NCAA Regional Reset: Midwest Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 21st, 2016

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New Favorite: #1 Virginia. Michigan State’s shocking first round loss to Middle Tennessee State sent reverberations throughout the entire bracket, but especially within the Midwest Region. The loss rendered meaningless all the pre-Tournament talk about Virginia’s poor fortune in drawing the Spartans in their region, as the Cavaliers are now a clear favorite to advance to Houston. Tony Bennett’s team handled business in dispatching Hampton and Butler in the first two rounds. Getting two more victories will be no cinch, but Virginia should arrive in Chicago with no shortage of confidence.

With Michigan State out of the bracket, there's little doubt that Malcolm Brogdon and Virginia are favorites to advance to the Final Four. (Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

With Michigan State out of the bracket, there’s little doubt that Malcolm Brogdon and Virginia are favorites to advance to the Final Four. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #11 Gonzaga. If the name on the front of the jersey wasn’t Gonzaga, this really would be a beautiful Cinderella story. With non-existent at-large hopes, a talented mid-major sweeps through its conference tournament to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament field and wins its two first weekend games as a double-digit seed. Cute story, right? Except when it’s Gonzaga, a program that has been to 18 straight Tournaments with wins in each of the last eight and is coming off an Elite Eight appearance. After beating #6 Seton Hall and #3 Utah by a combined 39 points, Mark Few’s team heads to Chicago as a dangerous team – and a likely favorite in its Sweet Sixteen matchup with Syracuse. Beating the Orange won’t be an easy first step, but if the Zags can advance to a regional final against either Virginia or Iowa State, forget their uninspiring regular season and double-digit seed line – this team has the talent and pedigree to break through to deliver the program’s maiden voyage to the Final Four. Wouldn’t that be a Cinderella story, of sorts?

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #15 Middle Tennessee State defeating #2 Michigan State. No need to think too hard here. Given Michigan State’s status as a virtual NCAA Tournament co-favorite with Kansas, this could be the closest thing to a #1-#16 upset we’ve ever seen. Even if you don’t want to consider it the greatest first round upset in Tournament history, there should be no disagreement that this will go down as the shocker of both this region and event. Perhaps most absurdly, the Spartans lost despite shooting 63 percent on two-point field goals (19-of-30) and 46 percent from three-point range (11-of-24). An amazing, inexplicable first round result.

Completely Expected (First Weekend): #1 Virginia and #3 Iowa State. Very little followed script in the Midwest Region’s opening weekend, but the Cavaliers and Cyclones were able to stay the course amid the surrounding chaos. Iowa State was never really pushed in double-figure victories over Iona and Arkansas-Little Rock, while Virginia crushed Hampton before warding off a challenge from a game Butler squad.

Middle Tennessee State's Friday upset of Michigan State sent shock waves through the bracket (Photo: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

Middle Tennessee State’s Friday upset of Michigan State sent shock waves through the bracket. (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports)

I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient. I picked Gonzaga to knock off Seton Hall in the First Round, and while I didn’t get the opportunity to slide them through to the Sweet Sixteen, I did point out that the Zags would be favored (according to KenPom) if they met Utah there. Favored they weren’t (most betting lines had the game as a dead heat), but Gonzaga made me – and everyone else who picked them – look pretty good.

Except When I Make Stupid Predictions. I expected more from Purdue (and less from Josh Hagins), but it was my certainty in predicting a Virginia-Michigan State regional final that looks silliest now. I was far from alone in expecting a deep run from the Spartans this March, but my flawed thinking goes beyond the simple fact that Michigan State was stunned in the First Round. Even if the Spartans had survived Middle Tennessee’s inspired effort, Syracuse and Gonzaga would have still stood between them and that eventual matchup with the Cavaliers. Both the Orange and Zags proved to be more capable than expected in this opening weekend; expecting Michigan State to waltz by both wasn’t a fair assumption.

First Weekend MVP: Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga. With apologies to Iowa State’s Georges Niang (56 total points) and Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon (who had a dominant two-way performance vs. Butler), Sabonis was the most impactful player in the Midwest Region. The numbers tell part of the story – Sabonis averaged 20.0 points and 13.0 rebounds in two Gonzaga wins – but his fiery play also set the tone for the most physical, confident 80 minutes of basketball we have seen from the Zags all season. If you can’t take my word for it, feel free to ask Pac-12 Player of the Year Jakob Poeltl, who was held to season lows in points (five) and rebounds (four) in what may have been his final collegiate game.

Breakout Star: Josh Hagins, Arkansas-Little Rock. Hagins’ season and career may be over, but not before a star turn on the NCAA Tournament stage. Hagins had 31 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and five steals in UALR’s upset of Purdue. His deep, last-second three pointer that pushed the game into overtime will surely be viewable again during One Shining Moment on Championship Monday. Heck, even Aaron Rodgers is a fan. Hagins was quieter in the Trojans’ second round loss to Iowa State (eight points, six rebounds, four assists), but by that point, his March legacy was already assured.

More Home Cooking: #4 Iowa State, 345 miles from Chicago. The United Center isn’t exactly down the street from Hilton Coliseum, but expect plenty of Cyclone fans to make the five-hour drive across Iowa and Illinois to Chicago. It’s hard to guess which of the other three schools is most likely to garner significant fan support (Gonzaga has a small alumni base; Syracuse was suffering through a down season; Virginia’s supporters aren’t known to travel), but Iowa State is a good bet to generate the most support in the United Center this weekend.

Best Regional Semifinal Game: #1 Virginia vs. #4 Iowa State (Friday, March 25, 7:10 PM EST on CBS). Syracuse-Gonzaga is a closer matchup on paper (and should be something close to a pick ‘em in Vegas), but the presence of the Orange isn’t necessarily conducive to watchable basketball. Virginia and Iowa State have both harbored Final Four hopes since the season tipped off in November, and each has advanced to this round in recent years. The Cavaliers and Cyclones will be hungry to take the next step to the Elite Eight.

Domantas Sabonis and Gonzaga had a tremendous opening weekend. (Photo: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports"

Domantas Sabonis and Gonzaga had a tremendous opening weekend. (Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports)

Best Regional Final (Projected): #1 Virginia vs. #11 Gonzaga. With all due respect to Georges Niang and the Iowa State offensive machine, the Cavaliers and Zags may be the two best teams in Chicago this weekend. It would not be a track meet – both teams rank below D-I average in possessions per game – but both the Zags and Cavaliers are balanced teams, each ranking in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Malcolm Brogdon could prove to be a tricky matchup for the less-heralded Gonzaga backcourt, and the bruising battle inside between Domantas Sabonis and Anthony Gill would undoubtedly result in a floor-burn or two. Both programs have sniffed the Final Four in recent years, but neither has been able to get over the hump. If this matchup comes to fruition, either Mark Few or Tony Bennett would be coaching in his first ever Final Four.

Top Storyline: Which program will make the Final Four breakthrough? Syracuse has no shortage of Final Fours in the program’s history (and have been to one as recently as 2013), but the other three schools in this region are all recent NCAA Tournament regulars in the midst of significant Final Four droughts. Despite 18 consecutive appearances, Gonzaga has never been to a national semifinal, while it’s been a LONG while for Iowa State (1944) and some time for Virginia (1984), too. All of these programs have been relevant nationally for most of the last decade – will one of them break through with two wins in Chicago this weekend?

Top Storyline for Contrarians: Syracuse still doesn’t deserve to be here. There may be no more accomplished contrarian in college basketball than Jim Boeheim, so it’s only fitting that the Syracuse coach is offered the opportunity to continue to prove people wrong. It has been a rather fortuitous week for Syracuse. The Orange probably didn’t deserve to be in this NCAA Tournament, but they got in. #10 seeds aren’t typically afforded First Round matchups in which they are favored, but the Orange were against slumping Dayton. #10 seeds who win usually do not face #15 seeds in the Second Round (only four ever have), but there was Middle Tennessee State waiting. To its credit, Boeheim’s team answered the bell in both first weekend games, holding their two opponents to just 50.5 points per game. But there are certainly folks out there who would tell you that, Sweet Sixteen appearance be damned, Syracuse has proven little to this point. They’ll get the chance to silence the remaining naysayers this weekend.

My Pick: Virginia. With their March nemesis Michigan State watching from home, the Cavaliers have to feel like the time is right for their March breakthrough. Tony Bennett has never made a Final Four and it’s been over 30 years for the program, but the Cavaliers should be able to slow down the dynamic Iowa State offense long enough to take another step towards the national semifinals. Gonzaga’s talented frontcourt could pose problems for Virginia if they meet in the Elite Eight, but the disciplined Cavaliers should be up to that challenge as well. There are roadblocks in place and still plenty of work to be done, but Bennett’s teams have never been ones to avoid the grind. In this Spartan-less Midwest region, Virginia is the team most poised to make the trip to Houston.

BHayes (244 Posts)

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