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2019 Bracket Analysis: East Region

R.J. Barrett, Duke
After going on a run to win the ACC Tournament, Duke was awarded the No. 1 overall seed in the Field of 68, and the top seed in the East Region. With Zion Williamson back at full strength, the Blue Devils are going to be a popular National Champion pick, and for good reason. Zion seems to be getting even better as time passes, and R.J. Barrett proved he could lead the team in Zion's absence. Yet, I think the real X-factors on this team entering the Tournament are Cam Reddish and forward Jack White. Reddish and White are the two best shooters on this team, and are crucial to opening up this Duke offense and lanes for Williamson and Barrett to work with. Duke is an incredibly scary team when Reddish is hot, but clearly struggles when he goes cold. The same could be said on a much lesser scale with White. He had a horrific shooting slump in the middle of the season, missing 28 straight three-pointers at one point. If he is able to find his stroke, he adds a much different element to this offense, and forces defenses to focus on others not named Zion or R.J. With that being said, Duke is playing terrific basketball and has the advantage of a pretty favorable region. Their second round matchup will feature one of the weaker 8/9s in the field, and their toughest likely meeting prior to the Elite Eight is probably four seed Virginia Tech. Of course, they do have a strong 2 seed in Michigan State to contend with, but the Blue Devils have all the tools to roll through until that regional final clash with the Spartans.

My favorite dark horse in this region has to be 12th-seeded Liberty, who won the Atlantic Sun conference. That conference has produced some Cinderella stories before (hello, Florida Gulf Coast!) and had a number of strong teams at the top. The Flames were able to come out and win it thanks to a stingy defense that allows less than 61 PPG (sixth in the entire country) and a smart, balanced offensive attack. Forward Scottie James was their leader in points per game and rebounds per game, but is far from their only weapon. Puerto Rican guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz is one of the best shooters in the entire nation, knocking down just under 48 percent from downtown. If he is able to get really hot, I see the Flames really rolling in this region. Liberty starts their play against five seed Mississippi State, who is a quality team but certainly beatable. Miss. State has been incredibly streaky all year long offensively, and I see them struggling to find a way to score on this physical Liberty defense. From that point on, an in-state meeting with Virginia Tech could be in the cards, if the Hokies are able to sneak past Atlantic 10 Champion St. Louis.

One of the most surprising developments on Selection Sunday was Belmont of the Ohio Valley Conference making it into the field as an at-large. The Bruins will play in the First Four against a solid Temple team, with the winner going on to square off against Maryland. It was quite frankly shocking Belmont was able to make it in over bigger schools, especially considering their best win was over Murray State when their star PG, Ja Morant, was hurt. Yet, that doesn't mean Belmont isn't deserving, as this is a well-rounded team that has a superb offense. They run their offense through a very special backcourt that knows how to fill it up. Veteran Dylan Windler is averaging a double-double on the year, while shooting 55% from the field, while fellow guards Kevin McClain and Grayson Murphy have also proven they can step up and make big plays. Nearly every single year since the Tournament expanded to 68, a First Four team has been able to have success, with VCU in 2011 being the ultimate example. I think this Belmont team should be able to win against Temple, and find a way to upset Maryland. Heck, with LSU in a state of flux with head coach Will Wade currently suspended, a Sweet 16 berth might not be too crazy for the Bruins either.

Minnesota has had a nice recovery following a disappointing '17-'18 season, getting into the bracket as a ten seed. I've called for Richard Pitino's job on this blog before, but the Gophers are playing great basketball under him, including two victories over Purdue in the last few weeks. They remain an incredibly inconsistent team, but should be an interesting team to watch in this region. Jordan Murphy continues to be one of the most productive and reliable forwards in major college basketball, while junior guard Amir Coffey has been a tear over the last few games and can absolutely take over. Yet beware: the Gophers still have nobody to run their offense at point guard and are extremely thin, particularly in the frontcourt. Pitino has used Coffey and veteran Dupree McBrayer as his initiators of the offense all year long, but neither are true point guards. The only true PG on this roster is sophomore Isaiah Washington, who has been in Pitino's doghouse for some time and has been used sparingly. This issue has really shown itself in Minnesota's halfcourt offense all year, and it could doom them against a well-built Louisville opponent. The lack of depth in the frontcourt is especially troubling, where the Gophers miss Eric Curry, who is out for the year. All in all, a streaky team like this may be able to make some noise, but I would not bet on it. If they find a way to get past Louisville, Michigan State looms, a team Minnesota never seems to beat.

While Duke may be a popular pick to win the East, I think that the Big Ten Champion Michigan State Spartans are going to be the eventual Final Four rep from this region. Since a shocking loss at Illinois, Michigan State has won 10 of 11 and looks hungry to go deep in this Tournament. They are led by steady point guard Cassius Winston, who won Big Ten Player of the Year and does everything well. He can score in a variety of ways, is an insanely good passer and shoots from three-point at a 41% clip. He gives MSU an advantage not a lot of teams in this bracket have: a veteran point guard who has won a lot of games. Michigan State also has an experience, deep frontcourt even with forward Kyle Ahrens future in question following an injury today in the Big Ten Championship. Nick Ward is fully healthy after missing some time and remains a force on the block, while Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman have proven themselves all season long. Is Michigan State the most talented team in this region? No, but Tom Izzo has proven himself countless times in March, and veteran-laden teams like this tend to be the smart bet in such a wild sport.

Picking the East

Round One
1 Duke over 16 North Dakota State (First Four Winner) ... No chance this year the No. 1 overall seed drops to a 16 seed. Zion and company absolutely roll here.

9 UCF over 8 VCU... UCF has not been in the Tournament for over a decade, and it shouldn't end quickly, as they use their superior size to beat VCU.

12 Liberty over 5 Mississippi State ... Ben Howland has won a lot of NCAA Tournament games during his head coaching tenure, but his Bulldogs get upset by Liberty in this one.

4 Virginia Tech over 13 St. Louis ... Virginia Tech is a quality basketball team and they are bolstered by the return of star guard Justin Robinson, who has been out since January.

11 Belmont (First Four winner) over 6 Maryland ... Maryland has been a surprise but they are the fourth-youngest basketball team in the country, and don't have the defense to stop Belmont.

3 LSU over 14 Yale ... LSU is in a weird state with Will Wade's uncertain future, but they should still have enough in the tank to sneak past the Ivy League champ.

7 Louisville over 10 Minnesota ... Should be a good game, but the Cardinals are a great offensive rebounding team, which should be all the difference against a thin Minnesota squad.

2 Michigan State over 15 Bradley ... Wasn't that long ago second-seeded Michigan State was upset by Middle Tennessee. Don't see history repeating itself in this particular instance.

Round Two
1 Duke over 9 UCF... This may be a closer game than people think, but UCF simply doesn't have the athletes to slow down Zion and R.J. Barrett over the course of 40 minutes.

4 Virginia Tech over 12 Liberty ... The Flames are going to be a tough out for anybody, but the Hokies find a way to outshoot Liberty's strong defense.

3 LSU over 11 Belmont ... Again, I would not be shocked if Belmont found a way to move on, but LSU was the SEC regular season champ for a reason.

2 Michigan State over 7 Louisville ... Chris Mack has done a great job getting Louisville back on track, but it would be a tall order to expect the Cardinals to take down this surging MSU team.

Sweet 16
1 Duke over 4 Virginia Tech ... The Hokies did beat Duke earlier this season, but Duke is healthier now and much more motivated.

2 Michigan State over 3 LSU ... The Tigers may be able to compete with Michigan State in the post, but the Spartans superior shooting gives them the win here.

Elite Eight
2 Michigan State over 1 Duke ... This would be a epic clash between two great programs and two great head coaches. Again, Michigan State's shooting and experience puts them over the top in what should be a close one.

East Region Champion: 2 Michigan State Spartans

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