Before any team from this region makes the Final Four, it will have to first prove itself on Broadway. Madison Square Garden welcomes the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than five decades, serving as the host site for the East Regional finals. Virginia, on the strength of winning the ACC regular season and tournament, earned the No. 1 seed. But the team that already seems to have generated the most buzz is No. 4 seed Michigan State.
The Spartans navigated much of the season the way a No. 1 seed would until injuries decimated their roster. Starters Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson, Keith Appling and Gary Harris all missed time due to injury, but Michigan State coach Tom Izzo appears to have everyone again healthy at the right time, and the Spartans responded by winning the Big Ten tournament. Among the lovable underdogs in the region is a team from Durham, N.C., but not the team most identify with Durham. No. 14 seed North Carolina Central earned its first-ever bid to the tournament by winning the Mideastern Athletic Conference. The Eagles have a win over NC State on their résumé and one of the nation’s top bucket getters in Jeremy Ingram, who averages 20.5 points per game and put up 37 against Wichita State.
Five players to watch:
A potential NBA lottery pick, Michigan State sophomore guard Gary Harris is as polished as they come. He can catch and shoot over defenders, drive past them and, after adding a few pounds since last season, he can finish through contact. Harris led the Spartans with 17.1 points per game.
UConn’s Shabazz Napier has a reputation for delivering the clutch shots for the Huskies. He was the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year after leading his team in scoring (17.4), rebounding (5.9) and assists (4.9).
Speaking of players of the year, Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim took that award among stiff competition in the Big 12. Ejim can score from anywhere on the court -- shooting 34.5 percent from 3-point range -- and averaged 18.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.
If you’re not impressed watching North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, make sure to check out what he does after halftime. Paige earned the moniker “Second Half Marcus” because of his knack for erupting for double-digit points after halftime, including 31 points in the second half and overtime in a win over NC State.
Get used to seeing Providence guard Bryce Cotton; he’ll never leave the court. Seriously. Aside from leading the Friars with 21.4 points per game, he actually averaged 41.9 minutes played in Big East games due to several overtime games.
Dark horse: Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament, beating Kansas and a very talented Baylor team to do so. The Cyclones own nonconference wins over Michigan, BYU and Iowa, which are all in the tournament field. They generally don’t beat themselves. Guard Monte Morris led the nation with a 5.71 assist-turnover ratio. DeAndre Kane (17.0 PPG) and Georges Niang (16.5 PPG) are as capable as Ejim of erupting and scoring a lot of points. The Cyclones also shoot the ball well from 3-point range, led by Naz Long’s 40.8 3-point shooting percentage.
Upset alert: No. 12 seed Harvard has a team suited to knock off No. 5 Cincinnati. The Crimson don’t have a lot of flash but boast five players who average double-figure scoring per game, led by Wesley Saunders' 14.0 points. More importantly, coach Tommy Amaker’s bunch has experience. The Crimson return all but one rotation player from the team that knocked off No. 3 seed New Mexico in last year’s tournament.
Conference with most to prove: Three teams from the American are in the region, led by Cincinnati, which finished tied for first with Louisville. The league's reputation wasn’t strong enough to get SMU a bid despite the fact the Mustangs finished tied for third with UConn and Memphis. The Bearcats, Tigers and Huskies can prove SMU belonged after the fact with a strong showing. The tournament could also be a proving ground for Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who has a 1-4 record in the NCAA. It will be the first appearance for UConn coach Kevin Ollie, whose team was banned from the postseason last year due to a low APR.
Matchup we’d most like to see: Virginia and Michigan State in the Sweet 16. Remember the 2000 Final Four semifinal clash between Wisconsin and the Spartans? This could be the long-awaited sequel where the son (Tony Bennett) tries to avenge the loss of his father (Dick Bennett). The Cavaliers play with toughness that Izzo would approve of. The Spartans would present one of the toughest challenges that Virginia’s defense has faced all season. If it materialized, the winner of this matchup would also be the most likely team to advance to the Final Four.
Most likely to reach New York: Virginia, Michigan State, Iowa State, UConn.
Who advances to Arlington? Michigan State.