The East Region has delivered some of the more memorably moments of the Tournament thus far. The only region without a #1 or a #2 seed in the Sweet 16, the East is likely to be your least favorite at this point due to the teams left busting your brackets. Florida and Baylor took care of their business as the #3 and #4 seeds but a pair of power conference underdogs (Wisconsin & South Carolina) knocked off the heavy favorites of this region and have made sure that this weekend will be must see TV as both teams try to continue their magical runs to a potential Final Four.
#8 Wisconsin vs. #4 Florida
Most years the selection committee has to deal with some sort of "biggest snubs" argument from one or two fan bases. This year, there wasn’t that same level of scrutiny on which teams were selected but rather how those selected teams were seeded. Wisconsin was one of those teams where people questioned their seeding. The Badgers finished second in the Big 10 ahead of Minnesota, Maryland, Northwestern and Michigan all teams with better or equal seeds. There’s just no reason that Wisconsin should have been an 8 seed. They finished with a 2-0 record against Minnesota and were ahead of them in the standings but were three seeds below the Gophers. Gophigure. And on top of that they were setup to play against the #1 overall seed in the second round. Clearly Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig didn’t like that as they made short work of Virginia Tech in the first round before taking down the defending Champions in the Round of 32.
Florida didn’t have as tough of a road to hoe in the first two rounds as they were up against #13 seed East Tennessee State in the first round and a solid, albeit severely flawed, Virginia team in the second round. And while ETSU gave the Gators a run for their money in the first half, it really wasn’t much of a game late. Their second round game against the Cavaliers pitted two of the better defensive teams in the country against one another in what was bound to be one of the ugliest games of the Tournament from an offensive standpoint. Virginia shot below 30% for the game included a putrid 1-15 from behind the arc. London Perrantes had his worst game of the season and for a team without much offensive firepower, when your leading scorer isn’t getting it done, that is a recipe for disaster.
This will be far from a "sexy" matchup to the average fan because neither team has a National following at the moment and neither team boasts any potential lottery picks in this June’s draft. The Badgers have a fringe lottery pick in Ethan Happ but he’s a forgotten freshman at this point and doesn’t have a flashy game that gets people talking. Just like the Round of 32 matchup between Virginia and Florida, this is going to be a game where both offenses will struggle as both defensive units are among the Top 40 in both points allowed and FG percentage. This will be a slow, tough, physical matchup between two really good teams.
Key to the Game
The Gators rank 10th in the country when it comes to running their opponents off the three point line. Wisconsin isn’t a team known for their three point shooting prowess so look for them to continue to play inside out with both Hayes and Happ getting plenty of touches in the paint. The Gators are a good shot blocking team but they don’t really have the horses up front that can contain someone with the versatility of the Hayes/Happ duo.
This Wisconsin team is the most battle tested team in the country in terms of NCAA Tournament play. As I wrote in my East Region Preview last week, they feature four players in their starting lineup playing in their fourth Sweet 16. That group has also been to two Final Fours and was on their way to cutting down the nets in 2015 if it weren’t for some late game heroics by Grayson Allen. They are poised under pressure and don’t get rattled easily. When they need a bucket they have more than one guy they can go to down the stretch as we saw on Saturday against Villanova. If Wisconsin continues to do what they do well on both ends of the floor and not let Florida take them out of their flow then I don’t see a scenario where the Gators can come out on top. I expect to see a lot of space given to Florida guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza as both players struggle shooting the ball and have their entire careers.
#7 South Carolina vs. #3 Baylor
Similar to Wisconsin, South Carolina’s seeding was a head scratcher. Not the number, but the region. In case you’ve been living under a rock then you’ve heard about the HB2 bill that has since moved NCAA events out of venues in North Carolina. The Gamecocks were a beneficiary of this bill as they had a home game in the second around against a #2 seed. Would having this game in North Carolina mean that Duke would have come away victorious? Probably not, but as Michael DeCourcy pointed out, if it were any other team aside from Duke that got the short end of the stick, the rest of the country would have been outraged, including the slighted fan base.
But all of that is water under the bridge at this point as the Gamecocks are still dancing and are doing so with what has become a juggernaut of an offensive unit. The team struggled at times to score during the season but during their two game NCAA Tournament run so far, Sindarious Thornwell has been lights out when attacking the rim and shooting the rock. Frank Martin deserves a big round of applause for the job he’s done in Columbia over the last few seasons.
After getting bounced in the opening round of the last two NCAA Tournaments, Baylor has rebounded nicely this year with wins over New Mexico State and Southern Cal to get back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 2013-2014 season. Of Baylor’s seven losses on the season, six came against teams in the NCAA Tournament with three of those to teams currently in the Sweet 16. That tells you how tough the schedule was for the Bears and how well they’ve played this season. Reserve forwards Terry Maston has saved his best basketball for the end of the season. After averaging a little over seven points per contest during the regular season and Big 12 Tournament, he’s dropped 19 in consecutive tournament games when the Bears needed it most.
Key to the Game
Jonathan Motley is the best prospect in this game, no disrespect to Thornwell or PJ Dozier. He’s the most important player on the floor as far as either team is concerned and he will be heavily used against a smallish South Carolina front line. Foul trouble has been an issue for Motley at times and was against the other USC on Sunday. He’s fouled out of four contests this season and has had to sit due to foul trouble in quite a few others. We already saw how the Gamecock’s got pretty much the entire Duke team into foul trouble, although whether or not that should have happened is up for debate. Motley needs to stay on the floor and Scott Drew and the Bears at least 32 minutes on Friday, something he’s yet to do so far in this Tournament.
Final Four Prediction
I went against my better judgement and put Villanova over Wisconsin in my bracket simply because I thought I was reaching. I was wrong. And I don’t want to have the Badgers make me wrong again so I’m going with them all the way to the Final Four for the third time in four years. Just too much talent and too much experience for any team left in this region to overcome.
Wisconsin over Baylor 68 – 61
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