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East Regional Preview - What's at stake for all four teams in New York

Credit: Michigan State athletics

NEW YORK, NY --- Four of the final 16 teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament will head to Madison Square Garden this weekend for the East Regional and a chance to secure a trip to the Final Four. None of the four teams competing this weekend were expected to be here by many. Both the East Region’s No. 1 seed in Purdue and No. 2 seeds in Marquette were knocked out in the opening weekend.

In addition, the two blue bloods in the East that many people were expecting to play at Madison Square Garden in Duke and Kentucky were knocked out in the first weekend.

The four teams playing in New York City this weekend, are all legitimately good teams that will ultimately have a chance to get to Houston.

I was on the scene at Madison Square Garden for media day on Wednesday, and here are some thoughts on all four teams:

Michigan State:

Tom Izzo will be attempting to get to his ninth Final Four, after leading seventh seeded Michigan State to an upset victory over No. 2 seeded Marquette in the Round of 32.

The thing that makes this Michigan State team so impressive is the fact that they take a ton of contested jump shots, but they have the players that are able to make them.

One of the major storylines heading into Sparty’s Round of 32 game against Kansas State is the fact that both starting point guards in the game are New York City residents.

That includes Spartans Point Guard Tyson Walker, who played high school basketball at Christ the King in Queens.

On Sunday, Walker scored 23 points against Marquette, and it is clear just how focused he is on winning another game.

“I haven’t really been home in five years, so [playing at the Garden] it’s no different," he told the media on Wednesday. "I’m going to try to go home and see my dog. That’s about it.”

Michigan State is a team that has gone through a ton of adversity this season, and it has gotten them ready for this moment. The Spartans played arguably the toughest non-conference schedule in the country with games against Gonzaga, Kentucky, Alabama and others, that will help them in this big moment.

Considering the struggles the Big Ten Conference has had recently in the NCAA Tournament, Tom Izzo is the one guy who has represented this conference in a big way during the most important moments.

Also, this program has played in a ton of big games at Madison Square Garden including earlier this season against Rutgers, as well as the 2014 Regional Final against UConn.

This group will be ready to roll on Thursday Night.

Kansas State:

The Spartans' opponents will be Jerome Tang and Kansas State, who are fresh off an epic Round of 32 victory over Kentucky. Despite trailing throughout the game, point guard Markquis Nowell was simply not going to let the Wildcats lose, scoring 27 points, with nine rebounds in the victory. Nowell had a number of flashy passes that jumped off the screen and can put on a show any time he takes the floor.

Kansas State also has another great story in Keyontae Johnson, who will be playing in the Sweet 16, just two years after collapsing on the floor during his time at Florida. At that point it was unknown if Johnson would ever play basketball again, but even he has acknowledged leading up to this game just how great it is for him to be in this position again.

“I had the right circle around me, just my parents, the athletic trainer at Florida and K-State.” Johnson said. “Just the faith in God, just knowing he had the right path for me, and we just followed his lead, taking it day by day.”

This is the same Kansas State team that was picked to finish in last place in the Big 12 Conference at the start of the season, but now they are only one of two teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament from the best conference in the country. Kansas State will be looking to get to the Elite Eight for the 14th time in program history, and the first time since 2018. For them to do it under a first year head coach in Jerome Tang would be one heck of a story.

One other quick note heading into this game:

Izzo and Tang have one unique similarity that they both noted during their respective media sessions on Wednesday. Both of them became head coaches at the Division I level, rising as assistant coaches under great leaders. Izzo was an assistant under National Championship winning coach and Hall of Famer Jud Heathcote, for 12 seasons before taking over.

In addition, Tang was an assistant under Scott Drew at Baylor for 19 seasons under Scott Drew, winning a National Title in 2021. Despite Izzo being in charge for significantly longer, both of these guys had to pay their dues asassistants, while learning the in’s and outs of the Big 12 and Big Ten.

The coaching matchup alone is one of the many reasons why this game will be must-see TV on Thursday Night.

Florida Atlantic

With the theme of this region being it’s wide open with four really good teams, there aren’t enough people who are giving Florida Atlantic a legitimate chance to win two games this weekend and cut down the nets.

The biggest breakout star of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for me was Dusty May, the head coach of the Florida Atlantic Owls. FAU won their first NCAA Tournament game in program history over Memphis on Friday Night. It was really impressive how the Owl’s handled the historical circumstance they were in, knowing that the winner of their 8-9 game against Memphis had a wide-open door to the Sweet 16, following Fairleigh Dickinson’s historical upset over Purdue.

The Owls are a very athletic and physical team that should be able to hang with Tennessee, if they’re making shots. That’s what made their victory over Memphis very impressive, was the fact that they didn’t particularly play their greatest game and still found a way to win. This Owls team is very good at making shots from the outside, and they will be as well coached as any of the four teams playing at Madison Square Garden this weekend. If I was any program looking for a new head coach, Dusty May would be the first name that I would call.

On the court, the question becomes if Florida Atlantic can handle Tennessee's physicality, something May addressed on Wednesday. Being a former assistant coach at Florida, May knows what to expect from the Vols.

“When I was at Florida, they (Tennessee) were the same way, and it was hard to make a pass, let alone score a bucket against them.” He then added “Coach Barnes is a legend.”

May is referencing not only the fact that Tennessee has been one of the premier defensive teams in the country, but also the fact that they were able to execute that gameplan to perfection against Duke.

While many will consider this FAU team a Cinderella, they were far from that and were one of the premier teams in the country this season, entering this game with a 33-3 record overall.

May and his team understand the label, even if they're using it to their advantage.

“We’ll embrace it, whatever they want to call it," May said. "We’re very, very confident in our abilities and those guys in the locker room. We’ve never thought of ourselves in that regard just because of the success of our league and our guys being able to do what they did over a 20 game schedule.”

Florida Atlantic is also 10-1 in games decided by five or less points, after going 0-8 in that exact same situation last season. This shows the coaching ability of May, who is also experienced being in this environment as an assistant coach at Florida in 2017 under Mike White, when they played in the Elite Eight at Madison Square Garden.


As crazy as this might sound, Saturday’s victory over Duke was one of the biggest wins of Rick Barnes coaching career, in my opinion. Going up against a red-hot Duke team that came into Saturday’s game as winners of not only the ACC Tournament, but also their last nine games in a row, not many people expected the Vols to win. Tennessee did a great job coming out and immediately setting the tone, which Duke just had zero response for. Barnes deserves a ton of credit for installing this game plan and getting his team to execute from start to finish.

In addition, this has been one of Rick Barnes' better coaching jobs overall, considering the circumstances and adversity this Tennessee team has dealt with all season.

A handful of players including Santiago Vescovi, Josiah Jordan-James and Olivier Nkamhoua, all missed times with injuries this season, and still Tennessee always kept fighting. Not to mention, the season ending injury to starting Point Guard, Zakai Zeigler in early March.

On Wednesday Vescovi let the media know on Wednesday that the team “Never had that feeling” of giving up on the season, no matter how many things were going wrong. James and Nkamhoua echoed that sentiment as well.

Even Rick Barnes had some thoughts:

“What I would say is I think that our players have a lot that they should be proud about," he said. "And just the fact that -- we felt it. I would be not honest with you if I didn't tell you that you felt -- me as a coach felt the tension that was going on. But yet wanting to make sure our guys believed if we could go out and keep doing what we do and trust in what we've done up to this point that somehow, somehow it would work out. And I think we all had to in some way, somehow rely on our own personal faith in what we're going to try to get through it. Because it was difficult. It really was.”

This is now the second Sweet 16 that Rick Barnes has gotten Tennessee to during his time in Knoxville, and there is hope that this game will go differently than the first time around.

For most of the season, and even prior to the Duke game, many Vol fans wondered if Barnes could get things done in March. That is why their victory over Duke was so important for Barnes, to show everyone he is a much better coach than what some of the past postseason results would lead you to think.

Tennessee has been known for their poor three point shooting all season long, however they did shoot the ball better than any of the other 3 teams that will be playing at Madison Square Garden this weekend. When this Vols team is playing consistently well on offense, there aren’t many better and more dangerous teams in the country.

Follow Zac Krull on Twitter - @ZacKrull_

To get full odds on the entire NCAA Tournament visit Betfred Sportsbook

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