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2021 Bracket Analysis: East Region

Eli Brooks, Michigan

With a 14-3 record in the Big Ten, Juwan Howard and the Michigan Wolverines took home the 2020-21 Big Ten regular season title. It's quite an accomplishment for the second-year head coach in the toughest conference in America, particularly considering the Wolverines had to deal with a lengthy COVID pause right in the heart of their league schedule. However, Michigan enters the NCAA Tournament without the usual momentum reserved for a No. 1 seed. They've now lost three of their last five and recently learned that veteran wing Isaiah Livers was likely to miss the entire March with a stress injury in his foot. Those questions leave the East Region fairly wide-open, opening the door for SEC Champ Alabama, Big 12 Champ Texas and ACC runner-up Florida State. It could end up being a fairly chaotic region, but I'd advise against completely writing off Michigan just yet. Even without Livers, it's a lineup that still has plenty of weapons, and the program has had a lot of March success over the past decade. The Wolverines might actually offer nice value considering so many people have jumped off their bandwagon in recent weeks.

There are several really strong 8/9 matchups this year, but none might be better than the showdown between LSU and St. Bonaventure. LSU has one of the most explosive offenses anywhere in college basketball, led by the dynamic trio of Trendon Watford, Javonte Smart and Cam Thomas. They went toe-to-toe with Alabama for the SEC crown and seem to be playing their best basketball of the season at the right time. On the other side, St. Bonaventure is an incredible defensive team that allows just over 60 PPG. They won both the Atlantic 10 regular season title and the conference tournament, an impressive resume even in a relative down year for the league. It really is your classic matchup between an elite offense and elite defense, with neither side holding a clear advantage. Whoever is able to come out of the first round will pose quite a stiff challenge for Michigan in Round Two. I usually lean great defense over offense in these types of matchups because defense is generally more consistent, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to see LSU go on a run themselves.

Speaking of down years for respective conferences, it was not a banner year at all in the ACC. Not only did their two signature programs, Duke and North Carolina, both struggle but even the top finishers in the conference such as Virginia and Florida State struggle to develop any consistency. Despite this, I view the Seminoles as a very dangerous four seed. Leonard Hamilton has done a terrific job building a consistent winner in Tallahassee, and the 'Noles have a lot to like. They have a crop of volume-scoring guards that can put constant pressure on opposing defenses in M.J. Walker and future lottery pick Scottie Barnes, as well as plenty of size in the post. FSU isn't as deep as in years past nor as strong of a defensive team, but what makes them especially dangerous is their favorable path. UNC Greensboro is an upset-minded 13 seed but the Southern Conference Champs have never won a Tournament game. If FSU does manage to get past them in the first round, a second round matchup between Colorado/Georgetown is favorable. Georgetown went on a marvelous run to win the Big East but they're still a very flawed team, while Colorado is one of the weaker five seeds in my view. Assuming the Seminoles can get through there, a potential date with Michigan, possibly the weakest one seed right now, is all that stands in their way for an Elite Eight berth. Of course no path to a deep Tournament run is easy, but it does set up pretty nicely for Florida State. Out of all the four seeds, I see the Seminoles as having the best chance at playing into the second weekend and beyond.

It's not often we see two powerhouse programs like Michigan State and UCLA play in a "First Four" game, but 2021 is a unique year. The Spartans needed a huge second half of the season to make their 23rd straight NCAA Tournament under Tom Izzo, while UCLA sweated out Selection Sunday after losing to Oregon State in the Pac-12 quarterfinals. As both teams are well-regarded programs that started out the season in the Top 25, it's likely the winner of their matchup will be a popular pick to unseat sixth-seeded BYU in the first round. But, I would be wary of taking either the Spartans or Bruins to go on any type of run this year. At 15-12, this may be the worst team Izzo has ever had in East Lansing and while they are playing better down the stretch, the offense continues to be one of the worst in any power conference. UCLA on the other hand simply has not beaten very much quality foes on the campaign. Aside from a victory over Colorado in January, they do not own a single win over an at-large NCAA team (Oregon State is their only victory over any other Tournament team, but they were an auto bid). Simply put, neither potential 11 seed inspires much confidence, and BYU is a quality six seed. Not only did they just recently give Gonzaga their toughest test in months, but they also own several quality victories, such as wins over San Diego State and Utah State. Although the 6-11 games are always prime upset potential, I'd steer clear of picking one in this region.

I'm a huge fan of seventh-seeded Oregon in the West Region, but I may be an even bigger fan of the seven seed here in the East, the UConn Huskies. The Huskies have had a particularly wacky 2020-21 season, in a year that's been a little wacky for just about everyone. UConn had to deal with not one, but two, COVID pauses during their season, with several games then being postponed or cancelled later on as a result of other team's COVID issues. In addition, star player James Bouknight was not healthy for most of the season, forcing other Huskies to step up and take on larger roles than most expected. As they prepare for the NCAA Tournament, UConn is now at full strength and a very dangerous squad. Maryland is not an ideal matchup in the first round, but the Terrapins went 16-13 on the season and were sub.-500 in the Big Ten. If the Huskies are able to get through there, it sets up an enticing second-round duel with second-seeded Alabama. The Crimson Tide have put together one of their best seasons in school history, but I'm a little wary of any SEC teams this year. One more thing to think about: the last time UConn entered the Tournament as a seven seed, they went on an improbable National Title run that concluded by beating Kentucky. Past NCAA Tournament performances shouldn't dictate how you feel about a team's current iteration, but this seventh-seeded Huskies team could once again be extremely dangerous.

Picking the East

Round One

1 Michigan over 16 Texas Southern (First Four Winner) ... SWAC Champion Texas Southern simply doesn't have the pieces to hang with Michigan, even with the Wolverines not completely 100 percent.

9 St. Bonaventure over 8 LSU ... The Bonnies' smothering defense fuels a tight win over LSU, particularly if guard Kyle Lofton is able to keep up his recent hot streak.

5 Colorado over 12 Georgetown ... Just getting to the NCAA Tournament is a great story for the Hoyas, but McKinley Wright IV and the Buffaloes end their stay quickly.

4 Florida State over 13 UNC Greensboro ... Greensboro simply has no answer for the 1-2 punch of M.J. Walker and Scottie Barnes, as FSU rolls.

6 BYU over 11 Michigan State (First Four Winner) ... Alex Barcello may be BYU's go-to guy, but former Purdue transfer Matt Haarms is the X-factor, giving the Cougars the advantage in the paint.

3 Texas over 14 Abilene Christian ... Underrated potential upset opportunity for Abilene, who moves the ball incredibly well and plays tough defense. The Big 12 Champions still find a way to overcome a tighter game than expected.

7 UConn over 10 Maryland ... Maryland may have an advantage inside, but they have no answer for James Bouknight, who is averaging 19 PPG in the 14 games he's played this season.

2 Alabama over 15 Iona ... Rick Pitino's Gaels may be interesting, but Alabama's high-powered backcourt propels them into the second round.

Round Two

1 Michigan over 9 St. Bonaventure ... Whoever wins the St. Bonaventure/LSU duel will be a tough test for Michigan, but their edge in depth helps them escape.

4 Florida State over 5 Colorado ... Should be a thrilling backcourt duel between these two teams, but Florida State's size advantage helps them move on to the second weekend.

3 Texas over 6 BYU ... Longhorns are playing great basketball at the right time, especially veteran big Jericho Sims, who outplays Matt Haarms and the Cougars.

7 UConn over 2 Alabama ... Should be a high-scoring affair between the Tide and Huskies, but the SEC Champs struggle against a full-strength UConn foe.

Sweet 16

4 Florida State over 1 Michigan ... A full-strength Michigan would be difficult for FSU to overcome but without Livers, the Wolverines simply don't have the offensive punch to get to the Elite Eight.

3 Texas over 7 UConn ... Danny Hurley and Shaka Smart faced off plenty of times while coaching Rhode Island and VCU in the Atlantic 10. Smart out-duels Hurley this time, assuming they can contain James Bouknight.

Elite Eight

4 Florida State over 3 Texas ... The Seminoles may still be a flawed team, but in a wide-open region, their proven pedigree helps them overcome as region champs.

East Region Champ: 4 Florida State Seminoles

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