Bracket Prep: Midwest Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 15th, 2016


On Monday and Tuesday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: Monday (East and West); Tuesday (South and Midwest). Here, Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) 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).

Midwest Region

Favorite: #2 Michigan State (30-5, 13-5 Big Ten). They aren’t the top seed in the region (more on that later), but the Spartans are as hot as any team in the nation entering the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State’s only blemish over its last 13 games is a one-point loss in overtime at Purdue, a surge that may not have earned them appropriate respect in the RPI (#11) but has done so in advanced rating systems (KenPom #3, Sagarin #2). Any Tom Izzo team is scary in March, but one led by a potential National Player of the Year (Denzel Valentine) evolves into an even more frightening tier of “opponent no team wants to face.” Oh, and their most likely challenger for the title of Midwest favorite knows this reality all too well – top-seeded Virginia has been bounced from each of the last two Tournaments by the Spartans. Michigan State is #2 in seed only in this Midwest Region.

Fresh off a Big Ten tournament title, Michigan State is as hot as any team in the field of 68. (Photo: AP)

Fresh off a Big Ten tournament title, Michigan State is as hot as any team in the field of 68. (Photo: AP)

Should They Falter: #1 Virginia (26-7, 13-5 ACC). Michigan State’s anointment as region favorite has little to do with any deficiencies exhibited by Virginia. Aside from a two-week stretch in early January in which the Cavaliers lost three of four, Tony Bennett’s team has been stellar from November to March. Like the Spartans, they too are in the top four in both the Sagarin and Pomeroy rating systems; unlike the Spartans, they have repeatedly proven capable of beating some of the nation’s best teams: Virginia owns five victories over teams that earned a #3 seed or better – four more than the Spartans. Making the Final Four could well require an exorcism of recent March demons by defeating Michigan State in the Elite Eight, but ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes, and Anthony Gill form a leading trio capable of guiding the Cavaliers past any team in the field. Believe it.

Grossly Overseeded: #10 Syracuse (19-13, 9-9 ACC). Iowa State checked in a seed line (or two) higher than most bracketologists expected as a #4 seed, but the fact that we are talking about any seed for Syracuse qualifies the Orange as the region’s most overseeded team. Only 24 of 59 brackets on the Bracket Matrix included Syracuse in their projections; not only did the Orange make the field, they did so with room to spare on the #10 line. And instead of playing IN Dayton, they are playing against Dayton – a #7 seed that has lost four of its last eight and is rated 54th by KenPom. A blessed life you lead, Coach Boeheim, a blessed life.

Grossly Underseeded: #2 Michigan State (30-5, 13-5 Big Ten). Yeah, so we get it — this is kind of a weird appointment to make for a #2 seed. But with apologies to Seton Hall and Fresno State – both of which could argue they were underseeded by a line – the Spartans’ seed should cause the biggest stir. Their RPI number of #11 is probably what cost them a spot on the top line, but in a year with few outstanding candidates for #1 seeds (with Kansas the lone exception), Michigan State’s late season burst should have been enough to get them there. Most bracketologists agreed, too – 42 of the 59 brackets included in the Bracket Matrix selected Michigan State as a #1 seed.

Marvelle Harris and Fresno State are a dangerous #14 seed. (Photo: Campus Insiders)

Marvelle Harris and Fresno State are a dangerous #14 seed. (Photo: Campus Insiders)

Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 or lower): #14 Fresno State (25-9, 13-5 MWC). Arkansas-Little Rock (#12) and Iona (#13) are both dangerous mid-majors, but neither has proven fully comfortable against the high-major talent that Purdue and Iowa State bring to the table. Fresno State, on the other hand, has already shown capable of at least hanging with some of the best teams in the country. The Bulldogs lost by just five at Oregon and were within a possession of Arizona with fewer than five minutes to play at the McKale Center. Fresno State enters the NCAA Tournament hot, too, having won nine games in a row, and Mountain West Player of the Year Marvelle Harris is the type of versatile perimeter threat that has given Utah trouble all season, If he can engineer an upset of the capable but unspectacular Utes, a winnable second round game versus either Seton Hall or Gonzaga would await the Bulldogs. Sleep on the MW champs at your own peril.

Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #4 Iowa State. There are few scenarios that aren’t in play for the combustible but talented Cyclones. Steve Prohm hasn’t been able to get his team to put it all together – at least consistently – yet this season, but Georges Niang and Monte’ Morris headline a short rotation heavy on offensive firepower (Iowa State is third nationally in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom). The early rounds are navigable – AJ English is a nice player but gets little help from the rest of the Iona roster, while likely Second Round opponent Purdue has struggled against elite competition. Beating Virginia or Michigan State is a taller task, but at least one win over the Cavaliers and Spartans will almost definitely be needed for a Cyclones run to the national semifinals. Iowa State won’t be unfamiliar with the stage nor will they struggle to manufacture points; but are they capable of slowing an elite team enough to allow their own buckets to matter? Far from impossible.

Carmelo Anthony Award: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State (19.6 PPG, 7.6 APG, 7.5 RPG). Not much needs to be said about Valentine at this point. Every vote for National Player of the Year honors should boil down to a choice between Valentine or Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield. Voters won’t be able to go wrong either way, but Valentine deserves extra credit for molding the elite team that has grown around him. If the very best players truly make those around them better, Valentine’s unselfishness and lead-by-example approach should not go overlooked in the development of Spartans’ role players like Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis. Of course, that Tom Izzo guy deserves a little credit here, too, but the fact that Valentine’s transcendent season has come at no cost to the explosive growth of the players around him may be the most impactful element of a truly incredible senior campaign.

Stephen Curry Award: AJ English, Iona (22.4 PPG, 6.2 APG, 5.0 RPG). Many college basketball fans may already know the catalyst for Iona’s run-and-gun offense, but those who don’t should feel fortunate for the admittedly late opportunity to discover English. The senior missed the last 15 games of his freshman season, which included the Gaels’ last NCAA Tournament appearance – a First Round loss to second-seeded Ohio State. Iowa State’s weak defense should allow English’s Tournament debut every opportunity to be memorable, and if Iona can swing the upset of the Cyclones (KenPom gives them a 25 percent chance of doing so) a winnable game with either Purdue or Arkansas-Little Rock would follow. English is capable of doing almost anything on a basketball court, but don’t be surprised if getting his own points becomes a priority on Thursday. Few in college basketball do it as well, and his team’s advancement almost surely depends on him putting the ball through the hoop.

Home Cooking: #1 Virginia, 178 miles to Raleigh. No first weekend geographic arrangement in this region is likely to give birth to a true home court advantage, but the Cavaliers probably have it as good as any team in the Midwest. Virginia faithful are used to making the March commute south for the ACC Tournament, so expect the Cavaliers to have a solid base of support in Raleigh. They may not want to peek ahead, however. That potential Elite Eight matchup with Michigan State would take place in Chicago – a city filled with Spartans’ alumni that is also just a three-and-a-half hour drive from East Lansing. Yikes.

Anthony Gill, Malcolm Brogdon and the rest of the Cavaliers will be excited to stay close to home for rounds one and two. (Photo: AP/Steve Helber)

Anthony Gill, Malcolm Brogdon and the rest of the Cavaliers will be excited to stay close to home for rounds one and two. (Photo: AP/Steve Helber)

Can’t Miss First Round Game: #4 Iowa State vs. #13 Iona, 3/17 at 2:00 PM EST. KenPom predicts 168 points in this matchup of dynamic offensive teams. Both teams play fast, too: Iowa State ranks 16th in the nation in average length of possession, while Iona is 35th in the category. Their defenses lag behind – neither the Gaels nor the Cyclones are among even the 100 most efficient defensive teams in the country – but AJ English and Georges Niang are two of the most creative offensive players in the field. Oh, and don’t let the potential for points obscure another reality that makes this game a must-watch: The lower seeded Gaels are fully capable of winning this game. Iowa State was sent home in the First Round a year ago by a UAB team with less talent than Iona – they will need to show up on Thursday.

Don’t Miss This One Either: #7 Dayton vs. #10 Syracuse, 3/18 at 12:15 PM EST. Syracuse may not have deserved to make the field but they are both present and favored (as a #10 seed) in the First Round. Jim Boeheim has never been one to shy away from controversy, so expect his team to relish the role of unwanted party crasher. Dayton, like Syracuse, enters this NCAA Tournament on a downward trajectory, but the Flyers have made it a recent tradition to catch fire – at least for awhile – in March. There’s talent on both of these rosters, as well as head coaches capable of leading them forward – can either team wake up in time to present Michigan State a challenge in round two?

Lock of the Year: Virginia vs. Michigan State, Elite Eight. Many knew it the moment Oregon was unveiled as the final #1 seed – Michigan State was heading to the Midwest as the #2 seed against Virginia’s #1. We can (and will) speculate as to the fairness of this arrangement (on both sides), but round three of Cavaliers-Spartans feels a lot like destiny. Sunday, March 27, at the United Center – see you there.

Juiciest Potential Match-Up: Purists: #3 Utah vs. #11 Gonzaga in the Second Round. Longing for the days of dominant big men bruising in the paint? If so, these two teams will deliver a nice dose of nostalgia. Pac-12 Player of the Year Jakob Poeltl may be the best true big man in the country, but we are pretty confident that Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis will be up for the challenge of battling him. Fun fact: Gonzaga is actually currently rated higher than the Utes by KenPom (#28 vs. #29). This would be a fun one.

As they did in 2014, Denzel Valentine and Michigan State ended Virginia's season last March. Will they do it yet again this year? (Photo: Mulholland)

As they did in 2014, Denzel Valentine and Michigan State ended Virginia’s season last March. Will they do it yet again this year? (Photo: Mulholland)

Juiciest Potential Match-Up: Media: #1 Virginia vs. #2 Michigan State in the Elite Eight. There are other matchups we’d love to see in this region, surely. Iowa State and Purdue would offer contrasting styles between equally talented teams; Syracuse and Michigan State would give us Boeheim vs. Izzo. But there’s no getting around it – everyone wants to see Virginia and Michigan State, almost inarguably two of the best five teams in the country, play with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

We Got Screwed: Virginia. It’s all well and good that the committee rewarded Virginia with a #1 seed for powering through a brutal regular season schedule, but Tony Bennett can’t love the Cavaliers’ draw. Not only does Virginia draw the best #2 seed in its region (Oregon, not Virginia, was the last #1 seed), but it also happens to be the team that’s knocked them out of the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two years. The kicker? Michigan State would be playing a de facto home game in Chicago – again, as the #2 seed. Virginia deserved better.

Strongest Pod: Denver (Utah’s Pod). Don’t let Utah’s 31-point loss in the Pac-12 title game scare you – the Utes are a rock-solid #3 seed. Seton Hall is a polarizing team, but most bracketologists will tell you they were underseeded as a #6. Ditto Fresno State, which easily could have found itself a seed line or two higher; the committee did Utah no favors in handing them a matchup with the Mountain West champs. Rounding out the pod is a program in Gonzaga that appeared in last season’s Elite Eight and has made 18 straight NCAA Tournaments. They are also the 28th best team in the country (according to KenPom) as a #11 seed. Scary.

Upset City: Vegas will tell you it shouldn’t count as an upset, but #11 seed Gonzaga could give an inexperienced Seton Hall team a lot of problems. Stars will matter, as Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer and Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead are both good barometers for their team’s offensive efficacy. Elsewhere, the #3-#5 seeds in this region should all be on alert. #12 Arkansas Little-Rock, #13 Iona, and #14 Fresno State are all dangerous mid-majors. Keep an eye on the Bulldogs’ Marvelle Harris – Utah may struggle to contain the Mountain West Player of the Year.

So-Called Experts: Michigan State is the trendy pick to not only win this region but also win the entire NCAA Tournament. Most experts like Virginia to make it to the Elite Eight and set up the rematch with the Spartans, but few seem to believe the third time will be the charm for the Cavaliers.

BHayes (244 Posts)

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