Easily the most difficult region of this year's tourney. Hell you'd be hard pressed to find a region in the last decade or so that included 3 number 1 seed caliber teams like the East has this year. If Louisville wins the Big East tourney or Tennessee sews up the SEC, these two juggernauts are certainly 1 line worthy.
But the bottom part of the bracket doesn't tell the real story. Hell, everyone's damn good once you get to the Elite 8. The real story with what my friend Steve calls the North Carolina invitational tourney, channeling his Rick Barnes vs. Dean Smith , is the strength of the mid seeds and the varying styles of play found throughout the region. Looking at the region from a powder blue perspective, your first round is obviously a tap in for birdie. But your second round game possibly nets you a team with an inside/outside tandem lottery picks in Eric Gordon and DJ White. Granted the Hoosiers haven't played well down the stretch, but they are as talented as any team in the nation. If not IU, then you get an athletic Arkansas team with Steven Hill, a strong 7 foot interior defender that can help neutralize Hansborough. Oh by the way, they just knocked off Tennessee, one of the top 4 or 5 teams in the country. And those are second round opponents!
The Sweet Sixteen game for the advancing Heels would likely be a Notre Dame squad with an inside/outside attack of Harangody/McAlarney, and solid floor general Tory Jackson, who happens to shoot free throws like Doug Gottlieb. But I digress. Still, in my opinion, the Irish are the toughest 5 seed in the tourney unless you're related to Adam Emmanecker, or you're salty, heady, gritty, or work hard by nature. As far as big men that can go toe to toe with Tyler Hansborough go, our list now includes DJ White, Steven Hill, and Luke Harangody if you're scoring at home.
The 4 seed isn't any slouch, as Tony Bennett brings his sagging man-to-man to the tourney. Call it a pack-line defense if you want the cool kids to like you. Anyway, the pack-line takes the standard wing denial of traditional man to man, and instead places defenders that are one pass away from the ball, 2 or 3 feet inside the arc. It's designed to take away driving angles and allows or even entices fruitless perimeter passing. Catch and shoots/blow by's are taken away because the defenders one pass away are in good positions to close out under control. It's important to note that Carolina hasn't played against a defense like it all year.
Then it's on to the aforementioned two or three seed matchup in the regional final. And as if the NCAA Committee members had a theme for the East, Louisville has a talented big man as well in David Padgett (that's four). The 'Ville defends with a ton of perimeter athletes and good size inside with Padgett and Caracter. They also press like Pitino's old UK teams, using a 40 minutes of hell mentality. It may be enough to wear down a point guard like Ty Lawson who's missed half the year.
The two seed is a completely different animal than the other teams that would have faced UNC before the Regional Final. Tennessee's style is like Duke on steroids. And that's the rub that we'll get to later. We know Tennessee. They can shoot teams in and out of games with the best of them. And they'll be part of my prediction in a moment.
Overall it's simply a loaded region in terms of size and talent, made up of an eclectic group of basketball styles, making this particular road to San Antonio the most difficult.
Potential Bracket Busters
Really this bracket is so deep that I don't see a double digit seed winning a game, much less busting out to the round of 16. I suppose George Mason would be the fan favorite because of the magic that is the 12/5, but I'm not buying. Notre Dame has guard play, size, and shooting ability. George Mason doesn't own a win vs. a ranked opponent, and its best win was early in the year vs. a young Kansas State squad. UNC Wilmington, a poor man's version of the Irish, took two out of 3 from the Patriots. Trust me, it ain't happenin'.
Butler, the 7 seed, is the closest thing we have to Cinderella in the East. The senior dominated Bulldogs add the terrific interior presence of freshman post Matt Howard to the 2008 club. The senior backcourt of AJ Graves and Mike Green is still the heart and soul of a team that made a tourney run last year. Keep in mind Butler's experience in last year's tourney might be enough to put a scare on an undisciplined Tennessee squad, but in reality a win against the Vols is too much to ask.
Raleigh to Charlotte makes the UNC Tarheels the odds on favorite to get out of the East and down to San Antonio. The problem for the Tarheels comes when their Sweet Sixteen Game has them matched against the Washington State Human Rain Delays and their sagging man to man defense on Thursday night. And after a tough 68 to 60 win, they face the Tennessee Fighting Erin Andrew Gropers two nights later, who will play at a frenetic pace unlike anything the Heels have seen all year. It's kind of like facing Josh Beckett the day after hitting against Tim Wakefield.
Watch the hand checks.
For that reason, I like Tennessee to upset the Tar Heels after squeaking by Louisville. Something along the lines of a 95 to 91 regional final. In any event, it will be a region full of intriguing matchups and strategy. If you like good hard nosed back to the basket post play, this is the region for you. Whoever ends up being the East representative will have certainly earned it.
For some more good tourney talk, check out these dudes.