2018 East Regional Preview

2018 East Regional Preview

Led by Villanova, Four Teams Look to Advance Past the First Weekend and into Boston

By: Matt Sottile

While the Eagles may not be dancing in the field of 68, Boston College will serve as the host school for the 2018 NCAA Men’s East Regional at TD Garden, the third time the event has been played in Boston since 2009. The Villanova Wildcats, who advanced out of the East nine years ago, will once again look to book their trip to the Final Four from Beantown. Las Vegas has the Cats listed as 7/2 favorites to take home the title, as well as Jalen Brunson as the most likely candidate to be named the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, at +600. Despite ‘Nova opening up as the consensus favorite in what is considered to be the “weakest” region this year, there will be a plethora of individual talent on display, including Brunson, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans, West Virginia’s Jevon Carter, UCLA’s Aaron Holiday, Alabama’s Collin Sexton, and Landry Shamet of Wichita State.

Regardless of who the experts are picking in their brackets, these games are played on the hardwood, not paper. March Madness, the single most exciting event in all of sports, is filled with nonstop upsets, heartbreaks, emerging stars, and Cinderella stories. Anything can happen, and one team’s quest for immortality will be attained on April 2nd at the Alamodome. There is only one team placed in the East Regional representing the ACC, the conference with the most bids in this year’s NCAA Tournament (nine), the ninth-seeded Virginia Tech Hokies. The East includes two play-in games, seven conference tournament winners, and eleven at-large bids.

Here at WZBC Sports, we will be following the East Regional closely, with more coverage to come once the four teams playing in The Hub have been announced. The following is a rundown of the teams most likely to advance out of this corner of the bracket and on to San Antonio, followed by our executive board members’ predictions and analysis for the region.

The Favorites:

1.)  #1 Villanova Wildcats (30-4, 14-4 Big East)

There is a reason why Villanova, the number two seeded team in the entire tournament, is the heavy favorite to advance out of the East Regional. The Wildcats are riding high after a thrilling Big East tournament final, in which they outlasted Providence in overtime, to claim their third conference tournament championship in the last four seasons. The Wildcats still bolster five players from their 2016 National Championship team, including their phenom junior guard Jalen Brunson, the 2017-18 Big East Player of the Year, and one of the contenders for National Player of the Year. He led the conference in scoring with 19.4 points per game, and his +2.9 assist/turnover ratio was also the highest figure in the Big East. It is rare that one player leads the team in rebounds, blocks, and three point shooting percentage, but Big East Freshman of the Year Omari Spellman accomplished just that in his first full season of action. Villanova is led by Brunson, Spellman, and Mikal Bridges, their multi-faceted 6’7” guard/forward. There is no shortage of scoring for Villanova, a team that led the country with 87.1 ppg this season, while also holding their opponents to an average of just over 70 points. They did suffer the loss of redshirt junior guard Phil Booth, their fourth leading scorer, to a broken right hand on January 24th. They will look to sophomore guard Dante DiVincenzo to make up for the production lost at the guard spot in lieu of Booth’s indefinite absence. With a team field goal percentage of 50.8% and a 3-point field goal percentage of 39.8%, there is no stopping the Cats when they get hot. Villanova will bring with them a 4-0 record this season against AP top-25 teams and plenty of previous tournament experience (and success), making the Wildcats my pick to advance out of the East Regional and onto the Final Four.

2.)  #2 Purdue Boilermakers (28-6, 15-3 B1G)

The Boilermakers will face Cal State Fullerton in their first round matchup, 12 days removed from their last action on the hardwood. The B1G Conference Tournament, which was played this year at Madison Square Garden, a venue that conference commissioner Jim Delaney vouched for so strongly, took place a week early, to allow time for Villanova to secure the Big East trophy during the usual conference tourney week at the World’s Most Famous Arena. Matt Painter’s squad has only advanced out of the first weekend three times in his nine appearances in the NCAA Tournament as Purdue’s head coach. Prior to a 98-66 thrashing at the hands of Kansas in last year’s Sweet Sixteen, the Boilermakers were bounced in the First Round in back-to-back years, first to #8 seeded Cincinnati, in a one point heartbreaking OT loss, and then at the hands of 12th seeded Arkansas Little-Rock, this time in double overtime. Sophomore guard Carsen Edwards, the team’s leading scorer (18.5 ppg), will look to erase the sting of recent underachievement and tournament heartbreak for the Boilermakers. Dishing the ball inside to his trusty big men, Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms, might be his best bet, who cause matchup problems for smaller teams. Purdue swept Michigan in the regular season before being taken down by the Wolverines in the B1G title game, and posted convincing road victories at Arizona (89-64) and Butler (82-67), a potential second round opponent for the Boilermakers. Something to note: these out of conference victories came before the New Year, and might be overshadowed by three straight losses in the month of February, to Ohio State, Michigan State, and underachieving Wisconsin. The extra week of rest, paired with the skillsets of Edwards and their big men, might be enough to silence the critics and avenge their March mishaps under Painter.

3.) #5 West Virginia Mountaineers (24-10, 11-7 Big 12)

West Virginia reached the Big 12 championship game and was tied at 66 with the top-seeded Kansas, before the Jayhawks exploded on a 15-4 run to finish the game. Bob Huggins’ “Press Virginia” squad is known for their defensive intensity, speed and tenacity, and is captained by their senior guard, Jevon Carter. The senior leadership of Carter, who leads the team in points (17.0 ppg) and assists (6.6 apg), will prove to be crucial for a stingy tournament-tested team that is coming out of one of the deepest conferences in the country. Carter can do more than simply shoot and dish the ball, as he pocketed back-to-back Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Awards, in addition to being named to the conference’s All-Defensive Team for all four years he spent in Morgantown. Their defense forced Baylor to 22 turnovers in the Big 12 quarterfinals, before going toe to toe with Texas Tech, the other Big 12 team in the East Region, in a 66-63 semifinal victory in Kansas City. They downed the Red Raiders in two of their three meetings this season- the only loss was in Lubbock by one point. West Virginia will arguably have the hardest path to the Final Four of any team in this region. If they can get by Murray State in the opening round, which is no easy task in itself, they could find themselves having to go through Wichita State and Villanova in back-to-back games. They are one of only four teams in the East that will have to first make the trip out west, to San Diego, before their return flight home to West Virginia, and hopefully from there, to Boston. The Mountaineers’ combination of senior leadership, press defense, and experienced coaching could be just enough to propel them to their first Final Four under Huggins since 2010.

4.) #3 Texas Tech Red Raiders (24-9, 11-7 Big 12)

This is a different Texas Tech team than the one that played Boston College way back in November, but they might be just as overlooked as they were in their third game of the season. Senior guard Keenan Evans has blossomed into one of the most talented kids in the country, and if his toe injury doesn’t persist, the Red Raiders have a great shot at returning to their home state of Texas for the Final Four. Texas Tech dropped four straight in February after Evans missed time with his toe injury, but with him back in the lineup, the Red Raiders are looking at their deepest tournament run since they last made the Sweet Sixteen in 2005. First year head coach Chris Beard’s squad will benefit from a light travel schedule, unlike their Big 12 counterpart West Virginia. They will play their first two games in Dallas, and they might need the local fans to come out and bring the intensity, with a deadly matchup looming against either streaky Florida or the winner of a play-in game between two very talented teams in UCLA and St. Bonaventure. I predict the Red Raiders will make it to Boston, but a trip to the Final Four looks unlikely.

5.) #4 Wichita State Shockers (25-7, 14-4 American)

In their first season in the American Athletic Conference, Wichita State finished only one game out of first place in the regular season, falling to eventual conference tournament champion Cincinnati, who defeated the Shockers by one point in Wichita on the last day of the season. Gregg Marshall’s team is in the top-20 in the country in all three major offensive categories, averaging 83 points per game, 40.5 rebounds per game, and 18.5 assists per game, a figure that ranks third in the NCAA. Their offense is directed by sophomore guard Landry Shamet who leads the team with his 15.0 points per game, and who was named to the Wooden Award midseason watchlist. The Shockers are dominant inside, thanks to their 6’8” senior center Shaq Morris. Wichita State benefits from playing an up-tempo, open game, as their assist totals indicate.The Shockers finished only 4-4 against teams that qualified for the tournament this season, with two of those victories coming against mid-major conference champions College of Charleston and South Dakota State. Their #4 seed is the highest they have been placed in the tournament since their 34-0 undefeated campaign in 2014 earned them a 1 seed. The Shockers will be a threat for years to come in the AAC, but their 74th ranked strength of schedule could leave them at a disadvantage this postseason. After suffering losses to Notre Dame (with a healthy Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell, a duo that combined for 40 points) and Oklahoma early in the season, this is a team that could make a run, but may struggle to succeed against the WVU press in the Second Round.

The Longshots:

6.) #6 Florida Gators (20-12, 11-7 SEC)

Florida has been one of the streakiest teams all year long in one of the most competitive conferences, top to bottom. In 2018, eight teams from the SEC received bids into the NCAA Tournament; prior to this year, the conference had never gotten more than six teams into the field. The Gators have four players on their squad who are averaging better than 39% from beyond the arc. Senior guard Chris Chiozza leads the team in minutes played, and is averaging 11.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game. While the Gators ended the regular season on a three game winning streak against Alabama, Kentucky, and Auburn, they also have their fair share of bad losses. Florida was handed losses by lowly Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and twice to Georgia. Their success will hinge on their deep shooting, and while they could give Texas Tech some trouble, a hot UCLA or St. Bonaventure’s squad could carry some momentum from a win in Dayton and pull off the First Round upset.

7.)   #9 Alabama Crimson Tide (19-15, 8-10 SEC)

In their opening game of the SEC Tournament in St. Louis, Alabama found themselves 4.4 seconds away from potentially seeing their bubble burst, trailing Texas A&M 70-69. Then, Collin Sexton took the inbounds pass 94 feet coast-to-coast, finishing with a silky underhanded floater from the free throw line. Bama then went on to clobber their in-state rivals, and conference regular season champion, Auburn 81-63 the following day in the quarterfinals, to effectively remove any doubt about their case to make the Big Dance. Head coach Avery Johnson praised his freshman phenom after the A&M game, boasting, “When you got somebody like this on your team, you can beat anybody.” The Crimson Tide limped to the finish line, losing their last five regular season games, before solidifying their case to make the tournament field. Sexton finished with 79 points in three games in the SEC tournament, and the young stud seems like a surefire lottery pick in this year’s upcoming NBA Draft. If big man Donta Hall, who is averaging 6.8 rebounds per game, can successfully come back from the concussion he suffered last week and dominate inside, the Crimson Tide have the potential to make some noise. We know what upstart teams in March led by incredible guards are capable of (see: 2011 UConn Huskies), but it would take a valiant effort from both him and his teammates to lead Alabama past top-seeded Villanova and into Boston.

8.)   #11 UCLA Bruins (21-11, 11-7 Pac 12)

UCLA has played five overtime games this season, including a Pac 12 title game against Arizona in which the Bruins failed to score in the extra 5 minute frame. They played in one of the weakest major conferences in the country, as the Pac 12 got only three teams into the dance, and two of them will play in the First Four in Dayton. UCLA has come a long way from dealing with allegations involving LiAngelo Ball and two of his teammates stealing sunglasses prior to their season-opening contest in China. Aaron Holiday leads the charge for the Bruins, averaging 20.8 points per game, and over 5 assists per game. The last time Holiday played for less than 35 minutes in a contest was on January 20th in a loss to Oregon. He played phenomenally in Vegas in the Pac 12 Tournament, racking up back-to-back 34 point performances against USC and Stanford. The Bruins also benefit from having two twin towers inside: 7 foot Thomas Welch and 6’11” Gyorgy Goloman. The Bruins have suffered disappointing conference defeats: they were downed in three straight contests in January, to Colorado, Colorado State, and Oregon. If Holliday can play at the level he is capable of and win the battle of the point guards in their First Four matchup against Jaylen Adams and St. Bonaventure, UCLA might have a relatively easy path for an 11-seed, needing to take down Florida and potentially Texas Tech to reach the Sweet Sixteen in Boston.

9.)   #7 Arkansas Razorbacks (23-11, 10-8 SEC)

The Razorbacks went only 2-5 this year against top 25 teams, and some of those contests were not close. They lost to UNC by 19, Kentucky by 15, and were defeated by 26 points at Houston. Despite these losses, the Hogs enter the tournament as winners of 8 of their last 11 games. Their tandem of guards includes Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, who are combining for almost 35 points per game this season. Arkansas is averaging over 81 points per game as a team, and if they get by Butler, they might be able to match the offensive firepower and quick tempo of the Boilermakers. If their guards get hot, as they did in a quality win against Florida in the SEC Tournament, this is a team that can contend with anyone.

10.)   #8 Virginia Tech Hokies (21-11, 10-8 ACC)

The Hokies defeated BC at Conte Forum earlier this season, 85-80, in overtime. Three Virginia Tech players scored 18 or more that game, with Justin Robinson adding 12 assists of his own. Their depth is one of their greatest assets, as Robinson, Kerry Blackshear, Justin Bibbs, Ahmed Hill, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are all averaging over 10 points per game. Despite being sent home in their opening game of the ACC tournament by Notre Dame, they posted some quality wins down the stretch, including victories over NC State, Virginia, Clemson, and Duke. In fact, they were the only team in the ACC this year to defeat UVA, a team that posted the best record ever in ACC conference play, at 17-1. Their first round matchup with Alabama will be one of the most intriguing of the tournament, and if they can contain Sexton, the Hokies might just be able to advance and take down the #1 seed, Villanova.

The Double Digit Dark Horses:

11.)   #11 St. Bonaventure Bonnies (25-7, 14-4 Atlantic 10)

The Bonnies feature one of the most talented guards among mid-major teams this season in Jaylen Adams. The co-Atlantic 10 Player of the Year led his team on a 13 game winning streak in conference play, before losing to Davidson in the conference tournament semifinal. They were defeated by the Wildcats in two of three matchups this season, but St. Bonaventure did come out on top in a triple overtime thriller in late February. They were rewarded by the committee with an at-large bid, but an A-10 title certainly might have helped this team avoid a First Four matchup with UCLA. Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley are the star guards that need to step up and prove that the Bonnies were deserving of an at-large bid and they they are capable of making some noise in March. I wouldn’t be surprised if the winner of their First Four matchup carries momentum into Dallas and takes down Florida.

12.)   #10 Butler Bulldogs (20-13, 9-9 Big East)

Butler has won at least one game in their last three NCAA Tournaments, and they will turn to their 6’7” senior forward Kelan Martin, who is averaging over 20 points and 6 rebounds per game, if they want their streak to be extended to four years. To do so, they will also have to defend the three point line against Arkansas. The Razorbacks enter the tournament as the 12th best three-point shooting team in the country, while Butler ranks 296th at defending the three. If they sneak past Arkansas, they have a shot at taking down potentially the weakest #2 seed in the field, in Purdue.

13.)   #12 Murray State Racers (26-5, 16-2 Ohio Valley)

The last time Murray State qualified for the NCAA Tournament, they were coming off a 30-1 regular season, and as a 6 seed, lost to Marquette in the Second Round. They have never advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, but after a 26-5 campaign in 2017-18, the Racers are looking to pulling the upset over 5th-seeded West Virginia and possibly get to that point. Their starting guards, Jonathon Stark and Ja Morant, will need to facilitate the offense and do everything they can to break Huggins’ press and get points on the board early. Stark is pouring in 21.8 points per game this season, while Morant contributes a very well-balanced 12.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg, and 6.4 apg. Murray State can make some noise, and I predict they will play it close with the Mountaineers, but WVU’s experience and intensity should be enough to stifle the possibility of the Racers pulling off the upset.

14.)   #14 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks (27-6, 14-4 Southland)

The Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin will be taking on Texas Tech in a First Round Lone Star State showdown, which will take place in Dallas. SFA is comfortable playing the role of bracket buster, after taking down West Virginia in the Big Dance just two seasons ago- one of two NCAA Tournament victories in program history. This is a team that led the entire country in turnovers forced per game, with 19.97. The team that finished behind them? Portland State, with just over 18. They have three players, in Shannon Bogues, Kevon Harris, and TJ Holyfield, who are averaging over 13 points per game. If they can stop Keenan Evans and force him to give up the ball early, the Lumberjacks might be able to pull off their second upset in three years.


WZBC Sports Board East Regional Predictions:

Matt Sottile:

#1 Villanova over #5 West Virginia

#2 Purdue over #3 Texas Tech

#1 Villanova over #2 Purdue

Villanova is one of the hottest teams entering the NCAA Tournament, fresh off their Big East conference title. Having recent tournament success, exceptional guard play, and experienced coaching will leave the Wildcats with no shortage of confidence entering the Big Dance. Their offense could face their toughest test this season in a Sweet Sixteen showdown against West Virginia, but with the Mountaineers needing to defeat Murray State and potentially Wichita State in San Diego, they might come into Boston a little gassed, needing to shut down one of the most dominant offensive teams in the country. Brunson, Bridges and the boys cruise through the East Regional and advance to San Antonio, looking for their second title in three seasons.


Steve McAlee:

#1 Villanova over #5 West Virginia

#3 Texas Tech over #2 Purdue

#3 Texas Tech over #1 Villanova

Despite getting a handful of teams in, the Big East is the sixth best conference in the country. If they played in the gauntlets that are the ACC or Big 12, Nova would have at least three more loses. Nova has a special team and this will be a close game, but I see Texas Tech as this year’s South Carolina.


TJ Hartnett:

#1 Villanova over #5 West Virginia

#3 Texas Tech over #2 Purdue

#1 Villanova over #3 Texas Tech


Landon Komishane:

#1 Villanova over #5 West Virginia

#2 Purdue over #3 Texas Tech

#1 Villanova over #2 Purdue

Villanova has been one of the steadiest teams this year, and the play of Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges will elevate in the NCAA Tournament. I not only have Villanova winning this region, but I have them winning their second championship in three years. A dark horse that could give some teams problems is a team that beat Villanova this year, Butler. They’re very solid all the way around, and the NCAA Tournament always can bring out some Butler magic.


Kyle Maslan:

#5 West Virginia over #1 Villanova

#3 Texas Tech over #2 Purdue

#5 West Virginia over #3 Texas TechThe East bracket will be decided by who can keep their head on straight, while playing fast. While Nova is the favorite, I expect them to have trouble with the West Virginia press and havoc defense. WVU is lead by seniors and veterans so they know what to do when the lights are the brightest.


Al Preziosi:

#1 Villanova over #4 Wichita State

#6 Florida over #10 Butler

#1 Villanova over #6 Florida

Villanova has the elite talent and depth required to make a Final Four run and their experience puts them over the top against a relatively weak East bracket.


Andrew Linnehan:

#1 Villanova over #5 West Virginia

#6 Florida over #2 Purdue

#1 Villanova over #6 Florida

Jay Wright had an early exit last season which was a disappointing way to follow their national championship. Despite playing in a weaker conference, Nova may be the most talented college basketball team in this entire tournament. Bridges and Brunson overpower the Gators and lead Villanova to their second Final Four in three years.