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EAST REGION BREAKDOWN
The East Region will certainly be the most overlooked region once second-round play gets underway on Thursday. There aren’t a lot of popular sleepers and the bracket’s top teams are getting a lukewarm reception at best. However, you cannot argue with the individual talent that will be on display. The East will showcase NBA-ready talent in Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, NC State’s C.J. Leslie, UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, and Miami’s Shane Larkin and Durand Scott among many more.
FINAL FOUR TEAM
No. 1 Indiana
The Hoosiers carry with them the most efficient offense in the country, and will be able to sustain that explosiveness knowing that they have just completed a grueling run through the Big Ten. Posting 80 points per game at 48.6 percent shooting, Indiana has a roster filled with capable offensive players as six of their players average at least 7.8 PPG. Not only is the distribution of scoring impressive, but the way the Hoosiers attack their opponent is equally impressive. Coach Tom Crean can take advantage of Cody Zeller’s terrific post play, or he can run sharpshooter Jordan Hulls off screens to stretch the defense. Senior Christian Watford has excellent length, can provide more perimeter shooting, while Victor Oladipo can speed up the opponent and take advantage of fast break opportunities.
Defensively, the Hoosiers have an x-factor in Oladipo. At 6-foot-5, he possesses elite size at the shooting guard position. He utilizes his tremendous on-ball pressure to create deflections and bad passes that his teammates can scavenge. He proved throughout the regular season that he can get rough in the paint to grab a rebound, and has lateral quickness to recover quickly. Oladipo will get the chance to justify the high praise. The Hoosiers could end up seeing Shane Larkin’s Miami squad, Michael Carter-Williams’ Orange, or a Marquette team with solid veterans in Junior Cadougan and Vander Blue. Although at times Indiana can struggle with physical opponents, they still have a formidable frontcourt with Zeller helping to protect the paint.
No. 7 Illinois
Illinois fans have been on a roller coaster ride all season long. The Fighting Illini as the sleeper is an upside prediction more than anything else. Illinois has gone toe-to-toe with the best teams in the country, and have managed to come out on top in a number of those games. Led by senior guard Brandon Paul, the Illini pulled off huge wins at Gonzaga early in the year and against Indiana in Big Ten conference play. Paul,Illinois’ leading scorer at 16.6 PPG, is largely a perimeter shooter that has shown flashes of an all-around offensive game.
Illinois will need its shooters to get on a roll in order to have any shot at advancing. They shoot 24 three-pointers a game and connect on almost eight of them. As a team, they have poor size and cannot rebound very well. They will lean heavily on their guard play, expecting to be led by Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams. Those three will need to be the focal point and continue to take care of the basketball. As a team, they only gave it away 11.5 times per game. The road for Illinois is as favorable as they could have hoped for. They already have a win over Indiana, and can hope to stretch out Miami’s bigs with perimeter shooting, while overpowering Marquette’s guards with the athleticism of their own.
DARK HORSE TEAM
No. 11 Bucknell
It is finally time for the nation to break its silence on Bucknell big man Mike Muscala and his team. The five-loss Bison don’t have a resume that jumps out on paper. However, the Bison have a great coach in Dave Paulsen that has gotten this Bison team to execute its offense efficiently this season. Led by Muscala’s nightly double-double, Bucknell shoots the ball well at 45.6 percent from the field. They also reach the free-throw line at a high rate and knock them down at a clip of 74.4 percent.
The Bison’s backcourt is led by Cameron Ayers and Bryson Johnson who combine for 23.6 PPG and 4.4 APG. They also benefit from their low turnovers, averaging fewer than ten per game. Coach Paulsen’s roster, however, is extremely top-heavy on the offensive end of the court. After forward Joe Willman’s 10.3 PPG, no other player reaches three points per game. They can absolutely put a scare into the Butler Bulldogs, a team in the midst of its own Cinderella run over the past few seasons. The Bulldogs showed significant vulnerability during A-10 conference play.
BEST OPENING-ROUND GAME
Friday in Dayton: No. 8 NC State vs. No. 9 Temple
The Wolfpack entered the 2012-2013 season with a roster chalk-full of talent and the expectations that accompany that type of lineup. NC State fans, however, were left wanting more as the Wolfpack ended their regular season with an 11-7 conference record and a loss at Florida State. Temple guard Khalif Wyatt will need to put this Owl squad on his back in order to win. He has the ability to do so while playing at his own pace. The Atlantic 10 Player of the Year averaged 19.8 PPG for the Owls and shot a team-best 83 percent from the charity stripe. Both squads can score at a high rate, but they do it in contrasting styles. The Wolfpack utilize their elite frontcourt while the Owls will need to bank on Wyatt’s efforts.
THE CRYSTAL BALL
Elite 8 in Washington, D.C.: No. 1 Indiana vs. No. 2 Miami (FL)
Simply put, the Hoosiers and Canes are the two teams with the most talent and are most likely to play up to their potential consistently over six games. Indiana is fresh off the most consistent regular season in the country’s toughest conference, while the Canes are riding the highs from an ACC Tournament championship. There is sure to be battles between the likes of Oladipo and Larkin or Zeller and Kadji. Offensively, Indiana is the more efficient squad shooting the ball and score more points per possession. Miami, on the other hand, turns the ball over less often. Indiana likely receives the matchup advantage with their superior rebounding and free-throw shooting. The Hoosiers can be tested early on if they draw NC State in the Round of 32. Their frontcourt production would likely give any team in the East some trouble. Miami could find themselves in a battle in the Round of 32 as well with the Buffaloes. Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie, a lengthy guard at 6-6, could potentially stymie Larkin’s playmaking while Andre Roberson could take advantage of the stiffer Kadji and Gamble.
PLAYERS ON THE RADAR
G Victor Oladipo (Indiana)
Oladipo is the nation’s premier glue-guy. A favorite for the Wooden Award, his dynamic ability on both ends of the floor allow his teammates to utilize their own specific strengths. The more Oladipo contributes across the board, the less often go-to players like Zeller and Watford will be forced to make plays outside of their own comfort zones. He is a true stat stuffer, averaging 13.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.1 APG and 2.2 SPG. If the Hoosiers reach the Final Four, Oladipo will certainly be the main catalyst.
G Shane Larkin (Miami)
The stand out Hurricanes guard is probably the most dynamic playmaker in the East region. It seems as though whenever a Miami highlight flashes across the screen, Larkin is either making a play for a teammate or hitting a crucial shot down the stretch of a tight game. One of the nation’s top point guards burst onto the scene this season, leading the Canes through a demolition of the ACC. At 14.6 PPG and 4.4 APG, Miami goes as Larkin goes. The Canes possess a nice blend of veteran leadership, coupled with young talent led by Larkin.
F Anthony Bennett (UNLV)
Bennett is probably the most explosive scorer in the East, but his problem is finding the consistency to do it on a nightly basis. This obviously doesn’t bode well for tournament-style play. However, if Bennett can catch fire this weekend, he will be extremely difficult to stop. At 240 pounds, he can score in the paint and can finish at the rim. He has the touch to hit shots from long-range and can even create off the dribble at 6-foot-8. Bennett led the Rebels in scoring and rebounding this season, putting up 16.1 PPG and 8.1 RPG. He added just over one three-pointer a game while shooting 53.8 percent from the field.
F James Southerland (Syracuse)
Coach Boeheim has given Southerland the green light from virtually any spot on the court. That freedom allowed Southerland to find his shooting stroke again by knocking down 19 shots from long-range at a clip of 57.5 percent during the Big East Tournament. Southerland’s name isn’t a hot commodity now that he has proven to be a disappointment with the Orange. He is, nevertheless, a player that can change the complexion of a bracket with this streaky shooting.
C Mike Muscala (Bucknell)
The 6-foot-11 behemoth leads the nation in double-doubles with 22 out of a possible 33 games. He finished the 2012-2013 season with averages of 19 PPG on 52 percent shooting, 11.2 RPG and 2.4 BPG. At almost 240 pounds, Muscala is a very efficient offensive player in the post that can finish with both hands. What makes him special is his ability to take advantage of his inside-outside game as he has shown that he can knock down the mid-range jumper. Every year, players use the tournament as a stage for national recognition. This season, it looks like Muscala is poised to be one of those players.