The East is probably the most forgotten region. The Midwest has Kentucky and Kansas. The West is probably the best region from top to bottom and it's got Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina. And if the West isn't the best region, it's the South, which sports Duke.
But the East region? Villanova is the 1 seed everybody in the media loves to dump in. Nobody thinks Virginia can score enough to go far. Oklahoma was easily the most mystifying 3 seed (they got in for having 12 RPI Top 50 wins, but it's not as impressive as you think when you dig into it). Even the 5/12 game in this region is a mid-major/mid-major battle.
But that said, this is also a region that could go in a lot of different directions. We have a very dangerous 7 and 8 seed, Michigan State and North Carolina State respectively, which could provide a huge scare in the Round of 32. Providence has one of the most electrifying players in the nation in Kris Dunn. And Northern Iowa has the most underrated elite player in the nation in Seth Tuttle.
And of course, Villanova and Virginia are both far better than the media is giving them credit. You can argue those are two of the four best teams in the nation.
So don't sleep on this region providing a ton of entertainment. Now, let's break it down:
My Picks:11. Dayton over 11. Boise State
1. Villanova over 16. Lafayette
8. NC State over 9. LSU
4. Louisville over 13. UC-Irvine
5. Northern Iowa over 12. Wyoming
3. Oklahoma over 14. Albany
6. Providence over 11. Dayton
7. Michigan State over 10. Georgia
2. Virginia over 15. Belmont
Thoughts:Don't over-think the high seeds. Belmont is a really tough 15 seed, but they don't have JJ Mann or Mitch Hedgepeth anymore. They do chuck up a ton of threes (4th in the nation in 3PA/FGA, hitting them at a 38% clip), so if they get hot they can cause trouble, but don't pick that upset. I also think Oklahoma shouldn't have much trouble with Albany. The Great Danes put up good offensive numbers in the America East, but Oklahoma is far and away the best defensive they've seen all year. They depend heavily on getting to the free throw line, but Oklahoma is good at not fouling. Sam Rowley could physically dominate America East front lines, but he'll be out-manned (and possibly put into foul trouble) by TaShawn Thomas.
UC-Irvine is an interesting test for Louisville. They've been a significantly better team since they got Mamadou Ndiaye back, and it will be fascinating to watch the 7'6" Ndiaye battle against Montrezl Harrell. Throw in the fact that UC-Irvine shot over 39% on threes this season (and over 40% in conference play) and you've got a team that can put up points against a Louisville team that has been incredibly inconsistent at scoring since they lost Chris Jones. I'm not picking the upset, but it wouldn't be the craziest thing to do in your bracket, particularly if you're in a contest that rewards upsets.
Wyoming is another team that has gotten significantly better down the stretch. Larry Nance, Jr was arguably the best player in the Mountain West, and Wyoming completely fell apart when he went out. But they've been playing great since he's been back, and looked impressive in winning the Mountain West tournament. The concern I have is them keeping up offensively. Aside from Nance creating things in the paint and drawing fouls, Wyoming struggles to score. They were 8th in the Mountain West in offensive efficiency. In contrast, Northern Iowa has one of the most efficient scorers in the nation in Seth Tuttle and can pour in baskets in bunches. They were in the Top 13 in the nation in 2P%, 3P% and eFG%, and Pomeroy rates them the 15th best offense in the nation. Unless Northern Iowa goes cold on threes, they should win here.
No matter who Providence draws they're going to have difficulty. Dayton and Boise State are both very strong 11 seeds. The question with Providence is whether you believe in this late season burst of the last two weeks, where their computer numbers have risen significantly. There was no change in personnel, but they've played better, particularly on the glass. Boise State in particular is good at limiting that (they were 18th in the nation in DR%). That said, Dayton has been very undersized since they kicked Jalen Robinson off the team, and I don't think they've got the personnel to handle that massive Providence front line. So if Boise State beats Dayton then feel free to pick them over Providence, but if it's Dayton then I think you have to go with the Friars.
Michigan State/Georgia isn't as big of a mismatch as you might think. Michigan State is a very strong 7 seed, of course, but Georgia is a stronger team than is given credit. They lacked RPI Top 50 wins, but both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate them as a Top 40 team. Still, like I said, Michigan State is playing really good basketball right now. They are very physical inside, and are very good on the glass. Georgia doesn't really have the horses in the paint. Marcus Thornton is their one reliable big man, but he's foul-prone. Georgia led the SEC in defensive rebounding percentage, but if Thornton gets in foul trouble then that goes out the window. I think you've got to take Michigan State here.
North Carolina State/LSU is pretty much a prototypical 8/9 game. Two teams from major conferences with real talent but which could not win consistently within their power conference. Both teams proved to be stronger defensively than offensively in conference play, so don't be surprised if this is a physical, low-scoring game. That said, LSU is a particularly bad outside shooting team, and they're going up against an NC State team that led the ACC in defensive block rate and was second in 2P% defense, thanks in large part to Beejay Anya. NC State has more scoring options on the perimeter in Trevor Lacey and Anthony Barber, both of whom hit 40% of their three-point attempts this past season. So I give the narrow edge to them.
My Picks:1. Villanova over 8. NC State
5. Northern Iowa over 4. Louisville
3. Oklahoma over 6. Providence
2. Virginia over 7. Michigan State
Thoughts:North Carolina State is a team that I thought was going to end up in an 8/9 game, and that I thought would give a 1 seed trouble. They have proven this season to have the ability to knock off top teams, beating Duke and winning on the road at Louisville and North Carolina. That said, Villanova is a tough match-up for them. NC State's biggest strength is their ability to dominate the paint defensively. They will allow plenty of threes, and Villanova can absolutely light it up from outside. They have six different players who attempted more than six three-pointers this past season, and all of them hit at least 37%. If those shots don't fall, NC State can win the rebounding battle and steal a low-scoring win, but short of that they're not going to be able to keep up.
Louisville/Northern Iowa is a difficult game to pick, in large part, because both of those teams could go down in the Round of 64. You can easily pick a Sweet 16 team here that goes down on Friday. But that said, if we break down this game in and of itself, I think Northern Iowa has more ways to win than Louisville does. Louisville is ferocious defensively, but they have basically three guys on the roster who can score. Northern Iowa is one of the most explosive offenses in the nation (rated 15th by Pomeroy). They have six different regulars shooting at least 40% behind the arc, and Seth Tuttle is an incredible passer on top of being one of the most explosive scorers in the nation. Tuttle will cause particular problems for Montrezl Harrell by playing on the perimeter, opening up the paint for others. If Louisville wins it'll be because Northern Iowa's perimeter defense couldn't keep Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear out of the lane, but UNI's perimeter defense is solid. Wes Washpun and Deon Mitchell are both up to the task.
If Oklahoma and Providence play each other, this is a game that could have long scoring droughts. Providence's offense has two great weapons in Kris Dunn and LaDontae Henton, but they're both inconsistent. Dunn can turn into a turnover machine, and Henton can disappear for whole games. Oklahoma was the best defensive team in the nation's best conference. But that said, Oklahoma's offense is what held them back in losses all season long. Buddy Hield is their only consistent scorer. If Kris Dunn can lock him down defensively and win that one-on-one match-up, Providence absolutely can win this game. That said, if there's a tiebreaker here, it's the fact that Oklahoma has a significantly lower chance of losing in the Round of 64. So that, in my opinion, gives the edge to Oklahoma.
Michigan State/Virginia, if it comes to pass, might end up the best Round of 32 game in the NCAA Tournament. They played a fantastic Sweet 16 game last season, too. Michigan State has the talent both inside and outside, and both offensively and defensively, to make an NCAA Tournament run. Virginia is a tough match-up for them, though. They were 5th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage and 3rd in defensive 2P%. They lock down the paint and force teams to shoot over the top, which is not how Michigan State likes to play. The Spartans like to score most of their points in and around the paint. If Justin Anderson is still not able to really play then they could struggle to score and lose a low-scoring battle, but if Anderson is close to 100% then they should be okay offensively against a Michigan State team that is good-but-not-great defensively (just sixth in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency). They should be able to move on.
1. Villanova over 5. Northern Iowa
2. Virginia over 3. Oklahoma
If Northern Iowa plays Villanova, it will be a match-up between two of the best shooting teams, and two of the best offenses, in the nation. Seth Tuttle will pose a difficult match-up for Villanova, as he would for any opponent. My concern for them is on the defensive end. Villanova led the Big East in both 3PA/FGA and in 3P%, yet Northern Iowa was just 9th in the Missouri Valley in defensive 3PA/FGA. They are not good at chasing shooters off the arc. Villanova has been absolutely humming offensively, as not a single opponent has held them below 1.03 PPP since January 19th, and I don't think Northern Iowa is going to stop them either. Throw in the fact that UNI has a significantly more difficult path to the Sweet 16, and I think you've got to give Villanova the edge.
If you have Louisville facing Villanova, I think Villanova is even more of the obvious pick. Louisville basically has just three guys who can score: Terry Rozier, Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell. Villanova, as I said, scores on everybody. Montrezl Harrell can only defend one guy at a time, while Villanova likely will light it up from deep. Louisville was only 7th in the ACC in defensive 3PA/FGA, so they will allow threes. I just don't see how they can keep up offensively.
Virginia/Oklahoma will be a battle between two of the best defensive teams in the nation (Pomeroy rates them the 1st and 5th best defenses in the nation). The difference is that Virginia's offense is elite, or at least it was back when Justin Anderson was healthy. They failed to crack 1 PPP in four of the eight games that he missed all or part of, after failing to crack 1 PPP in just two of 21 games played before he got hurt. Anderson hasn't played well in limited minutes in two games since he's been back, but this will be the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. By this point, it's reasonable to think that he'll be close to 100%. Oklahoma's interior defense is particularly elite, and they'll limit Virginia's passing game in and around the paint, but it's possible that the Sooners end up scoring something like 45 points in this game. I give Virginia the edge.
If you have Providence playing Virginia, I would be very nervous about putting my faith in the hands of turnover-prone Kris Dunn against Virginia's defense. Providence went 2-5 this season when Dunn committed six or more turnovers in a game, compared to 20-6 in all other games. If you're looking for a lower-seeded team in the Elite 8, your better bet would be Michigan State. If they can get past Virginia then they'll provide a test for an Oklahoma defense whose one flaw is defensive rebounding. If Denzel Valentine can continue to shoot the ball well and Branden Dawson can clean up a bunch of second-chance points, they'll be very difficult for the Sooners to beat. But it's asking a lot for Michigan State just to get past Virginia, so I'd be very wary of picking Michigan State to the Elite 8 unless your bracket competition offers a substantial reward for upsets.
2. Virginia over 1. Villanova
The criticism Villanova has gotten the last few weeks has not been fair. The narrative all of last season was that they were a fraudulent elite team, and getting trounced in the Round of 32 by UConn just reinforced that. The perception of the Big East, to many in the media, is that it is more of a mid-major conference like the Atlantic Ten or Mountain West, than a major conference. But the reality is that it's as deep as the ACC or Big Ten is, and for Villanova to annihilate it by 0.21 PPP is extremely impressive. Of course, Virginia was doing even better than that against the ACC before they were hit by injuries (even after tailing off late they finished +0.18 PPP in ACC play). In fact, while they were healthy, they were the second best team in the nation in both Pomeroy and Sagarin to Kentucky. This is a team that gets credit for its elite defense (rated best in the nation by Pomeroy), but their offense is wildly underrated.
In terms of match-ups, the way Villanova wins this game is clear: hitting threes. Virginia's defensive philosophy is great at not allowing shots in the paint, but they do allows threes. They were 12th in the ACC in defensive 3PA/FGA. Villanova has six players who attempted more than six three-pointers during the season and all hit 37% or better. But what makes Virginia different from a team like Oklahoma is that even if Villanova hits 45% of their threes and scores 1.1 or 1.2 PPP, Virginia can keep up. They start five players who can all score efficiently. And that's why I think they're the favorite.
If Oklahoma makes this Elite 8, I mentioned in the previous paragraph why I'd be wary of picking them to beat Villanova. If the Wildcats are shooting the ball well, Oklahoma won't be able to keep up. They scored just 1.05 PPP in Big 12 play. Oklahoma is also a defense that is better on the interior than on the perimeter, where Villanova thrives.
If you have Northern Iowa pulling the upset against Villanova, they'd be a fascinating match-up against Virginia. Every one of their regulars can score, and they can pass the ball well enough to trouble Virginia's defense. But it's asking a lot to pick a mid-major that played just three teams all season long with major conference athletic talent: Iowa, Wichita State and VCU. Asking them to beat Louisville, Villanova and Virginia is a bit much. Virginia is the significantly safer pick.