At first glance, the East might seem like one of the weaker regions in this year’s tournament, but a closer look will tell you that it instead might produce some of the most exciting basketball in the coming weeks.
Villanova owns the No. 1 seed in the region, but the Wildcats most certainly won’t have a cakewalk to the Final Four. The second-seeded Purdue Boilermakers looked strong throughout the regular season and No. 3 Texas Tech has a serious chance to make some noise as well.
Here’s a complete preview of the East Region:
Player to Watch: Jalen Brunson, PG, Villanova
Brunson isn’t the sexy pick. The Wildcats’ floor general plays a fundamental style of basketball that doesn’t typically translate to weekly highlight reels. But the 6-foot-3 junior is rich in experience, which should bode well for Villanova throughout the tournament. Brunson received quite the welcome to March Madness, helping the Wildcats win the NCAA title in his freshman season. He always seems to make the right play at the right time, and his tendency to deliver in the clutch will tremendously benefit the Wildcats. Brunson likely won’t be a top pick in this summer’s NBA draft like his backcourt mate Mikal Bridges, but he should thrive in the Big Dance.
Best First-Round Game: No. 8 Virginia Tech vs. No. 9 Alabama
If Brunson is our top player to watch in the East, Collin Sexton is just inches behind. The Alabama guard has been sensational this season and really put on a show throughout the Crimson Tide’s march to the SEC Tournament semifinals. Sexton sort of has that Kemba Walker/Shabazz Napier feel to him entering this year’s NCAA Tournament, and his team’s first-round matchup against the Hokies should be a great one. Virginia Tech was bounced from the ACC Tournament in a flash, but let’s not forget its big wins this season over teams like Duke, Clemson, North Carolina and the overall top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers.
Best Chance for an Upset: No. 10 Butler over No. 7 Arkansas
Sure, the Razorbacks have some quality wins under their belt this season with victories over North Carolina, Auburn and Tennessee. But Arkansas plays in a generally weak conference and has a number of bad losses on its résumé, including getting swept by LSU. The Bulldogs had a great showing in the Big East Tournament, and while they were torched by Villanova in the championship game, their makeup lends one to believe they’ll be tough competition for the Razorbacks.
Region Winner: Villanova
As mentioned before, the East features one of the more level playing fields in the tournament, but it’s tough to pick against the Wildcats. Coach Jay Wright has had his team near the top of the AP rankings from wire to wire this season, and you have to envision Villanova making a deep run once again this time around. The Wildcats will have a tough second-round test against the winner of the Alabama/Virginia Tech clash, but it’s nothing they can’t handle.
Prediction: Villanova over Texas Tech in the Elite Eight.