If your team was tossed into the East region during this year’s NCAA Tournament, then I feel bad for you; it’s a complete gauntlet. With Indiana (the #1 seed), Miami (ACC outright champ), Syracuse (Boeheim’s boys) N.C. State (crazy athletic) and UNLV (can you say sleeper?), the entire region has teams that can smoke you any day of the week. They’re well coached, they’re thoroughly vetted, and many of the programs are just flat out history-rich. Marquette, Syracuse, UNLV, California, and North Carolina State each have had a national title under their belts in the past. Not to mention Butler playing in back-to-back championship games in ’10 and ’11.
What’s more fascinating about this region is the diverse range of playing styles that each team brings to the table. N.C. State is an up-and-down paint team that wins games with athleticism and grit. Indiana, on the other hand, is a team that gives you a egregious amount of looks, playing in and out while picking and choosing their shots at the right time. Of course, you also get Syracuse and that 2-3 zone that has made Jim Boeheim one of the best coaches in the nation at the college level. There are countless others to elaborate on, but the depth of talent and traditions on these teams is great. So who wins?
Miami: The Hurricanes have to feel slighted after not grabbing a #1 seed in the tournament despite winning the ACC outright, and look to silence even more doubters. Winners in 19 of their last 22 games, the Canes are a gritty, gritty team with one of the best point guards in the nation in Shane Larkin. Yes, the team as a whole doesn’t score a lot of points, but they also don’t need to; their defense and athleticism is up there with any team in the nation. Sure, the Hurricanes can dial it up when they need to (like scoring 90 points to beat Duke), but they’re more than capable of winning games when the score is in the 50′s for each team.
They won’t potentially face anyone that will be an incredibly tough out until the third round (Marquette or Butler), and have as much as chance as anyone to get out of this region alive.
Indiana: Yes, I went chalk with the favorites this time around, but for good reason. Indiana may have limped through their final six games (they lost half of them), but they are still incredibly well coached and are battle-tested after an incredibly tough schedule. With Victor Oladipo, the Hoosiers have a menace on the offensive end of the court who no one seems to be able to handle; his ability to score in a variety of ways keeps Indiana in every game. They also have Cody Zeller, arguably the nation’s best big man, to man the paint. His hyper-efficiency gives the Hoosiers an incredibly good offensive team that can shut it down defensively as well.
That being said, they are going to have to push through a brick wall to make it out on top in their region. None of the teams they face in the second, third, and fourth rounds will be remotely easy outs. N.C. State matches up very well with them, and UNLV, Temple, and Syracuse are also teams that can give teams fits at any time. Still, Indiana is the team to beat, and I think they still have the firepower to plow through anyone in the region.
First Round: (5) UNLV vs (12) California
Everyone loves a grudge match, and that’s exactly what fans will be getting in this first round matchup. During their first outing, the Runnin’ Rebels came out on top 76-75 on a last second shot by Quintrell Thomas and ruined Cal’s chances of getting an upset. UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, Bryce Dejean-Jones and Anthony Marshall nabbed 80% of their points in that game, and they usually do that every game anyway (they combine for 36 points per game). But Cal is just as high scoring, with Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs combining for 34 points per game. Expect this game to be a very high scoring match that is played at a quick pace and a lot of grit.
Sweet 16: (1) Indiana v. (4) Syracuse
Who wouldn’t want to see two absurdly good coaches with completely different stylistic approaches go toe-to-toe in a cage match. Syracuse has some long, lanky defenders and a brand of basketball that you either love or you hate. Meanwhile, Indiana plays a pretty game with set after set after set that no defense can seem to figure it out. Both teams struggled later on in the season, but it goes without saying that their coaches will likely have figured things out come tourney time, and getting out of the region alive means that one of these two teams cannot win. Victor Oladipo’s scoring vs Michael Carter-William’s enigmatic style of playmaking; the Big Ten vs the old school Big East; Crean vs Boeheim. There’s just a lot riding on this game, unseen and seen.
Fans win big time if the bracket goes chalk and they get to watch this matchup unfold.
Players to Watch:
Shane Larkin, Miami: If you haven’t gotten a chance to see Larkin play yet, you’re missing out. Larkin, son of former baseball HOFer Barry Larkin, has a command of the game you don’t often see. His numbers don’t jump out at you (14.2 points, 4.3 assists per game with 40% from 3pt range), but he gives the Hurricanes one thing that many teams lack: consistency. The Hurricanes won ten road games this season, which is a great number because no other team in the NCAA tournament was capable of that. What else? He guided the Hurricanes to the ACC championship in both the regular season and postseason. Just watch the guy play when you get the chance, and you’re going to come away impressed.
Mike Muscala, Bucknell: Muscala is going to be a guy you’ve never heard of, but is on the radar of most every NBA scout. The 6’11 forward is the main reason why Bucknell is considered a sleeper team (if they can get past another sleeper team) in the East region. Muscala rebounds like a madman with 11.2 per game, but he is also a very competent scorer, averaging 19 points per game. He gets to the free throw line a good amount, and his coach, Dave Paulsen, knows how to put him into the perfect position to be effective.
Victor Oladipo, Indiana: You want to watch an incredibly good future NBA lottery pick? Watch Victor go to work on whoever he plays. Oladipo is a bad dude out of storied DeMatha Catholic High School, and he shows it all over the court. Very few players finish around the rim better than him, and he is a great rebounder for a smaller guard. Oladipo is relentless on defense and there are very few times where you’ll see him get outhustled or outworked. Look for him to jam on multiple people, and then watch how well he plays with his partner-in-crime, Cody Zeller.
Out of this region, it’s damn near impossible to pick one specific Cinderella team what with Butler, Davidson, and Bucknell sitting in this bracket. Of those three, who feature fantastic X’s and O’s coaches, I’m going to go with Davidson as the sleeper pick here, despite all three being as good a sleeper pick as you could ask for. I think Davidson is going up against a Marquette team that has been good, but not great, all year and doesn’t rebound well. Their perimeter defense isn’t that great, and they are going up against a team that shoots three pointers, and shoots them well.
Considering a top four team has lost in the first round 24 of the last 28 years, and Marquette is only a 4 point favorite that doesn’t play amazingly well away from their home arena, I think Davidson busts some brackets. After that, they draw another tough matchup with either Butler or Bucknell, but one that is certainly manageable as well.
Like it or not, I’m liking Davidson.
Winner: Miami Hurricanes
They have an easier path than Indiana, and given how well they play in any venue and their veteran leadership, I think Miami is poised to come out of the East. Even if they aren’t considered the best team in the East. They are most certainly going to have their hands full with Indiana if they make it that far, but the Hoosiers might be pretty beaten up by then and Miami is diverse enough on defense to challenge any team.