2024 NCAA tournament region preview: East

The East Region has four conference champions as the top four seeds.
The East Region has four conference champions as the top four seeds.

The NCAA tournament bracket was released Sunday, and the tournament is set to tip off Thursday. The Blue Zone is here to break down the top teams and possible upsets in each region. Check out our previews for the West, Midwest and South regions as well:

The No. 1 seed: UConn Huskies

The 2023 national champions are considered the top ranked team in the nation, stealing Houston’s No. 1 ranking in the AP poll just in time for the NCAA tournament. In fact, UConn is the only No. 1 seed who won its conference tournament: Purdue lost to Wisconsin in the Big Ten semifinals, North Carolina dropped the ACC Championship to N.C. State, and Houston was conquered by nearly 30 points by Iowa State in the Big 12 Championship. 

And head coach Dan Hurley’s squad certainly has the resume to back up its top ranking, winning all but three games this season with a flawless home record. The team enters the tournament on a seven-game win streak with its last loss being against No. 3-seed Creighton.

UConn has been playing near the top of the pack all season, being consistently ranked in the top five throughout the year including several weeks at No. 1. Beyond a slip-up against Seton Hall in December, the Huskies don’t have any losses against unranked teams this season. Even more impressively, UConn has made it look easy against respected opponents, displayed by their 81-53 clobbering of, at the time, No. 4 Marquette. The victory represented the largest win margin in a top-five conference game ever recorded by the AP poll. 

The depth of the Huskies roster makes it so hard to stop: All five starters this season are averaging double-digit points. Both the 6-foot-5 graduate guard Tristen Newton and 7-foot-2 center Donovan Clingan average nearly seven rebounds a game for the team. Additionally, the team leads the NCAA in assist-to-turnover ratio. The Huskies won every game of last year’s tournament victory by more than 10 points. This year, it’ll again take significant firepower to bring down UConn.

The other contenders: the next three

Besides UConn, the East Region is loaded. 

No. 2-seed Iowa State had a case to make for being a top seed, just days ago beating the then first-overall Houston by 28 points in the Big 12 Championship. The Cyclones have a second win against Houston which came earlier this season in addition to wins against Baylor and Kansas. The Big 12 Championship may have been an anomaly of a game for the Cougars, but Iowa State looked like the real deal and may pose a significant threat to the East’s favorite in the UConn Huskies. 

At the three seed, Illinois comes off a Big Ten Championship victory. No outstanding or improbable victories jump out of the page this season on the Fighting Illini resume, but the team has simply been playing solid basketball all season. Illinois’ consistency allowed it to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship and could help carry the team far into the NCAA tournament. 

Finally, the East Region contains this year's SEC tournament winner with the No. 4-seed Auburn. Its 32-point conquering of Arkansas at the Razorbacks' own Bud Walton stadium perhaps shows glimpses of what the Tigers are capable of. If Auburn earns two wins against Yale and the winner of the San Diego State/UAB matchup, the Tigers could put UConn’s tournament hopes in danger in the Sweet 16. 

The potential Cinderella: Northwestern

The glass slipper may fit for graduate guard Boo Buie and the Wildcats. Northwestern basketball put itself on the map in early December with an 92-88 home victory against Purdue. Following the historic win, the Wildcats continued to outplay respected Big Ten programs at home, additionally bringing down Illinois and Nebraska. Bad losses against weaker opponents like Chicago State and Rutgers put a question mark over the team’s consistency, but if Northwestern can start to get hot, they can wreak havoc amongst the giants in the East. 

The regional narrative: One game at a time

To many, UConn is the best team in college basketball, and the Huskies are coming off a national championship. This doesn’t mean that the Huskies are the absolute clear winner of the East Region. Many speculate that UConn will end up facing Iowa State in the Elite Eight, but it will have to play through teams who have earned victories over the top programs in the country this season. The East Region holds four of basketball’s Power 6 conference champions. These are teams who have experience winning tournaments and pulling off upsets. There’s no easy road for any of the seeds in the region, and the eventual victor of this quadrant will have taken its path one game at a time.


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