NCAA Tournament: East is balanced at the top
It'll be hard to pick a favorite to come out of the East for the Final Four.
While there's nothing wrong with top-seeded Virginia, which just won the ACC with defense and gritty wing scorers, there's also a lot to like about Villanova, which only lost four games all year behind three very good scorers. There's also Iowa State, a dynamo team that can put up points in a hurry, and Michigan State, which is no stranger to Final Four runs.
The East Region isn't considered the toughest by most pundits, but it may be the most unpredictable, owing to the great balance of talent among the top seeds. With Virginia getting the final No. 1, which Villanova was in contention for, and Michigan State and Iowa State winning their respective conference tournaments, there's a fair bit of uncertainty which might come out of the bracket.
Going chalk will be tempting for those top four, which each have between 28 and 26 wins this year. All four have prolific scoring guards and wings, considered a hallmark of tournament contenders. Virginia and Villanova have been particularly impressive on defense, with the Cavaliers dictating tempo while the Wildcats have some of the best athletes in the country that can play man-to-man with most teams.
Iowa State is an unselfish offensive team that has three scorers above 16 points per game. Michigan State had a rocky segment in conference play, but the Spartans are starting to look like a Tom Izzo-coached team, particularly in the last week.
Elsewhere in the bracket are some interesting gems, including the mercurial North Carolina team that was once trying to play its way to a top four seed before stumbling down the stretch. Connecticut has some guns to play with some of the best teams, led by AAC player of the year Shabazz Napier.
Those looking for March underdog darlings may want to look at No. 9 George Washington or No. 12 Harvard. The Colonials could face local rival Virginia in the third round. The Crimson led a memorable upset last year of New Mexico.
No. 1 Virginia (28-6) vs. No. 16 Coastal Carolina (21-12)
At Raleigh, N.C. | Friday, 7:25 p.m., TBS
Outlook • Both these teams specialize in defense, but it shouldn't be too tough for the Cavaliers to advance through to the round of 32. Good luck staying in front of Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon for 40 minutes, because few ACC teams have this year.
No. 2 Villanova (28-4) vs. No. 15 Milwaukee (21-13)
At Buffalo, N.Y. | Thursday, 7:25 p.m., TBS
Outlook • Led by forward JayVaughn Pinkston, the Wildcats are extraordinarily balanced on both offense and defense, which helped lead them to a regular season title. It may be a first-round massacre, as Panthers don't have a win over any team in the NCAA tourney field.
No. 3 Iowa State (26-7) vs. No. 14 North Carolina Central (28-5)
At San Antonio, Texas | Friday, 7:50 p.m., TNT
Outlook • With DeAndre Kane, Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim, the Cyclones boast three of the most exciting scorers in the Big 12. Iowa State will have to outpace the Eagles, led by the top player in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Jeremy Ingram. Could be fun.
No. 4 Michigan State (26-8) vs. No. 13 Delaware (25-9)
At Spokane, Wash. | Thursday, 2:40 p.m., TNT
Outlook • Gary Harris and Adreian Payne look ready to lead Sparty back to prominence. While the Blue Hens have an experienced group that takes care of the ball, it will be tough to mix it up with one of the best frontcourts in the nation and quick-footed guards.
No. 5 Cincinnati (27-6) vs. No. 12 Harvard (26-4)
At Spokane, Wash. | Thursday, 12:10 p.m., TNT
Outlook • The Bearcats like physical, slow-paced basketball, and have imposed their will on the defensive end. Look for Sean Kilpatrick and his team to try to avoid an upset, like the memorable one the Crimson authored last year with their 3-point assault on New Mexico.
No. 6 North Carolina (23-9) vs. No. 11 Providence (23-11)
At San Antonio, Texas | Friday, 5:20 p.m., TNT
Outlook • Once judged to be in contention for a top-four seed, the Tar Heels are the mercurial team in this region that could potentially make lots of noise. But first, Marcus Paige and crew will have to challenge the winners of the Big East tournament behind Bryce Cotton.
No. 7 Connecticut (26-8) vs. No. 10 St. Joseph (24-9)
At Buffalo, N.Y. | Thursday, 4:55 p.m., TBS
Outlook • Shabazz Napier and the Huskies are glad to be back in the fold for the Big Dance. The Hawks' Langston Galloway and Ronald Roberts aim to spoil that return with their defensive focus for Saint Joseph after beating VCU for the A-10 title.
No. 8 Memphis (23-9) vs. No. 9 George Washington (24-8)
At Raleigh, N.C | Friday, 4:55 p.m., TBS
Outlook • A bit of a toss-up, with Memphis boasting some of the country's best athletes, and GW having had some success against tournament teams this year. Isaiah Armwood and Shaq Goodwin should be in for a battle in the paint aside from the great guard matchups.
Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick, right, has a nose for the net, hitting a handful of 3s every game, but also driving inside for his points for the Bearcats.
Michigan State has what pundits love in March teams: The Spartans own the paint, rebound well, shoot 3s efficiently and are coming into their own, winning the Big Ten tournament. Adrien Payne can take over, but their guards will determine how far they can go.
Best player you don't know
It may be a short tournament for North Carolina Central, but keep an eye out for top-shelf scorer Jeremy Ingram, who averages 20 points for the Eagles.
How about No. 9 seed George Washington as a team to watch? It has an injury-prone yet bona fide star player in Maurice Creek, who started his career at Indiana. Look for him and Isaiah Armwood to possibly challenge local rival and top seed Virginia if the Colonials can make it past Memphis.