After four months of winnowing, the greatest single-elimination contest is sports is set to begin. From 363 D1 basketball programs, 68 have been chosen to spend three weekends playing for the sport’s national title. Each of the four regions will battle to send one representative to the Final Four. First up is the East.
This is going to be a wide open region. If you just divided the regions up by math, you’d expect each one to have 5 teams out of the top 20. The East only has four, and they’re not dispersed along the seed lines the way you’d expect.
On the top line is Big Ten powerhouse Purdue. They did the double in winning both the regular season and the conference tournament. Behind 7’4” center Zach Edey, they are a top-10 offense thanks to grabbing 38% of their own misses and shooting 54% from inside the arc. Beyond Edey, they only have two guys who average more than 6.6 PPG; this is a top-heavy team. That top is pretty dang good though; they’re 7th in the KenPom.
Weirdly, they’re staring down a tough second round matchup if they move on. Eight seed Memphis is 19th in the KenPom. They play fast, force turnovers, and fly to the glass. They played #1 seeded Houston exactly even on aggregate in three games this year. They’ll have a tough first round matchup against Florida Atlantic, who drew the nine seed despite going 31-3 and landing 16th in the nation in WAB. They’re 19th in offensive EFG% and 15th in defensive EFG%; that’s a tough combination.
The team that ranked highest in the KenPom out of the whole region is four seed Tennessee. They have the number two defense in the nation behind the best three-point percentage defense in the country, second-best overall defensive EFG%, and top-25 DReb%. Their offense hasn’t been great, and it took another hit with point guard Zakai Zeigler tearing his ACL on February 28. He’s a great defender and 10th in the nation in assist rate. Tennessee has elite depth; how far to take them depends on how much you believe in the next man up as the lineup shuffles.
Marquette, like Purdue, did the league and cup double (if you will). They’re on a nine-game winning streak, but five of those wins have come by a single bucket. Battle-tested, I guess. Tyler Kolek is an obnoxiously excellent point guard with great feel for distribution and a ridiculous bag of floaters and finishes. They chuck a lot of threes, take great care of the ball, and play defense by either forcing turnovers or grabbing the ball out of the net.
I think Kansas State is overseeded at a three. They were 15-1 at one point before going 8-8 down the stretch. They don’t have any bad losses (outside of somehow losing to Butler by a dozen in November) thanks to playing in the Big 12. They have a strong defense that forces a lot of turnovers and chases teams off the arc, but they turn the ball over a ton and have been treading water since their hot start. Fourteen seed Montana State lives at the line and is okay at forcing turnovers; surely not, right?
Duke is the five seed and Kentucky the six, a couple of blue bloods slumming it a little bit. The Blue Devils are on a heater, ripping off 9 straight including winning the ACC tournament. They’ve got an elite rim protector in Dereck Lively and a top-25 defense overall. They’re a really unspecial offense that redeems itself by being elite on the glass. UK also crushes the glass, but they can shoot better and take better care of the ball. What they don’t do is defend. I think Providence is a good matchup for them, but they’ll be pressed to go too far beyond that.
Alright, let’s have some fun. A trendy upset pick I don’t hate is twelve seed Oral Roberts. They’ve got an elite offense that is in the top 10 in EFG% and TO%. Max Abmas and Connor Vanover are a good pick-and-pop combo, but I don’t think they have the size to stick with Duke. I think the best game will be seven seed Michigan State versus ten seed USC. The Spartans are an elite three-point shooting team; USC is great at defending twos. MSU’s defense is miserable at forcing turnovers, which is the weakness of an otherwise stout Trojans offense. It’s going to be a perimeter v. paint matchup that will be won by whichever team imposes its style on the game.
And one more for free: don’t fall into the trap of picking Purdue to make a first weekend exit. They’ll be tested in the second round, but Memphis doesn’t board well enough to hang with them and Florida Atlantic’s best win is maybe by 2 at Florida or by 4 at North Texas. They haven’t played much of anyone; I’m not buying them.
Sweet Sixteen picks
Purdue, Tennessee, Kentucky, Marquette
Regional final prediction
Marquette over Purdue
I don’t know that I really believe in Marquette, but I also don’t know who in this region is beating them. I think they can outscore Michigan State or USC, I don’t trust Kentucky’s ability to keep Kolek out of the paint, and I think their defense can pressure Purdue’s freshman guards enough to keep them from being able to consistently feed Edey. From ninth in the league to the Final Four. There you have it.