This week, we’ll be doing region-by-region previews for the upcoming Sweet 16. On Monday, we previewed the West region. Yesterday, the South Region. This morning, we ran the Midwest. Here we have the East Region. For more Sweet 16 content, be sure to check out the full Sweet Sixteen Preview Podcast.
Recap of the First Weekend:
In a tournament that will be remembered for the greatest on-paper upset in college basketball history and shocking results in general, the East region served as a reminder of why chalk can be the best possible thing for fans come tournament time. With a 1-5-3-2 Sweet 16, this is easily the most enticing region left on the board. Villanova has looked every bit the part of the best team in America, destroying both Radford and a talented Alabama team. Their offense has been historically good, so much so that NPOY candidate Jalen Brunson hasn’t even played well and no one has noticed. Elsewhere, Texas Tech guard Keenan Evans, who was possibly the best player in the Big 12 before being hobbled by a nagging ankle injury down the stretch, seems poised to put on his best Kemba Walker imitation and carry this team deep in the tournament. He’s been unbelievable. The #2 seed in the region, Purdue, has looked just fine but now loses herculean center Isaac Haas to a season-ending (or, maybe not?) elbow injury. Jon Elmore looked ready to be the darling of the tournament after leading Marshall to a heart-warming upset of Wichita State; unfortunately, he wasn’t prepared for Jevon Carter to steal his lunch, eat it, spit it out, and throw it across the room. Press Virginia is looking scary as ever.
The second round games that got us to this point finished as follows:
- Villanova (-11.5) 81, Alabama 58. Under 150. This isn’t your daddy’s college basketball game anymore — Villanova took 41 threes in this game, more than one a minute! In doing so, they looked more like the San Antonio Spurs than a Catholic school from Philly. It felt like DiVincenzo didn’t miss in the first half, and then right on cue, I’m not sure Mikal Bridges did in the second half either. The two combined to hit 10 of the team’s 17 three-pointers. Alabama looked decent early but were ultimately run off the floor by a 100% superior Villanova team, who is not messing around at all right now. They look focused, hungry, and angry too.
- West Virginia (-12.5) 94, Marshall 71. Over 156. Sadly for the hearts of America, who were oh-so-close to gearing up Jon Elmore for a 2020 Presidential run, this one wasn’t close and, if anything, was a bit hard to watch at times. West Virginia flat-out dogged these guys, coming out with an intensity and fire that you’d obviously expect between in-state rivals, but that, when Press Virginia is involved, gets taken to another level. Huggy-Bear was clearly excited to stick it to D’antoni. Marshall turned the ball over 18 times, including eight from Elmore, who was held to just 15 points on 4/12 by Jevon Carter. Carter himself had a fantastic overall game, not just with his defense and leadership but also chipped in 28 points of his own. When Press Virginia plays like this, you wonder how they ever lose — the in-your-face physicality and constant effort level are unlike anything else left in the tournament field.
- Texas Tech (-1.5) 69, Florida 66. Over 133.5. This was one of the best games of the tournament so far, featuring two well-coached teams who are not only talented, but play freaking hard. As mentioned above, Keenan Evans looks more than fully recovered from his toe injury, going off for 22 points in this one, including 14 in the second half. He showed off a Kyrie-level layup package in the second half, continually beating defenders off the dribble and refusing to be denied at the rim. This contest went right down to the wire before Evans took over, finishing off the game with a ridiculous split off P&R and lob to athletic wing Zhaire Smith. Florida played their hearts out, but ultimately could not overcome cold shooting down the stretch. Egor Koulechov also has some explaining to do as he was not ready to shoot in the final minutes, choking more than once. Z E R O O N I O N S.
- Purdue (-4) 76, Butler 73. Over 144.5. Purdue got the win, but the question of how they’ll be affected by Haas’ injury remained relatively unanswered. It took senior swiss-army knife Dakota Mathias’ dagger three-pointer off of Purdue’s classic pin-down action with 14 seconds left to hold off a frisky Butler squad who refused to die in the second half. Purdue is just a different team without Haas — when he’s in there, they like to throw it to him almost every time because he’s a mismatch for just about everyone in America. So, naturally, when he’s out of the lineup, the onus to score falls more on the guards. The Edwards’ are fantastic and showed good aggression in this one to try to score the ball from the perimeter, yet it didn’t help that Carsen turned in a 4-17 shooting performance. Vince played really well and they probably wouldn’t have advanced without his scoring performance. Even without Haas, Purdue was still the better team and deserved to advance.
The Four Remaining Teams:
Villanova (30-4, 21-12-1 ATS): This Villanova team is eerily similar to the one that hung a banner two seasons ago, with Jay Wright once again running his patented four-guard lineup that features multiple scorers, multiple playmakers, and multiple ball-handlers. NBA potential aside, it is not clear to me who is the best college basketball player out of Brunson, Booth, Divincenzo, and Bridges. They all bring a slightly different edge to the table, but more importantly none of them bring an agenda. All four share the ball and share in each other’s success. When you combine skill with unselfishness and a ridiculous amount of shooting (big-man Omari Spellman can really shoot it too), you get this Villanova offense, #1 by KenPom, which whips the ball around the perimeter and gives defenses fits. Despite losing the Big East regular season due to a couple bad losses (partially due to Phil Booth missing a couple of months of the season), they left no doubt who the best team in the Northeast was by demolishing Xavier twice in the regular season and winning the Big East championship at MSG. When they’re on, they’re the best team in the country.
West Virginia (24-10, 15-15 ATS): Vegas and the general public/NCAA committee seem to really disagree on this team, with the Mountaineers actually closing as a 2-point favorite over Kansas in the Big 12 Championship game and still being relegated to a 5-seed and one of the toughest draws in the tournament. They are led by 17th-year senior Jevon Carter, who is one of the best defenders in America and can really shoot it too, especially off the dribble. Their press defense scheme is well-documented, as they get up in your face and give you hell for the entire length of the floor with ball pressure and scramble-traps. What unlocks this particular Press Virginia team, however, is the rim protection of Sagaba Konate, who finished third in the country in blocks with over three per game. He is the ultimate safety valve for the pressing scheme, as the guards can give an extra 10% of ball pressure knowing that, even if they get beat off the dribble, there’s a good chance Konate will contest anything at the rim, where he does a fantastic job of not just blocking shots but keeping those blocked shots in the field of play allowing for transition offense opportunities.
Texas Tech (24-9, 13-15-1 ATS): Texas Tech, a team that came somewhat out of nowhere this season, should have won the Big 12 regular season title were it not for Keenan Evans’ toe injury, without whom the team collapsed offensively and dropped four straight games late in the regular season. Evans is their leader on and off the court, putting up fantastic numbers for this team but also coming up huge in clutch situations whenever the team needed something special. Around Evans are a host of athletes, most notably freshman phenom Zhaire Smith who is one of the bounciest players in recent college basketball history (check out the dunk below). Senior big man Zach Smith, who missed over half the season due to injury, is finally healthy and playing his best basketball of the season –he is an elite screen-setter who has a fantastic rapport with Evans in P&R. Head Coach Chris Beard, who will play ten guys every night, performed one of the best coaching jobs in America with this group.
Purdue (28-6, 15-17-1 ATS): Purdue had, by any measure, a fantastic season this year, and coach Matt Painter did a great job with this group. There’s just a bit of a sour taste left in the mouth after they won 19 straight games from late November to early February before losing three straight that would cost them the regular season conference title. And, after a beautiful draw in the big ten tournament that saw others do their work for them, with Michigan knocking out Michigan State and Penn State knocking out Ohio State, they responded by looking sluggish all tournament and getting blown out by Michigan in the finals. Now, they have a #2 seed, but continue to be unable to catch a break as Isaac Haas’ fractured elbow leaves him likely out for the tournament, though that situation is somewhat sketchy as he may be attempting to leverage Purdue’s engineering department in an effort to play with an NCAA-approved brace. Elsewhere, this team has four really good guards in Carsen and Vince Edwards, Dakota Mathias (one of my favorite players in America), and PJ Thompson. They are a veteran group who run tight sets and know how to score the basketball, producing the 2nd-best KenPom offense in America. All eyes are now turned to freshman big man Matt Haarms, who is now forced to step into the rather gargantuan void left by Haas in the middle of Purdue’s four-out, one-in base offense.
(Friday) Boston, MA. Nova-WVU 7:27 PM EST, Tech-Purd 9:57 PM EST.
West Virginia vs. Villanova (-5): Oh baby, this one should be a doozy. America could not have asked for a better matchup, as West Virginia’s defense is the perfect challenge to Villanova’s guard-play, and Nova’s offensive juggernaut is the perfect unit to stand up to West Virginia’s press. Combine that with Jay Wright vs. Bob Huggins in an ultimate clash of coaching styles and this one shapes up to be the game of the tournament thus far. Of course, all eyes will be squarely on the point guard matchup, as Jalen Brunson and Jevon Carter should go at one another for forty minutes. I expect Brunson, who is one of the steadiest guards in America, to be ready for the challenge as, while you can’t simulate Press Virginia, he’s been through the Big East regular season three times now and has played in a national championship game. He also has the luxury of deferring primary ball-handling duties to Divincenzo or Booth and playing more off the ball, something he’s not only comfortable doing but will also be a huge benefit to Nova’s offense here to relieve some pressure. This is why Nova’s four-guard offense is so special — Carter could reasonably rattle Brunson in a one-on-one matchup, but it’s just unlikely we’ll get to that point. Nova’s ball-handling is perfectly suited to handle this press and, in the chaos, shooters will be open all night long. This is the question for West Virginia: how much pressure should they be willing to give in the full-court if that very pressure creates disadvantages in the backcourt? Huggins’ stubbornness tells me he won’t change a thing, which could end up being his demise. All it takes is one guy to beat his man off the dribble and Nova’s offense runs you through the wringer, driving and kicking like it’s nobody’s business.
On the other end of the floor, West Virginia is aggressive and likes to play downhill towards the rim. This should be a fast-paced game and thus buckets will be available in transition, but Nova is a classic college basketball program in that they will take charges and not apologize to anyone for doing so. The way charges/blocks are called in this game will be crucial, as Nova is one of the best in America at sliding from the weakside without fear to punish guys for driving with their head down. Unfortunately, this is Jevon Carter’s biggest weakness — he likes to go it at himself, and I know Divincenzo and Brunson are licking their chops ready to take a couple charges on him and change the way West Virginia thinks about their offense. If Bridges is matched up on Carter, too, he is more than capable of using his length to take Jevon out of what he wants to do offensively. This is a good matchup for Nova, all of whose guards defend, rebound, and most importantly show toughness. This isn’t your typical #1 team, as they get to the floor as fast as anyone in America and will not back down an inch from West Virginia’s style which intends rattle.
I like Nova big here, as I expect them to bring the fight to a West Virginia team that is used to it being the other way around.
Texas Tech vs. Purdue (-1.5): The one bright spot for Purdue with regards to Haas’ injury is that his backup, Matt Haarms, is a far better defender in P&R, of which Texas Tech will run a ton. Go back and watch the Michigan film from the Big Ten championship and you’ll see that Haas was absolutely inept defending the Zavier Simpson-Moe Wagner P&R combo — Haarms wasn’t much better, but a definite upgrade nonetheless. Texas Tech, given the gifts of senior guard Keenan Evans, runs that play almost every time down the floor, where he’ll have options to take the ball to the basket himself, hit the screener, or throw lobs to their wings who do a tremendous job of moving off the ball while reading Evans’ movements. They are a machine at this point… just ask Florida, who could not stop Evans in the second half. Carsen Edwards is a great point guard in his own right but not elite on the defensive end, and thus Evans should have his way running this offense.
Another note I love in favor of Texas Tech is that head coach Chris Beard has upset Purdue before, when he was the coach of the Arkansas-Little Rock team that beat Purdue in the 2016 NCAA tournament. He’s gotten the best of Painter before.
On the other end of the floor, Texas Tech is an underrated defensive team who just so happens to have their best two defenders at the same positions as Purdue’s best scorers. Freak athlete Zhaire Smith will match up well against wing Vince Edwards, and Evans is likewise a defensive dog who will relish the opportunity to go head-to-head against star point guard Carsen Edwards. Without Haas, the ball will be in those two guys’ hands for most of this game. Texas Tech, a veteran team, needs to communicate and work together seamlessly throughout this game as Purdue runs a ridiculous amount of pin-downs and cross-action for shooter Dakota Mathias, who does not stop moving throughout the game and can give defenses fits when he’s hot shooting.
In the end, I think Texas Tech is still undervalued as a team that should have won the Big 12, which we’ve all agreed was the best conference in America, were it not for injury. Combine that with Haas’ injury and I love this spot for Texas Tech as an underdog. Evans, as one of the most underrated players in America, is the perfect dog to lead one of the most disrespected teams in America.
Texas Tech +1.5, Play +105 ML.