The East Regional features a mix of powerhouses like Indiana and Syracuse, as well as upstart programs like Miami (FL) and Butler. Here’s what to expect:
Best Opening-Round Matchup: #11 Bucknell vs. #6 Butler – It’s strange to see Butler as a favorite in the NCAA Tournament, especially after missing March Madness completely last season. But this is still Butler, the team that made two consecutive championship games in in 2009-10 and 2010-11, and that just played their first season in the uber-competitive Atlantic-10 Conference. Their opponent, Bucknell, knows a thing or two about playing spoiler in the tournament, and will be seeking their first victory in the postseason since 2006. The Bulldogs don’t stand out in any particular category, but they have players and a coaching staff with plenty of March experience, and they are the only team in the country to have beaten two of the #1 tournament seeds on the year (Gonzaga and Indiana). F/C Mike Muscala is the go-to threat for the Bison, who will try to control the tempo with rebounding and not turning the ball over. Whichever team wins has a chance to make a run in the weak bottom half of the East.
Player to Watch: Anthony Bennett, UNLV – For all their talent, the Rebels have been maddeningly inconsistent all season, capable of beating teams like New Mexico one week and losing to lowly Fresno State in the next. Even their freshman sensation and potential future NBA lottery pick Anthony Bennett has had his down periods, including a dismal 25 total points in UNLV’s last five regular season games. He got back on track in the Mountain West Conference tournament, and could make his team a dangerous one in the East. He’s a constant double-double threat, and one of the big reasons the Rebels have been so good on the glass all year. Some have said that UNLV’s #5 seed is too generous; Bennett and his teammates will do all they can to silence any doubters.
Upset Alert: #14 Davidson vs. #3 Marquette – If Davidson wants to win its first game since the improbable, Stephen Curry-led run to the Elite Eight in 2007-08, it will all come down to getting off to a fast start. The Wildcats shoot the ball well, especially from behind the arc, are the best free-throw shooting team in the nation, and they don’t give up too many second-chance points. Their frontcourt of Jake Cohen and De’Mon Brooks is experienced and strong inside. Marquette, on the other hand, is a team that can’t afford to fall behind. They are abysmal from three, and rely heavily on Vander Blue to shoot well. If Davidson can get out in front of the Golden Eagles early, it could be a long night for Marquette.
Vocabulary Word: “Larranaga” – Miami (FL) is having its best season in school history underneath coach Jim Larranaga, who has built the program into a title contender in just his second year at the helm. He was, of course, the head coach of George Mason back in 2005-06 when they opened the floodgate for “mid-major” programs by reaching the Final Four. The Hurricanes are just above average statistically, but have good depth and have proven their mettle by beating powerhouses like Duke and North Carolina (three times) en route to their first ACC tournament championship. There doesn’t seem to be too much standing between a matchup between Miami and Indiana in the Elite Eight, and if the ‘Canes can get there, they’ll have an experienced coach at the helm who can lead them to the biggest win in school history.
Regional Champion: #1 Indiana – The East Regional seems to be the most difficult to predict, considering the parity present between its low-seeded big names and the dangerous “mid-majors” that could spoil the party. When all is said and done, however, it will be Indiana making a trip to the Final Four for the first time in over a decade. With two of the best players in the country in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, as well as a young, capable bench, Indiana will prove to be too much on offense for anyone in the region to contain. They’re efficient, experienced, and well-coached. If they can withstand the pressure that comes with playing in Hoosier country, where anything less than a championship is considered a failure, they could end their season the way they started it: with a #1 ranking.