Villanova will attempt to do something that has only been done once in the past 25 years. The Wildcats will look to put together another stellar six-game run and repeat as champions of college basketball. Ironically the last two teams to do this, the Florida Gators (2006-07) and the Duke Blue Devils (1991-92), are both in the East region. That will only make Jay Wright’s Wildcats have to work that much harder to reach the top of the mountain again.
Duke and Florida are not the only obstacles in the way, as the 3 seed Baylor Bears were ranked number one for multiple weeks this season. The Wildcats would also have a tough match up in round two between the winner of Wisconsin and Virginia Tech. Each of those teams are battle tested in big time conferences and would pose different match up issues based on style of play.
East Regional Opening Weekend: Madness Begins
East region: Best Game- (5) Virginia Cavaliers vs (12) UNC Wilmington Seahawks
To use an old boxing analogy, styles make fights. UNC Wilmington is an uptempo guard oriented team that averages 85 points a game. That mark is good for 10th in the country. Virginia employs the pack line defense and is 1st in the nation in points allowed at 55.6. The Seahawks have four players scoring in double figures, led by C.J. Bryce at 17.6 a contest. As a team they shoot 36% from behind the arc. The Cavaliers are led by senior guard London Perrantes at 12.5 points and 4 assists per game. It will be interesting to see which style prevails, whom ever can control the pace should be able to advance.
Best Player Matchup – Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin) vs Zach LeDay (Virginia Tech)
Nigel Hayes is a three year starter for the Badgers and has Final Four experience. The versatile forward can score in the post or from the perimeter. His scoring average of 13.5 per game is down a bit from last year but his importance to Wisconsin’s success remains. Zach LeDay has blossomed for the Hokies since transferring from South Florida. He leads them in both points and rebounds with 16.3 and 7.4, respectively. Like Hayes, he is a versatile scorer who works both inside and out the paint to get his buckets.
East Region: Building Blocks For Tradition
Despite the blue bloods residing in the region like Villanova, Duke, Florida, and Wisconsin, there are a few teams trying to build up their NCAA tournament tradition. Virginia Tech is making its first appearance since the 2006-07 season. The Marquette Golden Eagles are back for the first time in five years, having last gone dancing in 2013. Then there is the South Carolina Gamecocks, finally making it back to the dance after a 13-year absence. Adding to that March Madness drought is the fact that they haven’t won a tournament game in 44 years. Yes, you read that right.
Winning breeds more winning. These programs are hoping to make a splash this season so they can build on that and be back dancing again, sooner rather than later.
East Region: Players to Watch
Kris Jenkins (Villanova Wildcats) – The maker of last season’s biggest shot is back. He hit the buzzer-beating three to secure the National Championship last year. Guards Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart have carried the Wildcats this season and that will continue through their run in March. However, if a big shot is needed late in a game, make sure you keep your eyes on Kris Jenkins, because he will have no fear in the biggest moments.
Luke Kennard (Duke Blue Devils) – Grayson Allen gets the headlines and Jayson Tatum will be a top-5 NBA draft pick, but its Kennard who leads Duke. He is scoring just over 20 points per contest, and hitting 44% from three. In the ACC tournament he shook off a few bad first halves to heat up big time after the break. The left handed sophomore can score from anywhere. He is adept at slicing to the basket and it almost automatic from the free throw line.
Jonathan Motley (Baylor Bears) – The 6’10” junior elevated his game to impressive heights this year. Motley averaged 17 points and just under 10 rebounds per game. He is also a disruptive presence in the middle of Baylor’s zone defense. The Bears struggled slightly coming down the stretch after a 20-1 start that saw them ranked number one in the country. Jonathan Motley was not fazed by his team’s woes, averaging 20 points per in the last 15 games.
Duane Notice (South Carolina Gamecocks) – The senior guard from Ontario, Canada has had an up and down season. Last year’s SEC 6th man award winner has seen his shot abandon him at times. That said, and despite having SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice is key if the Gamecocks want to end that 44-year drought. Notice spearheads South Carolina’s suffocating defense. He will be tasked with harassing Marquette freshman guard Markus Howard and disrupting the flow of their offense. The Gamecocks are 14-2 when Notice hits two or more threes this season.
Andrew Rowsey (Marquette Golden Eagles) – The junior transfer from UNC-Asheville is a heat check waiting to happen. After scoring 20 points a game his first two collegiate seasons, he has accepted his role off the bench for Marquette. He was named the Big East 6th man of the Year. The sharpshooter scored 11 points a game and shot 45% from three. He can heat up in a hurry and has nine 20 point games this year.
Repeat After Me
Villanova’s road to a repeat championship will not be easy. Virginia, Florida, Wisconsin, and Duke all have championship pedigree and will be standing in the way. There is a reason that it has been so long since a repeat champion has happened. That is also why those teams from Florida and Duke are revered so much. Even at programs with winning traditions, they stand out more than most.
There are some intriguing potential match-ups in the 2nd round of the East region. Baylor and SMU could renew an old South West Conference rivalry in an all-Texas battle should they both advance. If Marquette can get by the Gamecocks, its sets up a teacher versus student coaching battle. Golden Eagle coach Steve Wojociechowski had a memorable career as Duke’s starting point guard under coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Buckle up, because as we all know in March, anything can happen.