Thursday, July 18, 2024

2024 NCAA Tournament bracket East Regional: March Madness predictions, upsets, players to watch

Prior to the actual reveal of the NCAA Tournament bracket, UConn was believed to have a favorable path to the Final Four. While it was unknown heading into the conference tournaments where the Huskies would fall in the exact seed order, their status as a No. 1 seed was not in doubt. And since the other teams solidly in the No. 1 seed conversation were Houston and Purdue, there was a natural fit in slotting each team to a different, geographically appropriate region. All UConn had to do was perform well enough in the Big East Tournament to finish in the top three with those two other teams, and it would be gifted a path through Brooklyn on to Boston for the East Regional. 

UConn not only performed adequately in the Big East Tournament, it excelled. The Huskies were the only team in the top seven of the selection committee’s rankings to win their conference tournament, and in doing so they not only locked up the No. 1 seed in the East Regional but the No. 1 overall seed for the 2024 NCAA Tournament. 

UConn’s reward? The toughest corner in the entire bracket. 

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Sure, the Huskies have an advantageous geographical path that allows the caravan following one of the sport’s biggest programs to make its presence known throughout the first two weekends. But would coach Dan Hurley trade that out for a few more manageable matchups when it comes to potential Sweet 16 and Elite Eight foes? 

The committee may have Iowa State at No. 8 on its seed list, but that’s a team that our experts were arguing for as a No. 1 seed heading into Selection Sunday. The East’s No. 3 seed, Illinois, dropped 98 and 93 points, respectively, in back-to-back wins against NCAA Tournament teams Nebraska and Wisconsin en route to a Big Ten Tournament title. And the No. 4 seed, Auburn, just won the SEC Tournament with three consecutive wins against NCAA Tournament teams.    

The East is a beast, loaded up with conference tournament champions and mid-majors with giant-killer potential. If UConn is going to become the first repeat champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007, it’s potentially going to face the most challenging path for any title contender in the bracket.  

Best first-round game 

(7) Washington State vs. (10) Drake: One of the last games on Thursday’s first-round schedule features one of the best matchups of the entire round. Coach Kyle Smith has done a phenomenal job guiding Washington State to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since Tony Bennett had the team dancing in 2008; the Cougars finished solo second place in the Pac-12 with a 14-6 league record that included a two-game series sweep of Arizona, the No. 2 seed in the West Regional. 

But Washington State is no lock against Drake, and that’s evidenced by the oddsmakers putting the Missouri Valley Conference champs as just a one-possession underdog in the matchup. The Bulldogs are back in the NCAA Tournament after being a trendy upset pick last year, and they nearly cashed in against Miami when they led by six points with five minutes to play before the Hurricanes rolled off a 16-1 run and eventually won by seven points. Bulldogs star Tucker DeVries was held to just three points in that loss and missed 12 of his 13 shot attempts, so there’s an expectation he’ll be locked in on a better showing with another chance to pick up a tournament win.     

Top potential matchup 

(1) UConn vs. (2) Iowa State: The No. 1 overall seed has a team in its bracket with two wins against the No. 2 overall seed. The fact that Iowa State’s quality wins list includes not only two wins against Houston, but seven other wins against NCAA Tournament teams suggests the Cyclones are fit for the moment if they arrive as UConn’s foe in the Elite Eight. UConn going head-to-head with a team that carries a No. 1 seed résumé in the Elite Eight is not only the best possible matchup for the East Regional, but potentially the best matchup we could get in the entire tournament.  

Cinderella team that will surprise 

(11) Duquesne: The Dukes have a quintessential mid-major style that, if imposed on their power conference foe, could throw them off their game. The methodical use of tempo paired with sharp execution has closed the talent gap for numerous March Madness upsets in the past, and Duquesne has some big-time “clash of styles” matchups in its four-team pod. It starts in the first round with BYU, a team that plays fast on offense, moves the ball well and hoists a ton of 3-pointers. If their possessions and touches are limited, the Cougars could find it difficult to get into a rhythm. If Duquesne pulls off the Thursday upset, it could potentially face Alabama, a team that plays even faster with a similar 3-point focus. The downside is if either opponent gets hot, the Dukes may not have the firepower to keep up. Styles make fights, though, and this style clash could make the A-10 champs a team we’re talking about into the weekend.  

Team that will make a far-too-early exit 

(2) Iowa State: While I don’t think there are any issues with No. 15 seed South Dakota State, there is potential danger coming out of either result in the Washington State-Drake matchup for the Cyclones. Whether it’s the surging Cougars or an upset-minded Drake squad, the opponent is one that takes care of the ball and won’t allow Iowa State to pile up easy points thanks to turnovers. Then in the Sweet 16, Iowa State could potentially face the Big Ten Tournament champions in Illinois and have to go toe-to-toe with one of the hottest offensive teams in the country. We led this story talking about UConn’s challenging path to the Final Four, but there’s arguably an even tougher road for Iowa State to meet its seed line expectation of the Elite Eight. 

Six players to watch 

  • Terrence Shannon Jr., Illinois: The Fighting Illini star guard rolled up 102 points across three wins in the Big Ten Tournament, earning Most Outstanding Player honors and giving a preview of what he can do for Illinois’ efforts to end their Sweet 16 drought. The combination of Shannon and Marcus Domask give Illinois one of the most dangerous backcourts in this regional, serving as complementary pieces that stress opponents’ perimeter defense. 
  • Johni Broome, Auburn: The conversations around the “best big man in the sport” were not entertained as much in 2024 because of Zach Edey, but if not for the presence of the Purdue big man we’d see a lot more buzz around Broome when it comes to these end-of-year honors and awards. Broome was named First Team All-SEC by the league’s coaches after averaging 16.2 points and 8.4 rebounds for the Tigers, who ran a lot of their offense through the capable hands of the 6-foot-10 junior.  
  • Donovan Clingan, UConn: There are only so many UConn players we can highlight in these regional-wide features without being excessive. While Tristen Newton is probably the team’s most important player given his role and experience, and Cam Spencer is the most entertaining player with his excessive swagger, we’re going to focus on the big man down low. Clingan won’t be the team’s leading scorer every game, but the presence of the 7-foot-2 sophomore as a rebounder, rim protector and offensive threat in the post changes how teams play the Huskies. He also enters the Big Dance coming off an excellent performance in the Big East Tournament final against Marquette with 22 points and 16 rebounds. 
  • Tamin Lipsey, Iowa State: The Cyclones’ success largely starts with a team-wide buy-in to how they are going to play on defense, but you don’t win 27 games and a Big 12 Tournament title without some stars who step up in big moments. Lipsey, an Ames native, started all 33 games as a freshman in 2023 and was named First Team All-Big 12 this year after acting as both the engine and facilitator of the offense, while also being the team’s top perimeter defender.  
  • Boo Buie, Northwestern: A common refrain around tournament time is that you don’t want to see a certain team in your bracket, but in reality there are a lot of teams in the field a top squad would like to see. But you absolutely do not want to be in a one-possession game against Northwestern and see Boo Buie with the ball in his hands in the final minutes. Over the last two seasons, Buie has delivered more than handful of clutch buckets in game-winning or game-sealing situations, including winners against Purdue and Maryland this season. He’s also excellent in all of the other stages of the game, checking in as one of the three finalists for the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard.  
  • Riley Minix, Morehead State: A former NAIA All-American, Minix joined Morehead State having already gathered more than 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his four-year career and showed no signs of slowing with the transition to Division I. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 20.8 points and 9.8 rebounds for the Eagles, who now seek their first NCAA Tournament win since 2011.

East Regional winner

(1) UConn: Debates over the best team in college basketball have been divisive over the last two to three months. Despite little consensus, much of the sport acknowledges that UConn, Houston and Purdue occupy space in the top tier. My argument for UConn has been and remains very much in line with a college football style of analysis: it passes the eye test. Houston’s numbers are great and Purdue’s résumé is excellent, but when I watch 40 minutes from the best teams in the sport, no one in the country plays more connected and at a high level than the Huskies. They have multiple scoring options, good size and elite coaching. They’re capable of winning high-scoring track meets and low-scoring grinders. Their odds to emerge were lessened by the teams put in their bracket by the committee, but I think UConn is up for the challenge. 

March Madness regional previews: Midwest | SouthWest

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