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NCAA tourney East region preview: Virginia a tough No. 2 seed to predict

2015 NCAA tournament East regional breakdown, preview and prediction. Can No. 1 seed Villanova advance?

The NCAA tournament field has been announced and now it's time to begin filling out brackets. To download a printable bracket, click here. Also read our previews for the Midwest, West and South regions.

State of the No. 1 seed

[ basketball]Flaming hot. Since falling at Georgetown on Jan. 19, the Wildcats have ripped off 15 consecutive wins. That stretch includes seven victories over teams currently ranked in the top 30 of Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings and three en route to a Big East tournament title (the Wildcats’ first since 1995) that were decided by an average of 18 points. Villanova hasn’t advanced past the Round of 32 since 2009, but it’s easy to envision the Wildcats making a deep run this year.

Coach Jay Wright’s team attacks opponents with a balanced offense that led the Big East in effective field goal percentage, three-point shooting and adjusted offensive efficiency. Senior guard Darrun Hilliard leads Villanova with 14 points per game, but the Wildcats feature five players (Hilliard, junior guard Dylan Ennis, junior center Daniel Ochefu, junior guard Ryan Arcidiacono and sophomore guard Josh Hart) averaging at least 24 minutes per game and ranked among the top 15 in the Big East in offensive rating during conference play, per Defensively, the Wildcats rank 13th in the country in points allowed per possession (adjusted for opponent) and limited Big East foes to a league-low 46.5 effective field goal percentage. To sum things up: this is a balanced team rounding into form at the perfect time.

MORE CBB: Villanova looking like a title contender after Big East tourney win

Upset pick: UC Irvine

It was only four years ago that a No. 4 seed Louisville team was upset in the opening round. The Cardinals’ opponent that year was Morehead State, which featured a future first-round draft pick in Kenneth Faried. The Anteaters don’t feature any players likely to make the NBA, but they do have a center, 7’6’’ sophomore Mamadou Ndiaye, who is six inches taller than anyone on Louisville’s roster. UC Irvine has gone 5-2 since Ndiaye returned to the lineup after missing 10 games with a foot injury.

Of course, the Anteaters didn’t beat any opponents of Louisville’s caliber during that stretch, nor did they knock off anyone of note before Big West play, but the Cardinals aren’t as formidable they were before guard Chris Jones was dismissed from the team. Louisville could struggle against the Anteaters if it can’t effectively deal with Ndiaye’s length or guards Jaron Martin and Aaron Wright, both of whom are shooting better than 40% from three-point range this season.

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Sleeper team: Northern Iowa

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Other than Wichita State, the Panthers didn’t face tourney-caliber teams in the Missouri Valley Conference, but they deserve as much respect as any other team placed on the five line. Whereas Northern Iowa shocked many observers by upsetting UNLV and Kansas as a nine seed in the 2010 tournament, it won’t be surprising if Ben Jacobson’s team advances to the Elite Eight or beyond. Wooden Award finalist Seth Tuttle can score from inside the arc (64.9 two-point shooting percentage) and beyond (42.9), create shot opportunities for his teammates (29.7 assist percentage) and crash the glass (22.9 defensive rebounding percentage).

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The senior forward is the engine driving the Panthers’ offense, which ranks eighth in the country in effective field goal percentage and 11th in three-point shooting percentage. Yet Northern Iowa is just as stout on the other end of the floor: it finished 16th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom. While the Panthers could face a tough matchup with Villanova in the regional semifinal, don’t dismiss the possibility of Tuttle and co. upsetting the Wildcats. The last time it faced a one-seed (Kansas) in the NCAAs, Northern Iowa created bracket chaos and Ali Farokhmanesh achieved overnight celebrity.

Player to watch: Justin Anderson, Virginia

Anderson will play in the NCAA tournament, but what should we expect from him? The junior guard played in the Cavaliers’ two ACC tournament games after missing the previous seven due to injuries. He suffered a broken finger during a Feb. 7 game against Louisville that forced him to sit out seven games, then missed the season finale against the Cardinals after undergoing an appendectomy. In the two conference tournament games, Anderson missed all six of his field goal attempts and played a combined 26 minutes (his per-game average in that category is 28). 

Virginia posted a 7-1 record without Anderson, but that stretch covered a soft portion of the Cavaliers’ conference schedule. Virginia undeniably is a better team when Anderson is at full strength, as he’s an excellent three-point shooter and defender, but he may need more time to get his bearings after an extended absence. The Cavaliers probably can win a couple of games regardless of how Anderson plays. The question is whether they need Anderson operating at his peak to compete for a national championship.

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Virginia eases past Belmont in the opening round and edges Michigan State in the Round of 32. Anderson catches fire in a Sweet 16 win over Oklahoma, and the Cavaliers grind out a close victory over Villanova in the Elite Eight.

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