2019 NCAA Tournament Preview: East Region

March 20, 2019

Is the East Region the Group of Death?

It does feature the Tournament’s top overall seed in Duke and, oddly enough, the top No. 2 seed as well, but beyond that, are we really betting on an athletic bunch missing its head coach and a conference foe getting an injured star back to upset this being a chalk Regional final?

At this point, it seems like it, but there’s a reason we call this time of year March Madness and not just “March”. Things rarely turn out as we expect.

So in short, yes. This is the Group of Death. Let’s take a closer look.

Round of 64 Games to Watch

#3 LSU vs. #14 Yale (Thursday, 12:40 PM ET)

On paper this matchup may not look like much, but LSU will be without its head coach Will Wade, who is mired in an ugly scandal involving one of the Tigers’ best players. Freshman guard Javonte Smart will play in this game, but the SEC’s regular season champion will be led by assistant coach Tony Benford. Unfortunately for Benford, the Bulldogs are not an easy team to gameplan for due to a number of offensive threats. Senior guards Miye Oni and Alex Copeland are talented players that can create their own shot, but have plenty of size down low to dish to as well. Both teams can score, but Yale shares the ball a bit better than LSU.

If either team can get the opponent’s big guys into foul trouble early, it creates the potential for the guards to take over. As mentioned, Oni and Copeland can score off the dribble, but LSU’s Tremont Waters does it the best. The 5’11” Waters could have trouble amongst the trees if they play significant minutes, though. As athletic and talented as the Tigers are, Yale’s ability to score and the unfortunate circumstance with Coach Wade make this a precarious first round matchup for LSU.

#4 Virginia Tech vs. #13 Saint Louis (Friday, approximately 9:57 PM ET)

The Billikens stormed through the Atlantic 10 Tournament to steal a bid, suggesting that they are hot enough to give a hot Virginia Tech team some trouble. Additionally, the Hokies may have to adjust to the return of guard Justin Robinson, who has missed the past 12 games with a foot injury, but overall that is a positive for Buzz Williams’s team. Robinson is Virginia Tech’s best player overall and elevates an already talented backcourt. That backcourt will be relied upon heavily, as the Hokies were the worst rebounding team in the ACC this season while Saint Louis was the best in the A-10. If the Billikens are to steal a victory, it will be because of their intensity on the boards.

Neither team is particularly keen on pushing the pace, so this game may see both teams hovering around the mid-60 point range near the end. But Virginia Tech is a good shooting team from both field goal and three-point range, likely countering its struggles in the rebounding department. As one of the more intriguing potential opponents for top-seeded Duke, this one is worth watching to see how Robinson looks in his first game back since the end of January.

Players to Watch

Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech

The 6’2” senior is returning to the Hokies for the first time since January 30, when he suffered a foot injury that kept him out for the remainder of the regular season. While Virginia Tech managed to secure a No. 4 seed, Robinson’s impact on the team is large – the Hokies were 4-2 against Tournament teams with him in the lineup and 1-4 against Tournament teams without him.

Robinson is more than just a talented shooter – he is also the leader of Buzz Williams’s squad and the linchpin of one of the ACC’s best backcourts. With him back, the Hokies are good enough to make a real run in the East Region.

Zion Williamson, Duke

Even as a casual college basketball fan, if you haven’t heard about Zion Williamson by now, you’re probably living under a rock. The 18-year old phenom is an attraction that has earned the attention the likes of Barack Obama, who attended a Duke/North Carolina game earlier this season. But he commands this attention not just being a great player – he’s also well-liked by the media and transcends the normal persona of a basketball star playing for Duke.

As violent as Williamson’s lengthy dunk highlight reel may seem, his true greatness and value goes far beyond that. He runs the floor, hustles back to make defensive plays few others could dream of and is a fluid enough passer to elevate his teammates’ game as well. If by some chance you haven’t gotten a chance to see him play, take the (likely) several opportunities you’ll get to do so over the next few weeks. He won’t disappoint you.

Team That Could Make a Run

Virginia Tech

As one of the top four seeds in the East Region, “making a run” isn’t defined by a couple of victories. Rather, the Hokies can play deep into the second weekend of the Tournament or further. Getting Justin Robinson back helps tremendously, but Virginia Tech also has the benefit of having played top-seeded Duke already, winning that game. The Hokies are a good shooting team and have the ability to force teams into plenty of bad shots, which is really the only way Duke will lose in this Tournament.

Surviving the first weekend won’t be easy by any stretch of the imagination, but if this team does, it represents one of the representatives in the entire Field of 68 to take down the favorite.

My Picks

Round of 64

#1 Duke over #16 North Dakota State

#9 Central Florida over #8 Virginia Commonwealth

#12 Liberty over #5 Mississippi State (upset alert)

#4 Virginia Tech over #13 Saint Louis

#11 Belmont over #6 Maryland (upset alert)

#14 Yale over #3 LSU (upset alert)

#7 Louisville over #10 Minnesota

#2 Michigan State over #15 Bradley

Round of 32

#1 Duke over #9 Central Florida

#4 Virginia Tech over #12 Liberty

#11 Belmont over #14 Yale

#2 Michigan State over #7 Louisville

Sweet 16

#1 Duke over #4 Virginia Tech

#2 Michigan State over #11 Belmont

Elite 8

#1 Duke over #2 Michigan State

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