Looking for your national champion in this year’s bracket? You’d do well to start in the East Region.
The East boasts the strongest field in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. No. 1 overall seed and defending champion Villanova is the headliner, but red-hot No. 2 seed Duke — pegged by many as a title favorite — and talented No. 3 seed Baylor make this group anything but a cakewalk for the Wildcats.
Here’s a complete preview of the East Region.
Player to Watch: Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke
Tatum solidified his status as a top-10 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft with a monster ACC Tournament, averaging 22 points and 7.5 rebounds per game during Duke’s four-game run to the championship. The freshman forward is a dynamic offensive talent who can score from anywhere on the floor, and the Blue Devils are nearly impossible to stop when he’s on his game.
Guards Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard garnered plenty of headlines this season, but Tatum is the engine that makes this team run. All eyes will be on him as Duke looks to carry its momentum into March Madness.
Best first-round game: No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech
The 8-9 game usually gives us a solid matchup of two high-profile programs, and this region is no exception.
Wisconsin has had its struggles this season, but a run to the Big 10 title game proves the Badgers are capable of making noise in the tournament. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2007 and is eager to make that count after winning six of its last eight games to close out the season.
The clash of Wisconsin’s defensive-minded approach and the Hokies’ heavy reliance on outside shooting should make this an intriguing first-round matchup with Villanova likely looming in the second round.
Best chance for an upset: No. 13 East Tennessee State over No. 4 Florida
No. 12 UNC Wilmington is a popular Cinderella pick against No. 5 Virginia, but what’s the fun in picking a 12-5 upset these days?
We’re diving deeper to No. 13, where East Tennessee State boasts an experienced roster of upperclassmen that knocked off top-seeded UNC Greensboro to win the Southern Conference. That experience gives the Buccaneers a shot against No. 4 Florida, which lost three of its last four games after losing center John Egbunu to a season-ending ACL injury.
The Gators have had trouble scoring of late, and East Tennessee State held opponents to under 70 points per game this season. Give us the Bucs.
Region winner: Duke
Villanova has the pedigree and Big East Player of the Year Josh Hart, but no team is hotter than Duke right now. The Blue Devils are the healthiest they’ve been all season, and we got a glimpse of their potential when they became the first ACC team ever to win four conference tournament games in four days.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski obviously has been there before, and this team won the whole tournament in 2015. Duke should have enough firepower to take down an occasionally flaky Baylor team in the Sweet 16. That will set up an epic regional final against Nova, where Allen, Kennard and Tatum will prove too much for Hart and Co. to handle.
Thumbnail photo via Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports Images
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