This year’s version of the Badgers is led by star center Ethan Happ. Happ, at 6’11, is a load in the paint and he scores very efficiently through a skilled, old-school post game. When he does miss shots, he is tough to keep off the offensive boards and routinely extends possessions for Wisconsin due to his terrific length.

On the perimeter, seniors Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter make life extremely difficult for opposing backcourts. Both Koenig and Showalter are great on-ball defenders and stifle the majority of opposing dribble drive attempts. Offensively, both Koenig and Showalter shoot the  three at above a 38 percent rate and provide serious spacing to give Happ room to operate in the paint. Fellow senior Nigel Hayes had a somewhat disappointing game, but his versatility on both ends of the floor provides very real value to Wisconsin.

Despite its late struggles, Wisconsin has the type of experienced starting five that can thrive in a tournament environment. They appeared to correct some of their struggles in their conference tournament, and they remain, as always, one of the most dangerous Big Ten teams in the tournament. If they can get past their eight-nine matchup, Wisconsin and their deliberate, disciplined style could give Villanova some fits. — Matt Way

In Buzz Williams’ third season at Virginia Tech, he has them back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. Virginia Tech’s ninth ever appearance in March comes following a 22-10 season where they had quality wins against Duke and Virginia at home, and at Michigan early in the season.

Virginia Tech has a strong offense that makes up for most of the issues in its middling defense. The Hokies’ leading scorer is senior center Zach LeDay, who averages 16.3 points per game. LeDay, standing at only 6’7″, provides a serious inside presence for the Hokies despite his height. LeDay is an efficient scorer in the paint and is very adept at drawing fouls to raise his efficiency numbers.  

The Hokies’ second leading scorer is Seth Allen, who is a high volume three-point shooter that knocks down those shots at a 45 percent clip. Fellow rotation members, Justin Bibbs and Ty Outlaw, also shot over 42 percent from three on over 100 attempts this season.  

Defensively, Virginia Tech struggled this season, ranking only 125th in defensive efficiency per KenPom. Those defensive struggles were exacerbated by the loss of Chris Clarke, the Hokies’ best perimeter defender. Virginia Tech’s defensive struggles limit their upside, and they might have a tough time scoring in the first round against Wisconsin, one of the better defensive teams in the country. — Matt Way

The following games will be played Thursday and Saturday from Orlando, FL.

5. Virginia Cavaliers vs. 12. UNC-Wilmington Seahawks

Slow down. Grind it out. Clog the paint, prevent dribble penetration and rebound the basketball. Share it on offense, pass, cut, avoid turnovers and take only the best shot available. Tony Bennett’s mantra doesn’t change at Virginia, no matter where his talent lies on the roster. Sure, the Cavaliers have stuttered a bit through ACC play, losing five of six in a February stretch against all tournament and bubble teams. But in typical Bennett fashion, he righted the ship and got the Cavaliers to win their last three regular season games — including a domination of North Carolina — to get some momentum before heading into the NCAA’s.

Leading the way for the cavaliers is senior point guard London Perrantes, their most experienced player. Balance on offense around him is the name of the game, and freshman sharpshooter Kyle Guy (50 percent from three) has been the most pleasant portion of their game.

You can’t talk about Virginia without mentioning that they’re the nation’s most efficient defense — an incredible feat considering they play in the ACC and have one of the toughest schedules in America. They allow opponents to score only 55 points per game, the lowest number in the country, but the key number for the Cavaliers is 60. In nine of their 10 losses, teams were able to score above 60 on them. Virginia is 4-9 when their opponents go above the 60 point plateau, and 18-1 when they can play below 59.

So for Virginia, a team still finding out their offensive weapons to some degree, the symbiotic relation between offense and defense is paramount. Pace is the name of the game for the Cavaliers to advance deep into the tournament. Having beat North Carolina, Louisville and Notre Dame — three fairly up-tempo teams — already this season, there’s no worry about Virginia having the ability to slow down games against even the best, highest-powered offense. The question is if they’ll make enough shots early in games to win a battle in the 50s and 60s. — Adam Spinella

Six years ago, Kevin Keatts was a prep school head coach. Now he’s led the UNC-Wilmington Seahawks into back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. One of the hottest names on the coaching carousel, Keatts has dominated the CAA with his speed and space system. Playing four guards at all times, the Seahawks speed up games with various presses, switches and full-court pressure on opposing point guards to keep their opponents on their heels.

Offensively, they shoot a ton of threes at a high percentage. Sophomore C.J. Bryce is the ringleader, averaging nearly 18 points per game. Bryce is a tall combo guard with potential for an NBA future ahead of him. He’s a scorer on all levels, creating out of ball screens or isolations, thriving in transition and being an accurate three-point shooter (a shade under 34 percent). Big man Devontae Cacock is an electric offensive rebounder on the inside and has provided a nice inside-outside attack.

Make no mistake, these Seahawks can blitz some teams. Their pressure, guard-play and three point shooting barrage are ingredients for an upset against an unsuspecting foe. Combine that with a rugged big man down low in Cacok who can anchor the defense and finish near the rim, and these Seahawks could be a trendy upset pick. If they can get penetration against Virginia’s pack-line defense, the Seahawks could make some noise. — Adam Spinella

4. Florida Gators vs. 13. East Tennessee State Buccaneers

Even with eight losses, Florida is ninth in KenPom, largely due to being fourth in defensive efficiency. Coach Mike White’s team has held opponents to just 66.6 points per game this season, and was able to hold Kentucky to 66 in a win over the Wildcats in Gainesville. That defense was not on display when White was whisked away from Louisiana Tech, a high-powered offensive program. White has shown his versatility as a coach, and it’s translated into a great deal of success for the Gators this year. The Gators have won by committee, spreading out their scoring and getting contributions on defense and on the glass by everyone in their eight-man rotation. There are no projected 2017 draft picks on this squad, but junior forward Devin Robinson is on some 2018 second-round boards.  

Florida finished second in the SEC at 14-4 in conference, but were bounced in their first SEC tournament game to Vanderbilt, their third loss to the Commodores this year. Perhaps this was a bad matchup for them, but Vanderbilt exposed Florida’s vulnerabilities. While the Gators have no bad losses (all eight on the season are in the NCAA tournament field), it could be that good teams with a balance of offense and defense could halt the Gators chances of moving past Orlando.

At times, the Gators struggle to score for a contender, averaging just 68.8 per game. KeVaughn Allen is their leading scorer with just 13.9 points per game, and they don’t have anyone who can take over the game on offense. Because of that, they lost close games to strong opponents in Duke, Kentucky, Florida State, Vanderbilt (three times), Gonzaga and South Carolina. They have no bad losses, as they were able to stifle the bad and mediocre opponents they faced. Their 22-point win over Kentucky provides hope that this team could go on a deep run, but their overall record against quality opponents gives pause. — Eli Horowitz

What do you get when you have a team playing only upperclassmen with a weak schedule, but measures highly by nearly every offensive and defensive metric? Well, I guess we’ll find out this week in the tournament… These Buccaneers are a fast-paced team that toggles through a deep bench with a boat load of playing experience.

T.J. Bolden is their do-it-all guard, scoring nearly 20 points a game and shooting over 40 percent from three on a robust amount of attempts. Flanking him in a multi-guard attack are shooters and playmakers with playing experience in big games, like creator Desonta Bradford and big-time athlete A.J. Merriweather. Holding it down on the interior is former Indiana Hoosiers starting center Hanner Perea, a big time shot blocker and anchor down low. This type of experience is hard to come by in a mid-major program, and will help the Buccaneers down the stretch.

The Buccaneers are good at the style they play — they force a lot of turnovers, they work hard to throw the ball inside, and they play at a pretty fast tempo in the full court. For a team that does pressure the basketball, they have great rotations on the defensive end. But East Tennessee State also commits a fair deal of turnovers. If they want to pull off the first round upset, hanging onto the ball while forcing the tempo they want is their biggest task. — Adam Spinella


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