Bracket Prep: Midwest Region AnalysisPosted by Walker Carey on March 17th, 2014
Throughout Monday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (10:00 AM), Midwest (11:00 AM), South (1:00 PM), West (2:00 PM). Here, Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) breaks down the Midwest Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC Midwest Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCmwregion).
You should also check out our upcoming RTC Podblast with Walker breaking down the Midwest Region, which will drop both on the site and on iTunes Tuesday.
Favorite: #4 Louisville (29-5, 15-3 AAC). Not to take anything away from the fantastic seasons completed by #1 seed Wichita State, #2 seed Michigan and #3 seed Duke, but Louisville is one of the hottest teams in the country entering the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals were likely dropped to a #4 seed due to their weak non-conference schedule and the fact that some of their wins in AAC play were over vastly inferior competition. However, when you have the talent and winning experience that Louisville possesses, seeding does not really matter all that much. Guard Russ Smith is one the nation’s elite scorers and he has shown throughout his collegiate career that he can go off for a monster night in any game against any team. Forward Montrezl Harrell has taken a huge step forward during his sophomore season and his 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game give the Cards an outstanding post presence. Toss in the fact that Louisville’s defense only allows 61 points per game and averages 10.1 steals per game and it should be clear why Rick Pitino’s squad is the favorite to return to the Final Four to defend its national title.
Should They Falter: #1 Wichita State (34-0, 18-0 MVC). If favorite Louisville is to stumble before reaching the Final Four, the undefeated Shockers are the team that is most equipped to do the job. While Wichita State has caught a ton of unnecessary criticism for its “easy” schedule, it is impossible to discount the fact that the team completed the nearly impossible task of finishing the regular season and conference tournament with an unscathed record. Throughout all the monotonous discussion about Wichita State’s merit as a top seed, it was often forgotten that Gregg Marshall’s squad has a solid nucleus that was on the team that advanced to the Final Four last April. Guards Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, and Tekele Cotton, along with forward Cleanthony Early, played big minutes for the team last season and all four have experienced even more success in greater roles this season. Not only is Wichita State talented enough to return to the Final Four, it is also talented enough to cut down the nets at Cowboys Stadium on the first Monday in April.
Grossly Overseeded: #6 Massachusetts (24-8, 10-6 A-10). Derek Kellogg’s Minutemen had a fine season, but their résumé does not suggest that they were worthy of a #6 seed. After winning 16 of its first 17 games, Massachusetts went 8-7 over its final 15. Those seven losses included setbacks to non-Tournament teams Richmond, Saint Bonaventure and George Mason. The Minutemen were a middle-of-the-pack Atlantic 10 team as a result, and that was evident by the fact that they were the #6 seed in their conference tournament. What really makes the placement here a headscratcher is that George Washington and Saint Joseph’s finished ahead of them in the conference and they were given a #8 and a #10 seed, respectively.
Grossly Underseeded: #4 Louisville. The Cardinals did not have the best non-conference schedule and there are several AAC victories that did nothing to enhance their profile, but it is pretty ludicrous to think there are at least 12 teams worthier of a higher seed than Louisville. The team has 29 victories was ranked fifth in the final regular AP poll. It is coming off a conference tournament where it thoroughly handled all three of its opponents. There are seeding issues every year with the bracket and none this year may be more egregious than Louisville receiving a #4 seed.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 seed or lower): #12 NC State (21-13, 9-9 ACC). It was very difficult to pick a high seed to advance to the second weekend in this region because the top teams are so strong. If (and it is an enormous if) any team has a chance to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, it would be NC State because of the star power that ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren provides the Wolfpack. The sophomore swingman averages 24.8 points per game and is a threat to eclipse that sterling average every time he takes the court. Mark Gottfried’s team will have to win three games to advance to Indianapolis, but having Warren lead the way gives the Wolfpack a better chance than any team seeded #12 or lower in this region.
Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #8 Kentucky (24-10, 12-6 SEC). We could not list our favorite as the Final Four sleeper, so #8 seed Kentucky was the best bet. The enigmatic Wildcats went through many peaks and valleys this season and that is exactly why their seed is so middle-of-the-pack. While Kentucky is far from a trustworthy group, its talent level is good enough to give any team in this region a loss. The Big Blue Nation also has good reason to feel hopeful about the team’s prospects entering the week, as it had a very good showing at the SEC Tournament with strong performances in wins over LSU and Georgia before suffering a hard-fought one-point loss to Florida in the title game. Getting through this region would be extremely difficult for Kentucky, but given the talent that John Calipari has at his disposal, such a task is not as jarring as it would be for many other teams. Another reason why the Wildcats may have a chance is because of its coach’s winning postseason experience at Kentucky, Massachusetts and Memphis. He knows how to get his players ready for the NCAA Tournament setting and having that advantage should serve as a great aid to Kentucky’s prospects.
Carmelo Anthony Award. Jabari Parker, Duke (19.2 PPG, 8.8 RPG) – It seems only appropriate to give the Carmelo Anthony Award to the player who has drawn comparisons to the Syracuse legend. The Duke forward turned in a sensational freshman campaign and showed that he has the ability to offensively dominate any given game. This region is extremely difficult and it will take a lot for Duke to advance in the way that Syracuse did in 2003 with Anthony, but if there is one player who can take the Blue Devils to those lofty heights, it would be Parker. If he turns in big performances during Duke’s first couple games, it would be wise to be on the lookout for the Blue Devils to possibly advance to Dallas behind the freshman’s scintillating star power.
Stephen Curry Award. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State (15.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG) – It is strange to say that Early is a bit of an unknown nationally with his team being the top seed in this region, but that is exactly what he is. The senior forward leads the undefeated Shockers in scoring and rebounding and is arguably their most valuable player. Wichita State has great guard play in Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, and Tekele Cotton, but if it advances deep into the bracket, it will be because of the production of Early.
Home Cooking: #3 Duke, 25 miles to Raleigh – It should be no surprise by now that Duke gets to stay close to home for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. This will be the third time in four years that Duke has played its first NCAA game in the state of North Carolina. With just a 25 mile drive down I-40 to Raleigh, it would be wise to expect Blue Devil fans and Duke students to arrive in droves to support their team.
Can’t Miss Second Round Game: #8 Kentucky vs. #9 Kansas State, 3/21 at 9:40 PM EST on CBS. There is a ton of intrigue centered on Kentucky entering the NCAA Tournament and that is with good reason. The Wildcats are a very talented bunch and have the ability to advance deep into this bracket. Their first game will be no walk in the park though, as Kansas State is a more than capable Big 12 opponent. A match-up to watch in this one will be between Kentucky freshman guard Andrew Harrison and Kansas State freshman guard Marcus Foster. Both have experienced the ups-and-downs that go with being freshmen, but they are each highly talented players that are very important to their team’s success. This game should be underlined, circled, highlighted, and what ever other method you may use when planning your NCAA Tournament viewing schedule.
Don’t Miss This One Either: #4 Louisville vs. #13 Manhattan, 3/20 at 9:50 PM EST on TNT. The Cardinals will be comfortable favorites in this one, but it would be wise to tune in to see if they will carry over their recent dominant play into the tournament. It must be noted that Manhattan is quite the formidable opponent. The Jaspers enter the tournament with an impressive 25-7 overall record. The champions of the MAAC have a standout performer in senior swingman George Beamon, who leads the team in both scoring and rebounding. A solid subplot for this matchup is that Manhattan coach Steve Masiello was on Rick Pitino’s staff at Louisville from 2005-11 before taking the job with the Jaspers. The two remain very close and Masiello said after the matchup was revealed, “I don’t know who [the selection committee is] having fun with, but it’s not fun for me.”
Lock of the Year: Michigan, Duke, and Louisville will advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Two-seed Michigan was the outright regular season Big Ten champion for a reason and you should expect the Wolverines to show that during their action in Milwaukee this week. They have sensational guard play in sophomores Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert and that should be more than enough to carry them past Wofford and then either Texas or Arizona State. Three-seed Duke will have a clear talent advantage in both of their games in Raleigh as well. Forwards Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood will be match-up nightmares for Mercer in the Round of 64 and then either for Massachusetts or the winner of Iowa and Tennessee in the Round of 32. The Blue Devils should start making their plans for Indianapolis too. Four-seed Louisville is probably the best team in the entire region and it is definitely playing the best basketball right now. Expect the Cardinals to use their superior talent to dominate Manhattan and then race past either Saint Louis or the winner of NC State and Xavier to get to Indy. Rick Pitino’s squad will be returning to the same location where it punched its ticket to the Final Four last March.
Juiciest Potential Match-Up – Purists: #1 Wichita State vs. #4 Louisville in the Sweet 16. These two teams played in the Final Four last year and it was a hotly-contested battle that saw Wichita State lead for a long stretch before Louisville escaped with the victory. Both teams are elite again this season and this game would be loaded with intriguing match-ups. You would have Wichita State’s tremendous backcourt of Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton going up against Louisville’s suffocating perimeter defense headed by Russ Smith, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier. You would also have a battle in the interior between Shockers’ big man Cleanthony Early and Cardinals’ big man Montrezl Harrell. This would be an ultra-intriguing game and should be one that everyone is hoping will come to fruition.
Juiciest Potential Match-Up – Media: #8 Kentucky vs. #4 Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen. Think about all that would be written about this one. Think about the depths of analysis that would come from the talking heads about this one. Think about all the discussion of John Calipari, Rick Pitino, and the relationship between those two. If the intrastate rivals both advance to the Sweet Sixteen for a rematch of their December 28 tilt (which Kentucky won in Lexington), that is potentially all you will hear and read about in the days leading up to the game.
We Got Screwed: #4 Louisville. Louisville was ranked fifth in the final regular season AP poll before blowing away the competition in the AAC Tournament and still somehow ended up with a #4 seed. Their relatively weak non-conference slate and the abysmal lower half of their conference will be cited as the reasons, but there is no way a #4 seed can possibly be seen as fair for a team that has been as good as the Cardinals have been.
Strongest Pod: St. Louis. Wichita State and Kentucky being in the same pod is interesting enough – no matter whether the two teams meet in the Round of 32 or not. Seeing the unbeaten Shockers play as a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament should be must-see television, and if Kentucky can get by a tough test from Kansas State, that will set up a Wichita State/Kentucky battle that will have everyone buzzing. Talent vs. team.
Upset City: This region has some better possible upsets that could take place later in the Tournament, but the one to watch in the Round of 64 will be the winner of Xavier and NC State taking out five-seed Saint Louis. The Billikens have not played very good basketball of late and both the Musketeers and the Wolfpack have star power with Semaj Christon and T.J. Warren, respectively, to make such an upset possible. It is worth noting that the core of this Saint Louis squad was also an upset victim last season when, as a #4 seed, it was thoroughly dismantled by #12 seed Oregon in the Round of 32.
So-Called Experts: Over at CBSSports.com, national college basketball insider Gary Parrish has Wichita State not only coming out of the region but also winning the title. Staying there, writer Matt Norlander (who will be wearing the bunny ears the night before) projects that Duke will represent the region at the Final Four. Fellow writer Jeff Borzello is going with Louisville to come out of the region. Over at ESPN, analysts Jay Bilas, Dick Vitale, and Jay Williams all have Louisville advancing to Dallas.
Vegas Odds To Win Region: