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The East bracket is stacked with storylines: two worthy #1 seeds, a variety pack of small-school sleepers, and one of the strangest early-round matchups in tournament history. There are two Big East enigmas, two Pac-12 disappointments, (including one with a home game) and plenty of mid-major champions with unique playing styles. Plus, some of the most fascinating big men in the country, from Cody Zellar and Kenny Kadji to Mike Muscala and Jake Cohen. There is no smooth path to the Final Four here: if Indiana gets through barriers like Syracuse and UNLV, they will find Miami waiting for them at the draw bridge.
16 LIU Brooklyn (20-13) vs. 16 James Madison (20-14)
Wednesday, Dayton, 6:40 p.m. ET
This may be the most compelling "First Four" matchup of No. 16 schools ever. The Blackbirds are second only to Belmont in terms of little-school lovability these days, but LIU-Brooklyn is more than just a geographically challenged metro program with an old-school tradition. The Blackbirds are one of the most shot-happy teams in the nation, with eight players who regularly spot up for three-pointers. James Madison, on the other hand, is a defense-first team led by Rayshawn Goins (12.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG), who looks and plays like a Baby Barkley. It's offense versus defense, snipers versus post-and-penetrators, and a spunky Cinderella against a mid-major who underachieved for most of the season. Watch the Dukes pull this out, then see if Goins can keep his Barkley impersonation up during a meeting with Cody Zeller (he can't).
Pick: James Madison.
1 Indiana (27-6) vs. 16 First Four Winner
If this is the kind of draw they can expect, the Hoosiers will lose twice to Wisconsin every year.
8 North Carolina State (24-10) vs. 9 Temple (23-9)
The Owls have superstar guard Khalif Wyatt (19.8 PPG), a lineup full of seniors, Khalif Wyatt, the brilliant coaching of Fran Dunphy, Khalif Wyatt, the moxie to come back from a double-digit deficit to beat VCU in the last game of the regular season, the inconsistency to fall to UMass in the A-10 quarterfinals, and Khalif Wyatt. NC State has C.J. Leslie and four other double digit scores, a senior-laden lineup of their own, a win over Duke on their resume, almost no perimeter game, a weak bench, and a sense that this season should have turned out much better. The Wolfpack are seeking redemption, but Temple is more versatile, and Wyatt's not-so-secret weapon is his 83.2% foul shooting: he can score 10 points per game by creating contact, and he makes the Owls hard to come back on in the final minutes.
5 UNLV (25-9) vs. 12 California (20-11)
Thursday, San Jose
The Running Rebels won a gem of a game at California in early December. They will have to win a gem of a game at California again to advance. UNLV out-rebounded Cal 36-26 in their last meeting; only poor Rebel shooting kept their 66-65 win close. Anthony Bennett scored 25 points and 13 rebounds in that game; production like that became a day at the office for him en route to Mountain West Player of the Year honors. UNLV has a big rebounding advantage and better scorers. All the Golden Bears have are 12-versus-5 mojo, the knowledge that they almost pulled out it a few months ago, and a de-facto home court advantage. Say, how did that happen, anyway?
4 Syracuse (26-9) vs. 13 Montana (25-6)
Thursday, San Jose
A spanking at the hands of Louisville reminded the basketball world of just how bad Syracuse looked before the Big East tournament. The Orange can have offensive brain drains when James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams ignore their shooting consciences and C.J. Fair starts dribbling into catastrophes. Also, a top-notch press like Louisville's can drive them to distraction, though there are few top-notch presses like Louisville's. Montana would be a tougher draw if their best frontcourt player, Mathias Ward, was not out with a foot injury. Montana can hold its own in the backcourt, but Fair and Southerland will be able to drive, post, and dominate.
6 Butler (26-8) vs. 11 Bucknell (28-5)
UPSET ALERT. This is not the Butler team we have grown accustomed to in recent years. The Bulldogs can get beaten by good pressure defense, are not very deep, rely on their perimeter game too often, and are susceptible to good post scorers, as Dwayne Evans of St. Louis demonstrated in his 24-point performance in the A-10 semifinals. The Bison have legitimate NBA prospect Mike Muscala in the middle and plenty of snipers on the outside. Muscala can beat you with post moves or kick-out passes; if he wins his battle against Andrew Smith (or gets Smith into foul trouble), the Bison will win this game.
3 Marquette (23-8) vs. 14 Davidson (26-7)
UPSET ALERT #2. The sloppy, turnover-prone, offensively baffled Golden Eagles team that lost to Notre Dame in the Big East quarterfinals does not stand a chance against Davidson, an incredibly disciplined team that runs a crisp set offense in which every pass has a purpose. Of course, Marquette usually plays better than they did against Notre Dame, when the basics of help defense eluded them and their offense deteriorated into a series of Vander Blue drives to the bucket. Marquette cannot count on a huge physical advantage: Davidson has Jake Cohen (14.8 PPG), a 6-foot-10 shot blocker with scoring range who can hold his own in the middle, and De'Mon Brooks (13.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG), a thick body with quick feet. The Wildcats are exactly the kind of team upset seekers love: they have tournament experience, an offense based on ball movement that can control and confuse a more athletic opponent, and enough experience against big schools to keep them from trembling.
7 Illinois (22-12) vs. 10 Colorado (21-11)
The frontcourt battles will be compelling, with Brandon Paul, Tracy Abrams and D.J. Richardson of the Illini (39.6 PPG combined) battling Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker (28.0 PPG) of the Buffalos. Otherwise, these are two also-rans from overrated power conferences filling out a bracket until the Hurricanes show up. The Buffaloes have a major advantage in big man Andre Patterson (10.9 points, 11.3 rebounds) and are playing better than Illinois, who lost two of their last six games.
2 Miami (27-6) vs. 15 Pacific (22-12)
Miami wins ACC regular season, wins ACC tournament, then gets iced out of a top seed and must face a hot-at-the-right time Pacific team whose coach (Bob Thomason) is retiring after 25 years. This kind of thing never, ever, EVER happens to Duke. The Tigers do not have the athletes or the system to compete with the Hurricanes, but if this game stays close and they start believing, watch out. However, it will not stay close.
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1 Indiana vs. 9 Temple
Cody Zeller trumps everything the Owls throw at him down low; Victor Oladipo neutralizes Wyatt.
5 Syracuse vs. 4 UNLV
How confident are you in the strength of Mountain West basketball? How confident are you in Syracuse's ability to play multiple games at a high level against unfamiliar opponents? I am semi-confident in the first and would rather put my life's savings in a slot machine than bank on the second.
11 Bucknell vs. 14 Davidson
Saturday, San Jose
Muscala becomes a household name; the Bisons become this year's sweethearts.
10 Colorado vs. 2 Miami
Saturday, San Jose
The Buffalo guards match up fairly well with Shane Larkin and Durand Scott. The trick to surviving Miami is coming up with an answer for Kenny Kadji, the big man whose three-point range can pull your center to unusual spots on the floor and taffy-stretch your defense. The Hurricanes are still a round from being threatened.
1 Indiana vs. 4 UNLV
This will be a brutal test for Indiana. Bennett, Anthony Marshall, and Bryce Dejean Jones give the Rebels enough firepower to compete with the Hoosiers, and Khem Birch can be part of a Zeller solution. This one will be physical, low-scoring and down to the wire.
11 Bucknell vs. 2 Miami
This is as far as you go with one great player, a good system, and a dream.
1 Indiana vs. 2 Miami
Miami proves that they are deeper, more versatile, and yes, more battle tested than the Hoosiers.
Around the East Bracket
Underseeded: Miami. They won the ACC regular season and tournament, but give up the #1 seed to an Indiana team that lost in the Big Ten quarterfinals? Miami has some strange losses on their resume, most of them early in their schedule (Florida Gulf Coast, this is your shout out), while Indiana held serve against their Coppin States and Sam Houstons. The moral of the story: if you are going to pack your December schedule with Central Connecticut State, you will be both forgiven and rewarded for it, but only if you win.
Overseeded: Illinois. Their late-season performance screams "first round game against mid-major."
Passive-Aggressive Seeding: The Mountain West and Pac-12 Conference each landed five teams in the tournament. The selection committee told the Pac-12 what it thought about this year's competition level by seeding two teams 12th, one 10th, and two sixth, while the MWC earned a third, fifth, seventh, eighth, and 13th. But the power conferences must be served, even in a year when the selectors went out of their way to give mid-majors a fair shake. So UNLV faces Cal, a team they already beat (rematches are typically a first-round no-no) in San Jose. Take that, conference Charles Barkley thinks is better than the Big Ten!
Best Player You Have Probably Heard Of: Mike Muscala, F, Bucknell. 19.0 points and 11 rebounds are going to get people's attention at any level of competition, but the 6-foot-11 senior brings even more to the table than scoring and rebounding. His shot blocking (2.4 per game) sets the tone for the Bisons defense: Bucknell defends the ball handler aggressively on high screens, knowing that Muscala will make a cutter think twice in the lane. Muscala also has a high-post passing game. He's a Brad Dougherty type, the NBA is well aware of his existence and we aren't going to cheat by calling him a player "you have never heard of."
Best Player You Have Never Heard Of: Kareem Jamar, G, Montana. Jamar (14.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 4.1 apg) is a powerfully-built 6-foot-5 swing man with a complete offensive game. He has three-point range and can drive to the basket and finish. He passes around the perimeter well and uses his thick frame effectively on the glass. Jamar and fellow guard Will Cherry helped the Grizzlies overcome the loss of top scorer Mathias Ward (foot), and their size and versatility will allow him to match up against Syracuse's tall, athletic backcourt players on both ends of the court.
Player the Bracket Hinges Upon: Michael Carter-Williams, G, Syracuse. If Carter-Williams takes 12-13 shots in a game, then the Orange lose. That is the way it has been since late January, when the tall all-purpose guard built a 4-for-17 brick pit in a loss to Villanova, followed by 3-for-12 masonry in a loss to Pitt. Carter-Williams is a gifted passer and high screener, and he can out-rebound most guards. He also shoots well when he gets his looks, but the Syracuse offense gums up when he starts trying to create for himself or launching. If Carter-Williams plays like he did through most of the Big East Tourney and the first half of the Syracuse schedule, he can slip his team into the Sweet 16.