The East Region of the 2018 NCAA Tournament has been considered potentially the easiest bracket of the four in the lead-up to the big dance. Villanova, the top-seed, draws the 7th-best team in the field in Purdue, the worst three-seed in Texas Tech, and a highly-seeded mid-major in Wichita State in the top-four of the bracket. The region also doesn’t feature many of the top NBA Draft prospects in the field. Mikal Bridges and Collin Sexton are the headliners, but most of the other big names at the lottery level are elsewhere, such as the stacked South Region.
However, this part of the bracket is littered with guys who are further down our latest Big Board Update. The East Region features a chance to get a handle on several players who look like 2nd-round level talents that might vault into the first round with some strong performances. These are the players who should be considered by playoff teams as potential bolsters to a talented roster, and there are eight players in all who project between picks 20-60 of the new board in this region.
To orient yourself on where to watch in the East on Thursday and Friday, here’s who you should keep an eye on, and why.
No. 1 Villanova: SG Mikal Bridges, PG Jalen Brunson
Villanova has the best shot at advancing out of this bracket and that’s because of their backcourt tandem of Bridges (No. 8 on our Big Board) and Brunson (No. 34). Bridges is the headliner, an elite 3-and-D prospect who has length for days and is one of the best perimeter defenders in college basketball. He has blossomed this year into a legitimate option 1B to Brunson’s 1A this season, and his versatility means that he is a matchup nightmare for whoever Nova plays. Brunson, meanwhile, is a National Player of the Year candidate, averaging 19.4 points and 4.7 assists per game. His crafty, start-and-stop game out of the pick-and-roll is difficult to stop, and with Bridges lurking ready to shoot 43.3 percent from 3 this season, it’s hard to stop Brunson attacking downhill. Bridges is the big name here in terms of draft stock, but a strong performance from Brunson, who brings the intangibles you’d expect from a veteran point guard, could lead him into the first round as well.
No. 8 Virginia Tech: PG Nikeil Alexander-Walker, SF Chris Clarke
Alexander-Walker (No. 43) is a safe bet to declare for the NBA Draft, and he’s the Hokies’ best NBA prospect thanks to his size and shooting ability (39.3 percent from 3). He projects as a combo guard, capable of handling the ball for stretches and playing off-ball while defending across the perimeter. He’s a little erratic with the ball, but his ceiling is high. Clarke isn’t likely to come out, but his athleticism and strength as a three could be very exciting in the NBA, and he’s a high-level decision-maker. If these two shut down Alabama in the first round, they have a very good chance of giving Villanova problems.
No. 9 Alabama: PG Collin Sexton
Trae Young took over our hearts and minds this year in establishing himself as the top point guard in this class. That came at the expense of Sexton (No. 10), who is a little under the radar at this point. Sexton exploded on Auburn in the SEC Tournament, and now he looks like he might play the Kemba Walker role and put the Crimson Tide on his back. He’s a long (6-foot-10 wingspan), strong, competitive guard who rarely turns the ball over and has a 56.6 percent true shooting percentage despite a 32.5 percent usage. He has to get past Virginia Tech first, but the tournament could be a good spot to see Sexton launch himself into the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.
No. 5 West Virginia: PG Jevon Carter
This region is all about its second-round point guards, and Carter (No. 36) is right there with Brunson and Alexander-Walker. Carter is a terror defending on the ball, defending in a way that reminds many of the solid point of attack defenders in the NBA now, such as Kris Dunn of Providence. He is a ballhawk in the Mountaineers’ press, and his ability to pressure ball-handlers that are much bigger than him is elite. The tournament will serve as a good estimate of how much of an offensive load he can carry to keep pace with some of the other teams in the region.
No. 4 Wichita State: SG Landry Shamet
Shamet (No. 24) is a 6-foot-4 shooting guard who is the best catch-and-shoot prospect in the class. He has hit 45.9 percent of his 3s this year, and he’s a pretty decent ball-handler as well. This is a good chance to see him play at NBA-level pace, as Wichita is pretty average in terms of tempo, and he’s going to have to hit those 3s in a more up-and-down setting against Marshall and West Virginia, both high-pace and high-pressure teams.
No. 13 Marshall: PF Ajdin Penava
If you haven’t seen Marshall this year, get excited, because it gives you the chance to see Penava (No. 57). He’s a Bosnian power forward who has averaged 15.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 3.9 blocks per game. He’s pretty good at everything, and his skills in terms of weak-side shot blocking, passing vision, and finishing are pretty strong. He may not come out this year, but the tournament is good for his exposure. You should also focus on guard Jon Elmore, a 20-point per game scorer that can pick apart a defense and should be a two-way contract candidate this offseason.
No. 7 Arkansas: C Daniel Gafford
The other big name in the region aside from Bridges and Sexton is Daniel Gafford (No. 16), who has a lot of potential upside as a situation five in the NBA. Gafford is an elite finisher on par with Marvin Bagley of Duke, and his length and upper body strength make him an excellent pick-and-roll dive man. He also has value as a rim protector, and it won’t be a surprise to see Butler have a lot of problems with him. How he might handle the matchup with Matt Haarms and Isaac Haas of Purdue in the second round is a good test for how well he might adjust to dealing with NBA size.
No. 3 Texas Tech: SF Zhaire Smith, PG Keenan Evans
Smith (No. 26) is one of the country’s best athletes, and he also has a great feel for the game that makes him a talented defender and passer. He took over point guard duty while Evans was injured and was successful in the Big 12 Tournament. Imagine him as Zach LaVine with a better feel, and it’s not hard to get excited about him. Evans, if healthy, can be the Red Raider offense by himself, and his scoring efficiency inside the arc will catch NBA teams’ eyes.
No. 6 Florida: SG Jalen Hudson
The Gators are led by Hudson’s (No. 59) hot 3-point shooting, as he’s averaged 15.3 points per game while shooting 40.9 percent from 3. Hudson’s shooting puts him on the NBA radar, but he hasn’t really shown enough skill elsewhere to really solidify his case as a draft pick. How the former Virginia Tech transfer contributes to Florida’s run in other ways will go a long way towards answering that question.
No. 11 St. Bonaventure: PG Jaylen Adams
Finally there’s the Bonnies, fresh off a play-in game win over Aaron Holiday and UCLA. Adams (no. 53) is the heart and soul of the Bonaventure offense, but he struggled in a big way against the Bruins, finishing with eight points on a 2-of-16 shooting disaster. That’s a far cry from his usual 19.8 point per game clip, and we will likely see Adams rebound against Florida.