The most wonderful time of the year is finally back, and this season it’s made all the more wonderful by the fact that fans will be back in the stands for the first time since 2019. It’s going to be wall-to-wall basketball from noon Thursday to sometime late on Sunday, and we’re going to be here and on Twitter following along with you the whole time. The weekend will end with 16 teams still alive, but it starts with 68. Here’s your roadmap for how they’re getting there in the East region.
Baylor, Texas, North Carolina, Marquette, UCLA, Purdue, Kentucky. That's not the lineup for the best preseason tournament in 2023, it's just a handful of the teams in the East region. Also tucked in there are the niche teams that fans and experts love this time of year in Murray State and San Francisco, a team that beat Gonzaga (Saint Mary's), and a Virginia Tech squad that just hammered Duke to earn their way in. It's a loaded quarter of the bracket with plenty great storylines to watch.
Who springs the big upset?
The bracket is top loaded, but the double digit seeds are solid. Either Wyoming or Indiana will be a cut above the competition Saint Mary's has spent most of the season playing. Virginia Tech is red hot and Texas has lost three straight. Even Akron has a chance if they can force UCLA into their glacial pace. Yale is... Ok, Yale is in real trouble.
Easiest team to cheer against: #2 Kentucky Wildcats
This answer will never not be UK. The nation's most entitled fanbase, entitled coach, and entitled players all come together in one big melange of gross that infects college basketball each season. Want to watch a team of guys cashing checks until they can go on to cashing checks coached by a guy who has cheated literally everywhere he has been? This is the team for you.
Most fun team to cheer for: #10 San Francisco
I wanted to pick Akron here because that’s where my postgrad certificates are from and I really like the team but the Zips brand of basketball is not what many people call “fun.” The Dons of San Francisco are fun. They play fast and they jack threes. These things make you volatile, and volatility in March is a blast to watch. San Fran doesn’t make a ton of their threes, but they refuse to let that change their Farraguttian approach to lifting them. Keep a special on Jamaree Bouyea, who I sincerely hope yells his surname when he shoots. He’s an excellent point guard who will play essentially the whole game against Murray State’s great backcourt.
Player to watch: Enrique Freeman and Ali Ali, Akron
Fine, I’m a huge homer. Ali Ali is worth keeping an eye on because he’s a prolific scorer who is willow thin. 6-8, 195. Ali can shoot and put the ball on the deck and took EJ Liddell for 17 when the Zips played Ohio State.
But it’s Enrique Freeman who could play himself into March legend status. Freeman is listed at 6-7, 206 but is the best rebounder you’ve never heard of. Freeman finished ninth in the nation in defensive rebounding rate and 48th in offensive rebounding rate. He’s not just a board man though, he was 79th in the nation in offensive efficiency, blocks shots at a 4.6% rate, and makes 66.5% of his shots inside the arc. Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez have seen some great players this year, they haven’t seen anyone like the relentless ball of energy that Freeman is.
But Akron won’t win this game.
Best first round matchup: #7 Murray State v #10 San Francisco
San Francisco wants to play fast on defense and force teams into bad shots. Only 19 teams spend less time on the defensive end than the Dons do. They defend the arc like demons and swat shots inside. They do all of this so the can get to the other end and take the first good three they see. San Francisco is here to win the arc and hope you can’t beat them with deliberate offense and efficiency.
Zero points if you guessed that what Murray State does is run a very efficient offense that is excellent inside the arc. The Racers can shoot the three a bit, but they want to get inside and get on the offensive glass. Their guards will get the publicity, but this game will hinge on KJ Williams in the paint. He’s a monster who can change a game.
Boom or Bust team: #3 Purdue
If the Boilermakers can defend, just a little bit, they can make the Final Four. If they keep playing defense the way that has gotten them 100th in the nation in defensive efficiency, they could easily get dumped by Texas or Va Tech in the second round.
Underseeded: #4 UCLA
How are these guys a four seed? They are top ten in a lot of the predictive metrics, 10th in NET, are 13-6 in the top two quads, and haven’t lost to anyone not in the top 100 all year. They are, by most measures, better than the three seed in their own region and probably better than the incredibly overseeded Duke. The Bruins are very good.
This region has great teams up and down it. You can make an easy argument that any of the top six seeds could make the Final Four and if you squint you might be able to see seven, eight, and nine in there as well. Baylor isn’t fully healthy, and they drew a wicked bracket. Every region is fun to watch, this one could be doubly so.