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The Knicks fan’s guide to the NCAA Tournament East region

This will Mikal you feel good.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Villanova vs Marquette Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s NCAA Tournament time! You all know what that means!

Time to flip on some college ball for the first time all season and find some future Knicks!

Mr. Jonathan Stingy Schulman and myself will be your tour guides through this safari of potential future Knickerbockers (sans European dreamboy Luka Doncic, naturally), giving you the skinny on some players you should keep an eye on in each region. Since the Knicks are on the east coast, we’ll stay close to home and work our way around the country each day leading up to the tournament. (Meaning: East region today, South tomorrow, Midwest on Wednesday, and West on Thursday).

Also, since making brackets with your friends is super fun, I made a bracket group so we can compete against one another and have some fun! Winner gets a puppy of their choice*.

*Winner responsible for all adoption fees, food, walks and hugs for the puppy.

Here’s the link. The password is “unicorn.”

So let’s check out a few prospects, shall we?

Mikal Bridges, #25

Junior F, (1) Villanova

This guy is maybe the most important player as it pertains to the Knicks in this tournament, so it’s only fitting to lead with him. Mikal is a a 6-foot-7 forward with a strong defensive reputation and a growing offensive repertoire, on one of the best teams in the country and a strong favorite to win the tourney in Villanova.

Notice his frame that’s already filled out and seems NBA-ready. His silky release on his jump shot. The defensive acumen, even around the rim. It’s pretty easy to see Mikal in a lineup with Frank Ntilikina and Kristaps Porzingis, gobbling up opposing offenses with their 54-foot combined wingspan.

Obvious concerns with Mikal would be his age, which then begs the question of if he has already reached his ceiling. But given the improvement that Mikal has shown this season alone, it’s not unreasonable to think that he still has another gear once he reaches the NBA level. And even if he peaks as a 3-and-D role player who can lock up opposing wing players, that’s an incredibly valuable asset in today’s NBA. Optimistic projections have this guy’s ceiling at Kawhi Leonardian levels, which, of course, sign me up for that!

Honestly, the biggest worry with Mikal is that his tournament will further elevate his draft stock and move him out of the Knicks’ range. He’s got maybe one of the sturdiest floors in this year’s draft.

Collin Sexton, #2

Freshman PG, (9) Alabama

So, interestingly enough, we could be treated to a showdown between Bridges and Collin Sexton in the second round of the East bracket. Sexton’s Alabama team fell to Kentucky in the SEC tournament, but not before he dropped the goddamn hammer on top-seeded Auburn and tore the hearts of a bunch of Texas A&M fans out and ate them:

I admittedly hadn’t really started paying too much attention to Sexton before this past week, but my initial reaction to how he plays kind of reminds of Rajon Rondo in a way. He’s only 6-foot-2 but plays much bigger than that, getting rebounds in the paint and throwing himself at bigs with little regard for his own safety. He also has some decent vision, and struggles a bit with his outside shot.

My main concern with the Knicks looking at Sexton in the draft is that the point guard position is arguably the one spot where they’re already sort of stocked with young talent (weird to say, for sure). But there’s something about Sexton that says that he could absolutely be more of a sure thing than Frank Ntilikina, Trey Burke or (especially) Emmanuel Mudiay.

The question becomes... would it be worth it to draft another point guard and pass over a much-needed wing player like Mikal Bridges, Miles Bridges or Kevin Knox? That’s an interesting question. The answer right now, however, is that Sexton will be a fun player to watch for at least one (hopefully two, and maybe more) games in this tournament. If he and Alabama go on a run, he may even play himself above the Knicks’ draft range.

Vince Edwards, #12

Senior F, (2) Purdue

So this East bracket... it’s not exactly loaded with lottery talents, especially not ones that are of any particular interest to the Knicks. So I’m going to reach deep, deeeeeep into my bag of tricks early here and give you all a sleeper to watch for.

Take a look at these 2017-18 stats:

Edwards: 14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3 assists, .5 steals, .6 blocks, .471 FG%, .392 3PT%, 23.5 USG%

Mikal Bridges: 18 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.1 blocks, .521 FG%, .433 3P%, 23.3 USG%

Pretty similar, yeah? Edwards, to my eye, isn’t even really showing up on draft boards at the moment. But with a strong tournament, he could maybe make a push towards relevance like my guy Sindarius Thornwell did with South Carolina last year. Unlike Thornwell, however, Edwards has the size of a prototypical SF in the NBA.

Here’s a little explosion he had a couple months ago against Minnesota:

He doesn’t really have elite athleticism, but he has consistent form on his jump shot, which is always a plus. He also seems very adept at finding the right place to be on the floor, on both offense and defense.

Again, this guy might not knock your socks off, but look out for him. Honorable mention to his teammate (and not relative), sophomore guard Carsen Edwards, who’s likely to stay in school but could maybe also become an NBA prospect with a good tournament.

Zhaire Smith, #2

Freshman G, (3) Texas Tech

Zhaire Smith, on the surface, seems like just a crazy athletic dude. But with averages of 11.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, a steal and a block per game, he bears looking at as an early second-round type of player (hello, Bulls pick!).

Check out this little mixtape of his exploits this season:

Couple all of that freakish athleticism with the fact that he’s shooting 56 percent overall and 42 percent from deep, and he makes a really intriguing wing prospect for the next level (anyone noticing a trend yet for the type of players I’m looking for?). He’s also 6’5”, meaning he’d be perfect as a big shooting guard or potentially a small-ball small forward.

Again, this is a guy that I haven’t seen popping up on too many draft boards, and senior point guard Keenan Evans has (rightfully) drawn a little more attention as a second-round prospect. But I love the freaky athlete types, and Smith checks all the boxes as a potential steal in the second round this year if he’s molded properly at the next level.

Jalen Brunson, #1

Junior G, (1) Villanova

Ok, ok. Yeah. I did say that I didn’t necessarily want another point guard. But I’ll be damned if the idea of somehow snaggling both Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges doesn’t tickle my fancy a little. Pre-existing chemistry is a pretty valuable thing.

So, Brunson. He’s arguably the biggest reason that Villanova is where they are, as their lead guard and leading scorer and assist man (19.4 and 4.7 per game, respectively). As noted by Sporting News’ Chris Stone, Brunson is one of just four players in the last nine seasons to have an assist rate over 30 percent and a turnover rate less than 10 percent. That type of ball control, combined with his above-average scoring ability, could help him overcome his minus athleticism.

My (and many others’) guess as far as Brunson’s role in the NBA is that his limited athleticism and length would probably place him as a career backup point guard at the next level. But unlike in the case of Sexton, where I think drafting him in the first round would cost the Knicks a chance at a much-needed wing player, drafting Brunson at his projected second-round value would be a low-risk move that could pay dividends.

That’s all for today, folks! Check back in for more coverage tomorrow from Stingy. And in the meantime, join the bracket challenge!