No. 1 North Carolina
No surprise here. North Carolina is coming off an ACC championship and the East bracket doesn’t seem strong enough to keep them out of the Final Four. Kentucky would appear to be the only team that can match them player for player, but it may not be enough. I commiserate with coach John Calipari’s rant on his low seed, but even if Kentucky is undervalued, they don’t have the power in the paint to overwhelm Brice Johnson and company.
I’ve heard some chatter that North Carolina isn’t to be trusted. I get it. Their lack of defensive consistency is infuriating. For all of coach Roy Williams’ abilities he can’t ever seem to get the Tar Heels playing good team defense. But I say that doesn’t matter. After all, defense is for teams who don’t score enough.
No. 3 West Virginia
I’m not the only writer to overlook Xavier, but how can I skip out on the chance to write about West Virginia? Their insane press results in 10 steals a game and forces their opponents into more turnovers than any other team in the country. That doesn’t negate the fact that their own offense is awfully turnover prone, but it makes it more palatable. They also rebound surprisingly well for a team with such a small starting five, which suggests that coach Bob Huggins knows what he’s doing. It’s certainly not a guarantee that they win the region, but they’re the basketball equivalent of a south paw boxer. Their style isn’t insurmountable, but it’s weird and uncomfortable to play against. In a single game elimination tournament, that’s a huge advantage for a team like the Mountaineers.
The lower-seeded teams don’t have much going for them in the East. There’s some talent out there, but no one who looks like they could take a stand against any of the top four seeds. Still, Providence has the best shot of going deep in the tournament. They’ve beaten some ranked opponents and held their own against some seriously talented teams. They had a mid-season slump, but have looked better as of late. Point guard Kris Dunn is every bit as good as his two Big East Player of the Year honors suggest. Maybe better. Providence’s issue is consistency, which seems to be a running theme for just about everyone this season. Providence may not advance to the Sweet 16 since they’d have to go through North Carolina, but if you’re feeling a bit contrarian then there are worse picks.
No. 1 North Carolina vs No. 4 Kentucky
This one is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, these two teams are heavy on talent and offensive firepower. At the very least, this game should be fun. Both of these teams could beat anyone on a good night, and they both are playing their best basketball at the end of the season. As stated before, I think North Carolina wins this game, but I’m not so certain in my pick that I’d skip this one.
No. 1 North Carolina/No. 4 Kentucky vs No. 3 West Virginia
There’s a decent chance that whoever wins the North Carolina/Kentucky game will have to take on West Virginia in the Elite Eight. Because West Virginia’s defense is so different, it’s hard to predict who would fare better against them. I’m going to go with North Carolina having an easier time of it since they are more up-tempo and would therefore be more comfortable in a 20-second offense (which is what you often have after breaking the press). That’s kind of weak logic, but I’ll stick to it. For now.
Players to Watch:
Brice Johnson, North Carolina
North Carolina’s star is averaging a double-double for the season (16.6 ppg & 10.6 rpg) and shooting 61.4 percent from the field. He’s big, fast, and has a remarkable touch. North Carolina might not be the most defensive-minded team, but he’s enough of a blocking threat to challenge teams with drive-happy guards. The Carolina faithful were worried when guard Marcus Paige showed signs of struggle this season, but Johnson has been there to pick up the slack.
Jamal Murray, Kentucky
Guard Jamal Murray is averaging 20.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, and 2.1 apg and is ulta-talented. He’s one of those guys who is listed as a guard but has limitless versatility. His long range shot is silky smooth (42.1 percent from three) and he’s more than fast enough to punish anyone who tries to chase him around the perimeter too aggressively. He can finish at the basket with finesse or power, whichever is required, and even has a consistent mid-to-long range jumpshot. If there’s a way to score the basketball, Murray will find it.
Kris Dunn, Providence
As stated earlier, Dunn is Providence’s two-time Big East Player of the Year and, for what it’s worth, the most exciting point guard in the country. “Exciting” in this case means “turnover prone”, but also “how the heck did that pass connect?” The guy makes plays, plain and simple. He’s not the best shooter out there, but his mid-range game is solid and he’s athletic enough to take it to the hoop when need be. All that is just secondary though. Watch for the passes.
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
I feel compelled to say something about Xavier in this article. They are, after all, the second seed. Sophomore Trevon Bluiett is Xavier’s best offensive player. He’s shooting just under 40 percent from behind the arc and his 6’6 stature combined with a quick release means he can pretty much shoot at will. If compelled to, he’ll forgo the deep shot in favor of a quick drive and finish at the basket. Even though he’s listed as a guard, Bluiett spends a lot of time under the basket. He’s Xavier’s leading rebounder as well, averaging 6.2 rpg.
North Carolina should take this. It’s a year of parity from college basketball, so there’s no such thing as a lock, but I like the way Carolina’s playing now. The Tar Heels have the tools necessary to take it to every team in their region.