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Top Players To Watch In East Region Of The NCAA Tournament

Eight Individuals who Could Offer Leans for your Bracket or Prop Bets

The 2020-2021 college basketball season has reached the NCAA Tournament. It is a time of great relief, not just happiness. March Madness is regularly an occasion for joy, but with the college basketball season finding its way through the pandemic, there is a unique emotional resonance to this 2021 NCAA Tournament. Hopefully the 2022 NCAA Tournament will be played in front of packed crowds in a pandemic-free world, but for now, it is a great source of relief to simply have an NCAA Tournament, since we didn’t have one last year.

The East Region is widely viewed as the most wide-open region of the four. This is because Michigan will be without forward and 3-point shooter Isaiah Livers for the first weekend at minimum, possibly the whole tournament. Let’s look at some of the elite players in this region, beginning with two Michigan players who will have to carry the team in Livers’ absence.

M.J. Walker of the Florida State Seminoles drives toward Casey Morsell of the the Virginia Cavaliers in the first half
Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images/AFP

Mike Smith, Michigan

The transfer from Columbia has brought Ivy League intelligence to the point guard position, but Smith is more than just a brainy and attentive player. He has slick ball-handling skills and a good, quick first step with the dribble. He is able to penetrate into the lane and cause defenses to collapse before kicking the ball out to Michigan’s 3-point shooters. Smith also feeds Michigan’s big men in the low post and makes the Wolverines’ half-court offense function very smoothly. He is a competent outside shooter when defenses, mindful of Smith’s dribble-drive ability, sag into the paint and dare him to hit a jump shot. He brings so many positive qualities to the point guard position, and he is a central reason the Wolverines managed to win the Big Ten regular-season championship this season and grab a No. 1 seed.

Hunter Dickinson, Michigan

The complement to Smith’s perimeter game is Dickinson in the paint. Dickinson is a very strong and muscular frontcourt player who is very hard to dislodge from his position in the low post. One of the very few big men who could handle him in the Big Ten was Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn, but hardly any other bigs in the country are as monstrously strong and powerful as Cockburn. Against every other Big Ten center, such as Luka Garza of Iowa, Dickinson was able to hold his own. In the NCAA Tournament, he won’t have to face Cockburn or Illinois in any of the first five rounds of the tournament, so he will have the matchup advantage against anyone he faces. He has to be on top of his game for Michigan to survive and advance and make a run at the Final Four.

Herb Jones, Alabama

The versatile Jones can guard big men in the paint and match up against wing shooters on the perimeter. Jones is crafty and skilled at finishing plays near the basket, and he can drive by defenders if they aren’t paying close attention. All in all, the foremost skill Herb Jones possesses is that he is an amazing helpside defender. A teammate might struggle to defend an offensive player one-on-one, but James can come from the weak side and rotate to provide help and either block or deter a shot. Jones has helped off his man to block the shots of players being guarded by his Alabama teammates. Jones is so intelligent on defense that he makes it seem like Alabama’s defense has six defenders, not five. He is the defensive anchor of this team and a main reason the Crimson Tide grabbed a No. 2 seed this year.

Matt Coleman, Texas

The crunch-time shotmaker for Texas is Coleman, who drew a foul in the final two seconds of Texas’s Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal game against Texas Tech and calmly made two free throws to give the Longhorns a one-point win over Texas Tech. Texas used that late-game escape to then advance to the Big 12 Tournament final and beat Oklahoma State for the tournament championship. Coleman has been making huge last-second shots throughout his Texas career, but he has been especially good in that regard this season, helping the Longhorns to take coach Shaka Smart off the hot seat in Austin. If Coleman makes a big shot in a tense situation this March, it could be enough to guide Texas to the Final Four.

M.J. Walker, Florida State

The Florida State Seminoles usually play 10 or 11 players per game, so they don’t really rely on one player. However, in this NCAA Tournament, they will need to be able to turn to one or two players for big baskets at the right times. M.J. Walker, an upperclassman, is one of them. If he is making 3-point shots on a team which is talented but very erratic, Walker can become the centerpiece of a powerful team. Florida State made the Elite Eight in 2018. If the Seminoles are to return to the Elite Eight, Walker will likely be the central catalyst for head coach Leonard Hamilton.

McKinley Wright, Colorado

The senior guard is lightning-quick and is a very active defender. He sets up his teammates and puts them in position to succeed. Colorado plays with great energy, and Wright is usually the team’s most energetic player. He has steadily improved the Buffaloes over the past few seasons, and now comes his big chance to become an NCAA Tournament hero, since he was denied that opportunity last year because of the pandemic. Wright is the foremost reason to pick the Buffs over Georgetown, and turn back a 12-over-5 upset attempt in your bracket.

James Bouknight, Connecticut

The Connecticut Huskies suffered a losing streak and were in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament in early to mid February. That was entirely due to Bouknight being injured and unable to play. As soon as Bouknight got healthy and returned to the lineup, UConn started winning again. Bouknight should be able to excel in this tournament, but if he is off his game, the Huskies are going to struggle. Few teams are more dependent on one player than UConn.

Ja’Vonte Smart, LSU

The Tigers almost beat Alabama in the championship game of the SEC Tournament because Ja’Vonte Smart was a genius with the ball. He created great shot opportunities for teammates and used his speed to outmaneuver the Alabama defense. If LSU plays Michigan in the second game of this opening weekend of March Madness, Smart will have to play his best game of the season in order to upset the No. 1 seed in the East Region.

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