RTC Bracket Prep: Midwest RegionPosted by Tommy Lemoine on March 13th, 2017
All day on Monday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Here, Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) 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).
Favorite: #1 Kansas (28-4, 16-2 Big 12). Make no mistake—Kansas’ loss to TCU in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals is disconcerting. The Horned Frogs are an NIT team, and the Jayhawks will certainly see better opponents in the Big Dance. But freshman phenom Josh Jackson (16.4 PPG, 7.2 RPG) was suspended for that game, his absence clearly felt on both ends of the court. With college basketball’s best point guard, Frank Mason (20.8 PPG, 5.1 APG), at the helm and Jackson set to return, the Big 12 champion should have no problem regaining momentum. Looking ahead, neither Miami (FL) or Michigan State seem capable of threatening the Jayhawks in the Round of 32, while a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup with Iowa State—which ended Kansas’ 54-game home winning streak in February—could be an ideal revenge spot for Bill Self’s group. Considering #3 seed Oregon is shorthanded and #2 seed Louisville enters the NCAA Tournament in a slump, the Jayhawks’ path to another Final Four is wide open.
Should They Falter: #2 Louisville (24-8, 12-6 ACC). Though Louisville enters Friday having dropped three of its previous five contents, two of those losses were to North Carolina (in Chapel Hill) and Duke, including a narrow loss to the Blue Devils in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. Which is to say, the Cardinals are going to be just fine. Perhaps most encouraging is the fact that—while its oppressive defense hasn’t been quite as stingy down the stretch—Louisville’s offensive efficiency improved significantly during the second half of conference play. Assuming the ball-movement is crisp and Donovan Mitchell (15.7 PPG), Quentin Snider (12.7 PPG), and Deng Adel (11.9 PPG) don’t all go cold at the same time, Rick Pitino has a sure-fire Final Four contender on his hands. Especially in light of #3 seed Oregon’s recent bad news.
Grossly Overseeded: #9 Michigan State (19-4, 10-8 Big Ten). The vast majority of bracketologists at BracketMatrix.com pegged Michigan State as a #10, #11 or even #12 seed (average: 10.2). Instead, the Spartans received a #9 seed, which is especially strange when you consider that Wisconsin (#8 seed) and Michigan (#7 seed)—each with markedly better resumes and far stronger metrics—were barely treated any better. Perhaps it wouldn’t be as large of an issue were the optics not so bad: Michigan State’s athletic director, Mark Hollis, was this year’s NCAA Selection Committee Chair.
Criminally Underseeded: #7 Michigan (24-11, 10-8 Big Ten). Vermont actually may have a stronger case here (the Catamounts haven’t lost since December and they were rewarded with a #13 seed and Caleb Swanigan?), but Michigan—on the heels of an impressive, inspirational Big Ten Tournament title run—certainly deserved better. The Wolverines beat SMU, Marquette, Purdue (twice), Wisconsin (twice), Minnesota, and Michigan State—all NCAA Tournament teams, and several second weekend contenders. Instead of giving Michigan, say, the #6 seed over Creighton, the committee gave the Wolverines an Oklahoma State team ranked #24 overall in KenPom that boasts college basketball’s highest adjusted offensive efficiency since Wisconsin in 2015. Ouch.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 or lower): #12 Nevada (28-6, 14-4 MWC). One thing is for sure: Nevada will not be impressed by Iowa State’s size, speed or athleticism. The Wolfpack possess tremendous offensive talent throughout their lineup, with four players averaging more than 14 points per game and a 1.145 PPP scoring rate that easily topped the Mountain West. Former Missouri State guard Marcus Marshall (19.8 PPG) has been a scoring machine this season, but it is forwards Cameron Oliver (15.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG) and Jordan Caroline (14.8 PPG, 9.2 RPG) that separate Nevada from its contemporaries outside the power conferences. Oliver, who can step out on the perimeter (38.3% 3FG) just as easily as he can bang down low, is a legitimate NBA Draft prospect. The 6’7” Caroline—son of former NFL All-Pro Defensive End Simeon Rice—puts the ‘power’ in power forward, using his superior strength to dominate on the offensive glass and earn trips to the free throw line. This is the type of lineup that could give the small-ball Cyclones headaches, and perhaps even hang around with heftier Boilermakers in the Round of 32.
Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #7 Michigan. Were it not for a pair of two razor-thin road losses at Minnesota and Northwestern, Michigan would have ended the season on a 12-game winning streak. Even still, the Wolverines (ranked #21 in KenPom) are on fire entering the NCAA Tournament, having knocked off Purdue twice in two weeks and manhandling Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament championship game. Point guard Derrick Walton (15.0 PPG, 4.6 APG) is playing the best basketball of his outstanding career; assuming sophomores D.J. Wilson and Mortiz Wagner—one of the Big Ten’s best and most versatile frontcourt duos—continue playing at a high level as well, this team is capable of beating Oklahoma State and upsetting Louisville in the Round of 32. From there, who knows?
Carmelo Anthony Award: Dillon Brooks, Oregon (16.3 PPG, 41.4% 3FG). Caleb Swanigan (Purdue), Monte’ Morris (Iowa State), Juwan Evans (Oklahoma State), Miles Bridges (Michigan State)—there were several great candidates for this award. But in light of the torn ACL that Chris Boucher (11.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG) suffered over the weekend, Brooks may need to go full Carmelo Anthony in order for Oregon to fulfill its Final Four potential. Until their 83-80 loss to Arizona in Saturday night’s Pac 12 championship game, the Ducks were 12-0 in games where Brooks scores 20+ points. His ability to fill Boucher’s offensive void while maintaining a high-level of efficiency may dictate whether Oregon makes a push towards Glendale or falls well short of its goal.
Stephen Curry Award: Jordan Washington, Iona (17.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG). If you haven’t seen Washington play, you need to tune in to watch the Gaels on Friday afternoon. The mercurial forward is a missile of a basketball player, strong, athletic, and extremely aggressive on both ends of the court. He averages nearly 18 points per game this season despite playing just 21.6 minutes per night, in part because he takes a ridiculous 36.3 percent of his team’s shots while on the floor. Washington also draws nine fouls per 40 minutes—the second highest rate nationally behind only Michigan State’s Nick Ward. Unfortunately, the Iona big man also tends to commit a lot of fouls, which is a major reason why he doesn’t see more minutes. With the rangy Chris Boucher (2.5 BPG) no longer around for Oregon, though, look for Washington to have a big game.
Home Cooking: #2 Louisville, 113.4 miles to Indianapolis. Last time Louisville played in Indianapolis (New Year’s Eve), they pounded Indiana by 15 points—and that was with a stadium half-filled with Hoosier fans. Just imagine the home court advantage the Cardinals will be working with this week. Both Michigan and Oklahoma State are good enough to be compete with Rick Pitino’s unit on a neutral floor; unfortunately for Wolverine and Cowboy fans, though, it won’t exactly be ‘neutral’ when the winner faces Louisville on Sunday.
Can’t Miss First Round Game: #7 Michigan vs. #10 Oklahoma State, 3/17 at 12:15 PM ET. This is one of the best #7/#10 matchups we have seen in years. Oklahoma State is the most efficient offensive unit in America; Michigan ranks fifth. Both are ranked in the KenPom top-25. Cowboys’ point guard Juwan Evans (19 PPG, 6.2 APG) has played far beyond his years in 2016-17; Wolverines’ senior Derrick Walton, already a solid point guard, has taken his game to another level. It would not be surprising if the winner of this game reaches the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight.
Don’t Miss This One Either: #5 Iowa State vs. #12 Nevada, 3/16 at 9:57 PM ET. It’s hard to envision this game being anything but an offensive slugfest. Both teams like to push the pace and possess enough offensive firepower to punch-counterpunch their way into a First Round classic. As we mentioned earlier, the Wolfpack will have the athletes to match the Cyclones; the question is whether it can maintain its poise against a veteran, battle-tested opponent like Iowa State. Monte’ Morris (16.3 PPG, 6.1 APG) and Marcus Marshall are two of the best guards you’ll see all tournament.
Lock of the Year: Kansas to the Elite Eight (at a minimum). Neither Miami (FL) and Michigan State have the consistency or talent to upend Kansas in the Round of 32, and it’s really difficult to imagine Iowa State pulling off another stunner against Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen—especially in front of a Jayhawk-friendly crowd in Kansas City. Purdue might be able to keep pace if Caleb Swanigan (18.5 PPG, 12.6 RPG) puts forth a monster effort, but again—Lawrence is just 40 miles from Kansas City. Never underestimate the Rock Chalk faithful.
Juiciest Potential Match-Up: Purists: #4 Iowa State vs. #5 Purdue in the Second Round. Ranked #15 and #17 in KenPom, respectively, Purdue and Iowa State would be an evenly-matched showdown between teams with disparate frontcourt size but similar offensive footprints. Both play uptempo (roughly 16.5 seconds per offensive possession) and rely heavily on kick-out three-pointers. The major difference, of course, is that the Cyclones—known for their penetrate-and-kick attack—do much of their damage off the dribble. The Boilermakers, on the other hand, feed the big men (Swanigan and Isaac Haas) who draw double teams to create open shots on the perimeter. If both teams escape their upset-minded First Round foes, this will be an excellent matchup.
Juiciest Potential Match-up – Media: #1 Kansas vs. #2 Louisville in the Elite Eight The last four times that Kansas has received a #1 seed (including last season), Bill Self’s club has failed to advance to the Final Four. With a friendly pathway in this region starting in Tulsa and ending in the very familiar confines of Kansas City’s Sprint Center, the pressure is on for the Jayhawks to get to the Final Four for the first time since 2012. On the other side of the bracket, Rick Pitino’s Louisville bunch is hungry and driven after sitting out the NCAA Tournament a year ago — expect the Cardinals to roll to the Elite Eight for a match-up of coaching titans with a trip to Phoenix on the line. For those who care about historical trends, keep in mind that Louisville is a perfect 11-0 as a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
We Got Screwed: #5 Iowa State. Even though the Cyclones just won their third Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City in the last four years, it felt like the committee did them wrong by potentially sending them back there for a third match-up with Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. Sending them as the #5 seed to the East (Virginia) or South (Minnesota) Regions would have been much fairer options without violating bracketing principles. The counterpoint is that they don’t call the Sprint Center “Hilton South” for no reason, but the real swarming of Cyclone fans has typically come after Kansas has been eliminated.
Strongest Pod: Milwaukee (Purdue, Iowa State, Nevada, Vermont). With apologies to the Indianapolis pod that includes Louisville, Michigan and Oklahoma State, the Milwaukee pod features four conference champions (regular season or tournament) that have collectively lost only six games since February 1. In other words, this pod is lit. The underdog Wolf Pack and Catamounts utilize experienced, offensively-gifted attacks that are certain to cause problems for their power conference counterparts. And while the cores of Purdue and Iowa State are certainly more talented, they also carry the baggage of First Round failures in years past with them (2015 – Cyclones; 2016 – Boilermakers).
Great Storyline: Michigan’s Harrowing March. Most college basketball fans already know the harrowing story of Michigan’s near-miss plane crash en route to the Big Ten Tournament last week. Practice jerseys, near-forfeits and all that. Most casual March Madness fans, however, do not. If the Wolverines carry over their excellent play from Washington, DC, to advance several rounds in this region, the national media will push the admittedly compelling storyline to the point of exhaustion. Let’s hope that the proper balance is struck between the Wolverines’ performance on the court and their scary brush with facing mortality.