Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March Madness Preview: East Regional Breakdown

2009 Tournament: Schedule and Preview (can be found here)
Tuesday 1pm ET: South Regional Preview (can be found here)
Tuesday 5pm ET: East Regional Preview (can be found here)
Wednesday 9am ET: Midwest Regional Preview (can be found here)
Wednesday 11am ET: West Regional Preview (can be found here)
Thursday 9am ET: An inside look at entertaining announcer Gus Johnson (can be found here)
Thursday 12:20 ET: 2009 Tournament tips off with Butler and LSU from Greensboro, NC

Bracket to View can be found here

Bracket to Print can be found here

Earlier today we took a look at the South Regional. In my opinion, this year’s tournament has the potential to be one of the craziest March Madness’ in recent memory. Last season, fans knew by November who the top five contenders would be once tournament time came around. This year, I see as many as 20-25 teams that could potentially make a run to the Final Four and beyond. It’s time to break down the East Region Bracket.

I used to rely heavily upon numbers and statistics when filling out my bracket, but over the years I’ve altered my approach to take into account a number of different aspects I tend to notice season after season. Every March I try to take into account teams with momentum, travel required to arrive at the first/second round site, teams who rely heavily upon the 3-pointer, frontcourt matchups, and when all else fails…I just flip a coin.

Instead of merely telling you which teams will win each game (which you can find anywhere), I am going to focus more on why some teams won’t make it out of the East region, which I think might be the toughest in the tournament.

#1 Pittsburgh (28-4) vs. #16 East Tennessee State (23-10)

I’ve followed the Big East quite a bit this year and more specifically the Pitt Panthers. They definitely have the potential to knock off any team in this tournament and Sophomore forward and Pittsburgh native DeJuan Blair can create matchup problems for even the Hasheem Thabeet’s of the world. Looking at this region though, I see a number of places Pitt could stumble. The health of underrated point guard Levance Fields is definitely a concern. He should be ready to go for the weekend, but his lack of conditioning due to a groin injury could severely limit his impact. ETSU, the Atlantic Sun tourney champ, is relentless on the defensive side of the ball and could keep this game closer than many experts expect. Unfortunately, they have no answer for Blair inside. How I can really see Pitt struggling is when they try to bring their physical “Big East style” to the tourney where referees are notorious for calling games much tighter. When Blair has been in early foul trouble this year, Pitt has struggled mightily. If a big team like #4 Xavier can get Blair on the bench early, it could result in a quick exit for the Panthers.

#8 Oklahoma State (22-11) vs. #9 Tennessee (21-12)

This game features a matchup of two teams on completely different paths into the tournament. Oklahoma St. started the season extremely slow but their up-tempo style picked up steam over the past two months and was enough to get them an 8 seed. James Anderson and Byron Eaton were two of the top scorers in the Big 12 this season and babyfaced Keiton Page can win games on his own from beyond the arc. Tennessee, on the other hand, under the tutelage of Bruce Pearl came into the season as one of the SEC favorites to challenge for a Final Four berth. Inexperience and inconsistency led to an underwhelming year. C Wayne Chism is a game-changer for the Vols when he’s playing well, but he has the tendency to disappear at times. If he can get hot Tennessee could find a win or two, but I think inexperience will doom the Vols in the end. They’re soft defense was able to survive through weak SEC play, but Oklahoma St. will run them up and down the court and could win big if their 3-pointers begin to fall.

#5 Florida State (25-9) vs. #12 Wisconsin (19-12)

Ah, yes…the dreaded 5-12 matchup. I think this will be the upset you want to pick in your bracket, without a doubt. It also has the potential to be a great defensive battle definitely worth watching. In fact, in my mind Florida St. is a pseudo-Big-Ten team from the ACC conference. While the Wake Forest’s, Duke’s, and UNC’s of the ACC run up and down the floor in high-scoring affairs, the Seminoles have found success with an intense focus on the defensive end of the court. Florida St. is lead by all-around star Toney Douglas, but one player who really caught my eye this year was 7’1” freshman Solomon Alabi. Alabi, a former Nigerian soccer player, looks to have the height and raw potential of Thabeet from Connecticut and I think with a few more years of work he could be a force to reckon with. Despite this, I think FSU will struggle to put points on the board if and when Wisconsin shuts down Douglas. The Badgers won’t blow away the Seminoles, but I think this team has the potential to reach the Sweet 16. Head Coach Bo Ryan always puts intelligent, efficient, and tenacious teams on the court…a nice combination at tourney time. Marcus Landry leads the team up front and as long as he produces Wisconsin should be able to pull off the 12-5 upset…and potentially more.

#4 Xavier (25-7) vs. #13 Portland State (23-9)

This is by far my favorite game in the region. I had the pleasure of previewing the Big Sky Conference tournament on SportsJudge recently and having seen Portland St. a few times this season, I made a mental note to remember them if they found a way to make the Big Dance. I didn’t pick PSU to win the Big Sky tourney, but in the conference preview I mentioned this: “If you like watching teams firing 3-pointers, this might be the league to check out. Over half the teams in the conference tournament rank Top 50 in the nation in 3-pointers, led by none other than 2-seed Portland State. PSU ranks #4 in the country with 9.7 three's per game and have attempted a ridiculous league record 775 so far this season. Portland State was last year's champion and could possibly give Weber a run for their money if they get hot.” I noted above that I always look out for teams who rely heavily upon the 3-pointer since they have the potential to beat any team on any given day. Portland State is going to be the team that wins or loses my bracket this year. They are no stranger to taking down the big dog. They knocked of Gonzaga on the road this year and Xavier’s huge size advantage (all starters over 6’5”) and suffocating interior defense will be totally negated by the fact Portland State may never venture inside the arc. Xavier has also struggled to score of late, losing two of their final three games headed into the NCAA tournament after they had a tournament bid locked up. Since my prediction that PSU will pull the upset relies totally upon them being able to get hot from 3-pt-range, there’s obviously a definite chance Xavier makes it through to the second round. If they do, I love their chances to win multiple games and as I discussed earlier, their size makes for a great matchup with top-seeded Pitt.

#6 UCLA (25-8) vs. #11 Virginia Commonwealth (24-9)

Head Coach Ben Howland has had a ton of success in the NCAA tourney (17-7 record) and has to love the fact that UCLA brings a lot of March experience to the table in Josh Shipp, Darren Collison, and Alfred Aboya. This might be my favorite team in the region, but a number of factors make me think twice. The selection committee was downright nasty to this team. Not only do they have to travel across three time zones (another key I watch out for), but they are faced with an extremely tough team in VCU and a “road” game at Villanova in the second round. For VCU, Eric Maynor leads the way from the point and don’t forget the Rams knocked off Duke in a shocking upset last season. Their success throughout the season has revolved around the play of C Larry Sanders. He plays much bigger than his 6’10 frame and is a raw physical specimen. If he can stay out of foul trouble, VCU is another team that could possibly make a run in this region.

#3 Villanova (26-7) vs. #14 American (24-7)

For as much as the committee was mean to UCLA, they were just as favorable to Villanova. Somehow the Wildcats find themselves with first and second round games at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, where they played actual home games three times this season. St. Joseph’s is the official “site host” but Villanova will have the huge homecourt advantage. This team also has tons of experience, a deep bench, and a great coach in Jay Wright. I thought this team might walk away with the Big East Tournament title, but they ran into a great team in Louisville in the finals. American will look to keep the pace of the game down and they almost shocked #2 Tennessee last season, but in the end the Eagles are just too small to keep up with the athletes from Villanova.

#7 Texas (22-11) vs. #10 Minnesota (22-10)

Both teams in this matchup struggle on the offensive side of the ball, but have coaches behind the bench who could orchestrate a surprising run. Texas is very inconsistent, but they have solid non-conference wins against Villanova and Wisconsin on their resume this season. They are also making their 11th straight NCAA tournament appearance under head coach Rick Barnes. Minnesota is a deep, defensive-minded team, but their youth might be a problem. Tubby Smith has had success everywhere he’s been and getting Lawrence Westbrook the ball on a consistent basis will be the key for the Gophers. If Texas does advance in this game, I think the Longhorns could actually be a tough out for Duke in the second round.

#2 Duke (28-6) vs. #15 Binghamton (23-8)

You won’t be seeing a miracle upset in this game. In fact, I think 16-seed ETSU has a better chance of winning a game than Binghamton. Duke is far too talented for the Bearcats, so let’s take a look at the hopes of Coach K’s squad. I’m not sure what it is, but I can’t get excited about the Blue Devils chances this year. It definitely could be a result of their disappointing tourney appearances the past few seasons where they’ve appeared uninspired and lifeless. Junior Gerald Henderson is going to be the key to a long run in the East Region. He’s been outstanding so far this season and if he can continue to hit big shots this will likely be a tough team to knock off. I think getting contributions from the experienced Greg Paulus off the bench will also be a key for Duke. Coach K seems to favor shortening the bench quite a bit in the tourney and I think that’s a big reason his teams have been running out of gas the last few years.

Time for the picks. Four teams are possibilities for your Final Four slot out of this region: Pitt, Duke, Villanova and UCLA. I have no confidence in Duke. I’m hoping UCLA can survive the first two rounds and get on a roll with their athletic ability and tournament experience. That's no easy task with a "road" game against Villanova on tap. I think the winner of that 2nd round battle will end up facing Pitt in the Elite 8 battle with winner going to Ford Field in Detroit. In the end, Pitt will make a run and UCLA will struggle to matchup inside with the dominant Blair.
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