The road to the East Regional title goes through Madison Square Garden, as the great basketball arena hosts NCAA Tournament play for the first time in over 50 years. TheSportsNotebook has laid the groundwork for this regional with our “Tale of the Tape” report on all 16 teams in the bracket. In this post, we’ll run through nine general thoughts on the region, followed by game-by-game picks…
*I’m going for it. This is the region where I’m targeting the first-ever victory by a #16 seed over a #1 seed, as Coastal Carolina upsets Virginia. As admirable as Virginia is, I think they’re going out early. Tony Bennett has never coached as this kind of a favorite and I think at minimum, they lose in the second round. If I’m going to pick that, it’s a marginal risk to move the upset up one round and go for history. Virginia’s great virtue is that they’ve overachieved—but that also means they don’t have dominating talent and that can catch up to you.
*The second reason I’m picking this upset is Coastal Carolina. I loved this program back in the early 1990s when they had Tony Dunkin, Duwayne Cheatam and Brian Penny (the fact I can recall their names at the drop of a hat as though they were Bird, McHale and Parrish is a sure sign I need to find a girlfriend). The backcourt for the 2014 team is solid, with Elijah Wilson and Warren Gillis is solid, but my real motive for wanting this upset is nostalgia for my personal history.
*There’s upset potential in general in this bracket. Delaware and UNC-Central have each tested themselves against good teams—Delaware only lost to Villanova by four and UNCC actually beat N.C. State. I can’t take the Blue Hens because they’re running into Michigan State, and I kind of like Iowa State, the opponent for Central. But both underdogs are live ones.
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*That’s to say nothing of 12-seed Harvard, who won a first-round game over New Mexico in 2013, and now gets to play a slumping Cincinnati team in the first game this year. I’m picking the Crimson to do it. I respect the job Mick Cronin did at Cincy this year, winning a co-championship in the American Athletic (with Louisville), but his team is too dependent on guard Sean Kilpatrick and Harvard can match up with that.
*Memphis is the team I have as the beneficiary of a Virginia upset, but it’s really my hopes for Memphis that triggered this to begin with. I’ve been high on the Tigers since November, with the tandem of Joe Jackson in the backcourt and Shaq Goodwin at forward. There’s been a lot of up-and-down play that’s disappointed me, but Memphis only lost to Florida by two and the Tigers swept Louisville. This first weekend of the tournament is about Memphis validating their potential and I think they get it done.
*There are very principles in sports handicapping that have served me well consistently over my 44 years of life, but one that has is this—when a team comes from the middle of the pack to win a conference tournament, go against them in the Big Dance. It’s a team whose overall body of work has shown they aren’t consistent enough to keep it going and winning the league tourney probably made the season. The only time this ever burned me was Kemba Walker and UConn in 2011. Two teams fit this criteria in 2014 and both are on the bottom half of the East bracket—St. Joe’s (Atlantic 10) and Providence (Big East).
*The presence of St. Joe’s and Providence makes it harder for me to completely gut a half of the bracket I don’t particularly like. I’m not high on Villanova and while I do like Iowa State’s talent, no team shot the ball better in conference tournament play then the Cyclones did in rolling through the Big 12. That’s something hard to repeat and Iowa State is perilously close to being one of those middle-of-the-pack tourney champs. If you wanted to go against them based on that, I couldn’t argue. But the trio of Melvin Ejim, DeAndre Kane and Georges Niang is really explosive and score inside the arc, so I’ll go the other direction and say Iowa State takes advantage of a soft draw, plays beyond its seed and reaches a regional final as a 3-seed.
*There’s nothing about UConn that excites me, but I’ve got them going to the Sweet 16. If only because I’m not high on Villanova, and therefore want to pick an upset out of that pod. I’ve ruled out St. Joe’s and am not ready to say 15-seed Milwaukee can pull a Florida Gulf Coast from last year and reach the Sweet 16 off that seed line. That leaves UConn.
*Michigan State is my Final Four pick out of this bracket, as they seem to be for just about everyone, including the president of the United States as of this morning. If you believe history repeats itself, you have to like a potential regional final showdown with Iowa State—that’s who Sparty beat in the regional final of 2000, en route to a national title. That year saw Michigan State beat Florida in the national championship game, and it’s possible we could see Spartans-Gators in the Final Four.
Coastal Carolina over Virginia
Memphis over George Washington
Memphis over Coastal Carolina
Harvard over Cincinnati
Michigan State over Delaware
Michigan State over Harvard
North Carolina over Providence
Iowa State over UNC-Central
Iowa State over North Carolina
UConn over St. Joe’s
Villanova over UW-Milwaukee
UConn over Villanova
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN
Michigan State over Memphis
Iowa State over UConn
Michigan State over Iowa State