Welcome to the East Region breakdown, or as I will term it, The Region of Nightmares

Why? Because you’ve got the reigning national champion UConn Huskies, who are 37-3 in the program’s last 40 games. Add in the conference tournament champion from the best league in America, the Big 12, with an Iowa State team that defines toughness, has a dynamic freshman in Milan Momcilovic and a veteran backcourt. Then there’s the Big Ten Tournament champion, Illinois, who has the 1-2 duo in Terrence Shannon Jr. and Marcus Domask, and is 7-1 in its last eight games. Not good enough for you? The 4-seed, Auburn, is disrespected on that line. The Tigers are top five in KenPom and Torvik, owning a 27-7 record after winning the SEC Tournament and boasting a star inside in Johni Broome. Bruce Pearl’s team could give the Huskies a real test in the second weekend. That being said, there are some mid-majors in this region that could provide a scare too! 

Let’s get to it. 

1. Of the top four seeds, who has the most favorable draw? 

For starters, this region is the latest evidence that the committee doesn’t pay attention to conference tournaments as much as we think, because Iowa State wasn’t even close to the 1-line and Auburn didn’t rise to the 3-line after winning the SEC Tournament. To answer this question specifically, I truthfully believe UConn will be untouchable in this region. Honestly, the draw is more challenging than it should be with Big 12 Tournament champion Iowa State, Big Ten Tournament champion Illinois and the Tigers to round out the top four. 

But there’s no conceivable way the Huskies don’t make it to the Sweet 16 in Boston. I do get that Auburn, with a KenPom rating of 4 and an elite defense, could give the Huskies some fits with the way they guard but I don’t think it’s definitive that Auburn gets to the second weekend because I despise its draw. As much as I want to say Iowa State would challenge the Huskies more, I still would rather play the Cyclones than 2-seeds Tennessee or Arizona. Yes, I’m well aware that Iowa State crushed Houston in the Big 12 Tournament championship game but I still have some concerns about its offense. 

There’s really no bad draw for this 31-3 UConn team. They’re that good. 

2. What is the most intriguing first-round matchup in this region? 

For me, it’s Washington State and Drake. 

Kyle Smith has done an unbelievable job with the Cougars, taking them to the big dance for the first time since 2008. It’s just the fourth time in program history that they’re in the NCAA Tournament, with a top-30 KenPom defense and four players averaging in double-figures with Isaac Jones and Myles Rice leading the way. 

But here’s the issue: they’re a 7-seed playing a de facto road game against Drake in Omaha in the first round. The Missouri Valley Conference champion Bulldogs are only 135 miles from and have a father-son duo of head coach Darian DeVries and superstar Tucker DeVries (21.8 PPG) leading them. This has the makings of a great one in the Thursday night (10:05 p.m. ET tip) window, and it might not feature huge-name brands, but in terms of a game, it could be a tremendous affair between teams that do things in different ways. 

3. Who are three must-see players in this region? 

  • Tristen Newton, UConn – The All-American guard does so, so much for this Huskies team and averaging 15/7/5 on the season.
  • Jaedon LeDee, San Diego State – The 6-foot-9 senior has been unstoppable this season in leading the Aztecs back to the big dance, averaging 21.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while shooting 56 percent from the floor. If SDSU gets on another run, which is entirely possible, watch out.
  • Terrence Shannon Jr., Illinois – He will be as talked about as any player in this NCAA Tournament partly due to his investigation and rape trial coming in May, and him getting a temporary restraining order granted by a judge allowing him to play. As for what he is doing on the court, Shannon led the Illini to the program’s second Big Ten Tournament title in four years on Sunday, following up a 40-point performance in the semifinals with a 34-point one in the title game. No guard is playing better than him right now.

4. Which team should be on upset alert in the opening round?

It’s Auburn for me. I really do think that Yale can pick off the Tigers. The Bulldogs have five players averaging in double-figures and can slow down the tempo of the game at 327 in the country in that column. Yes, I’m well aware Auburn rolled to an SEC title. But, we’ve learned in the big dance, not much in the past matters. Don’t sleep on the Ivy League, Auburn. 

5. Which team do you view as the potential Cinderella of this region? 

It’s Drake. That’s a 28-6 team with a top-40 offense that may be a double-digit seed in the bracket, but is far from that in how they play and the superstar they have in Tucker DeVries. They average nine made 3s per game and don’t have to go far, being able to play in Omaha. Darnell Brodie is a capable post presence, and guards Atin Wright and Kevin Overton are solid in supplementing what DeVries does. This team played and beat fellow tournament teams Nevada and Oakland while also playing Akron and UAB. Plus, the Bulldogs handed Indiana State (First Four out) two of the Sycamores‘ six losses. 

6. Who will be in the regional final? 

UConn vs. Iowa State. I like the Huskies because of the scoring depth that they possess in a matchup like this, and don’t think the Cyclones would match up well with unicorn Donovan Clingan. Give me Dan Hurley’s team to win the regional title and advance to Arizona. I don’t think anybody’s picking against UConn in this region. 

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him at @John_Fanta.

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