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Bracket Analysis: East Region

Josh Hart, Villanova
After completing a shocking and redemptive trip to the National Championship, Villanova has followed it up with a tremendous 2016-2017. Despite the losses of program stalwarts Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, the Wildcats have been just as good, with a ton of offensive weapons and plenty of experience. Senior Josh Hart has gotten even better after being a guiding piece to 'Nova's title last year, and may be one of the most consistent and reliable No. 1 scoring options in the Tournament, which puts Villanova at a distinct advantage over the rest of the field. Another huge advantage for Villanova is point guard Jalen Brunson, an efficient and smart playmaker. Brunson is just a sophomore but does so many things well, and has already played in a ton of big games. Those two are aided by a supporting cast compiled of Mikal Bridges, 2016 National Championship hero Kris Jenkins and physical forward Darryl Reynolds, all players who bring experience and maturity, which is obviously a huge factor in March. If there is one big question I have about Villanova it is their lack of depth and inside scoring. There aren't a lot of teams with a bonafide second unit, and that extends to Villanova. The thing is, I think they were even thinner last season, and that obviously didn't hurt them. Their lack of a true post presence is pretty worrying; incoming freshman Omari Spellman was supposed to be that guy, but he was ruled ineligible. They have a number of guys that can score in the paint, but they are going to face a ton of mismatches throughout the tourney, and it is going to hard to overcome that. For example, who is going to guard Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes in the second round? What about Baylor's bigs if they get that far? What about Jayson Tatum and Duke's collection of post playmakers? That is clearly a big flaw, but I still love the makeup of this team. They have incredible balance and excellent roster diversity, which bodes well for a deep tournament run. I'm picking them to make the Final Four, and I would not be surprised at all to see them firmly in the mix for a second straight NCAA crown.

The middle of the East Region is filled with upset-minded teams, most notably UNC-Wilmington and East Tennessee State. UNC-Wilmington is especially dangerous, as they gave Duke a run for their money a season ago and are back to give Virginia problems. The Colonial Athletic Association Champion (a league that has spawned VCU and George Mason in years past, two memorable underdogs) the Seahawks have a terrific backcourt, with C.J. Bryce and Denzel Ingram leading the charge. They have an aggressive and high-scoring offense, so it will be intriguing to see how they match up against Virginia and their stifling pack-line defense. Meanwhile, the champion of the Southern Conference, East Tennessee State is going to give Florida plenty of problems in an interesting 4-13 matchup. Guard T.J. Cromer engineers an explosive offense with a variety of weapons, but the Buccaneers' defense could be the big issue. Even so, East Tennessee State has the shooting and playmakers needed to pull an upset, particularly against a Florida team that is not trending in the right direction. Both Virginia and Florida are good teams, but this is March and it seems likely at least one of those teams could fall to these upset-minded mid-majors.

There were some who thought that SMU would fall apart when a contract extension between head coach Larry Brown and the school wasn't reached, but that has certainly not been the case under new head man Tim Jankovich. Jankovich has led a fearless Mustangs team that had a wonderful second half en route to an AAC Championship. The Mustangs are led by dynamic forward Semi Ojeleye, a Duke transfer. Ojeleye is a lengthy, powerful scorer that is a tough matchup for any defender, which is going to be a major advantage for SMU throughout the tournament. Guards Sterling Brown and Shake Milton are great ball-handlers who open up the game for their offense, while forward Ben Moore is SMU's premier post presence. Offensively, SMU has enough weapons to be a scary matchup against anyone, but what could really put the team over the top is a suffocating defense. They rotate and help as good as anyone in college basketball, and have so many good on-ball defenders. An opening meeting with the winner of Providence/USC isn't too scary considering the Trojans are really struggling and the Friars are not a great offensive team. If the 'Stangs can get through the first round, possible meetings with Baylor and Duke could be on the horizon. That isn't a great side of the bracket to do much damage in, but this SMU team is incredibly gifted, and they are among the hottest teams in the nation. Brown helped return the program to prominence, but it could be Jankovich that gifts the Mustangs to their first deep NCAA Tournament run in a long time.

Marquette is not getting a whole lot of attention from a lot of people because they finished 19-12 and middle of the pack in the Big East, but this could be another team ready to make a surprising run, even if Duke awaits in Round 2. The big reason for the Eagles' return to the NCAA Tournament is a hot shooting backcourt that has a number of guys that can take over. Markus Howard is the team's leading scorer at 13.2 PPG, athletic Jajuan Johnson is a force attacking the basket, and sixth man Andrew Rowsey can be lights out at times. Add in former Indiana transfer Luke Fisher, and Marquette has a lineup that can hang with even elite-level opponents. They have proven that in 2017, beating Creighton and Villanova in consecutive games in the middle of the season. The issue with them is their lack of consistency. They can go out and beat teams like Villanova, but then follow it up with a poor loss. It is really anybody's guess who is going to be the edition coming out in their opening game against South Carolina, but head coach Steve Wojciechowski should have the team prepped and motivated for the game. If they can get hot, and everything falls into place, this team could be a very quiet dark horse out East. However, that is a big if, and any path deep into the tournament will be difficult on their side of the bracket.

After a superb run to win the ACC Tournament (which included wins over Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame) people are investing heavily into the Duke stock. It is understandable; the Blue Devils have been very good over the second half of the season, and when healthy, there isn't a lineup with more starpower. Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen have been Duke's go-to guys all season long, particularly Kennard whose smooth shooting stroke makes him a threat to take over games every time he touches the ball. Allen has proven he can lead Duke in the tourney (single-handedly got Duke back in the 2015 National Championship) but we all know of his questionable moves on the court and he has to keep his emotions in check or else it could be an unwanted distraction on the biggest stage. While those two have been consistently good, it has been Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson that have really been able to elevate the Blue Devils. Tatum was one of the top players in the recruiting class and his impressive strength and polish around the rim have given the offense new tools to work with, while Jackson has really been able to control the offense and dictate games. Add in a healthy Amile Jefferson and Harry Giles, a force when 100 percent, and this lineup is truly terrifying. Yet, I caution against picking the Blue Devils to simply run through the field. They still lack a true point guard (Jackson is technically an off-guard) and simply enough ball-handlers, which is worrying when you consider the wide variety of defenses they'll most likely have to square off against. Another worry I have about Duke is their energy. They did a wonderful job winning four games in four days to win the ACC, and will get some rest, but they could still be rusty early on. Add in the fact they aren't completely impervious to major upsets (ahem, Mercer and Lehigh), and I'm still cautious about Duke's chances to run the table.

Picking the East Region
First Round
1 Villanova over 16 New Orleans (First Four winner)...  Some day a 16 seed will beat a 1 seed, but the Wildcats are too balanced and skilled to let that be the case in this one.
8 Wisconsin over 9 Virginia Tech... Buzz Williams has already gotten the Hokies back to the NCAA Tournament, but unless they can stop Wisconsin bigs Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes, it will be short-lived.
5 Virginia over 12 UNC-Wilmington... This one might as well be a toss-up, but Virginia has a ton of experience and so few mid-majors can really effectively beat Tony Bennett's pack-line D.
13 ETSU over 4 Florida... Gators have loads of talent, but aren't a great shooting team, while ETSU is riding a major wave of momentum after winning the regular and postseason championship in the SoCon.
6 SMU over 11 Providence (First Four winner)... Providence has been a great story, returning to prominence despite the absence of superstar Kris Dunn, but SMU's length and defense puts them over the top.
3 Baylor over 14 New Mexico State... Would not be surprised at all to see consistent New Mexico State pull an upset, but the Bears aggressive Manu Lecomte keeps them from a first round loss.
7 South Carolina over 10 Marquette... Marquette is so maddeningly inconsistent it is hard for me to pick them, and the Gamecocks feature a dangerous backcourt.
2 Duke over 15 Troy... Troy played terrific basketball en route to a Sun Belt crown, but they won't have an answer for the amazing collection of playmakers Duke has at their disposal.

Second Round
1 Villanova over 8 Wisconsin... This will be far from an easy second round meeting for 'Nova, who has to face an experienced and disciplined Badgers group. Even so, Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson can lead them to a victory.
5 Virginia over 13 ETSU... Virginia's offense is still a work in progress, but Landon Perrantes and freshman Kyle Guy will do enough to stop the Buccaneers' hopes of a Cinderella story.
6 SMU over 3 Baylor... Baylor head coach Scott Drew has been consistently out-coached in March, and the Mustangs are trending up, while Baylor has been heading in the opposite direction.
2 Duke over 7 South Carolina... South Carolina should play hard in their first Tournament bid since 2004, but some times hard work isn't enough to overcome Duke's pure talent.

Sweet 16
1 Villanova over 5 Virginia... These two teams met earlier in the year, with Villanova coming away with a win after a late field goal. It should be competitive once more, but the Wildcats are just better offensively, which should be enough.
6 SMU over 2 Duke... Maybe I'm buying too much into the AAC Champions, but the Mustangs are legit, and have enough to overpower a thin Duke frontcourt.

Elite Eight
1 Villanova over 6 SMU... Both of these teams are well-balanced and well-coached, but Wildcats have more experience deep in March in the big moments, which should be the driving force to a decisive win.

East Region Champion: 1 Villanova Wildcats

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