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2024 Bracket Analysis: East Region

Donovan Clingan, UConn

The Top Seed: UConn Huskies

Following one of the most dominant National Title runs in recent college basketball history, the 2023-24 campaign has been one heck of an encore by the UConn Huskies. They finished 31-3, took both the Big East regular season title and conference tournament title, and earned themselves the top overall seed heading into this year's NCAA Tournament. The roster looks slightly different from last year's group, although familiar faces like Tristen Newton, Donovan Clingan, and Alex Karaban earned valuable experience last spring, while filling holes with newcomers like Cam Spencer and Stephon Castle. Most importantly, the Huskies are led by arguably the top head coach in college basketball right now, Dan Hurley. The fiery head man proved himself with last year's run, but keeping this team focused all season long has arguably been a more impressive feat. Now, Hurley and the Huskies are facing down an incredibly ambitious goal: becoming the first program in a decade-and-half to repeat as National Champs. The road won't be easy in a difficult East Region, but this team has all the pieces in place to do it. I envision another lengthy stay this March and April for UConn, even with every other team in the bracket aiming to take down the defending champions.

The Storyline Team: Florida Atlantic Owls

Amazingly, there are three teams from the 2023 Final Four situated in the East Region, but the most intriguing has got to be the Florida Atlantic Owls. Their run last spring was one of the most shocking in recent memory, rising from a little-known program out of the C-USA to within a missed buzzer beater of playing for a National Title. As they moved to the American Athletic Conference this season, things have been different. No longer are the Owls a lovable underdog, but are now widely viewed as a team that can once again cause chaos at the top of the bracket, particularly with so many crucial pieces back from last year's group. It will be fascinating to see how the Owls and head man Dusty May handle the new-found pressure - they've gone through their ups-and-downs all season and didn't end things on a super positive note, losing in the AAC semifinals, but still came away with a surprisingly strong eight seed. When their guards get hot, they can beat just about anybody in the country, but it's going to be the play down low that determines just how long FAU sticks around this time around. Fortunately, Northwestern is more of a guard-oriented team themselves, and the two match up nicely, but UConn looks an entirely different animal in the second round if they do indeed get there. Even so, it will be fascinating to see what the Owls do in response to the heightened expectations, and storylines right themselves with UConn, FAU, and San Diego State all on the top left of the bracket.

Welcome Back to the Dance: Duquesne Dukes

How different was the college basketball landscape the last time the Duquesne Dukes were dancing? The slam dunk was just returning to the game after nearly a decade-long ban, the three-point line wouldn't be introduced to the college game for years, and Al McGuire's Marquette Warriors, not Golden Eagles, would end up as the eventual National Champion. Needless to say, it's amazing the Dukes are finally back in the NCAA Tournament after a thrilling run to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament. But, don't expect this team to be simply satisfied by gaining entry to the 68-team field - this team wants to stay for awhile. And, with a fun backcourt that features Dae Dae Grant and Jimmy Clark III, Duquesne could be a feisty 11-seed, with a chance to pull an upset over a BYU team that's been inconsistent all season long. Either way, we know one thing: LeBron James will be watching, as his former high school head coach Keith Dambrot, is head coach of the Dukes, earning a congratulations from King James himself on "X" over the weekend.  

Is this the Year?: Illinois Fighting Illini

Since taking over in Champaign, Brad Underwood has been a consistent winner, leading the Illini to five straight seasons of at least 20 wins, along with five straight trips to the Big Dance. Yet, his tenure has often been defined more by what he hasn't accomplished than what he has, with March upsets overshadowing so much of his success. But it feels like this 2023-24 team is different, with the pieces in place to have a long run this spring. There's the fearless scorer leading the way, Terrence Shannon Jr., a sharpshooter who can handle the offensive burden when needed in Marcus Domask, two versatile, two-way bigs in Coleman Hawkins and Quincy Guerrier, plus depth and experience throughout. The ingredients are here for this team to finally deliver both Underwood and Illinois in general the NCAA Tournament success that has eluded them for far too long, now it's just a matter of going out and getting the job done. And, I'd argue the path is the easiest it's ever been for the program under the tutelage of Underwood, at least early on. Morehead State is a decent 14-seed but certainly a flawed conference tournament champion, while the Illini's high-octane offense should blitz whoever they get in the BYU/Duquesne matchup next. Things get trickier after, with the possibilities of Iowa State and perhaps UConn lurking elsewhere in the region, but I have Illinois locked into their first trip to the Tournament's second weekend since they were national runner-up in 2004-05, and firmly believe even greater things could be in store than just that.

Welcome Back to the Dance: Washington State Cougars

It's been a tumultuous year off the court for the Washington State basketball program as the athletics department grapples with an uncertain future after the breakup of the Pac-12. However, the product on the hardwood has been fantastic, with head coach Kyle Smith bringing the Cougars back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2008. In fact, in the final year of the Pac-12, the conference is seeing it's longest NCAA Tournament drought snapped in the Cougars, a fitting conclusion for the league. But, much as the case with others snapping long NCAA Tournament droughts, Washington State is not going to be satisfied to simply get here, they want to win. Drake is an incredibly difficult team to start out with in the first round with one of the top players anywhere in the country in Tucker DeVries, the coach's soon, but the Cougars can counter with their own elite playmaker, guard Myles Rice. Although, Rice will need to get back on track after a frustrating performance in the Pac-12 semifinal loss to Colorado, where he finished with five turnovers. Perhaps that will provide an extra bit of motivation for him, and with versatile forward Isaac Jones, the Cougars should be an interesting watch in the bottom half of the East Region.

Picking the East

First Round

1 UConn Huskies over 16 Stetson Hatters -- Stetson is a great story, playing in the first NCAA Tournament at the Division I level, but it's likely to be short-lived as they face the buzzsaw that is the UConn Huskies.

8 Florida Atlantic Owls over 9 Northwestern Wildcats -- Great guard play should make this a fun one, but the Owls are deeper and more balanced than Northwestern, who will need heroics from Boo Buie.

5 San Diego State Aztecs over 12 UAB Blazers -- UAB went on a run to win the American Athletic in their first season in the conference, but I'm not convinced they'll be able to parlay that into NCAA Tournament sucess.

4 Auburn Tigers over 13 Yale Bulldogs -- Ivy League teams always make me wary this time of year, but Auburn is playing tremendous basketball as of late, and forward Johni Broome gives them an obvious edge. 

6 BYU Cougars over 11 Duquesne Dukes -- As awesome as it is that Duquesne got to the NCAA Tournament, they're a very weak 11-seed - BYU shouldn't have much troubles here.

3 Illinois Fighting Illini over 14 Morehead State Eagles -- Fresh off a Big Ten Tournament Championship Game in which they combined for 60 points, Terrence Shannon Jr. and Marcus Domask overwhelm the Eagles here.

10 Drake Bulldogs over 7 Washington State Cougars -- I picked Drake to upset Miami last year and subsequently looked like a fool as the 'Canes went on to the Final Four. Yet, I'm going back to the well and picking Tucker DeVries and the Bulldogs to get the job done this year.

2 Iowa State Cyclones over 15 South Dakota State Jackrabbits -- The Jackrabbits may be an NCAA Tournament regular, but this 2023-24 group isn't as strong as we've seen in the past - Iowa State should shut them down.

Second Round

1 UConn Huskies over 8 Florida Atlantic Owls -- Oh, how I wish this ended up being the Championship Game last spring, but I think the result would have been the same: UConn winning.

4 Auburn Tigers over 5 San Diego State Aztecs -- San Diego State is going to do their best to speed up and disrupt K.D. Johnson and the rest of Auburn's guards, but I think the Tigers end up being too much in this one.

3 Illinois Fighting Illini over 6 BYU Cougars -- You can never be too sure what you're getting out of BYU's guards on a given night but even if they get hot, the Cougars don't have enough down low to counter the Illini.

2 Iowa State Cyclones over 10 Drake Bulldogs -- An inter-Iowa battle in the second round! This should be a hard-fought, physical contest, but the stifling Cyclone defense helps them find a way to move on to the second weekend.

Sweet 16

1 UConn Huskies over 4 Auburn Tigers -- Bruce Pearl has built a consistent winner at Auburn, but the Tigers just aren't at the level of UConn right now - the Huskies should roll.

3 Illinois Fighting Illini over 2 Iowa State Cyclones -- This one is so painful for me to pick - I love both of these teams and would likely have both in the Final Four if I could. I'll roll with the Illini, with the hope that great offense beats great defense.

Elite Eight

3 Illinois Fighting Illini over 1 UConn Huskies -- As impressive as UConn has been all season long, NCAA Tournament history speaks for itself- repeating is just so incredibly difficult. In that spirit, I think the Illini get a massive win here and deliver Brad Underwood his first Final Four appearance.

East Region Champion: 3 Illinois Fighting Illini

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