2021 NCAA Tournament: East region preview, upsets, breakdowns, more

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Alabama
Jaden Shackelford has Alabama poised to make a deep run in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

By Henry Monness

As Metro continues our preview of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, we turn our attention to the East Region, where the fourth No. 1 seed Michigan Wolverines will look to rebound from a disappointing finish to their regular season.

The Maize and Blue stumbled down the stretch, losing three of their final five games after beginning the season 18-1.

Despite their No. 1 seed, questions are surrounding Juwan Howard’s team, especially after the news of starting forward Isaiah Livers’ injury, which will likely cause him to miss the entire tournament.

The Wolverines will get the winner of No. 16 Texas Southern and No. 16 Mt. St. Mary’s before facing off against No. 8 LSU or No. 9 St. Bonaventure — two strong second-round opponents.

With that, let’s jump right into it.

No. 8 LSU (-1.5) vs No. 9 St. Bonaventure

Saturday, March 20, 1:45 p.m. ET

Strength versus strength, this 8/9 matchup will put many handicappers to the test.

Let’s start with the higher-seeded LSU Tigers, a team that loves to push the tempo and get out in transition. 

Ranked sixth-best in the country in offensive efficiency, Will Wade’s backcourt is leading the way, getting great production out of starting guards Cameron Thomas (22.6 ppg) and Javonte Smart (15.9 ppg).

Forwards Trendon Watford (16.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Darius Days (11.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg) have been rock solid as well, as this is a Tiger team averaging over 82 points per game — good for eighth in the country.

The Bonnies will have to control the pace in this contest, as they’re one of the slowest operating teams in the country (319th in tempo).

Head coach Mark Schmidt deserves ample praise for the job he’s done with this St. Bonaventure team, but I think LSU will just be too much offensively, and they’ll run away with it late.

The Pick: LSU -1.5

No. 5 Colorado (-5) vs No. 12 Georgetown

Saturday, March 20, 12:15 p.m. ET

Patrick Ewing’s Hoyas have been college basketball’s darlings this past week, going on a magical run in last week’s Big East Tournament to secure a surprising automatic bid.

Next in their path is the fifth-seeded Colorado Buffaloes, who have been steady all season long.

The PAC 12’s runner-up, the Buffs are anchored by senior guard McKinley Wright IV.  A robust all-around player, Wright received First-Team All-PAC 12 honors this season, leading the team in both scoring and assists.

Despite the Hoyas’ recent successes, this seems like a prime fade spot for the 12th-seeded program.

Everyone and their mother is going to have Georgetown penciled in as their main first-round upset, which only fuels me more to back the chalk in this matchup.

They turn the ball over way too much (309th in the country in turnover rate) and don’t particularly make up for it on the defensive end (313th in turnovers forced).

In addition, they just played four games in four days this past week and have been celebrating like they just won the National Championship (rightfully so). No one expected the Hoyas to be here three weeks ago, and this has already been a hugely successful season for Ewing’s bunch.

I think their luck runs out on Saturday, and the Buffs handle them down the stretch, coasting to a double-digit victory.

The Pick: Colorado -5

No. 4 Florida State (-10.5) vs No. 13 UNC Greensboro

Saturday, March 20, 12:45 p.m. ET

UNCG was a team I thought could make some noise this weekend, especially after watching their performance in the SoCon Tournament against Mercer and ETSU.

However, matchups are crucial this time of year, and unfortunately, the Spartans got a bad draw here.

Florida State’s length causes serious problems for opposing teams, as they boast two guards — Scottie Barnes and MJ Walker — who are 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-5, respectively.

The Noles will make you uncomfortable on both ends of the floor, which may disrupt UNCG’s offensive game plan early on, as they feature a one-man wrecking crew on offense in Isaiah Miller (19.3 ppg), who reminds me a lot of a young Dwyane Wade.

The Spartans may be able to keep it close early, but ultimately I think FSU will take control of this game in the second half, as Leonard Hamilton will look to make his first Final Four appearance as head coach of the Seminoles.

The Pick: Florida State -10.5


No. 6 BYU vs No. 11 Michigan State/UCLA

Saturday, March 20, 9:40 p.m. ET

A pair of 11-seeds, Michigan State and UCLA will face off Thursday in a First Four matchup featuring two blue-blood programs.

This will be one of the most highly anticipated First Four matchups since the format began in 2011, as the winner will have the 6-seed BYU waiting for them.

Once a shoo-in for the big dance, UCLA really stumbled down the stretch, as they lost four straight games to finish their season.

Michigan State, on the other hand, did anything but, using a late-season flurry that featured wins over Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio State to play their way into the field of 68.

In a situation like this, I typically lean towards the hotter team, as the Spartans have the experience and pedigree in a big game like this. 

Head coach Tom Izzo is one of the best in the business, and I believe this coaching advantage will loom large on Thursday, catapulting the Spartans to a narrow victory over the Bruins.

However, I think people are really underrating this BYU team, which might find the Cougars as a potential underdog despite the seeding disparity.

Time will tell, but I would lean BYU in this 6/11 matchup on Saturday, regardless of the opponent, as I think they’re being massively overlooked in this region.

The Pick: Michigan State -2, BYU TBD


No. 3 Texas (-9) vs No. 14 Abilene Christian

Saturday, March 20, 9:50 p.m. ET

This is one of my potential upsets no one saw coming, as ACU is one of the best-kept secrets in college basketball.

My favorite mid-major, the Wildcats were champions of the Southland Conference, cruising to a 13-2 conference record (23-4 overall).

They played Texas Tech and Arkansas close back in December and were vastly underseeded in my eyes, as I thought they’d be closer to a 12 seed.

They have the highest KenPom rating of any 14 seed (85) and are tied with Colgate (another sleeper) as the smallest underdogs on that seed line.

This could very well be a trap game for Shaka Smart’s bunch, as they’re currently riding the high of a hard-fought Big 12 tournament title.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been really high on this Texas team all year long, and could definitely see them making a deep run into April, but this smells like a prime let-down spot for the Longhorns.

ACU’s strong defense (30th in overall defense according to KenPom) and sharpshooting from deep (21st in-country in three-point % at 37.7%) is the perfect recipe for an upset, and I love that no one sees this one coming.

Upset alert.

The Pick: Abilene Christian +9, +350 ML


No. 7 UConn (-3) vs No. 10 Maryland

Saturday, March 20, 7:10 p.m. ET

This is one of my favorite matchups of the first weekend.

Both teams feature feisty coaches and elite guard play, which should make for a great viewing experience.

Let’s start with the Huskies, who have come on strong since James Bouknight returned to the lineup.  They’re an impressive 11-2 when he plays, and 4-4 when he doesn’t.

Connecticut has been a trendy Sweet 16 pick this week, as last time they were a 7-seed they went on to win the National Championship, which was the first time it’s ever been done.

I really like the make-up of this UConn bunch, and think they should do just enough versus an inconsistent Terrapin team.

Turgeon’s Terps have been an enigma this season, boasting quality wins over Illinois, Purdue, and Wisconsin, yet losing to the likes of lowly Northwestern and Penn State. 

They’ve been a tough team to figure out, which makes this game difficult to handicap, but I think in the end the Huskies will prevail, as Maryland’s Jeckyl and Hyde play style will bite them down the stretch of this one.

The Pick: UConn -3


No. 2 Alabama (-16.5) vs No. 15 Iona

Saturday, March 20, 4 p.m. ET

Last but not least we have the fifth overall seed in this year’s rendition of March Madness, as the Alabama Crimson Tide has been one of the most surprising stories in college basketball.

In what many regard as a football school, head coach Nate Oats is changing the narrative in Tuscaloosa, as the Tide coasted to the top of the SEC this season, losing only two conference games all year (16-2).

Now champions of the SEC, the Tide have the make-up of a Final Four team, as they’re my personal pick to represent the East Region.

While their dependence on the long ball worries me in a one-and-done situation, their identity really resides on the defensive end, where they finished with the best defensive efficiency in the country.

It begins and ends on defense for Oats’ group, as he’s done a tremendous job rejuvenating a program just a year removed from an underwhelming 16-15 season.

Guards Jaden Shackelford (14.2 ppg), Jahvon Quinerly (12.7 ppg), John Petty Jr. (12.3 ppg), and Joshua Primo (8.1 ppg) have all handled the scoring duties admirably for the Tide, as all four can burn you on any given night.

Herbert Jones (11.2 ppg), the final piece to the puzzle, serves as their point-forward at times, distributing the ball (3.4 assists per game) nicely and causing mismatches for opposing bigs.

He is their x-factor in my opinion and will need to come up huge if ‘Bama is to fulfill the prophecy I just laid out for them.

I don’t want to dismiss the job Rick Pitino has done with Iona, as they’ve been a great story, but unfortunately, it’s hard to see the MAAC champions keeping this one close.

The Pick: Alabama -16.5, Alabama to the Final Four +390