Breaking news, rankings, predictions and analysis all in one place.

2023 March Madness Bracket Analysis: East Region

Kam Jones, Marquette
The Top Seed: Purdue Boilermakers

It's been a banner year in West Lafayette, with the Boilermakers taking home just about every accolade they could hope for. They ran through a tough non-conference slate, held the Big Ten lead from start to finish, and then won the Big Ten Tournament. Now perched as a No. 1 seed, Purdue is hoping this is the one to finally get over the hump and deliver Matt Painter his first Final Four. Having the likely National Player of the Year, Zach Edey, is an awfully good place to start. The junior has been unstoppable since the opening tip, finishing with averages of 22.3 PPG, 12.8 RPG, and 2.1 BPG. Yet, this is not the first time Purdue has had a dominant presence on the block entering an NCAA Tournament. It's always been the guard play that has determined their March success, and that seems like it will be the case once again. Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer have been a tremendous pairing, but how will the freshmen handle the bright lights of March Madness? What role can the veterans in the backcourt, namely Ethan Morton and Brandon Newman, play? The Selection Committee didn't exactly hand the Boilermakers any favors, as they'll face a really strong 8-9 seed in the second round, and could meet Duke or Tennessee in the Sweet 16. That's added even more pressure to a program that could be entering their most important March in recent memory.

The Cinderella Possibility: Oral Roberts Golden Eagles

Oral Roberts is a program not unfamiliar with pulling off improbable upsets. Their stunner over second-seeded Ohio State in 2021 was one of the biggest upsets of the millennium to this point, and they built on it by winning a game after, becoming just the second 15-seed to make a Sweet 16 trip at the time (only to be shown up a year later by Saint Peter's). They're back once again this March Madness, and could be even more dangerous than that 2021 team. Volume scorer Max Abmas is back to once again lead the show, but his supporting cast has been taken up a notch. 7'4" giant Connor Vanover is a former Arkansas transfer who is a real pain for opposing offenses and defenses alike, and capable junior Isaac McBride is a superb complement. The Golden Eagles went undefeated in conference play in the regular season then rolled to a conference tournament title, but they have loftier goals in mind. Things don't get a lot bigger than beating one of the sport's most recognizable brands, Duke, in the first round. A win there and this team has legitimate Sweet 16 potential, as I like the way they match up with either Tennessee or Louisiana.

Don't Touch This High Seed: Tennessee Volunteers

Rick Barnes is an accomplished program-builder and terrific basketball mind who has done great job with two major programs, Texas and Tennessee. Nobody should disregard his coaching chops, or the work he's done in Knoxville. But, is there a worse big-name coach when it comes to the NCAA Tournament? In a sport where there are few constants, Barnes' teams getting knocked out early has been a regular sight. Since leading Texas to the Elite Eight in 2008, Barnes has advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament just once, in 2019. At Tennessee, Barnes has lost to double-digit seeds on three occasions, including a baffling defeat at the hands of Michigan a season ago. Every tournament is an opportunity to shed that label of March loser, but I'm not completely sure this is the team to do it. The Volunteers have trailed off down the stretch after a promising start and now will be without arguably their top player, Zakai Zeigler, who tore his ACL. To add to that, the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns are a tough first round matchup, the Sun Belt Champion who has lost just three games in the year 2023.

Don't Forget About: Kentucky Wildcats

I have a complicated relationship with the Kentucky Wildcats. On one hand, the program is way too good to go much longer without a National Title and although he has a tendency to rub people the wrong way, I still believe John Calipari is the one to do it. On the other, the Wildcats have burned me on numerous occasions over the last several years including last year, when I picked them to win it all and they were shocked by Saint Peter's. The thing is, the team has been playing impressive basketball over the last few weeks, and this is a program that always seems to play their best in March when expectations are at their lowest. This 2022-2023 edition has a lot to like, too. Oscar Tshiebwe wasn't quite as dominant this winter as the last, but remains a load to handle in the post. He's supported by an abundance of guards with a nice blend of talent. There's the youngsters with unlimited potential, like Cason Wallace, and the savvy veterans who have plenty of college basketball under their belt, such as Antonio Reeves and Sahvir Wheeler. That's not to say that I imagine a Final Four run from Calipari and the 'Cats, but I like their chances to beat Providence in the first round, and they have a favorable matchup with Kansas State in the second, assuming K-State can fend off Montana State. In a region that feels pretty wide open, you never know if this is the team that finally gets Calipari his second National Title. 

The Storyline Team: Marquette Golden Eagles

Going back to the days of Al McGuire, Marquette has been a regular fixture in the NCAA Tournament. With the exception of a rough stretch from the early 1980s to early 90s, the Golden Eagles have had a home in the NCAA Tournament. Yet, it's been a long time since a Marquette team entered March with this high of expectations. In fact, their two seed is the best seed the program has ever achieved, even better than the team that played in the Final Four under Tom Crean in 2003. It adds a feeling of pressure for the Golden Eagles, but also opens up an opportunity. Despite their success, Marquette hasn't made a Final Four since that special 2003 season. They haven't even won an NCAA Tournament game since 2013, when they went to the Elite Eight under Buzz Williams. They're led by a coach, Shaka Smart, who broke on to the college basketball scene with a legendary Final Four run at VCU in 2011, but who has gone 2-8 since. On paper, the prognosis for a deep run from the Golden Eagles doesn't seem high, but this is not your typical Marquette team. Running the show is the Big East Player of the Year, Tyler Kolek, a crafty, fluid playmaker who is one of my favorites in this Tournament. He's flanked by an abundance of quality guards, namely top scorer Kam Jones, and a two-headed monster in the frontcourt in Olivier-Maxence Prosper and Oso Ighodaro. This team isn't as flashy as other top seeds in the field, but I absolutely love the way they play basketball. It's not the frantic, frenetic Smart-coached VCU teams that you see on the court. This is a controlled, balanced basketball team who has a nice setup at the bottom of the region. 

Picking the East

First Round

1 Purdue over 16 Farleigh Dickinson (First Four winner) --  A great opportunity for a tune-up game for Purdue, who will be in store for a slugfest in the second round.

8 Memphis over 9 Florida Atlantic -- Dusty May's Florida Atlantic squad won't be intimidated at all by the reigning American Athletic Tournament Champion Memphis Tigers. But, the reality is they don't have anyone who can toe-to-toe with superstar Kendric Davis.

5 Duke over 12 Oral Roberts -- This may be the juiciest matchup of the first round, pitting the mighty Duke Blue Devils against the cream of the crop in the mid-majors, Oral Roberts. Max Abmas isn't your typical mid-major guard, but I still think Duke is just a bit too much for the Golden Eagles.

13 Louisiana over 4 Tennessee -- I bought into the Tennessee hype last March, and they lost a baffling game to Michigan in the second round. Even if they were fully healthy, I'm not touching the Volunteers in 2023.

6 Kentucky over 11 Providence -- Should be a fun battle between Bryce Hopkins and Kentucky, as the smooth-scoring forward began his career in Lexington. Providence is always a tough out, but I'm rolling with the Wildcats.

3 Kansas State over 14 Montana State -- Jerome Tang and Kansas State have been one of the best stories in college basketball this winter, and their high-flying combo of Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson is too much for the Big Sky Champions. 

7 Michigan State over 10 USC -- Tom Izzo and the Spartans are known for their March prowess, but don't overlook this Trojan team. Senior Drew Peterson can really fill it, and he's a matchup nightmare as a 6'9" ball-handler.

2 Marquette over 15 Vermont -- Every year, Vermont feels like a popular dark horse pick, but the wins just haven't shown up. This team isn't getting the same amount of hype, but the result will be the same.

Second Round

1 Purdue over 8 Memphis -- This is starting to become a trendy upset pick, but let's give Purdue some credit. They earned that No. 1 seed for a reason and despite taking a slight step back in the second half of the regular season, they secured a Big Ten Tournament Title. I think they'll advance, although they could have a tough time with the Tiger guards.

5 Duke over 13 Louisiana -- The Ragin' Cajuns are a tougher opponent in the second round than most people realize. Former high-profile recruit Jordan Brown has developed into a force underneath, but the Cajuns don't have enough elsewhere to overcome the Blue Devils.

6 Kentucky over 3 Kansas State -- Kansas State got the better of Kentucky the last time they squared off back in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, but I see a revenge opportunity for Calipari and UK. K-State simply has no answer for Tshiebwe underneath, and Kentucky should be able to contain Nowell the other way.

2 Marquette over 7 Michigan State -- Should be a fun guard game between these two, but I think it comes down to which team outplays the other in the paint. A fully healthy Malik Hall might be a game-changer, but I prefer what the Golden Eagles can throw at you.

Sweet 16

5 Duke over 1 Purdue -- I fear I may be buying too much into the Duke hype, a team that seemed destined for a first-round exit before a hot few weeks, but based on pure talent, there isn't a better team in this region than the Blue Devils. Obviously the NCAA Tournament is more than a talent contest, but I like the way Duke matches up with the Boilermakers.

2 Marquette over 6 Kentucky -- Just the second meeting between these two since Dwyane Wade went off for a triple-double in the 2003 Elite Eight. Two evenly matched teams, but I trust Marquette more. They've been the more consistent team on the year, and should be favored on a neutral court.

Elite Eight

2 Marquette over 5 Duke -- If this matchup does end up happening, it feels like a coin-flip to me. Two teams loaded with talent who play a different brand of basketball, but play it well. I'm rolling with Shaka and the Golden Eagles; Kolek and Kam Jones give them the edge.

East Region Champion: 2 Marquette Golden Eagles

At some point, Marquette is going to return to the Final Four and at some point, Shaka Smart is going to secure another deep postseason run. The East Region feels like it could descend into chaos, but if I had to put money on any team, it has to be the Golden Eagles. They've been superb all season and I love the way they play. Two decades after D-Wade stole the show, I like the program to return to be one of the last four teams standing.

No comments:

Theme images by LUGO. Powered by Blogger.