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NCAA Tournament: East Region preview and predictions

Villanova looks to be the first to repeat as champion since 2007

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Villanova vs North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s East region is headlined by the defending National Champion, number one overall seed, overwhelming preseason favorite and current odds-on favorite to win it all.

But that description isn’t all for one team.

The Villanova Wildcats, one year removed from being on the joyous end of one of the greatest National Championship games ever played enter this year’s Madness as the number one overall seed. Led by Player of the Year candidate, Josh Hart, these Wildcats have become a model of consistency in the world of college basketball.

But you can’t talk about consistency in college basketball without mentioning the 2-seed in the East, the Duke Blue Devils, looking for their sixth national title in program history. Duke entered the year with a roster that made NBA scouts salivate. They were picked to win the national title before the season started by virtually everyone (including me).

The season didn’t go as smooth as Coach Mike Krzyzewski had hoped. Injuries, including to himself, and various letdowns left people wondering what could have been for a team expected to dominate.

That team expected to dominate has suddenly caught fire much like their freshman, Jayson Tatum, who has thrown his name in the hat as the best NBA prospect in the country. And Duke has taken, according to many, their rightful place as the favorite to win this year’s National Championship.

These two titans appear to be on a collision course, destined to meet in Madison Square Garden, with a spot in the 2017 Final Four on the line. What could possibly go wrong? Well that’s what March Madness is all about.

Lurking in the shadows of the East region lie a 1-seed from one year ago (Virginia), a hungry team that’s had to contend with tournament-level teams in their own conference for months (Baylor), a once proud program back on the national scene (Florida) and two of the most underseeded teams in this year’s tournament (SMU and Wisconsin).

Here’s how I see the East region playing out:

FIRST ROUND

#1 Villanova vs. #16 Winner of Mt. St. Mary’s/New Orleans

The joke entering last year’s NCAA Tournament was whether or not Villanova, a 2-seed or higher for the third straight year, could even make it out of the first weekend. They’d failed to do that two years in a row. They responded to that by, not just making it out of the first weekend, but winning the National Championship. So, all due respect to whoever wins the First Four game on Tuesday, let’s go ahead and skip this one.

Villanova advances.

#8 Wisconsin vs. #9 Virginia Tech

The Virginia Tech Hokies have made leaps and bounds under head coach, Buzz Williams. They’ve gone from basement dweller to NCAA Tournament team behind a powerful offense. But the Badgers are one of the more underseeded teams in the field and Wisconsin forward, Ethan Happ, can have a field day with the Hokies’ porous defense.

Wisconsin advances.

#4 Florida vs. #13 East Tennessee State

The Florida Gators were one of the hottest teams in college basketball a month ago, looking like they could land a 2-seed in the Big Dance. But they enter the tourney as a 4-seed that doesn’t look like the same contender without their big man, John Egbunu, who they lost to a torn ACL. I think they’re ripe for an upset and ETSU has the size, defensive aggression and just enough scoring to pull it off.

East Tennessee State advances.

#5 Virginia vs. #12 UNC Wilmington

Tony Bennett has done tremendous things at Virginia, lifting them to be one of the most consistent programs in the nation for the last several seasons. And this year’s team is capable of being one of the best in the country, led by the most efficient defense in the land. They held a North Carolina team that averages nearly 85 points a game to just 43 a couple weeks ago! All that’s been missing for the Cavaliers is NCAA Tournament success. Is this the year they break through the glass ceiling? UNC Wilmington might be the most dangerous 12 seed in the field. They don’t seem to make mistakes, they crash the offensive glass and they shoot the ball really well. Maybe Virginia’s tournament success can start next year.

UNC Wilmington advances.

#6 SMU vs. #11 Winner of USC/Providence

SMU is one of the hottest teams in the country and shouldn’t be slept on in this region. Former Duke recruit, Semi Ojeleye, is a natural scorer. No matter who it is (I’m picking Providence), SMU cruises.

SMU advances.

#3 Baylor vs. #14 New Mexico State

Last year, the Baylor Bears fell victim to Yale in the first round. I’m not 100% sold that this Baylor team is that much better than last year’s but I do believe last year’s Yale team is better than this New Mexico State team. I don’t see the upset here.

Baylor advances.

#7 South Carolina vs. #10 Marquette

This is a fun one. South Carolina, sporting one of the best defenses in the field taking on Marquette, who doesn’t care about defense, they just want to score and score and then probably score some more. It’s a classic offense versus defense matchup. This is a toss-up. For the sake of the second round matchup, I’ll go with the shooting of the Golden Eagles.

Marquette advances.

#2 Duke vs. #15 Troy

The Blue Devils have fallen in the first round multiple times in recent memory. Even once as a 2-seed back in 2012. This year’s team is too talented to repeat that performance.

Duke advances.

SECOND ROUND

#1 Villanova vs. #8 Wisconsin

So, about that whole “don’t joke about Villanova not making it out of first weekend thing,” thing. Wisconsin is very capable of this upset. During the conference season, the Big Ten cannibalized itself and made it appear that there are no true contenders in that conference. Which is probably true. But the Badgers were a top ten team for the first half of the season and they have just as much tournament experience as Villanova, with stars, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, having been on the two best Wisconsin teams in program history in their Freshman and Sophomore seasons. I think Villanova takes it with their excellent shooting and stifling defense. But, if Wisconsin’s shooting wakes up, this is one to keep an eye on.

Villanova advances.

#12 UNC Wilmington vs. #13 East Tennessee State

East Tennessee State wants to grab as many turnovers as possible. That’s not easy with UNC Wilmington point guard, Denzel Ingram, averaging 3.2 assists/turnover. Wilmington is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the tourney. They’ll be in the Sweet Sixteen.

UNC Wilmington advances.

#3 Baylor vs. #6 SMU

Baylor clearly has the chops to make a run. They’ve played excellent competition all season long. Their athleticism carries their defense to great heights. But, they’re trending down with a 5-6 record in their last 11 games. SMU is on the upswing and they might be one of the few teams with a better defense than the Bears. I like SMU to pull the upset.

SMU advances.

#2 Duke vs. #10 Marquette

There’s a lot going on here. Marquette is coached by one of Coach K’s former, and favorite, minions, Steve Wojciechowski, one of the few names in the sport that’s harder to spell than Krzyzewski. Marquette is going to score a lot against Duke, no matter what kind of defense the Devils have. Problem is, Duke can score with the best of them thanks to Tatum, Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen.

Duke advances.

SWEET SIXTEEN

#1 Villanova vs. #12 UNC Wilmington

Wilmington has everything it takes to be a Cinderella. This is a legitimately good team. But Villanova’s leadership, experience and flat out skill trumps all of that. The Wildcats will take the Seahawks’ Cinderella slipper and throw it into the streets of Manhattan.

Villanova advances.

#2 Duke vs. #6 SMU

Maybe I’m too high on SMU, the champions of the American Athletic Conference, a conference with only two bids in the tournament. But I like this matchup for the Mustangs. They shoot the ball well, at 47% as a team. They defend very well. Plus they can rebound. It’s hard to find holes. But they can’t match up with Duke in terms of talent and depth. I think that will bite them in the end.

Duke advances.

ELITE EIGHT

#1 Villanova vs. #2 Duke

Here it is. Madison Square Garden. Final Four on the line. The last two National Champions. Oddly enough, the number one overall seed against the team favored to win it all.

The Wildcats look like the most likely team to repeat since Florida did it in 2007. They’re the first to follow up a National Championship with a number one overall seed since those Gators.

Josh Hart has been the best player in the country this year. Kris Jenkins, the hero of one year ago, has been his sidekick. They’re a well oiled 3-and-D machine.

But Duke, that team that was predicted to dominate, has found that domination gene. It will be close but if the Devils can go shot for shot with Nova for the first 35 minutes, I think they’ll pull away in the final five.

DUKE ADVANCES TO THE FINAL FOUR