Monday, March 14, 2011

2011 NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: East Region

The East region is stacked. The top four seeds -- Ohio State, UNC, Syracuse, and Kentucky -- are all capable of reaching the Final Four. The teams in the 6-8 range -- Xavier, Washington, and George Mason -- are all teams that I pegged as sleeper picks before the bracket was announced.

Ohio State probably deserved better than this. They are the No. 1 overall seed, an they may end up having to be George Mason and Kentucky just to get to the Elite 8? That's less than ideal.

Final Four Favorite: Ohio State Buckeyes

The Buckeyes are the best team in the country. They are the most dominating force in the country on the block in Jared Sullinger. They have experience and savvy surrounding him on the perimeter with David Lighty, William Buford, and Jon Diebler. They have an excellent defensive and ball control point guard in Aaron Craft. This group is talented and balanced offensively. They are also disciplined and dangerous on the defensive end of the foul, where they are one of the best in the country at keeping their opponents off the foul line. The general consensus is that there are no great teams in college basketball this season. If Ohio State isn't great, then they are very, very good.

And if they lose?: North Carolina Tar Heels

I like this UNC team even though they got smacked around by Duke in the ACC Tournament final. Before that, they had won 14 of their last 15 games. Kendall Marshall at the point has made everyone on the team that much better. Harrison Barnes is now playing with the confidence he lacked for the first three months. Tyler Zeller and John Henson provide defense, rebounding, interior scoring, and are both perfect big men for Roy Williams' uptempo system. Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald are finally discovering their roles on this team. They have the pieces to string together four wins.

Sweet 16 Sleeper (10 or lower): Marquette Golden Eagles

Marquette is really the only team that I can see springing a couple of upsets. I like the makeup of their roster. They have some talented, experienced guards, led by Darius Johnson-Odom and Junior Cadougan, while once again fielding a team with some versatile big men that create all kinds of matchup problems, like Jae Crowder and Jimmy Butler. But the biggest thing about Marquette is that they are scrappy, they play as hard as a unit as any team in the country, and they never give up on a game.

Final Four Sleeper (5 or lower): Washington Huskies

The fact that this Washington team finished as a seven seed is shocking when you look at their roster on paper. This group is just so talented. Isaiah Thomas had a bit of a swoon late in the season, but he refound the magic in the Pac-10 tournament. Surrounding Thomas are two mobile and versatile big men as well as a handful of young but talented shooters and scorers on the perimeter. Isaiah Thomas is terrific in the pick and roll and teams that struggle to defend it will struggle against the Huskies.

Player to Watch (8 and up): Tu Holloway, Xavier

Last year, it was Xavier's Jordan Crawford that put the Muskies on his back and carried the team to the Sweet 16. With Crawford now in the NBA, Holloway has been the guy that carries this team. He averages 20.2 ppg, 5.5 apg, and 5.1 rpg. He's capable of going for 30 on a given night. He put this team on his back early in the season, and he's perfectly capable of doing it again in the postseason.

Player to Watch (9 and lower): Travis Leslie, Georgia

Leslie may not be the best NBA prospect in this portion of the bracket. He's not the best scorer in the country. He'll probably never be an all-american. But he is arguably the best dunker in the country, making him one of the most exciting players to watch.

Best Matchup -- 1st Round: No. 6 Xavier vs. No. 11 Marquette

All Marquette does is play close, exciting games. Why would that change in the NCAA Tournament? What makes this particular matchup intriguing to me is the matchup in the back court. Tu Holloway, as we wrote, is an incredible talent, but Buzz Williams has a couple of good defenders in his back court.

I also really like the matchup between George Mason and Villanova. Mason is legit. They have a couple playmakers on their perimeter in Luke Hancock and Cam Long as well as some legitimate size and scoring in the paint in Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison. The Wildcats, however, are as talented as any team in the country. But they have now lost five straight games, seven of nine, and nine of thirteen.

Best Potential Matchup: No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 1 Ohio State

There are a lot of great, great potential matchups in this region. Kentucky and Ohio State may be the best of the bunch simply because of how good this the Wildcats are. Kentucky may have gotten the worst draw of any team in the country. All year long, I've said this team has a chance to be a national title contender, but they somehow end up getting the best team in the country in the Sweet 16? Kentucky can match up with them, however. Josh Harrellson isn't a great player by any evaluation method, but he is big and strong enough that he won't be overwhelmed by Sullinger. (Relatively speaking, or course.) Throw in the three first round picks that Calipari will have at his disposal, and Ohio State will have their hands full.

Upset Alert!!!: Ohio State, UNC

I don't love any upsets in the second round in this region, but I can definitely see the Buckeyes falling to Kentucky in the Sweet 16. I also think that Washington has a great chance to knock off UNC in the third round. As we saw in the ACC tournament, UNC is susceptible to pressure, and Washington has the athletes to press effectively. I am also not sold on Kendall Marshall as a one-on-one defender, and with the size of Washington's wings, he'll be forced to guard Isaiah Thomas in isolation and on screen-and-rolls.

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