NCAA Bracket 2017: Complete Guide to East Region

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 13, 2017

NCAA Bracket 2017: Complete Guide to East Region

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    Finally, the speculation is over. The selection committee revealed the 2017 NCAA bracket Sunday night, and the East Region boasts the defending-champion Villanova Wildcats.

    In addition to claiming the No. 1 overall seed in March Madness, the quadrant features two of the First Four matchups. Those play-in games will happen before what could be a wild first round begins Thursday in Buffalo and Orlando.

    Duke, Baylor, Florida, Virginia and SMU are the next-highest seeds, and the East Region also contains two well-regarded mid-major winners in UNC-Wilmington and East Tennessee State.

    The favorite is obvious, but Villanova's pursuit of a second straight championship isn't the only compelling storyline. If the Wildcats don't win the region, who will it be? Which top seeds should most fear an upset? Is there a Cinderella in this quadrant? We'll answer those questions—and more!—in the East Region preview.

1st-Round Schedule and TV Info

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    (Games in Buffalo, NY)

    Villanova (1) vs. Mount St. Mary's or New Orleans (16), 7:10 p.m. ET, CBS

    Wisconsin (8) vs. Virginia Tech (9), after Nova/16, CBS

    (Games in Orlando, FL)

    Virginia (5) vs. UNC-Wilmington (12), 12:40 p.m. ET, truTV

    Florida (4) vs. East Tennessee State (13), after UVA/UNCW, truTV


    (Games in Tulsa, OK)

    Baylor (3) vs. New Mexico State (14), 12:40 p.m. ET, truTV

    SMU (6) vs. Providence or USC (11), after Baylor/NMSU, truTV

    (Games in Greenville, SC)

    Duke (2) vs. Troy (15), 7:20 p.m. ET, TBS

    South Carolina (7) vs. Marquette (10), after Duke/Troy, TBS

Must-See Games

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    No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech

    Although both programs checked in a seed line or two lower than expected, the drop resulted in a terrific first-round matchup.

    Wisconsin stumbled down the stretch of the regular season, but Greg Gard's team recovered to reach the Big Ten title. Ethan Happ is an outstanding all-around forward, and the Badgers are full of experience with Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Zak Showalter.

    While Virginia Tech never ripped off a long winning streak in conference play, it stood out as a thorn in the sport's toughest conference throughout the year. Over the last six weeks, the Hokies defeated three tourney-bound teams while also losing to top-four seeds Louisville by four and Florida State by six.

    It'll be a battle of efficient offenses in Buffalo.

    No. 5 Virginia vs. No. 12 UNC-Wilmington

    Perhaps Duke breathed a sigh of relief when UNC-Wilmington showed up as a No. 12 seed. Last year, the Seahawks took a halftime lead into the locker room against the blueblood program.

    Virginia, they're your problem now.

    UNC-Wilmington has the 12th-fastest tempo and 18th most efficient offense among tournament teams, per KenPom. That's a stark contrast of style to the Cavaliers, who use a deliberate offense and the vaunted Pack-Line defense to slow opponents.

    In eight of the last nine years, the NCAA tournament has included at least one 5-12 upset. This matchup will be a popular choice to continue that trend.

    No. 4 Florida vs. No. 13 East Tennessee State

    The 4-13 shocker doesn't happen as often compared to the 5-12, but East Tennessee State is an appealing pick.

    Since John Egbunu's season-ending left ACL tear, Florida's average offensive output has dropped from 80.4 to 67.3 points. While the Gators have an excellent defense, a drop in scoring that substantial cannot be overlooked.

    East Tennessee State's 38.3 three-point percentage will test Florida on the perimeter, and Indiana transfer Hanner Mosquera-Perea is an important player to watch in the post. Led by T.J. Cromer, the Buccaneers have the talent to spring an upset.

Top Storylines

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    Can Villanova Defend the Championship?

    Last season, Jay Wright's team provided one of the most memorable finishes to a national championship game. Several of those players returned for the 2016-17 campaign, and Villanova backed up its billing with a 31-3 record, Big East title and No. 1 overall seed.

    But none of that matters anymore.

    The Wildcats have a manageable slate, particularly on their half of the bracket. Though games aren't won on paper, Villanova has an undeniable scoring edge against a wavering Florida team and an inconsistent Virginia squad.

    Is Duke Back?

    The question itself is a joke because it's always asked whenever Duke struggles during a given season. When the Blue Devils encountered a 3-4 stretch in January, there was concern.

    Yet just two months later, the college basketball world wondered if an ACC tournament championship would lift Duke to a No. 1 seed. It didn't quite happen, but Coach K's crew has a reasonably favorable outlook, starting with Troy.

    The Blue Devils started to put together their best performances at the perfect time. They need that to continue in the Madness.

    Which Baylor Shows Up?

    Baylor is frustratingly inconsistent.

    There's the version that knocked off West Virginia and twice gave Kansas a fight into the final seconds. But there's also an edition that fell to Kansas State twice and Texas Tech once.

    Playing tough perimeter defense is essential for Baylor, which was a paltry 2-5 when opponents shot 40 percent of better from beyond the arc. Plus, behind Johnathan Motley, the Bears lack consistent scoring from Manu Lecomte, Allerik Freeman and Jo Acuil.

    If two of those players aren't hitting, the bad version of Baylor might show up—and promptly exit the tournament.

Stars to Watch

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    Josh Hart, SG, Villanova

    A potential first-round NBA draft pick in 2017, Josh Hart does a little bit of everything for Villanova.

    The senior enters March Madness averaging team-high marks of 18.9 points and 6.5 rebounds, adding 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game. He's shooting 50.5 percent from the floor, largely thanks to a scorching 40.7 clip from three-point range.

    Hart, who has scored double figures in all 34 games this season, is a finalist for the Naismith Men's Player of the Year award. Be sure to enjoy his final appearances at this level.

    Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke

    Luke Kennard is also a Naismith finalist, but Jayson Tatum is starting to peak at an excellent time.

    The standout freshman scored 22 points per game during the ACC tournament despite shooting just 3-of-15 from long distance. He's recently showed the ability to take over a game inside the arc, which wonderfully complements Kennard and Grayson Allen.

    Additionally, the 6'8" Tatum is the piece that allows small-ball lineups. That's particularly useful because the Blue Devils' frontcourt is thin when Amile Jefferson gets into foul trouble—something that happens too often against top competition.

    In all likelihood, Tatum will be a one-and-done. For Duke to emerge from the East Region, that potential must be on full display.

    Ethan Happ, PF/C, Wisconsin

    One of four Naismith finalists in the quadrant—Baylor's Motley is the last honoree—Ethan Happ can be a dominant force.

    He ranks second on the team with 13.9 points per game, otherwise leading Wisconsin with averages of 9.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks.

    Offensively, Happ isn't a threat outside the paint but is hard to contain down low because of his footwork. On the other end, his quick hands and ability to disrupt passes make him a primary contributor to the Badgers' ninth-ranked defense.

    If Wisconsin makes it past Virginia Tech, Happ might expose a similarly small Villanova frontcourt.

Favorites Most Likely to Fall

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    No. 4 Florida

    There is a realistic chance Florida's chances are discounted because of a desire to correctly pick a major upset. East Tennessee State fits what prognosticators typically look for.

    Now, let's not forget that the Gators have a deep backcourt with three decent shooters—KeVaughn Allen, Canyon Berry and Devin Robinson—and a couple of creators in Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza. If the guards can take control, Florida is in fine shape.

    But without Egbunu, there's a glaring hole down low. Florida already struggled to regularly win the rebounding battle when he was healthy. Oftentimes, all it takes for a high seed to leave March Madness early is a dreadful performance on the glass.

    No. 5 Virginia

    While the lack of an interior presence has plagued Virginia's outlook, inconsistency on offense is a major problem.

    The Cavaliers rely heavily on London Perrantes, who is the only healthy double-digit scorer. But when he shoots below 33.3 percent—a 1-of-3 ratio for makes to misses—Virginia has mustered a 1-6 record. Plus, seven of the Hoos' 10 losses have occurred when an opponent made 30-plus percent of its three-pointers.

    UNC-Wilmington's high-pressure defense and efficient shooting may be the perfect antidote to negate the tempo difference.

Most Likely Cinderella

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    No. 12 UNC-Wilmington

    If the Seahawks win once, they'll be dangerous.

    With a high-pressure defense and uptempo offense, UNC-Wilmington loves to push the pace and force mistakes. Though the Seahawks can fall in love with the three-pointer, a balanced attack can atone for a rough showing by one of their four double-digit scorers.

    C.J. Bryce leads the way with 17.6 points, while Chris Flemmings and Denzel Ingram aren't far behind at 15.8 and 14.5, respectively. Devontae Cacok leads the nation with a remarkable 79.9 field-goal percentage, chipping in 12.3 points per game. Plus, Ambrose Mosley shoots 40.5 percent from long distance.

    Now, the problem is getting that first victory. Virginia has the absolute slowest tempo in the country, according to KenPom. UNC-Wilmington faces a delicate task of trying to accelerate the game while also not forcing shots.

    Of all potential Cinderellas, the Seahawks have the highest ceiling. It simply depends on getting the first one.

Who Will Make the Sweet 16?

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    No. 1 Villanova

    Never before has a No. 16 seed defeated a No. 1. Villanova won't be the team to ingloriously end that streak. In the second round, the Wildcats' bigs will face a legitimate test in either Wisconsin's Happ or Virginia Tech's Zach LeDay. However, Villanova's more consistent guard play will be the difference in two relatively painless wins.

    No. 5 Virginia

    UNC-Wilmington is a serious threat to upset Virginia, but we're cautiously optimistic about the Hoos surviving the first weekend. While the X-factor is sharpshooting freshman Kyle Guy, Perrantes is a steady presence in the backcourt. As long as his shots are falling, Virginia will be a tough out.

    No. 6 SMU

    The major upset of the group, SMU will knock off Baylor in the second round to reach the program's first Sweet 16 since 1967. Tim Jankovich's squad plays an enjoyable brand of basketball, running a slow tempo but exhibiting a tremendously efficient offense. The Mustangs—who are riding a 16-game winning streak—pack more of a scoring punch than Baylor, which has stumbled on defense lately.

    No. 2 Duke

    If you're looking for an underrated and awesome matchup, look no further than SMU and Duke. Both teams use a team-oriented style that features all the key players but doesn't put an inordinate amount of pressure on the stars. The Blue Devils must be careful not to overlook Troy or the winner of South Carolina/Marquette, but recent momentum will carry them through the first weekend.

The Elite Eight Matchup Will Be...

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    No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 2 Duke

    We're not opposed to madness happening. Sleepers and Cinderellas dominating the tournament produce the best storylines.

    But in the East Region, the chalk should reign supreme.

    Although Villanova has a limited rotation, its first three matchups aren't daunting no matter the opponent. Given the offensive issues of Wisconsin, Florida and Virginia plus Virginia Tech's defensive woes, the Wildcats should breeze to the regional final.

    Duke has a more favorable path to the Sweet 16, though it ought to encounter a more difficult matchup there. Both Baylor and SMU could frustrate the Blue Devils with a snail-like pace.

    Nevertheless, we expect the East's top two seeds to reinforce that status and create the best Elite Eight showdown in the tournament.

And the Final Four Team Is...Villanova

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    The saying goes, "success breeds complacency." But the 2016-17 Villanova team has improved throughout the year and displayed a willingness to be coached, which is an underrated trait.

    "We have more work to do. A lot better we can get," senior Darryl Reynolds said after winning the Big East tourney, per Jeff Borzello of ESPN. "You come down a bit quicker because you realize you have so much more work to do than celebrating completely. We're excited, but we understand we have more work to do."

    That starts with beating the 16th seedwhichever team that may be—and advancing through a quality East Region packed with Naismith Men's Player of the Year contenders.

    But Villanova's own finalist is the key.

    Hart will propel a methodical offense past overmatched teams and then a talented Duke roster. His steady demeanor combined with the experience of Jalen Brunson, Kris Jenkins and Mikal Bridges will carry the Wildcats to their second straight Final Four.

    Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.