NCAA Tournament Breakdown: The East is a Beast

Moving along with our analysis of the four regional brackets for this year’s 2012 NCAA Tournament, we reach the East Region, which contains a number of quality teams all capable of making an extended run towards the Big Dance in New Orleans, Louisiana on March 31st. #1 seed Syracuse has already been dealt a blow prior to the start of the tournament, upon learning that one of their biggest assets, Fab Melo, will not be eligible for tournament play due to undisclosed (most likely academic) reasons. While the media will certainly spin that story like a dirty shirt that needs two trips through the wash, the fact remains that Syracuse is arguably one of the deepest teams in this tournament, with a number of veteran players capable of stepping up along the way towards the ultimate goal of a national championship appearance. The big question however remains; who will be the team from this region to challenge the Orangemen, a team that has only lost twice this season? Also, with a number of tough match-up slated for the Round of 64 and subsequently the Round of 32 in this region, will there be any top teams even left standing to give Syracuse a run for their money?

Top first round action to watch out for here is Kansas State vs. Southern Mississippi in a battle between #8 and #9 seeded teams, and an interesting clash between #5 Vanderbilt and #12 Harvard. I want to like Kansas State in this tournament, I really do. Frank Martin’s bulldog approach to coaching basketball is entertaining to watch, and the Wildcats play great defense. But they are woefully shy on offensive talent outside of Rodney McGruder, and don’t have any outside shooting threats to speak of. While they get past Southern Miss via their defense, they will struggle to contend with the depth of Syracuse in the Round of 32, and find themselves watching the tourney from home after that point.

Vanderbilt is a very intriguing pick to make a run this year, especially after winning the SEC over #1 Kentucky. An early-season Top-10 team, the Commodores have played very well on the defensive side of the ball, but concern rises on their play away from home court against deeper teams. They should get past Harvard, who despite beating Florida State earlier in the year just haven’t had the strength of schedule to prepare them for facing an SEC-trained Vandy team. Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor could cause problems for any opponent, and the sharp-shooting John Jenkins could be primed for a big showing in the tournament. An inevitable match-up with #4 seed Wisconsin is an exciting proposition, especially with Vanderbilt matching up favorably in the front court, and having a solid advantage via their much better team shooting. Look for the Commodores to possibly get past the Badgers (I’ve picked them to do so), but running into a deep Syracuse team that has really only played 2 poor games this year will make a tough challenge for Vandy. My Bracket has the John Jenkins’ led Commodores past the Orangemen, but it’s a difficult choice to bank against Jim Boeheim’s talented ranks.

#2 Ohio State has to get past Florida State to have a chance to dance with #1 Syracuse/#5 Vanderbilt. The Buckeyes, led by Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas and William Buford make a perfect candidate for an eventual match-up with the Orangemen in the Elite 8, provided they don’t fall victim to a hot Seminoles team coming into the tournament. Coming from the bottom half of the bracket, there appears to be just two teams out of the 7 others clustered with OSU that legitimately have a shot to upend the well-coached Buckeyes, with Florida State being one of them. The Cincinnati Bearcats, who played well in the Big East tournament and have game-changers like the physical Yancy Gates and the talented outside shooter Sean Kilpatrick, could very well make life difficult for OSU, if of course they can get past Texas and Florida State in the first two rounds. Florida State is my not-so-dark horse in this bracket, winning the ACC in fine fashion over North Carolina, with their stand-up defensive play. However, both these teams have flaws that may make them hard picks to take either one any further than the Sweet 16.

Cincinnati, who has shown moments of brilliance down the home stretch of the season, is prone to suffer poor shooting nights (shooting just over 42 percent from the floor on the year), and is atrocious from the free-throw line. While you might be able to get away with one bad night of shooting in the earlier rounds, and on a strong offensive performance free-throws might not play as big a factor, once reaching the later rounds with good defensive opponents like Florida State and Ohio State waiting in the wings, the likelihood of slipping on luck wears thin. While I like the Bearcats over the #11 seed Texas Longhorns in the opening match-up, their shooting struggles will be exposed by a Florida State team that is peaking just at the right time. There is potential for Cincy to make a run of things this year, considering their depth from Yancy Gates to Sean Kilpatrick to Dion Dixon, but their inconsistency is a red flag and I don’t think they’ll be able to run three straight games towards the Elite 8 without suffering an inevitable poor shooting night.

Top #6 vs. #3 Match-up in Round of 32 Competition: Florida State vs. Cincinnati

Expecting both the Bearcats and the Seminoles to get through their first-round match-ups will lead to a very entertaining Round of 32 match-up between two confident teams that are playing very well coming into the tournament. While I’ve mentioned that Cincinnati struggles with consistency, nonetheless they should be up for a great showdown with Florida State, and if they get good outside shooting from Sean Kilpatrick and have success at the free-throw line as they did in their Big East tournament semifinal win over Syracuse, the Bearcats could find themselves toe-to-toe with Ohio State in the Elite 8. Florida State on the other hand, who should be able to maintain their own confidence after winning the ACC title, should have little trouble getting past #14 St. Bonaventure in the Round of 64, and will pose big problems for the Bearcats in the Round of 32. However, they could struggle if leading scorer Michael Snaer (14.5 ppg) fails to have a good shooting night against a very physical Cincinnati team, and if the Bearcats are able to control the battle under the bucket, using the brute strength of Yancy Gates to overpower FSU’s Bernard James, there is plenty of reason to believe Florida State falls here.

Florida State however has been able to generate a lot more points ahead of this tournament, scoring over 80 points in 3 of their last 4 games and they are riding a 5-game winning streak that has seen them beat teams in a variety of ways; They shot lights out against North Carolina at 58.9 percent from the floor to win a high-scoring contest for their first ACC crown, the first for a team outside of North Carolina since 2004. They held Duke to under 60 points, under 40 percent shooting from the floor, and to just 25 percent from 3-pt range. In a scrappy, defensive tie with Virginia on the road, they shot well, but more importantly withstood a second-half push from the Cavaliers and a huge effort from Mike Scott who had 28 points, winning at the buzzer on a 3-pointer from Ian Miller. I love a team on a hot streak heading into a tournament where confidence means everything playing in a neutral, foreign location, and Florida State’s knowledge that they can beat elite teams (besting both UNC and Duke twice apiece this year) bodes well for their chances in a tournament format. Their consistency will get them into the Elite 8 this year, overcoming the Bearcats with a solid closing effort in what should be a very watchable, very intense back-and-forth contest. Who knows? They might even be able to squeeze into the Final Four with another clutch buzzer beater…

Ohio State meanwhile will have a relatively easy go of things getting to the Elite 8 as a #2 seed this year, with Loyola (Md) posing little threat to the talented Buckeyes in the Round of 64, and a match-up between either Gonzaga, who doesn’t travel well, or West Virginia, who is in disarray, looking very favorable as well for head coach Thad Matta’s boys. Therefore, a match-up between either Cincinnati or Florida State appears to be the shakedown for the bottom half of the East Region bracket, and both of these situations in the Sweet 16 will be outstanding for basketball fans to witness. What troubles me about Ohio State though is their inability to be effective from the perimeter, with no true outside shooter posting better than a 35 percent shooting mark from 3-point range. As a team, Ohio State shoots just 32.9 percent from deep, and in a tournament where the big outside shot can be an essential component in tight games, this is a pretty big flaw. The Buckeyes can also struggle in low scoring games where they are held to 70 points or less, losing the last 4 games in which that scenario played out. That is where Florida State could find themselves with a good advantage if they can make it to the Elite 8 against them. Here’s another tough scenario for OSU; even if Syracuse can’t get out of the top-half of the bracket (which most everybody predicts they will), the two most likely teams to face the Buckeyes appear to be Wisconsin or Vanderbilt, who could both make trouble for the Orange in different ways. The Badgers would have to get a lock-down defensive performance, and better than average shooting. Vandy would need it’s big boys in the paint to dominate, which could be a distinct possibility with Fab Melo out of the Syracuse equation. If the Badgers get the chance to face Ohio State, the Buckeyes will have to play back-to-back against the two toughest defenses in the East region (provided Florida State does get past Cincy, as I’ve predicted). That drastically reduces Ohio State’s likelihood of getting into the Final Four this year in any case, unless they find their perimeter game, or find a way to eek out a win in a low-scoring contest.

While there are cases that can be made for both Syracuse and Ohio State getting bumped off in the Sweet 16, as a number of quality opponents stand out in the East, it does, on paper at least, seem inevitable that these two elite programs will clash in the Elite 8 for a chance to play on March 31st against the winner of the Midwest Region in the Final Four. I just don’t happen to believe it will pan out that way, since this region looks to have the biggest opportunity for a #3, #4 or #5 to sneak past the big boys. However, in that scenario where the Buckeyes meet the Orangemen, Syracuse’s depth, provided they can get their veterans like Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph back into form, looks to be favorable against Ohio State, who can struggle on the defense glass, and doesn’t have a true outside threat against the Orangemen’s solid 2-3 zone. Dion Waiters is certainly a figure to watch for the Orangemen in the tournament, as the sophomore comes into the tournament having progressively scored more points in 5 straight games, and finished with 28 points on 7-10 shooting from 3-point range against Cincinnati on March 9th. While Fab Melo’s absence certainly doesn’t help Syracuse whatsoever, their talented roster has more than enough players who can step up in his place. Ohio State will have to become less reliant on Jared Sullinger in order to make their way to the Final Four, and if he’s contained defensively, the Buckeyes are in big trouble. Thus, look for Syracuse to be yet another #1 seed with good reasons for making their way through to the Final Four, as its very likely that Kris Joseph, Dion Waiters, Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine…and on and on, eventually click together and push through the East Region. However, it’s also inevitable that the seemingly unthinkable happens somewhere in this tournament, and with stiff competition in the East, I’m predicting neither #1 Syracuse or #2 Ohio State are left standing at the end of the Sweet 16. I’m going with #5 Vanderbilt to clash with #3 Florida State for the right to play in New Orleans, with the inside size and shooting presence of the Commodores pushing them into the Big Dance. It’s so crazy, it just might work. No matter which way you pick this very difficult portion of the bracket, make sure to check out all the best odds at the top sports betting websites reviewed here for some of the best tournament match-ups available, and stay on top of the match-ups as the tournament progresses for you best chances of winning big at the online sportsbooks this year.

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