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. 

Move over Rockets, there's new basketball team in town. Joe Buvid/Houston Athletics

Houston Basketball is on the rise, yet many people within the city haven't recognized the tremendous campaign they are putting together. Here are my reasons as to why you should buy into the 2018-2019 Houston Cougar Men's Basketball team:

1) Coach Sampson

Kelvin Sampson is in his fifth year in Houston. He won AAC Coach of Year last year, making it his fifth said honor in his career. He has successfully built a program that seniors have bought into. Sampson has had much success considering the outdated facilities he inherited and overcoming the challenge of recruiting very average players. He's had great success developing his players into great ones, where the likes of Devon Davis and Rob Gray led the team into the sweet sixteen round in last year's March Madness tournament. He is also a great tactician, which was in display in their comeback win vs. LSU this week. After being down 15, Sampson went to the board and changed their approach to the game after realizing how open LSU was leaving the driving lanes, which enabled Galen Robinson to have a huge game and also allowed the team to collect the majority of offensive boards. He is also a class act. After their game vs. OSU, Sampson went up to his old nemesis, Coach Sutton, to pay his respects and even gave him a kiss on the cheek after seeing how badly his health had deteriorated. I also had the pleasure of attending the UH Basketball Tip Off dinner this year where many fans buy tables as a means to fundraise money for the program. I was impressed by his ability memorize the player's family members by name, and his ability of building long life relationships with them.

2) Community

Houston Cougar Basketball has become one of the hottest tickets in town for many reasons. Their success on the court has permeated out of campus and onto the city where even professional athletes have taken notice. Astros' Alex Bregman and Rockets Eric Gordon were in attendance in the matchup vs LSU. Chris Paul called Coach Sampson prior to the same game and told him he would go with 'friends.' Turned out they didn't show but the takeaway here as that they have caught notice. Amongst other rumored attendees were JJ Watt and Lebron James. The student section has also bought into this year's team. They have filled the stands every home game since the opening of the new arena. They are loud and proud, where even I thought they couldn't surpass the deafening ruckus from the upset win vs. Oregon. But the Fertitta Center saw a new standard in the comeback win vs LSU.

3) Intangibles

This team has displayed qualities that surpass the physical realm. It really started last season, where they upset numerous teams as they punched their ticket into March Madness. They were beat by a then 3 seed in the Michigan Wolverines on a walk off buzzer beater 3. Houston competed the whole way, and you could even argue that the loss was really mainly due to self-inflicted wounds, especially because of the missed free throws in the final minutes. I talked to Corey Davis at the annual tip off dinner this year and he told me his team is hungry to get back in the tournament. The juniors and seniors now have a taste of what the big dance is all about. If they make it again this year, they will bring something they didn't have before, experience. Houston also has displayed grit. They learned a lot about themselves in their comeback win vs LSU this week. Galen Robinson dug deep when he began to hear LSU chants when his team was losing by 15. "It really touched a nerve. I was like, there's no way we're losing this game," said Robinson. A humbling loss in the sweet sixteen round last year, and a gut check win vs LSU will definitely bring out maturity and leadership within this roster.

4) The Players

Senior point guard Robinson has had a great offensive start to this season. In their matchups vs LSU and Oregon, Robinson has displayed the ability to completely take over games. He has also adopted the role of a leader in the locker room, where Coach Sampson said he heard Robinson's loud rally cry towards his teammates through a wall that separated the coach's and player's rooms at halftime vs LSU. Junior guard Armoni Brooks has been as advertised. He remains an integral part of the offense with consistency, and showcases the most versatile talent on the Houston roster night after night. Senior guard Davis continues to struggle this season, but I do believe he will turn it around. It's hard to believe otherwise after his incredible season last year. Sophomore point guard Dejon Jarreau made his first start of the season vs LSU. He didn't have the greatest of games but there are many reasons as to why. Jarreau has recently lost his grandmother and has suffered from tough injuries that have sidelined him. The UMass transfer remains an important player to this team by allowing Robinson to have precious resting minutes. The upside in Jerreau is tremendous. Lastly, Freshman Guard Nate Hinton must live up the title of Preseason AAC Freshman of the Year. He's showed great flashes, so keep a sharp eye on this projected up and comer. Houston has all the right pieces to the puzzle. The seniors have completely bought into Coach Sampson's philosophy and have prior experience in the big dance. The trick is finding the right mix of players and keeping them healthy all the way into selection Sunday.

5) Ferttita Center

OK, we talked about this last week, so I'll keep this one short. The new arena has successfully been able to pull many fans back into campus. The scarlet red and the strategically placed student sections have been staples of the incredible atmosphere the Fertitta Center hosts. UH is currently on a 22 home game win streak, 19 of which happened at TSU. The history of where the arena sits is also something to note. Many loyal UH Basketball fans even label it as hallowed grounds that have seen players like Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon and Clyde "The Glide" Drexler. This entails a certain aura to the new arena, where you can almost even feel its past and foreshadow future success. You can read last week's article on the Fertitta Center here.

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