The NCAA Tournament officially tips off with the "First Four" tonight. For the East Region, that means the "Dunk City" Florida Gulf Coast Eagles and the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights play for the opportunity to get crushed by North Carolina on Thursday night. UNC is one of the favorites in the entire NCAA Tournament, but they have a lot of work to do to just get out of the East Region.
With the Tournament officially beginning tonight, and the true 64-team event tipping off on Thursday, we're going through each region to give you bold picks to help you build an interesting, effective bracket. No one likes that person who goes all chalk.
Will North Carolina make it out of Philly? Do we get to see the rivalry game between Kentucky and Indiana in the second round? Will a sleeper emerge for a deep run? Here are five bold predictions for the East Region.
1. Stephen F. Austin Takes West Virginia To The Wire
If you've paid attention to the smaller college basketball conferences recently, you know that the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks are no joke. The program is heading to its third straight NCAA Tournament. In 2014, it knocked off fellow mid-major darling VCU in the first round. Last year, the Lumberjacks played Utah very tough, losing by seven. West Virginia grades out very highly in many advanced metrics, but SFA is no slouch either. The Lumberjacks are ranked 33rd overall by Ken Pomeroy, ahead of every 10 seed in the field, as well as teams like Notre Dame (6), Dayton (7), and Oregon State (7).
I won't go out on a limb and call for the upset, but it is probably the most-likely 14-3 upset available, and those have become increasingly common in recent tournaments. If you want to take one of those big upsets, this is the one to go with. This game begins at 7:10 p.m. on Friday evening, and could be a late-first round thriller.
2. Indiana Fans Freak Out After Poor Showing vs. Kentucky
This has been an important season for Tom Crean. His Indiana teams have been incredibly talented, but often fall well short of expectations. This year, however, the Hoosiers caught fire in Big Ten play, winning the league's regular season championship with a 15-3 record. We don't expect the Hoosiers to have much trouble with their 5-12 game against Chattanooga. Should they win, things immediately take a turn for the worse, as IU could play a potentially-underseeded Kentucky.
The Hoosiers are very good, but Kentucky is peaking at the right time, and feature maybe the best backcourt in college basketball. Add in the rivalry factor here—UK and IU had a long-standing series until the two sides couldn't come to an agreement about whether to play at the home arenas or neutral courts—and this would be a very heated match-up. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, it is one that the Wildcats would be favored in.
Either fan base would have an ugly reaction to a loss here, but Indiana finds itself right back on the edge of being a top program again. Losing big to Kentucky would send waves through Twitter, and probably cause a relaunch of the now silly-looking "Fire Tom Crean" movement. #BBN would revel in this as well, making things even worse for the Hoosiers.
3. Kentucky And North Carolina Play The Best Game Of The NCAA Tournament
Kentucky goes from playing one big name program—Indiana—to another: top-seeded North Carolina. This game pits an elite Wildcat backcourt, led by SEC Player of the Year Tyler Ulis and fantastic freshman Jamal Murray, against North Carolina's big, deep frontcourt, anchored by All-American Brice Johnson.
The programs are huge, the teams feature bona fide college stars, and legends on the sidelines. Roy Williams is gunning for his third national title while John Calipari is going for number two. If this match-up comes to pass, the Wells Fargo Center will be absolutely electric, with two true blue bloods facing off. It shouldn't disappoint on the court either.
Kentucky vs. North Carolina would feature Ulis against Marcus Paige, who has had an up-and-down senior year, but came up huge in the ACC Tournament. Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks would try to take advantage of Kentucky's forwards, but freshman Skal Labissiere has had encouraging performances in recent weeks, as has 6-foot-9 Derek Willis. Ultimately, I like the 'Cats to pull the upset this one and advance to the Elite Eight, but I'm even more sure that this would be a can't-miss game for college basketball fans.
4. Wisconsin Makes A Surprise Elite 8 Run
Back at mid-season, when head coach Bo Ryan stepped down, the Wisconsin Badgers looked to be in trouble. After a three-game losing streak early in Big Ten play, the Badgers were 9-9, with a 1-4 Big Ten record, and very few would have them sniffing the NCAA Tournament. The team rallied around interim head coach Greg Gard, and finished the year going 11-3, making the Tournament comfortably as a seven seed. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig have led the way for the Badgers, as many expected, while freshman Ethan Happ has turned into a very valuable forward, averaging 12.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
The Badgers are led by players with serious tournament experience, have a coach settling into his new role, and we like them to make a pretty deep run into March. Wisconsin opens with notorious tournament underachiever Pitt, before facing Xavier out of the Big East. The Musketeers have had a fantastic season, but Wisconsin has been great at dictating tempo in tournament play. Xavier is one of the nation's faster teams, while Wisconsin grinds games to a glacial pace, and plays an efficient game on both ends of the floor to edge out a win. The Badgers would face the Mountaineers, assuming they survive the aforementioned game with Stephen F. Austin and six-seed Notre Dame, in what would be the ultimate clash of styles. We'll take Wisconsin's experience over "Press Virginia," setting up a rematch of last year's Final Four game against Kentucky, for the chance to return for a third straight time.
5. Kentucky Wins The East Region
Most years, advancing Kentucky to the Final Four is hardly "bold," but the Wildcats flew under the radar for much of this season, taking a back seat to Texas A&M in the SEC, and to a number of top teams nationally. John Calipari has his team peaking in March, as he does, and he has proven he can take teams far, no matter how they looked in the regular season. The Anthony Davis national championship team, and last year's undefeated squad both made the Final Four after dominating the regular season, but so did the less-heralded 2010-11 team led by Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, and an eighth-seeded Kentucky made the national championship game in 2014.
If the Wildcats beat North Carolina, they can beat anyone in this region. The Tar Heels present an issue due to their talented big men, but few, if any, other teams in the entire field can match that. College basketball is very often a guard dominated game, and there isn't a better pairing right now than Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray.
A Wisconsin Elite Eight run under Greg Gard would be a cool story, but I'll take Kentucky and John Calipari to make the Final Four once again. This may not be the year he takes home his second title, but the development of this team during the season has been incredibly impressive, and Kentucky fans will definitely remember this group fondly.