Philadelphia is the home of the East Region of the NCAA Tournament, and The City of Brotherly Love is known for its toughness, physicality, and generally aggressive basketball players. Philly basketball games are rock fights. Only the strong survive.
However, that makes the East Region a bit of a paradox. Because the 16-team field is populated with a host of powerhouse programs known for their offensive firepower and free-flowing style of play. North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana and Notre Dame are four of the top seeds in this part of the bracket. Those programs are basketball royalty. But they all have the same weakness this season: all have questions about their mental and physical toughness.
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The East Region semifinals and finals will take place on Friday, March 25, and Sunday, March 27, in the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Here are Doc's Sports March Madness bracket predictions for the East Region (with odds courtesy of the MGM Grand):
No. 1 Seed: North Carolina Tar Heels (+140 to win East Region)
You shouldn't need me to tell you how great the Tar Heels are - every other bobblehead analyst in the country has been singing this team's praises all season. I'm obviously not as high on North Carolina as everyone else in the country is . And I really don't see this as a national championship team. North Carolina does have plenty of talent. Brice Johnson was a first-team All-American and Marcus Paige is an all-ACC guard. Justin Jackson is also a guy with NBA potential, and UNC is stacked with highly-touted players. North Carolina showed rare defensive intensity in Washington, D.C. at the ACC Tournament last week. If that continues then this group will be tough to stop. But this group of Heels, who have played together for two or three seasons, has been soft, mentally and physically. Also, this team really struggles to shoot the ball from the outside (No. 307 in 3-point shooting at just 31.4 percent) and it is tough for a national title contender to have such a glaring weakness.
North Carolina Tournament Predictions: For all the talent the Heels have allegedly had, they have still been beaten 18 times the past two seasons. Further, UNC only has one Top 50 nonconference win (Maryland) and went just 5-4 against Top 40 teams this year, with two of the wins coming last weekend in the ACC Tournament. I think that this team is ripe for an upset, and I don't think that they will make it out of their region.
No. 2 Seed: Xavier Musketeers (+400 to win East Region)
I think the best word to describe this young Musketeers team is "nasty". The X-Men are pretty ruthless and proved it in the nonconference with double-digit wins over good teams like Michigan (by 16), Alabama (by 19), USC (by 10), Dayton (by 29) and Cincinnati (by 10). Only four teams have beaten Xavier this year, and this team has to be smarting a bit from its Big East Tournament loss to Seton Hall. Two future pro guards, Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner, lead this team and are complimented by a pair of 6-10 forwards, Jalen Reynolds and James Farr. Add in some nice complimentary pieces, and Xavier has a tight seven-man rotation that can get hot in a hurry. Xavier defends well and can score a variety of ways, with top-end NBA talent to lean on when things get tough.
Xavier Tournament Predictions: Xavier has been a Top 10 staple the second half of the season, and they absolutely have the talent to win this region. But do they have the savvy? The three guys that control the ball on offense - Bluiett, Sumner and J.P. Macura - are all freshmen and sophomores. On the other hand, the core of this team is the same as the one that made it to the Sweet 16 last year, so they've tasted March success. Xavier could have a very tough game with Wisconsin in the second round. But if they make it out of the opening weekend: watch out.
No. 3 Seed: West Virginia Mountaineers (+350)
Bob Huggins is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament and he is bringing a ruthless and relentless Mountaineers squad to the East Region this season. West Virginia lost only one starter from the team that made the Sweet 16 last year, and the Mountaineers simply bludgeon opponents into submission with full-court defensive pressure and an offensive system that relies on easy baskets and second-chance points. WVU has a trio of quality guards in Jaysean Paige, Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles. But when they need a bucket they will likely throw it in to forwards Devin Williams or Jonathan Holton. The Mountaineers don't shoot the ball well from 3-point range (32.9 percent) or the free throw line (67 percent), and if they lose those facets will be their undoing. But it takes a physically- and mentally-tough team to handle 40 minutes in the ring with Huggy's boys, and this will be one of the toughest outs of the tournament.
West Virginia Tournament Predictions: This team fears no one. They went toe-to-toe with Kansas for the Big 12 title last Saturday and came up just short. But they have played, and beaten, some of the top teams in the country this year in the Big 12. I think with the way this team is constructed they are immune to an upset. So if West Virginia gets bounced before the Regional Finals or Final Four it will be at the hands of one of the other high seeds in this bracket.
No. 4 Seed: Kentucky Wildcats (+250)
Last season the Wildcats were playing for immortality, trying to become the first undefeated national champion in over 40 years. They enter this year's tournament with less hype but no lower expectations. Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray comprise what may be the best backcourt in the country. And Coach Cal always boasts one of the largest, longest, and most athletic frontcourts in the nation. However, this is still a very raw team and one of the most inexperienced groups in the country. Also, unlike Calipari's more recent title contenders, this Kentucky team is build from the outside in. All of Kentucky's losses this year came on the road or at neutral sites.
Kentucky Tournament Predictions: Don't be fooled by Kentucky's extremely optimistic odds to win this region: this is definitely not a national title contender. Kentucky lost to some bad teams away from home this year - UCLA, Ohio State, LSU, Auburn, and Tennessee - and thee Wildcats don't defend or score inside like recent vintage Kentucky teams. I think if the Wildcats have to face the other top seeds in this region then they'll get beaten. Kentucky doesn't match up well with UNC, Xavier or WVU. But since this bracket may have the shakiest top five seeds of any region, the Wildcats have the talent to seize the opportunity if upsets can claim some of their more talented rivals.
No. 5 Seed: Indiana Hoosiers (+500)
Perhaps no one in the country did a better coaching job than Tom Crean. Hoosier Nation was calling for his head after a blowout loss to Duke dropped this team to 5-3 early in the season. But Indiana was able to overcome the loss of double-digit scorer James Blackmon, and IU became the surprise regular-season champion of an extremely deep, talented Big Ten. Yogi Ferrell is one of the most accomplished guards in Indiana history, and freshman center Thomas Bryant is a future lottery pick. Indiana has three other forwards, Troy Williams, Max Bielfeldt and Collin Hartman, that can do a bit of everything. But Indiana's stay could be short if starting guard Robert Johnson (ankle) isn't healthy enough to play this weekend after missing the Big Ten Tournament last week.
Indiana Tournament Predictions: The Hoosiers did win the Big Ten regular season this year. But a closer look shows that they were the beneficiaries of an unbalanced schedule (they only played Michigan State, Purdue, and Maryland once apiece and two of those games were at home). These guys have bad losses to Wake Forest, UNLV and Penn State this season, and the Hoosiers can be erratic outside of Bloomington. Even if Johnson comes back, I'm afraid these guys have peaked. And the best this bunch can hope for is an upset win over Kentucky in the second round. They won't advance any further.
No. 6 Seed: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (+1800)
The Irish showed off their yin and yang in the ACC Tournament, using their explosive offense to make a massive comeback and beat Duke in the quarterfinals and then turning around and watching their porous defense get overrun in a 31-loss to North Carolina in the semis. Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste are as talented of a one-two punch as you can find, and guard Steve Vasturia is a guy that made a bunch of big shots in Notre Dame's Elite Eight run last season. But Notre Dame has zero depth, and they've showed even less mental and physical toughness when playing against bigger, stronger opponents.
Notre Dame Tournament Predictions: Notre Dame is kind of are who they are. The Irish are the only team in the country to beat Duke, North Carolina and Louisville this year. That's no small feat. But they've also been blown out on the road by teams like Syracuse and Florida State. The Irish have to wait to see whom their first-round opponent will be (either Michigan or Tulsa) and will be favored in that game. But West Virginia is the worst possible opponent for the Irish in the second round, and there are too many uber-athletic teams in this region for Notre Dame to be much of a factor.
Best first-round match up: No. 8 USC (+1.5) vs. No. 9 Providence
This is a great matchup and there will be a lot of scoring punch on the floor in this one. With Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, Providence boasts two guys that will be Top 25 picks in this summer's NBA Draft. Providence is young - they don't have a single senior on the roster - but they surround their dynamic duo with some very rangy, active players. USC is also young, and they don't have any seniors either. But they have a ton of scoring power, with five guys averaging 11.4 or more points and six players averaging 9.8 points or more per game. USC is likely to bring everyone back and should start next season in the preseason Top 10. But Trojan backers would love to see this team show up
Best potential second-round match up: No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 5 Indiana
You know the selection committee was salivating at being able to set up this potential game for the second round. These are two blueblood programs with a long and storied history against one another. Assuming Indiana is healthy, this game will feature two outstanding backcourts. Also, top freshman Thomas Bryant will have to battle with Kentucky's touted young frontcourt players. Frankly, I think Kentucky would smoke Indiana if this is the actual matchup, and I don't think the actual game would live up to the hype going in. But when you get two historic rivals, both of whom won their conference regular-season crowns, it is definitely something that should pique interest.
Upset Alert (first round): No. 5 Indiana (-12) vs. No. 12 Chattanooga
Of course, Indiana has to beat Chattanooga first if they want a crack at Kentucky. Chattanooga is a very talented team that actually went into Georgia, Illinois and Dayton and beat three solid teams. I know none of those teams are on Indiana's level, but it shows that Chattanooga is more than capable of playing with teams from major conferences. The Mocs are a clamp-down defensive team that successfully transitioned from Will Wade's press-based system to Matt McCall's half-court pressure. Chattanooga is an efficient offense that doesn't have one focal point. The key will be the matchup of 6-10 center Justin Tuoyo versus Bryant. If the Mocs can hold their own on the boards then they have a chance. If they can't then this one will get out of hand.
Upset Alert (second round): No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 8 USC or No. 9 Providence
Look, I've made my opinion on North Carolina clear. They can play. Their talent is undeniable. But they have weaknesses. And I think that either of these lower seeds could give them problem. Providence runs the flex offense, and they have the defensive capability and athleticism to slow down the Heels. USC has scorers, lots and lots of scorers. North Carolina's running game won't scare the Trojans, who also have a powerhouse center, Nikola Jovanovic, that can control the paint. I'm not saying that North Carolina won't make it out of the opening weekend. But I am saying that whichever team they face will give them a steep test.
Dark Horse team: No. 3 West Virginia
West Virginia isn't going to beat itself. That's a rarity in college basketball. To beat this team you have to grab them by the throat and pin them to the ground. That toughness separates them from softer, more marketable teams like Carolina, Indiana and Notre Dame. Xavier isn't nearly as accomplished. And if anything happens to them then the bottom half of the bracket opens right up for the Mountaineers. If they can make the Elite Eight they will either get a chance to body slam North Carolina - which would be a bad matchup for the Heels - or to have a revenge matchup with Kentucky, the team that embarrassed them on the way out of last year's dance. Either way, there is definitely a path that could put the Mountaineers in the Final Four.
Team That Makes Me Nervous: No. 2 Xavier
This was a team that I was really high on and definitely looking forward to watching in this tournament. They have Final Four talent. But they don't have any experience, and I don't like their draw. Wisconsin has made a living by slowing down and taking down more up-tempo squads. Will Xavier have the patience and savvy to stave off an upset? And if Xavier is able to bust through into the second round then how will they fare against the other top guns in this group? Look, I really like this team. But this is kind of a boom-or-bust team that could be a dangerous squad for bettors and bracket aficionados.
2016 East Region Predictions: Look, whoever wants to win this region needs to man-up. North Carolina has all the talent in the world. But outside of one good weekend last week they have never shown the heart and toughness that championship teams possess. I don't think they pick that up overnight. Xavier has athleticism and a bit of an edge, but questions about their maturity and experience keep me from throwing all-in behind them. Indiana? Notre Dame? Too Downy soft. I think that if the bracket breaks the right way then either West Virginia or Kentucky could emerge. I think that they have the right mix of talent and attitude. If North Carolina and West Virginia get bumped off in the opening weekend then no one will stop the Wildcats. I also think that West Virginia would strong arm either Carolina or Kentucky in a regional final, but that all depends on the Mountaineers - whose offense is shaky to say the least - avoiding an upset of their own.
Everyone and their sister is throwing their weight behind North Carolina. But I'm going to go a different direction here. I'll say that if UNC makes the Sweet 16 and avoids West Virginia then they will go to the Final Four. But I don't know if that will be the case. So I will say that the best betting value in this region is to play on WVU to advance.
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and he is on an unbelievable run right now, more than doubling his clients' bankrolls in the last seven weeks while earning $13,900 in profit! Robert has banked 10 straight winning college basketball regular seasons and he will have his 8-Unit NCAA Tournament Game of the Year available on Thursday this week. There is no better moneymaker in the nation and Robert is looking forward to another amazing March Madness. Click here to get two days of college basketball picks for free - no hassle and no credit card needed.
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