East Regional breakdown: Virginia the No. 1, but Michigan State looks dangerous
The only real drama on Selection Sunday was who would join Florida, Arizona and Wichita State on the top line.
Virginia’s résumé won out over the likes of Villanova and Michigan with a body of work punctuated by sinking Duke hours earlier for its first ACC tournament title since 1976.
The Cavaliers’ reward? A dangerous region that includes the champs of the Big East’s regular season (No. 2 Villanova) and postseason (No. 11 Providence), the Big 12 tournament champs (No. 3 Iowa State) and the Big Ten tourney champion (No. 4 Michigan State).
Can Virginia survive? It has been dealing with doubters all season, and despite having a top seed, the NCAA tourney is proving no different. Here’s a look at the East region.
Virginia: The Cavaliers, a No. 1 for the first time since Ralph Sampson last suited up (1983), are defined by their defense, allowing 55.4 points and ranking third in the nation in stat guru Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions a team would have against the average D-I offense).
None of this is to say they can’t score, with sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon averaging 12.3 points and senior guard Joe Harris at 11.6. But Virginia has been challenged on that end at times as Ken Pom’s 25th-ranked team in adjusted offensive efficiency (114.0), and in two of their losses scored 56 (vs. VCU) and 38 (vs. Wisconsin).
Michigan State: The Spartans are healthy heading into the Tourney after a dominant run through the Big Ten bracket led by Branden Dawson (45 points and 22 rebounds in three games). They’re likely underseeded here as a No. 4 and should end the Cavaliers’ run in the Elite Eight.
Villanova: It could have been the top seed had the Wildcats not lost in the Big East tourney. Instead it’s a No. 2 — the last time that happened was in 2010, when they fell in the second round to 10th-seeded St. Mary’s — and it’s a solid draw, as the Wildcats wouldn’t face a top-48 scoring team until the Sweet 16.
North Carolina: No one would have bought the Tar Heels as a sixth seed when they were beating Louisville, Michigan State, Kentucky and Duke. But Roy Williams’ erratic crew ended up here after losing to Duke by 12 in the regular-season finale and then getting bounced by Pitt in the ACC tourney. Still they’ve won 12 of their past 14, and if Marcus Paige (17.4 ppg) and James Michael McAdoo (14.2) get hot, North Carolina could make a run.
No. 7 UConn vs. No. 10 Saint Joseph’s: Neither team is likely to get past Villanova in the next round, but it’s an intriguing matchup as tourney vet Phil Martelli faces Kevin Ollie, who is taking the Huskies to the dance for the first time after being ineligible last year. There’s also an intriguing bit of star power in the Hawks’ Halil Kanacevic (46 points and 43 boards in A-10 tourney) and the Huskies’ Shabazz Napier (17.4 ppg).
No. 12 Harvard over No. 5 Cincinnati: Tommy Amaker has led No. 12 seed Harvard to its third straight tourney and he’s done it this year with a balanced squad with five players scoring in double figures, led by swingman Wesley Saunders (14.0) and guard Siyani Chambers (11.1). The Crimson are experienced and have enough firepower to take out fifth-seeded Cincinnati.
No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Iowa State: This one would be in the Elite Eight and could be intriguing with the deep Spartans vs. a Cyclones squad that boasts 11 wins against top-50 RPI teams and a roster that goes beyond top star Melvin Ejim (18.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg) with DeAndre Kane (17.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists) and Georges Niang (16.5 points).
Gary Harris, G, Michigan State, So.: The Spartans have plenty of weapons, but Harris is the most dangerous. He can create his own shot, get to the basket and he leads the team in scoring (17.5) and made three-pointers (72).
Melvin Ejim, F, Iowa State, Sr.: Like Harris, he stands out on a talented roster. The Big 12 Player of the Year, he’s averaged 18.1 and 8.5 boards and scored a conference-record 48 points against TCU.
Michigan State: Every four-year player Tom Izzo has coached in his 19-year tenure has reached the Final Four. With a deep, talented roster with veterans and youth led by Dawson, Harris and Adreian Payne, the Spartans have the pieces in place to not only roll through the East, but also challenge for a national title.