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East Region Breakdown: Can Injury-Laden Baylor Survive and Advance?

With LJ Cryer’s return still questionable, the Bears face a tough task in a loaded region that features UCLA and a Kentucky team led by Oscar Tshiebwe.

March Madness is upon us, and the release of Sunday’s 2022 men’s NCAA tournament field of 68 means it’s time to start analyzing seedings, matchups and potential Cinderellas.

Over in the East Region, defending champion Baylor is back on the No. 1 line. To get back to the Final Four though, it could have to go through dangerous contenders like Kentucky, Purdue and UCLA. So with the path to the Final Four set, we’re sizing up the players, teams and games to watch in each region.

Who will make it out of Philadelphia and punch a ticket to New Orleans? Here’s our East Region preview and prediction.

MORE REGIONS: West | SouthMidwest 

Baylor’s James Akinjo dribbles vs. Oklahoma

Can James Akinjo lead the Bears to another regional title?

State of the No. 1 seed: Baylor

After starting the season 15–0, the Bears have had an up-and-down last two months. The primary highlight: a huge win over Kansas in late February that essentially locked up the Bears’ place on the No. 1 line. But in the process, the defending national champs have been gutted by injuries, losing senior big man Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua to a season-ending knee injury and seeing top shooter LJ Cryer sidelined indefinitely with a foot injury that has largely benched him for the last six weeks. Those are two huge losses for a Bears team that already wasn’t overly deep, particularly in the frontcourt.

This iteration of Baylor is more athletic than the one that cut down the nets in Indianapolis a season ago. Freshmen Jeremy Sochan and Kendall Brown have been essential pieces—Sochan for his playmaking skill and ability to play as a small-ball center with Tchamwa Tchatchoua out, and Brown for his raw athleticism and defensive versatility. But what this team lacks compared to last year’s club is the elite-level guard play, particularly with Cryer on the shelf. James Akinjo has earned plenty of accolades, but he’s relatively inefficient. Adam Flagler has been tremendous for the Bears, but the lack of a third quality guard if Cryer can’t return could doom this Baylor club from repeating as national champions. One notable stat: No team since the tournament expanded in 1985 has won it all after losing in the quarterfinals in their respective conference tournament. Baylor was bounced in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament by Oklahoma. 

Toughest draw: No. 2 Kentucky

Remember last year’s Big Dance, when No. 1 seed Illinois drew a Loyola Chicago team in the second round that was significantly underseeded based on quality metrics like KenPom? The Wildcats got a similar draw in this tournament, facing the winner of San Francisco and Murray State should they advance past Saint Peter’s in the first round. San Francisco ranks No. 21 in KenPom and is battle-tested, having faced Gonzaga three times and hung in during all three matchups. Meanwhile, Murray State is 30–2 and hasn’t lost since December 22 against Auburn. The Racers have tremendous guards and a dangerous inside-out big man in KJ Williams.

Plus, even if the Wildcats do advance past two potential Cinderellas in the second round, they could have quite the test incoming in the Sweet 16 against Purdue. If anyone has the bodies to throw at Oscar Tshiebwe down low, it’s the Boilermakers. 

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Team that could bust your bracket: No. 11 Virginia Tech

The Hokies come into the NCAA tournament red-hot after storming through the ACC tournament to punch their ticket to the Big Dance. Since starting 0–4 and 2–7 in ACC play, Virginia Tech has won 13 of 15 games, including statement performances against North Carolina and Duke in the semifinals and championship game this week in Brooklyn. This is a veteran group that has played in the NCAA tournament before and won’t be afraid of the moment. Mike Young’s offense is very hard to guard because of all the screening and cutting the players do, and this team can absolutely light it up from three (39% from deep as a team this season, third in the nation). Plus, the Hokies draw a vulnerable Texas team in the first round matchup and have handled teams with high-level athleticism far better of late than they did early in the season. 

Player to watch: Jaden Ivey, Purdue

There may not be a player in the country more talented than Ivey. His physical gifts are immense, and he’s capable of setting Twitter ablaze with a highlight-reel dunk or two in this tournament. But at times, Ivey hasn’t quite lived up to that potential, struggling with turnovers in big moments and inconsistency commanding the ball when the Boilermakers need him most. Now, the brightest lights in college basketball are on him. Ivey has the ability to take over this tournament and lead Purdue to a Final Four … or even further. But can he become Purdue’s undisputed alpha and help the Boilermakers close out games? 

Most intriguing matchup: No. 7 Murray State vs. No. 10 San Francisco 

As a fan of the little guy, it’s disappointing to see two top mid-majors matched up in the first round. That said, this game will be an absolute blast. Each team ranks in the top 50 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency per KenPom, marks of just how good (and how well-rounded) both these clubs are. San Francisco became the first WCC team not named Gonzaga, St. Mary’s or BYU in two decades to get an at-large bid and has a star at point guard in Jamaree Bouyea, while Murray State owns the best record in college basketball and runs tremendous offensive sets in the halfcourt under head coach Matt McMahon.

Regional finalists: UCLA and Kentucky

Is there another March run in this UCLA Bruin team after last season’s madness? Perhaps. This team has certainly been through the wars in the Big Dance, as all five starters from the team that went from the First Four to the Final Four returned for another season in Westwood. Jaime Jaquez Jr. looks healthy for the first time this season and has been tremendous of late, averaging 23 points per game in his last five. With him playing at a high level, this team can upset Baylor and get to the Elite Eight.

Kentucky’s path may not be easy, but the Wildcats are still the best team in this region. They’re so difficult to guard because of the presence of Tshiebwe, whose ability to rebound and run the floor opens up so many opportunities for the Wildcat guards in transition. Plus, this is an older Kentucky team than the clubs John Calipari has had in the past in Lexington, which could play in the Wildcats’ favor in this tournament. 

Pick to win the region: Kentucky

It’s not an easy road for Big Blue, but they’re still the pick in the East. With Baylor’s injuries, Kentucky is the best team in this region and has the best player in Tshiebwe.

Full East Region:

No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Norfolk State
No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Marquette
No. 5 Saint Mary’s vs. No. 12 Wyoming/Indiana
No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 13 Akron
No. 6 Texas vs. No. 11 Virginia Tech
No. 3 Purdue vs. No. 14 Yale
No. 7 Murray State vs. No. 10 San Francisco
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 15 Saint Peter’s

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