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WHAT. A. REGION.
The East has delivered yet again.
Have you even begun to figure how to fill out this part of the bracket yet? You kind of have to, yet it’s tough, because there are a lot of places to pivot. Heck, a UNC-Providence second- round matchup has to give you some pause, right? The Friars are a No. 9 seed with maybe the best 1-2 combo in the bracket in Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, who are both first-round talents.
Then you’ve got the weird Tulsa inclusion. The Golden Hurricane is the most shocking at-large inclusion … maybe ever? BracketMatrix.com tracked 59 forecasts leading up to Selection Sunday. Not ONE of those outlooks had Tulsa in the field. And so Frank Haith’s team will get a Michigan squad that has beaten Texas, Maryland, Purdue and Indiana. The Wolverines will be the overwhelming pick to advance and play Notre Dame in Brooklyn.
Wisconsin-Pittsburgh is a 7/10 matchup that seems like a heavy Wisconsin-lean, you know you’ve gotta think twice on that.
Overall, just a very fun region. So let’s get to looking a little deeper.
Three initial thoughts on the region:
1. This is a region with a lot of pride, a lot of talent, a lot of history.
North Carolina. Kentucky. Indiana. Michigan. Wisconsin. Even Xavier has been a reliable tournament team for much of the past 15 years. This part of the bracket will bring a lot of interest because of the coaches, players and storied programs involved. That’s always good for the NCAA Tournament. There is no more potentially enticing matchup in this field prior to the Final Four than UNC vs. Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
2. Chattanooga and Stephen F. Austin are dangerous teams.
These two have a combined record of 56-10. Chattanooga is rightfully placed as a No. 12 seed, but SFA could have/should have been on a 12 line elsewhere in the bracket, too. Indiana and West Virginia need to be ready and on alert because these teams are capable of reaching the second weekend, let alone the second round.
3. This region is stacked with talent.
I’m about to peel off the five best players in the East and won’t even get to mention Ben Bentil, Troy Williams, Jameel Warney, Demetrius Jackson, Thomas Walkup, Nigel Hayes or Jamal Murray. A lot of future NBA picks in many games. And really great college players. This is the best of both worlds here, really. NBA fans who’ll drop in to see which guys are going to become drafted will get a number of players in the mix, while college fans who’ve known these players all along get to see a few seniors with a big chance on a big stage one last time.
Five best players in the region:
1. Tyler Ulis (Kentucky): Ulis is the best point guard in college basketball. He was third on my list for Player of the Year this season, only falling behind Denzel Valentine and Buddy Hield. He’s turned himself into a first-round draft pick a year or two ahead of schedule and has a game that is impossible not to love. Kentucky can go to the Final Four because Tyler Ulis wears a Wildcat uniform.
2. Kris Dunn (Providence): Barely beaten out by Ulis. He’s the best two-way player in college basketball. There isn’t a better on-ball defender in this region, and Dunn’s athleticism, driving capability and strength make him almost impossible to shut down in one-on-one situations. He’ll be a lottery pick.
3. Brice Johnson (North Carolina): Had a hell of a year. UNC’s man in the middle is liable to go off for 25 points and 15 rebounds. He’s averaging 16.6 points and 10.6 rebounds and will make some All-American teams — on the First Team. As Brice goes, so goes UNC.
4. Yogi Ferrell (Indiana): Would be the best point guard in any region that didn’t have Ulis, and would be the second-best point guard in any region that didn’t have Dunn. Ferrell has been at Indiana for four years and put up one of the better careers in the history of that program. It’s a joy to watch him play.
5. Jameel Warney (Stony Brook): Yeah, Murray or Bentil or Jackson or Hayes could be here, but Warney could/would start for any team in the country right now. Just had 43/10/4 line in Stony Brook’s tournament championship game. He was hitting one-handed shots while guys were pulling him to the floor as he willed his team from a 15-point deficit to win the auto bid. He absolutely belongs on this list.
Five bold predictions for the region:
The biggest first round upset will be … Stephen F. Austin over West Virginia. This is actually not gonna be a huge upset; it will only be that way by seeding. Early lines have SFA as just a five-point underdog, plus, this was a mis-seed by the committee. The Lumberjacks are a 27-5 team that hasn’t lost since the calendar read “2015.”
The lowest-seeded school to make the Sweet 16 will be … No. 6 Notre Dame. With this region being so stacked, it’s tough to say anything worse than a 6 will break through to the second weekend. But of course teams could. On paper, the Irish beating No. 14 Stephen F. Austin after the Lumberjacks beat West Virginia seems like the right way to go here. Notre Dame is very much a perfect blend of talented team that’s not getting much attention paid to it right now. This group almost knocked off undefeated Kentucky in the Elite Eight last year.
The player the country doesn’t know now but will know by Saturday is … Thomas Walkup. This guy is a problem. A 6-foot-4 senior out of Texas, he averages 17.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.1 steals. He is going handle Press Virginia just fine, I think. Not to mention, SFA coach Brad Underwood used to be on Bob Huggins’ staff. Very fun game here.
The Elite Eight showdown … No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Xavier. We’ll go chalk here, in part because Xavier’s going to have a path that is manageable on the bottom half of the bracket. UNC will have to maybe get past a tough Providence team, then get Indiana or Kentucky in all likelihood in the Sweet 16 — and what a game either one of those would be. Blue-blood city at the top of the East. But I’ll say the Heels win three and get to the Sunday regional final in Philly.
The champion of the Midwest Region will be … No. 2 Xavier. Seldom has there been a No. 2 that will be as picked against as this year’s Musketeer team, but I’m going with Chris Mack’s group because it’s super balanced, very deep, very tough, runs a great array of defensive schemes and has athletes down low who can bang. It’s been a wild year, and UNC has the weakest resume of any No. 1 seed. The Tar Heels have faltered plenty this season. They enter the field as a trendy national champ pick, but if you look at this quadrant, there are land mines everywhere.
So why not Xavier?