Men's Basketball 2018 NCAA Tournament East Region Round of 64 Game Breakdowns

East Region Round of 64 Game Breakdowns
Though the Villanova Wildcats didn’t capture the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, they felt like a safe one seed for the entire season. Villanova finished the year with the nation’s top offense, scoring more than 87 points per game. With two stud scorers who can take over any game and a proclivity for launching without a pulse from three-point range, the Cats can pour it on against any opponent.
LIU Brooklyn had two prolific scorers of its own this year in guards Joel Hernandez and Raiquan Clark. The two combined to average 38.3 points per game and carry the Blackbirds to a surprising NEC championship. In LIU’s takedown of Wagner in the tournament title game, Hernandez and Clark racked up a marvelous 52 points, with the rest of their teammates scoring just 19 in total.
The Radford Highlanders had no such stars this season, though Carlik Jones became a star when he hit the game-winning shot in the Big South conference championship game to push Radford into their first NCAA Tournament since 2009. Radford likes to keep games slow and low-scoring. That may be enough to thwart an LIU attack, but neither squad has much of a chance of advancing past Villanova.
This first-round matchup pits a team attack of the Virginia Tech Hokies against a one-man show in Alabama. Virginia Tech finished the season with five players averaging double figures scoring and eight players that saw at least 11 minutes of action per game. No Hokie scored more than 13.8 points per game, and yet the team finished as one of the top 50 scoring teams in the country.
Compare that to Alabama. The Crimson Tide were carried by freshman point guard Collin Sexton and a slew of rotation players. Sexton led the Tide in points and assists. He averaged 19 points per game, the fifth-best mark in the nation among freshmen. No other Alabama player even reached 11 points per game. It is Sexton’s show.
Thanks to a change in lineup construction and effort on the defensive end, the Hokies’ defense caught up with their offense during the second half of the season. It will be up to that group to suffocate Sexton, forcing any other Tide player to beat them.
After incredibly high hopes to start the year, West Virginia took its lumps this season but still grabbed a respectable fifth seed in the tourney. The Mountaineers made the Big 12 title game, losing to Kansas. Unlike “normal” West Virginia squads in the Bob Huggins era, this year’s team actually graded out better offensively than it did defensively. The Press Virginia moniker still stuck around, but WVU averaged a startling 79.6 points per game. And it still did force the sixth-most turnovers in the nation, though perhaps took a few too many chances to get those this season.
Murray State, the winner of the Ohio Valley, offers an interesting matchup. The Racers don’t turn the basketball over and shoot the lights out, shooting 48.5 percent from the floor as a team. A 16-2 conference mark and OVC tournament title has them coming in hot too. They haven’t allowed an opponent to even reach 70 points since February 1, and they haven’t lost since the middle of January. West Virginia has the horses to end this streak, especially with Jevon Carter coming off a first-team All-Big 12 and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year season. But it won’t be easy to bend Murray State to its will.
Wichita State seemed to enjoy its new surroundings in the AAC. Though the Shockers didn’t cruise to 30 wins like they had in years past, a four seed shows the committee respected what WSU did regardless. Its top three scorers all average double figures while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor. Wichita State also shares the basketball better than nearly every other team in the tournament. It is a hard squad to contain, no matter who the opponent stifles on any given day.
Marshall doesn’t come in with that type of balance, but the Thundering Herd play Wichita’s game in another way. Led by a fearsome scoring trio in Jon Elmore (22.8 points per game), C.J. Burks (20.5 ppg), and Ajdin Penava (15.5 ppg), Marshall hoisted up shots and buckets at an alarming rate. It played the sixth-fastest adjusted tempo in the country and routinely surpassed 80 points a night. Of course, Marshall’s opponents were frequently right there with it, boding well for the Shockers in this matchup.
Led by the Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson, the Florida Gators simultaneously succeeded in the SEC and fell short of expectations. One of the worst shooting teams in the country, UF shot just over 43 percent from the floor and had major trouble on the boards. The Gators took very good care of the basketball, which helped balance out wasted possessions. Advanced metrics also love Florida this season, as it played one of the harder schedules in the country.
After failing to collect the A-10 title, St. Bonaventure barely squeaked into the big dance. Prior to their tournament loss to Davidson, though, the Bonnies had won 13 straight games. They shoot it awfully well from deep, which keeps them in ballgames when their opponent crushes them on the glass. UCLA similarly snuck into the field late, but the Bruins had nothing to blame but themselves. They only collected one out-of-conference win of quality all year and couldn’t keep their opponents off the scoreboard. UCLA had enough firepower to overcome that last season, but this year it was much more of a dogfight each outing. Both the Bonnies and Bruins will have a legitimate chance of taking down Florida, but neither is a sure thing to advance out of the play-in round beforehand.
A breakout season from the Red Raiders ended with a sputter. Texas Tech lost five of its last seven games, and leading scorer Keenan Evans was the main culprit. During Tech’s four-game losing streak, Evans suffered a toe injury and went on to shoot a combined 3-of-19 from the floor, missing one contest entirely. He scored just 12 total points over the quartet of games. With him at full strength, though, Texas Tech is a premiere defensive team, perhaps just a shade below the likes of Virginia and Cincinnati.
Stephen F. Austin is hoping for a balanced and efficient attack to prone the Red Raider defense, and a fearsome defensive effort that throws Tech for a loop. SFA led the nation in forced turnovers and total steals on its way to averaging more than 81 points per game. Eight different players snagged at least 29 steals this season. The Lumberjacks also shoot it pretty well from everywhere other than the free-throw line. This school had made the NCAA Tournament three straight times between 2014 and 2016 before missing out last year. It is back, though lacks a real go-to scorer that could swing the tide of a first-round upset. Instead it will be up to the defensive pressure to force Tech off its game.
#7 Arkansas vs. #10 Butler
Despite traversing a very tough schedule this season, Arkansas came out the other end with one of the upper echelon offenses around. Averaging 81 points per game, the Razorbacks are great from three-point range and get to the foul line an awful lot. Outside of shots within five feet, those are the best scoring opportunities a team can create for itself…if only Arkansas could make free throws. Even still, Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon, and company put the pressure on every opponent they face.
You can understand why Butler’s record makes it seem like a less-than-thrilling opponent. But it would be a mistake for Arkansas to underestimate the Bulldogs. Thanks to the Big East elite, Butler happened to play just a slog of a schedule. It played Villanova three times, Xavier twice, Seton Hall three times, and faced Purdue out of conference. A 2-7 record in those games perhaps means Butler doesn’t have the ceiling to topple giants in the tournament, but it could certainly knock off Arkansas in round one. Butler is balanced and experienced. Kelan Martin seems to have gotten better each of his four seasons in school. If only it didn’t foul so much and give up such easy looks from three. If each side plays its game, the Razorbacks can dice up Butler. It will be up to the Bulldogs to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Purdue is Villanova in a mirror. Both squads are nearly peerless offensively and hold their own on the other end. While Villanova slices opponents apart with guard play, Purdue dashes them from the inside out. And while everyone is overly familiar with Nova at this point, the Boilermakers feel like new money. No one is sure whether to believe they are actually this good. With dueling seven-footers, size on the wing, and a ton of upperclassmen experience, it makes sense that Purdue finally broke through. What remains to be seen is how far it can go with all the pressure of its seeding. This school hasn’t been ranked as highly as two in twenty years.
That pressure level shouldn’t matter in round one against Cal State Fullerton. The Titans are led by two upperclassmen of their own in juniors Kyle Allman and Khalil Ahmad, but they don’t possess the size or the strength inside to compete with Purdue. CS Fullerton got routinely dominated on the glass, especially outside of Big West play. They don’t force opponents into many mistakes and can’t take advantage from beyond the arc. They should have a tough go of things in round one here.