Villanova may be the top overall seed in the 2017 Men’s NCAA Tournament, but you could’ve fooled Jay Wright and the Wildcats with the way their region is littered with teams capable of derailing their chance at returning to the title game.
Between Duke, which is playing like a Final Four squad at precisely the right time, Virginia, a team that nearly knocked off the Wildcats during the regular season and SMU, a legitimate threat to be the Tournament’s single most destructive bracket buster, the East Region looks like the toughest of any. And we’re just scratching the surface.
Getting to Phoenix won’t be easy for anyone, but this is especially for the case for teams that would funnel through Madison Square Garden.
Let’s take a closer look at the East Region.
First Round Games to Watch
#5 Virginia vs. #12 UNC-Wilmington (Thursday, 12:40 PM ET)
In a classic battle between a potent offensive squad and a defensive stalwart, fans without a dog in the fight will likely be rooting for the Colonial Athletic Conference team due to its exciting style of play. The Seahawks took Duke to the brink as a No. 13 seed in last year’s tournament and the bulk of that team remained intact for this season. Virginia has struggled throughout the second half of the season, at one time being considered a Top 10 squad nationally but finished just 8-7 in its last 15 games. UNC-Wilmington, meanwhile, has lost just five times all season.
Despite Virginia’s struggles in the second half of the season, the Cavaliers are still the seventh most efficient team overall and boast the nation’s top defense according to KenPom metrics. Tony Bennett is also a tremendous figure roaming the sidelines, having lost in the first round of the Tournament just once in his tenure in Charlottesville. The Seahawks will be a popular upset pick this March, but they will have to play really well to pull it off against the Cavaliers.
#4 Florida vs. #13 East Tennessee State (Thursday, 3:10 PM ET)
Another matchup where the lower seed is a popular upset pick, this one has the chance to be much more unpredictable. When the Gators are on, they are one of the most dangerous teams in the nation and can beat anyone. However, Florida’s inconsistency down the stretch was as much a result of poor shooting as it was the quality of teams that the Gators faced. Without center John Egbunu, who went down with a knee injury in mid-February, the Gators are far more a perimeter focused offense than they were for most of the season.
In some respect, that won’t matter against East Tennessee State. The Buccaneers wouldn’t have had anyone to match up with Egbunu down in the blocks for long periods, but shoot the ball well from all over the floor. Undersized as they may be, T.J. Cromer is a legitimate scorer at the point guard position and will give Florida’s defense trouble. Florida fans better hope that playing in Orlando gives the Gators some kind of advantage, otherwise East Tennessee State could be celebrating its first tournament win since I was a newborn.
Team That Could Make a Run
The Mustangs are an extremely strong six seed and have a favorable draw in Tulsa that gives them an excellence chance to advance to the second week and a potential shot at Duke in the Sweet 16. SMU plays small ball and makes the best of its lineup, coming into the tournament as a Top 15 team in offensive efficiency and one of the top thirty teams in defensive efficiency. They join Gonzaga, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Villanova and Wichita State as the only other teams in the country that can say the same thing.
SMU hasn’t lost since January 12, a two point road defeat at the hands of Cincinnati, which finished the regular season 29-5. The Mustangs won’t go as far as one player takes them, because they are extremely unselfish. And they will beat you at your own game, too. Despite being one of the most efficient offenses, only two teams allow fewer points per game than Tim Jankovich’s team. The coach, in his first year at the helm in Dallas, has never been to the Tournament before as the head man but could have an extended stay in his inaugural appearance.
#1 Villanova over #16 Mount St. Mary’s
#8 Wisconsin over #9 Virginia Tech
#5 Virginia over #12 UNC-Wilmington
#4 Florida over #13 East Tennessee State
#6 Southern Methodist over #11 Southern Cal
#3 Baylor over #14 New Mexico State
#10 Marquette over #7 South Carolina
#2 Duke over #15 Troy
#1 Villanova over #8 Wisconsin
#5 Virginia over #4 Florida
#6 Southern Methodist over #3 Baylor (upset alert)
#2 Duke over #10 Marquette
#1 Villanova over #5 Virginia
#2 Duke over #6 Southern Methodist
#1 Villanova over #2 Duke