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2022 NCAA tournament region preview: East

The East region of this year's tournament is headlined by No. 1 seed Baylor and No. 2 seed Kentucky, which Duke defeated in November.
The East region of this year's tournament is headlined by No. 1 seed Baylor and No. 2 seed Kentucky, which Duke defeated in November.

With the first round of the NCAA tournament set to tip off Thursday, the Blue Zone breaks down each of the four regions, catching you up on all of the contenders and sleepers ready to make a run to the Final Four in New Orleans. Check out our other region previews: South, Midwest and West.

The No. 1 seed: Baylor Bears

For the second straight year, Baylor has earned a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. Despite losing a strong core of Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague from last year's championship squad, head coach Scott Drew has defied the odds and kept Baylor in high contention. This has been achieved by putting together a balanced mix of talented newcomers and breakout returnees. Headlined by Arizona transfer James Akinjo, seasoned veterans Adam Flagler and Matthew Mayer as well as the talented freshman Kendall Brown, the team has maintained a balance between an efficient offense that has featured great ball movement and a solid defense. Furthermore, the team is not even at full strength—the current lineup has been playing without starting forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and breakout performer LC Cryer, both of whom were ruled out with season-ending injuries. Thanks to the depth of the roster, Baylor again has had enough firepower to succeed through the regular season.

It’s safe to say that Baylor has looked a lot more beatable late in the season, as the squad has been upset a few times during the regular season and in their opening matchup of the Big 12 tournament. This is not to discredit the Bears, as they certainly have surpassed all preseason expectations even when dealing with injuries to their newer-looking roster. There are many questions for the Bears entering the tournament, including foul trouble with the team’s bigs and consistent production from the aforementioned bench unit. However, with a still-adequate core and Drew’s superior coaching, it isn’t impossible for the Bears to add another Final Four to the program’s fast-growing resume.

Other contenders: Top four look to dominate

Baylor has most of what a contender needs: chemistry, coaching, leadership and balance on both ends of the floor. But many more teams in the East will have a legit shot to reach the Final Four, as the region is full of talent. 

Kentucky, the No. 2 seed, has been gaining a lot of momentum late in the season, especially with its roster depth and robust guard play combined with the dominant rebounding of Oscar Tshiebwe, the SEC's Player of the Year. Head coach John Calipari has already made the biggest single-season turnaround as the losing record last season is replaced with high expectations of making a deep run this year. Should the teams meet in the Elite Eight in Philadelphia, Tshiebwe will likely pose as the single biggest threat to Baylor inside.

Purdue also has a legit shot out of the No. 3 seed position as they were carried by their high-scoring offense all season long. Breakout star sophomore Jaden Ivey added on to an already strong group of returning veterans such as Trevion Williams. The Boilermakers seem to have already solved some of the struggles they had last season due to their lack of a threat inside the paint, as Ivey quickly emerged as one of the nation’s best guards and Edey one of the best centers. However, the team’s weaker defense can also be the team’s biggest liability to overcome in the biggest games.

Fourth-seeded UCLA has shown significant improvements in consistency and production throughout the regular season. Like Purdue, the Bruins are carried by a group of returning veterans who have already taken the then-11-seeded underdog to an improbable Final Four a year ago. The real question is whether they can enter the tournament with the same level of intensity from last year. If so, making a deep run, this time as a higher seed, could become a possibility for the Bruins.

The potential Cinderella: Virginia Tech

While the top seeds in the East are certainly stacked, the 11-seeded Virginia Tech would be the team to pick for an upset. Its ability to turn on its behind-the-arc scoring and lockdown defense, as shown in its ACC tournament championship run, can make it a threat to both Texas and Purdue if the Hokies can carry the same momentum into the tournament. In fact, given the Longhorns’ struggles to make clutch baskets and the Boilermakers’ lackluster defense, the Hokies might be the one that can expose their weaknesses on both ends of the floor.

The regional narrative: Kentucky's time?

Entering the tournament at full health, the Wildcats have a player for every task needed for the big games: Tyty Washington is there if they want to attack the rim, Kellan Grady adds scoring behind the arc, and Keion Brooks and Davion Mintz have both been reliable options when they are looking for some clutch baskets. And of course, they have arguably the best player in the country in Tshiebwe, who has dominated the boards since day one. It might just be Kentucky that escapes through Philadelphia.

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