Jacob Lang, 23 Sports

There is no better time to be a basketball fan than March.  The NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend brings us a seemingly endless stream of basketball pitting perennial powerhouses against overlooked underdogs.  With this stream of basketball comes a stream of predictions and analysis by professionals and casual fans.  This year’s East region is hard to predict, with strong teams from top to bottom.  Here are the teams of the East, from championship contenders to Cinderella hopefuls.

The top seed in the East region is the Villanova Wildcats.  The Wildcats are among the best teams in the nation, holding a top five ranking for the majority of the season.  They finished the season with a 30-4 record and a Big East championship.  Among the Wildcats’ best wins were wins against Tennessee, Gonzaga, and two wins versus fellow No. 1 seed Xavier.  Villanova is led by a pair of Wooden Award finalists in Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges.  Brunson leads the team in points and assists per game, with 19.4 and 4.7 respectively.  Bridges’ 18.0 points per game and 5.4 rebounds per game are enough for second most in each category.  Bridges would be among the top prospects in this year’s NBA Draft should he forgo his senior year.  The Wildcats will rely on their two star juniors to lead them to what would be their second National Championship in three seasons.

Coming in at No. 2 in the East is the Purdue Boilermakers.  Purdue has enjoyed a successful season with a 28-6 record.  Wins against Arizona and Michigan bolster their resume, with the only glaring flaw coming in a neutral site loss to Western Kentucky.  Purdue is also led by a Wooden Award finalist, sophomore guard Carsen Edwards.  Edwards posted a team-leading 18.5 points per game.  Key contributions come from seniors Isaac Haas, Vincent Edwards, and Dakota Mathias, who come in second, third, and fourth in team points per game leaders respectively. The Boilermakers’ starting five is rounded out by senior P.J. Thompson, giving Purdue one of the most experienced starting fives in the field.  Purdue will hope to ride their three-point shooting and strong senior leadership to their first Final Four since 1980.

The No. 3 seeded Texas Tech Red Raiders sport one of the best defenses in college basketball.  Led by Wooden Award finalist Keenan Evans, the Red Raiders enter the tournament with a record of 24-9.  They hold wins against several ranked opponents, including Kansas, West Virginia, and Nevada.  Parity is alive and well in the Big 12, though, as Texas Tech also suffered losses to almost every good opponent they were able to take down.  Evans’ 17.5 points per game and 3.2 assists per game each led the Red Raiders in their respective categories.  His senior leadership will be vital to Texas Tech’s chances of making a deep run.

The fourth-seeded Wichita State Shockers and coach Gregg Marshall are no strangers to the NCAA Tournament.  In their first season in the American Athletic Conference, the Shockers were able to post a 14-4 record, 25-7 overall, and further legitimatized their claim as one of the nation’s most consistent programs in recent years.  The Shockers are led by sophomore guard Landry Shamet.  Shamet posted 15.0 points per game on .459 percent shooting from deep, along with 5.1 assists per game.  The Shockers hope that Coach Marshall can take them to their third Sweet Sixteen in the last six seasons in their seventh straight tournament appearance.

The West Virginia Mountaineers come it at the No. 5 seed.  After losing the season opener to Texas A&M in Germany, the Mountaineers won their next 15 games, including a win against the current No. 1 overall, Virginia.  The Mountaineers have since been mediocre with a 9-9 record, amounting to 24-10 overall.  Led by the region’s fifth and final Wooden Award finalist, senior guard Jevon Carter, this West Virginia team is a prime example of the tenacious, full-court defense that the program has come to be known for.  To go along with his lockdown defense, Carter posted 17.0 points per game and 6.6 assists per game, the latter putting him among the nation’s leaders.  The Mountaineers will need to return to their early season form if they wish to make it to the Final Four for the first time since 2010.

Inconsistency has been the story of the season for the sixth-seeded Florida Gators.  Strong wins against impressive Cincinnati, Gonzaga, and Auburn teams are countered by losses to SEC bottom-feeders Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Georgia.  Senior point guard Chris Chiozza is one of the most efficient guards in the country, though, posting one of the nation’s best assist-to-turnover ratio.  The Gators will need to improve on their inconsistency if they wish to make their second straight Elite Eight appearance.

One of the potentially most dangerous teams in the region is the No. 7 Arkansas Razorbacks.  The Razorbacks have been a strong team all season, with their worst loss coming at home by 20 to a decent LSU team.  Led by leading scorers Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon and tenacious freshman big-man Daniel Gafford, Arkansas will look to make the most of their third tournament appearance in four seasons.  Keep an eye on the Razorbacks to be the dark horse candidate out of the region as they look to make it out of the first weekend of the tournament for the first time since 1996.

Another potentially dangerous team is the eighth-seeded Virginia Tech Hokies.  The Hokies have an impressive resume, with wins coming against Virginia, North Carolina, and Duke and their worst loss coming at a neutral site to Saint Louis in the second week of the season.  The Hokies get consistent scoring from five players, led by junior guard Justin Robinson.  You thought that Arkansas hasn’t made a Sweet Sixteen appearance in a long time?  The Hokies will look to snap a 51-year drought by making it to weekend two for the first time since 1967.

The third and final SEC team in the region is the No. 9 Alabama Crimson Tide.  Through an up and down season, this football school has shown that they know basketball, too.  The story of this team is outstanding freshman guard Collin Sexton.  Coming into the SEC Tournament on the wrong side of the bubble, Sexton put the team on his back and carried them to an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.  Alabama will need to rely on Sexton’s heroics if they wish to make their first Sweet Sixteen since 2004.

For the tenth time in 12 seasons, the No. 10 Butler Bulldogs are dancing.  Intriguing wins versus Villanova and Ohio State set up a first-round matchup of the potential dark horses with Arkansas.  Senior forward Kelan Martin, who led the team with 20.8 points per game, will look to take the reigns and guide the Bulldogs to their second straight Sweet Sixteen appearance.

Fresh off a First Four win over UCLA, the Bonnies of St. Bonaventure claim the No. 11 seed.  The Bonnies had an outstanding season, posting a 26-7 record, and they are one of the hottest teams in the field after winning 14 of their last 15.  Seniors Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley comprise one of the nation’s best backcourts with 19.8 and 18.5 points per game respectively.  The Bonnies are a surefire dark horse candidate to make their first Sweet Sixteen since 1970.

Speaking of hot teams, the Murray State Racers make their first tournament appearance since 2012 as the always dangerous No. 12 seed.  The Racers are riding a 13-game winning streak into the tournament.  They have been dominant all season long in the OVC behind senior guard Jonathan Stark’s 21.8 points per game.  Don’t overlook the Racers, who have the ability to pull off the upset over West Virginia.

The Marshall Thundering Herd take the No. 13 seed in their first tournament appearance since 1987.  The Thundering Herd have won ten of their last 12, including a nail-biting victory over Western Kentucky in the C-USA championship that was game capped off by a 20-point second half by leading scorer Jon Elmore.  Elmore is among the leading scorers in the nation with 22.8 points per game.  Wichita State will need to contain him if they want to move on to the second round.

The No. 14 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks are becoming a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament after winning their conference tournament for the fourth time in the last five seasons.  Not only are they perennially participants in the tournament, they win games, too.  Posting a 28-6 record, this Lumberjacks team is strong enough to win for the third time in those four seasons. The Lumberjacks are a veteran squad with the ability to cut you down early if you’re not careful.

Coming in at the No. 15 seed is Cal State Fullerton Titans.  The Titans had an average season, posting a 20-11 record with a Big West tournament championship.  Kyle Allman posted a respectable 19.4 points per game.  The Titans own the best free throw rate in the country, but their struggles elsewhere will need to be fixed if they want to have a shot.  It will take a minor miracle for the Titans to advance past Purdue.

Rounding out the teams of the East region is the No. 16 Radford Highlanders.  Posting a 22-12 record, the Highlanders have not been outstanding.  They needed a buzzer-beater in the conference championship to advance to the tournament.  However, a commanding victory over LIU Brooklyn in the First Four will give them hope to push top-seeded Villanova.

From No. 1 to No. 16, the East region has some formidable squads with potential to make some noise in the tournament.  The highest seeds have every bit of chance to make it to the Final Four as they do to go down in the opening weekend.  Despite the depth of the region, my pick to cut down the nets and head to San Antonio is the Villanova Wildcats.  I think they are just too strong up front with standouts Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges to go down to a team of a lesser caliber than them.  The tournament is tough to predict, though, so you never know what can happen.