EAST REGION PREVIEW – 2017 NCAA TOURNAMENT
The East is drawing a lot of action at the Vegas window with its top two seeds, Villanova and Duke clocking in as the overall favorites to win the entire tournament. But is there more than just the defending champs and the preseason #1? Could #3 seed Baylor make some noise? They were ranked #1 at one point during the season. What about the #4/#5 combo of Virginia and Florida – both do one thing (defend and score, respectively) on an elite level, yet struggle at the other. Or maybe even some sleepers like SMU or Wisconsin??
Let’s take a look at the East Region for some value plays as well as a few picks.
The best part of the day before the NCAA Tournament is that you can make a cogent argument for a LOT of teams, so feel free to hit me up on Twitter @TheMarchManiacs to discuss, argue, conversate, etc.
The favorites are easy. There are two teams drawing all the action, and there is everyone else.
VILLANOVA (+160) – The defending champs are the strong favorite to win their region at +160 – the second-lowest odds of any region, yet they are +800 to Duke’s +600 to win the whole thing. Go figure right? The reason is the strong amount of money that poured in on Duke prior to the bracket unveiling and Vegas having to protect themselves a bit. Anyway. Villanova is the favorite in the East and for good reason. The Champs are 31-3, battle-tested with non-con wins over Virginia and at Purdue and boasting a balanced, poised, veteran lineup.
Josh Hart is a Naismith Award leading candidate, Kris Jenkins knows what it takes to win in big moments and Jalen Brunson has slid into Arch’s role as scrappy team leader without missing a beat. This team is really, really good and has very few blemishes on their resume. Butler got the jump on ‘em at Hinkle, but other than that, they were excellent in nearly every game the entire season.
DUKE (+250) – It is hard to watch the ACC Tournament and NOT think, “yep, this is the best team in the country.” Clouding that perception might be some non-hoops related things; Duke is always overrated, I don’t like Duke, Grayson Allen is a punk, etc. But just BASKETBALL wise, Duke has as much talent as anyone in the country, the best coach in the country, great shooting, diverse offense and just won three straight games on neutral courts against Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame. So… yeah.
We judge most teams on a curve, allotting for injuries and suspensions and try to paint a picture of what they CURRENTLY are. If we do that with Duke, we see they are currently no worse than the third or fourth best team in the country, and quite possible, the best.
SMU MUSTANGS (+800) – Maybe this isn’t as much of a sleeper as I thought, since they are the third-lowest odds to win the region despite earning just a #6 seed. The reason they are such a popular sleeper is because they are precisely the type of team that has given Duke trouble over the years; a big, physical team that likes to scrap and has quickness from multiple positions to force some of Duke’s less-fleet players to defend the whole floor.
This is a worthy sleeper at 8-1, don’t let the AAC schedule scare you off. They just crushed Cincinnati on a neutral floor, and the Bearcats have a win over a healthy Xavier and AT Iowa State. Semi Ojeleye might be the best player in the region and poised for a national breakout.
VIRGINA CAVALIERS (+800) – I have been snarkily critical of Virginia and their vomit-inducing offense. However, they DID go 11-7 this season in the ACC, damn near won AT Villanova, and have put filthy-beatdowns on some good teams this season including North Carolina, Louisville, Virginia Tech and Wake. If defense travels better than offense, I wouldn’t want to see UVA awaiting me at my destination.
FLORIDA GATORS (+1000) – I’m just not sold on Florida and I’m not sold on the SEC as a whole. This isn’t a bad team, but I think they struggle in the opening weekend. If they get past ETSU, I think UVA dispatches them.
SOUTH CAROLINA (+2500) – The defensive toughness that made for an idea foil to Duke evaporated several months ago. This team is going home early.
WISCONSIN BADGERS (+1200) – It’s a bit of a longshot backing a #8 seed, but in seven of the last nine years, an 8/9 has advanced past the first weekend, and IF Wisky were to knock off Villanova, you could be sitting on some nice hedging opportunities down the stretch. Two months ago, they were a Top Four seed at worst. Two days ago, they were no worse than a #6 until the Committee did… this…oddly. A #8? Tough luck Nova, you will have your hands full for sure with Ethan Happ, Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes.
Here’s my plays in the East. I like Villanova. I really do. But the game between they and Duke (should it happen, obviously) is a complete toss-up. Therefore, the odds on Duke at +250 are a much better value. And while SMU is a dangerous team, and Baylor has some talent, I think Duke’s overall path to the Elite Eight is more manageable than Nova’s, simply on the strength of a potential second round game with Wisconsin for Jay Wright’s squad. I don’t see any challenge to Duke in the opening weekend with South Carolina/Marquette.
My favorite sleepers are Virginia and Wisconsin, but I am going to go Wisconsin simply because of the value at +1200. I think they handle Virginia Tech, who doesn’t defend at all, and give Villanova a real scare at the very least. I don’t feel great that Wisconsin will actually win the region, but I think they offer the best potential hedge value if they can pull a round two stunner.