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Bracket Analysis: East Region

Jamal Murray
Prior to the season, the North Carolina Tar Heels were many people's National Title pick, and it is easy to see why. Coming off a Sweet 16 berth, UNC had All-American guard Marcus Paige, senior forward Brice Johnson, big man Kennedy Meeks and rising Justin Jackson all at their disposal. Although there were some early struggles, the Tar Heels ended the season flaming hot, getting vengeance against arch-rival Duke, winning the ACC regular season title and sneaking past Virginia to win the ACC Tournament crown. Paige has had some ups-and-downs this year, but up front, Brice Johnson has been an absolute monster all year long, and forward Isaiah Hicks is really coming into his own. The Tar Heels will not have an easy trip deep into the Tournament. A second round meeting with the winner of USC/Providence could very well be an upset alert, and a Sweet 16 meeting with possibly Kentucky/Indiana also spell peril. Yet, UNC is an extremely deep and experienced team that can score in a plethora of ways. They are certainly going to be a dangerous team, though my big question is going to be late in games. Roy Williams has become notorious for not calling timeouts late in games (see the first Duke meeting) and the Tar Heels have choked too often late in games during the Williams era. Can they really reel off six straight wins, with many of them likely coming down to the closing minutes? We'll have to wait and see.

My favorite upset pick in this region has to be Chattanooga over Indiana, in a classic 5/12 battle. The Chattanooga Mocs were one of the few top seeds in the low major conferences to actually win their conference tournament, as they hung on to win the Southern Conference in impressive fashion. The Mocs can score in a hurry, and also defend the three-point ball exceptionally well. Guards Tre' McLean and Greg Pryor will certainly play an important role, as the main offensive weapons against a Hoosiers' defense that has been average at best this season. The Hoosiers rely heavily on the three-point ball, particularly from senior Yogi Ferrell and underrated Robert Johnson. Though, the Mocs rotate as well as everybody and could put a lock-down on Indiana, which could set the stage for the upset. That most likely set up a meeting with Kentucky in the second round (assuming the Wildcats move on past Stony Brook), which could pit the well-rounded Mocs against Kentucky's elite backcourt. 12 seeds have done plenty of damage in March over the past few years, and this year could be very similar. Although not perfect, the Mocs could very well be one of the major Cinderellas in this year's tourney.

Give John Calipari credit where credit is due. Sure, bringing in McDonald's All-Americans almost looks easy to Coach Cal nowadays but coaching a team of 18 and 19-year-olds through a rigorous schedule year in, year out is no easy task. Though, Calipari always seems to have his Kentucky teams riding a wave of momentum when March comes around, and the same holds true this year. The Wildcats are coming off an SEC Tournament Title, after very nearly missing the regular season title. The Wildcats will be headed by two of the best guards in the game, in sophomore Tyler Ulis and true freshman Jamal Murray. Ulis has evolved from simply a great passer and floor general into a legit scorer, evidenced by his huge day in the SEC Championship, when he dropped 30. Murray can drop big-time numbers every single team he steps on the court, a guy who can snipe from deep and also use his exceptional athleticism to finish. Kentucky is still searching for more consistent play from their big men, but versatile Derek Willis has had his moments and senior Alex Poythress will bring valuable experience to the equation. Stony Brook could be a sneaky first round matchup, but I think Kentucky should be well prepared and should be able to overpower the Seawolves. Indiana/Chattanooga could be a very interesting second round meeting, and then obviously a possible showdown with fellow college basketball blue blood program, North Carolina. UNC has struggled at times to stop explosive offenses, and one could argue Kentucky is even hotter. I think if Murray and Ulis continue to play well and the Wildcats get solid contributions from their bench, this could very well be a Final Four team. Outside of the inconsistent Tar Heels and the third-seeded West Virginia, the East Region is not exactly impossible, and Calipari has a knack for deep March runs. They could very well use their impressive talent to make it yet another memorable March in the Bluegrass State.

Confusing is just one way to describe West Virginia. Obviously you can point to their "Press Virginia" and up-tempo style as the most notable thing about this year's Mountaineers team, but you could also choose to focus on just how incredibly inconsistent they are. West Virginia has had moments where they look like a legit Top Five squad, when their full-court press is working to perfection, and when they are hitting their shots from the perimeter. Then, they can also have moments like an earlier loss to Florida, who isn't in the field, in which they couldn't do anything offensively and looked almost lost out there. I think the X-factor for the Mountaineers has to be big man Devin Williams. On a team full of capable and talented guards, Williams has emerged as WVU's most consistent offensive force. Few teams can match the big man's raw power in the low post, and he is a very underrated athlete, particularly when you consider his size. Though, much like the team as a whole, Williams has had some moments where he is just simply off. If he doesn't really have a great March, this team could be very vulnerable against teams that have more talent and depth in the frontcourt. Stephen F. Austin will be an intriguing first round meeting for the Mountaineers. The Lumberjacks have been a popular dark horse pick over the past two years, but haven't really delivered. Though, wing Thomas Walkup is maybe the nation's most underrated scorer, and the Lumberjacks are about as consistent as they come, really contrasting WVU. Who knows, this West Virginia team could falter completely against SFA... Or they could catch absolute fire and play very deep into the tourney. But, teams like WVU are what makes March interesting and insane, and they'll add plenty of intrigue to the region.

Through the first half of this season, Wisconsin was looking very un-Wisconsin-like. The Badgers, a longtime staple at the top of the Big Ten standings, were struggling mightily. They missed Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, and Bo Ryan's patented "swing" offense seemed to all of the sudden fall apart. Then, Greg Gard took over, and the outlook completely changed. Longtime viewed as the mentor to Ryan, Gard did not disappoint a bit, as the Badgers reeled off 11 wins in 12 games at one point during the season, including wins over Indiana, Michigan State and Maryland. Gard has let the Badgers seemingly play more free and less rigid, and it has resulted in big seasons from Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and a number of other veterans. Hayes,especially, has to be seen as one of the major X-factors not just for Wisconsin, but in the entire region. Hayes has some amazing moments but much like Williams, can seemingly not make any impact at times. If the junior can help lead Wisconsin past a relatively weak Pittsburgh first-round meeting the Badgers could be very interesting down the stretch. Xavier is getting overlooked in my opinion, but Wisconsin could smother their offense, and the Badgers are a more complete team than either of their likely Sweet 16 meetings, either West Virginia or Notre Dame. It may be tough to imagine Wisconsin going to their third straight Final Four, as some serious magic would have to occur. But, March is crazy, and the Badgers have enough experience to make things interesting.

Picking the East Region
First Round
1 UNC over 16 Florida Gulf Coast... The Eagles actually played very well in their First Four victory over Fairleigh Dickinson. But, they just don't the roster to compete and beat the Heels over the course of 40 minutes.
9 Providence over 8 USC... Andy Enfield's revival of USC has been a great story this year, but the Trojans have nobody than score and make plays quite like the Friars' Kris Dunn.
12 Chattanooga over 5 Indiana... If Hoosiers struggle from downtown in this one, the Mocs could ride their stingy defense and efficient offense to a big upset.
4 Kentucky over 13 Stony Brook... Although 'Cats search for low post scoring is still ongoing, the backcourt of Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis and even Isaiah Briscoe is too much for SB to handle.
6 Notre Dame over 11 Michigan... The Irish have quietly put together a solid encore to their Elite Eight berth a year ago. Demetrius Jackson and big man Zach Auguste put them over the top against Michigan here.
3 West Virginia over 14 Stephen F. Austin... Stephen F. Austin does have plenty of experience and toughness, but even they might panic against West Virginia's frantic, up-tempo style.
7 Wisconsin over 10 Pittsburgh... Both of these teams play smart, tough and controlled basketball. Though, the Badgers just have a little bit more scoring punch, headed by Nigel Hayes.
2 Xavier over 15 Weber State... Don't overlook the Musketeers this season. They consistently do well in March and have a potent backcourt, led by Trevon Bluiett.

Second Round
1 UNC over 9 Providence... This could be one heck of a test for North Carolina early, but outside of Ben Bentil Providence lacks the necessary big men to counteract Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks down low.
4 Kentucky over 12 Chattanooga... The Wildcats should end Chattanooga's Cinderella run quickly, particularly if they can control the pace of the game.
3 West Virginia over 6 Notre Dame... The advantage in low post scoring may actually go to Notre Dame, but the Mountaineers should make up for it with their attacking, basketball for 40 minutes, which could expose some Irish depth issues.
2 Xavier over 7 Wisconsin... Few teams are tougher to overcome in March than either of these two schools. While the Badgers second half play has been a great story, they don't have the offensive weapons needed to slow down Xavier.

Sweet 16
4 Kentucky over 1 UNC... Maybe I'm buying way too much into the Kentucky hype, but this team is scorching hot and when it comes down to the final 30 seconds, I trust John Calipari more than I trust Roy Williams.
3 West Virginia over 2 Xavier... Interesting matchup between efficient and methodical Xavier, and hectic West Virginia. Though, WVU's advantage in this tournament is that "Press Virginia", which so many teams aren't ready for, and won't have a ton of time to prepare against.

Elite Eight
4 Kentucky over 3 West Virginia... The last time these two teams met in the Elite Eight, the Mountaineers stunned John Wall and Kentucky. The Wildcats should be able to get vengeance, particularly with Tyler Ulis, who never seems to turn it over, leading the charge.

East Region Champion: 4 Kentucky Wildcats 

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