CAN ANYONE STOP VILLANOVA IN THE EAST?
Sleepers & Giant Killers
There might not be a ton of madness among the top seeds in the East Region, as those teams are simply too much better than the unfortunate opponents they’ve drawn in the first round.
The biggest upset alert might come from the 7-10 pairing, featuring Arkansas and Butler. Butler’s duo of Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin match up well against Arkansas’ duo of Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon. But more importantly, six players in Butler’s rotation have tournament experience, meaning playing against a team from a big name conference won’t phase them at all. Take the Bulldogs in an upset over the Razorbacks, setting up a fascinating battle of Indiana teams, when the Bulldogs face the Purdue Boilermakers.
As heretical as this might sound, don’t be surprised if the Virginia Tech Hokies give Villanova a real battle in the Round of 32. The Hokies are coached by Buzz Williams, who’s no stranger to taking a team deep into the dance. Virginia Tech is battle tested, having played against some of the best teams in the nation in the ACC, and Williams’ group features four guards who can score in double figures in any given game. Against a Villanova defense that opponents have caught with their proverbial pants down from time to time, Virginia Tech could exploit that with an offense that’s capable of scoring in an up-tempo game, or a slowed down slash-and-kick game.
Best & Most Underrated Players
This region might not be the heaviest on big-name NBA prospects, but it’s easily the region that features the best players college basketball has to offer this year.
Villanova’s Jalen Brunson might be one of the best college players in the nation, and not coincidentally, is one of the top candidates for this year’s John Wooden award. He can shoot, pass, and defend as well as anyone. He’s coming into the tournament posting career highs in assists and three-point shooting percentage. He’s also one of the most clutch players in the country as well. He’s simply the engine that runs one of the most dangerous offenses in the nation.
West Virginia’s Jevon Carter is a nasty and crafty defender, who can absolutely smother whomever he’s guarding on the perimeter, and quickly get them into foul trouble. His 39% shooting from behind the arc is actually a slight dip for him, so if he heats up in the tournament, he could help the Mountaineers go on a deep run.
Purdue’s Carsen Edwards is another Wooden Award finalist, and rightfully so. He’s been one of the best wings in the entire Big 10 this season, and a total sharpshooter on a team that knows how to drain buckets; Edwards shot just under 47% from the field this season, including just under 42% from the three-point line.
What Keenan Evans from Texas Tech has been lacking in three-point shooting this year, he’s more than made up from inside the arc. He’s been shooting 57% on his two-point attempts, and he’s a savant at forcing the opponents into foul trouble. As you might imagine, once he gets to the stripe, he makes teams pay. Against TCU in the Red Raiders season finale, Evans went 10 for 10 from the free throw line.
Landry Shamet of Wichita State scored 43 points in two games in the American Conference tournament, meaning he’s coming into the dance on a hot streak. Scoring 15 points per game and shooting just under 46% from three, he’s going to be a handful for any team he plays.
One player flying totally under the radar? Freshman guard Carlik Jones of the Radford University. The Highlanders have less than a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Villanova, but Jones has been one of the better playmakers in the country, currently ranked in the top 10 in the country in assists per game.
Top NBA Prospects
People are already wondering if the NCAA tournament will be Alabama point guard Collin Sexton’s coming out party. After averaging 26.3 points per game on 52% shooting (along with five rebounds and three assists per game) in the SEC tournament, he can solidify himself as a top pick in the upcoming draft. However, given the lack of talent around him, Virginia Tech — and maybe Villanova, if the Tide advance out of the first round — will focus almost exclusively on shutting Sexton down.
Jalen Brunson might be among the leaders in the discussion for the John Wooden award, but it’s Villanova teammate Mikal Bridges who has caught the attention of NBA scouts. Bridges has an NBA-ready body, standing 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, and might be the best perimeter defender in this entire tournament. But even more intriguingly, he’s more than just a defensive pit bull. Averaging 17.6 points per game (second on the Wildcats), he’s also shooting over 43% from three-point range this season. With his combination of athleticism, quickness, instincts, and hustle, he should hear his name called among the middle of the NBA’s lottery selections, if not higher.
Arkansas center Daniel Gafford is another skilled big man who might be in the mid-first round mix in the upcoming draft, given his combination of size (6’11 and 217lbs) and athleticism. He can score in the low post, around the basket, and while on the move, while showing a good basketball IQ overall. However, he’s still very raw and clearly needs a lot of seasoning. Still, he might be best served receiving that teaching on a pro team next year.
OTHER NOTABLE NBA DRAFT PROSPECTS: LANDRY SHAMET, VINCENT EDWARDS
As mentioned, the top five seeds should advance into the Round of 32 with little problems. Florida’s defense is just too air tight for St. Bonaventure, who struggled against athletic defenses. And give the nod to Virginia Tech over Alabama, given they’re more than just a one-man band.
In the second round, the Hokies have all the ingredients needed to pull off the upset of the Wildcats, but we’ll stick with Villanova. The West Virginia vs. Wichita State match-up on Sunday the 18th should be an absolute war. Wichita State is the type of team who will look the West Virginia press right in the face, and attack it without any hesitation. Texas Tech will beat Florida at their own game, through a suffocating defense of their own. The teams who have attacked the Mountaineers’ defense are the ones who beat them; expect the Shockers to do both. Butler’s run should end in the Round of 32, as Purdue brings the same balanced attack that Butler presents, except with more talent and more experience.
Getting to the Elite Eight, we’ll keep it chalk. Villanova is simply more talented than Wichita State, and Purdue can play a style of offense that can break through the Red Raiders’ wave of defense. From there, we like Jay Wright to bring the Wildcats back to the Final Four.
Final Four Prediction: VILLANOVA
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