TOURNAMENT TIME

NCAA East Region preview: Villanova looms large

Keenan Evans will be the key for Texas Tech in a tough opener against SFA. Texastech.com

EAST REGION

THE TOP 4 SEEDS

Villanova, Purdue, Texas Tech, Wichita State

WHO SHOULD WIN

Villanova

Nova has everything you want in a title team. They have a great coach who is a proven winner in Jay Wright. They have the Big East Player of the Year in Jalen Brunson, and they have a squad loaded with guys who know what it takes to win a championship. The Wildcats didn’t lose a game in the non-conference season, mostly due to their overwhelming offensive attack. They average 87.2 PPG, tops in the country, and are the number one team in the country in offensive efficiency. They also shoot an unreal 40% from 3-point range. It will take a cold shooting night to knock off the Cats. 

IF NOT THEM

Purdue

Purdue is a very viable second option. They are also a fantastic three-point shooting team, and have a standout player in sophomore guard Carsen Edwards. He is flanked by four seniors, making Purdue another experienced threat. Isaac Haas is a focal point for multiple reasons. He can be a force down low, but when teams double him, the shooters come out to play. Purdue isn’t going into the tournament on fire, but they have the personnel to make it to San Antonio. 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Jalen Brunson- Villanova

Brunson is everything you want in a leader. He is cool under pressure. He is extremely talented. He lives and breathes the game. The junior guard led the Wildcats to another Big East title, capping it with a fantastic title game performance against Providence. He averaged 19.4 PPG and 4.7 APG and is amongst the most consistent and competitive players in the country. He will receive National Player of the Year votes. 

Collin Sexton- Alabama

Sexton proved himself capable of carrying Alabama further than most would have thought. Sexton willed the Tide to wins over Texas A&M and Auburn in the SEC tournament, and Bama wouldn’t even be in the tournament if not for him. Go back to an early season loss against Minnesota where Sexton almost brought Bama back against despite playing 3 on 5 down the stretch. Enjoy him while you can. 

Carsen Edwards- Purdue

Houston-area product Edwards has made the Boilermakers even better than they were last year, despite losing Caleb Swanigan to graduation. Edwards was a solid part of last year’s Purdue team, but this season he is the driving force of Purdue’s impressive offense. He averaged 18.5 points, 3 assists and 4 rebounds per game this season. 

BEST FIRST ROUND MATCHUP

Texas Tech vs. Stephen F. Austin

At full strength, Texas Tech has looked like a Final Four contender all season. The biggest problem has been who will score when Keenan Evans doesn’t, and who will handle the ball when he can’t. The latter issue is likely to be tested by SFA, who turns opponents over at the highest rate in the country. Lumberjack coach Kyle Keller will look to deny Evans the ball at every chance and force someone else to beat him. All that said, the Red Raiders are a pretty salty bunch on defense as well, and could force some turnovers of their own. Tech should get out of here with a win, but it won’t be easy by any stretch.

UPSET THREAT

Marshall

This is a disastrous draw for Wichita State. Marshall wants to make this a high paced game, and junior guard Jon Elmore (23 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds per game) will give the Shockers everything they can handle. He is one of the most efficient and underrated offensive players in the country. Wichita’s flaws on defense are in transition and pick and roll, exactly where the Herd excels. Wichita has a lot of advantages, including the best player on the floor (despite Elmore’s unheralded season) in Landry Shamet, but the Herd are a dangerous team for them to run into in the first round. 

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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