The madness continues here at the Buckeye Battle Cry! This has to be one of our favorite times of the year (really, who doesn’t feel that way?) and we love to celebrate by talking about as many teams, games, and players as we can! Joe Dexter was kind enough to get the whole thing kicked off this morning with a preview of the West Region. Now it’s my turn to take a look at the home-favorite East Region. Tomorrow, WVaBuckeye and MaliBuckeye will take a look at the two remaining regions, so that you can have plenty of time to read and peruse your way to what is hopefully a winning bracket!
Make sure you join the BBN’s Bracket Challenge this year! Bragging rights abound!
Favorites: The East region is graced with a few powerful teams that could be poised to make a deep run. The Syracuse Orange obviously stand in the best position of everyone in the region. The Orange hold a 32-2 season record, including non-conference wins over fellow tournament teams Florida and NC State. Seven-footer Fab Melo, a Sophomore out of Brazil, anchors Syracuse in the paint and is assisted by senior forward Kris Joseph, who leads the team in scoring at just under 14 per game, and senior guard Scoop Jardine, who seems to have been at Syracuse for 50 years. The ‘Cuse lost in the semi-finals of the Big East tournament to fellow East Region member Cincinnati, but looks to bounce back in the Big Dance.
Ohio State Buckeyes, a favorite since the beginning of the year to have a shot at the National Title, have to be included in the conversation as well. Led by Jared Sullinger in the paint, and William Buford and Aaron Craft at guard, the team has proven its toughness over the last two weeks. They may be one of the toughest 2 seeds in the tournament, and are there (and not higher) only because of a tough 3-3 stretch late in a difficult 8 game run of the season. The Buckeyes lost their conference tournament to 1-seed Michigan State in one of the toughest fought basketball games of the season so far.
Another team in the hunt are the 3-seed Florida State Seminoles. Florida State, led by top scorer Michael Snaer, has done excellent work this season. They’re the first team since the 1995-1996 Georgia Tech squad to beat Duke and North Carolina twice in the same season. One of those wins over Carolina was a 90-57 shellacking at home, while the other resulted in FSU taking home the ACC Tournament Championship (though the game was a closer affair). Florida State is riding a five game winning streak into the tournament, and could be peaking at the right time.
Cinderellas: There are two teams that really stand out that have a shot to make some noise. The first is the Kansas State Wildcats, an 8-seed out of the Big 12. Kansas State is one of those teams that you just don’t see coming until it’s too late. While their record is unimpressive, they’ve played tough against top level schools in the Big 12, including Kansas (2 losses, 6 point loss at home), Baylor (1-2, 1 point win at Baylor), and most impressively two wins against 2-seed Missouri during the regular season. This team isn’t the kind of team that will consistently give you wins, but they are the kind of team that can drop a surprising upset against a top level team before bowing out.
This is Harvard’s first trip to the big dance since 1946, an impressive feat for former Michigan head man Tommy Amaker. The Crimson have seen nothing but improvement under Amaker, going from 8-22 in his first season, to 26-4 this year. Amaker has experience in the tournament as the head man at Seton Hall, and he should be able to get his kids ready to go against Vanderbilt. If the Crimson can pick up that first win, that may put them on a roll that will be tough to stop.
Most Likely to Make an Early Exit: There are some good choices here. Wisconsin is always a perennial favorite to take a dive in the first weekend. That won’t change this year, particularly facing the winner of the 12/5 game between Harvard and Vanderbilt in the second round. Cincinnati could be a good choice as well against a somewhat down, but not out, Texas team.
All of the favorites have shown weaknesses during the course of the year. However I suspect the most likely to stage an early exit will be the one-seed from the Big East. While they’re a strong team, they may be the weakest one-seed in the tournament – much like the Big East one-seed was the weakest last year (Pittsburgh). It will be interesting to see how the Big East does as a whole in the tournament this year, but I have thus far been unimpressed with their resume as a conference.
While Syracuse did go undefeated in preseason play, they didn’t actually play many teams of note. Their win over Florida at home was by only four, and NC State is a paltry 11 seed in the tournament. Ultimately, I don’t believe they’ve faced nearly stiff enough competition to be able to make a deep run in the tournament. That includes from their own conference, which I believe demonstrated this year that they did not have any particularly impressive teams. There’s a great chance for Kansas State, a hot team out of the Big 12 (or what remains of it), to sneak in, drop a few three pointers over the favored Syracuse 2-3 zone, and escape with a win.
Players to Watch: There are a number of great players in this region that have already been garnering a lot of press for themselves. You can go wrong with many of the names in the starting lineup for the Buckeyes. Keep an eye on Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas, a dangerous duo down low that could make or break the Buckeyes chances. Also keep an eye on William Buford who needs to play particularly well in this tournament for OSU to have a shot at a run.
One of the top shooters in the region is John Jenkins of Vanderbilt. He’s averaging just a hair shy of 20 points per game while connecting on 48% of his shots and 45% from downtown. He could single-handedly carry Vanderbilt on a run deep in to the tournament if his shooting gets hot. While he’s been a little cold of late in the SEC tournament, that can change in a hurry.
Another name to watch for is West Virginia’s Kevin Jones, a senior forward averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds per game this season. The Mountaineers will be looking for him to dominate in the paint against Gonzaga, and hopefully challenge Jared Sullinger in the second round of the tournament.
Unheralded Player: Andrew Nicholson, a senior forward playing for St. Bonaventure, has had a wonderful career for the Bonnies. While his scoring average is down from last year, 18 and change compared to nearly 21 last season, he’s doing it in less minutes and with fewer shots – suggesting that his team as a whole is helping him out better than before. He’s not a monster in the paint standing at only 6-9, 240, but he plays hard on the boards, picking up nearly 9 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. He forces teams to react to him and find ways of scoring away from his shot changing play in the paint.
Team from Obscurity: St. Bonaventure is clearly the feel good story of the tournament. A generally unheralded team out of the Atlantic-10, the Bonnies rode Andrew Nicholson to wins over Saint Joseph’s, Massachusetts, and Xavier to earn their first ever Atlantic-10 Tournament title and their first trip to the NCAA tournament in over a decade. While they get an unlucky early meeting with the super-hot Florida State Seminoles to open the tournament, there’s no question that the inclusion of the Bonnies is one of the best feel-good stories of the tournament so far. It’ll be hard to pick them to advance, but a lot of people will be cheering them on if they do.
Elite 8 Picks: There are a lot of ways this Region could go. Syracuse can surprise me and make a run past Kansas State and Vanderbilt to make the Elite 8. That said, Vanderbilt is my more likely candidate of choice. They are a very experienced team, loaded with Juniors and Seniors that see the most playing time. They’re capable of playing inside and out, and have the three point shooters to make life miserable for a team like Syracuse that could fall prey to a hot-shooting team. Do not forget that Syracuse has not made a deep run in the tournament since they won it in 2003. They’re set up nicely for a run this time, but I think their youth, particularly inside, will be their undoing.
On the other side, it seems most likely that the Sweet 16 matchup could end up being a battle between the Florida State Seminoles and Ohio State Buckeyes. It’s hard to say which is the most likely to emerge from that battle. The Buckeyes are playing great basketball right now and are going to be a tough matchup for any team. Florida State can be described much the same way, refusing to back down in games against Duke and UNC and winning the ACC tournament championship.
Expect Vanderbilt and the Buckeyes to be playing in the Elite 8 for a shot at the Final Four.