The most exciting tournament in sports needs no introduction. But I’ll give it one anyway, not because it needs one, but because it deserves one … March Madness is here! And that means the national gross domestic product is about to grind to a halt as every man, woman, and child gives their undivided attention to college basketball. Leading up to the tournament, I’ll be going through each region with my final four pick, sleeper team, and bracket buster. Today we finish with the East and Midwest regions. The Final Four and Championship round predictions are included as well. Enjoy the mayhem, everyone!
Final Four Pick: West Virginia Mountaineers (#3 seed)
West Virginia is a defensive juggernaut, ranking 6th in the country in defensive efficiency and 1st in steals per game (9.9). Led by veteran coach Bob Huggins, they wear opponents down with their relentless full court pressure and deep rotation. The Mountaineers are battle tested, with signature wins against Oklahoma and #1 overall seed Kansas. They are a poor 3-point shooting team and can hit some offensive slumps, but their standout defense is enough to carry them past the other good, but not great teams in the East region.
Sleeper: Wisconsin Badgers (#7 seed)
No longer seeing longtime coach Bo Ryan stalk the sidelines for Wisconsin might look weird, but this is still the same old team. They play at a glacially slow pace, and play strong defense. After a rough start, the Badgers turned their season around by finishing 11-2, before losing in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. With wins against Michigan State, Indiana, Iowa, and Maryland, Wisconsin can beat anyone in the country.
Bracket Buster: None
The bracket buster in the East region will be that there is no bracket buster. In other words, picking a Cinderella team will bust your bracket.
Final Four Pick: Michigan State Spartans (#2 seed)
Michigan State does everything well that you would want a team that is about to make a long NCAA tournament run to do well. They led the nation in 3-point shooting percentage (44.5%) and assists per game (20.7), ranked 2nd in opponents shooting percentage (37.7%), and ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency. They have a dominating player in Denzel Valentine, and one of the best coaches in the county in Tom Izzo. Bet against the Spartans at your own risk.
Sleeper: Purdue Boilermakers (#5 seed)
Purdue has a huge team, led by 7-foot center A.J. Hammons (15.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.5 bpg). They rebound very well, hit their free throws, and ranked 30th in the nation in opponents 3-point shooting percentage (31.1%). Victories against Wisconsin, Maryland, and Michigan State prove they can beat anybody. They don’t shoot the three well and can be prone to droughts, but if the outside shot is falling, Purdue has all the ingredients to make a surprise run.
Bracket Buster: Gonzaga Bulldogs (#11 seed)
Former Cinderella turned perennial powerhouse, Gonzaga finds themselves back in familiar position of being the underdog. But not really, because Vegas has them favored to beat Seton Hall in the first round. Nice job selection committee. But a #11 seed is in bracket buster territory, and you know what they say, if the shoe fits … no need to buy other shoes. The Bulldogs are led by senior Kyle Wiltjer (20.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and the emotional powder keg Domantas Sabonis (17.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg), son of legend Arvydas Sabonis. They don’t have any signature wins, and didn’t have a particularly great season, but their dominant frontcourt will be very hard to topple.
Final Four and Championship round
Kansas and Michigan State are the class of college basketball this season. They are both well rounded teams that can beat you in a variety of ways (inside scoring, outside scoring, defense). They have the perfect combination of talent, veteran leadership, and coaching that looks like it will lead straight to a collision course in the Championship round. And that should be one hell of a game. Michigan State beat Kansas 79-73 way back in November, and I’ll take them to win again, this time 76-74 in an instant classic.
By Michael Halpern
Twitter: Imaginary Brick Wall (@ImaginaryBrickW)