NCAA Regional Reset: Midwest RegionPosted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2017
Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.
New Favorite: #1 Kansas (30-4). Despite receiving a 30-minute test from #9 Michigan State on Sunday, Kansas remains the favorite to win the Midwest Region. The Jayhawks smashed #16 UC Davis 100-62 before dominating the last 10 minutes against the Spartans in the Round of 32 — a hard-fought victory that should prepare them well for an even stronger Big Ten opponent, #4 Purdue, on Thursday. If you buy into advanced metrics, this appears to be a fairly even matchup: Kansas ranks seventh in KenPom, while the Boilermakers rank 13th. Unfortunately for Matt Painter’s group, the game will be played in Kansas City, where a sea of Jayhawk faithful is sure to outnumber Purdue fans several fold. Assuming Kansas prevails, it will be a similar story against #3 Oregon or #7 Michigan. Beating Kansas is one thing, but beating Kansas in a semi-road game is something entirely different.
Horse of Darkness: #7 Michigan (26-11). The Wolverines have not lost since that epic defeat at Northwestern on March 1, a nearly three-week stretch which has included a near-plane crash, a Big Ten Tournament championship, and a pair of gutsy NCAA Tournament victories over Oklahoma State and Louisville. Michigan now boasts the third-most efficient offense in college basketball, thanks in large part to blistering performances like the one Moritz Wagner (26 points on 11-of-14 FT) put on against the Cardinals on Sunday. If John Beilein’s group can get past shorthanded Oregon on Thursday, there’s no reason to think it can’t win this region. Heck, the Wolverines have already beaten Purdue twice since February 25, and the last time they played Kansas in the Big Dance, this happened. Look out.
Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #11 Rhode Island (25-10). Rhode Island entered the NCAA Tournament on an eight-game winning streak, so its victory over #6 Creighton in the Round of 64 was not that surprising. The fashion in which it whipped the Bluejays, though — winning by 14 points and trailing for exactly zero seconds in game time — was quite unexpected. So too was the Rams’ effort against #3 Oregon on Sunday night, a game in which they led by double-figures in the second half before falling victim to a cold-blooded Tyler Dorsey three-pointer in the closing seconds. For a program that had not gone dancing since 1999, Rhode Island was certainly ready for prime time.
Completely Expected (First Weekend): #1 Kansas. There never much doubt that Kansas was headed to the Sweet Sixteen. As expected, the Jayhawks rolled in their opening weekend, obliterating #16 UC Davis in the first round before squashing #9 Michigan State’s hopes in the Round of 32. Both opponents were inferior, and Kansas — which won the two games by a combined 68 points — made that fact quite evident. Frank Mason III and Josh Jackson averaged 21.0 PPG and 20.0 PPG, respectively, while shooting guard Devonte’ Graham (8-of-13 3FG) had two of his best games of the season. Nothing to see here.
I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient. I called #7 Michigan a Final Four sleeper, and boy did it deliver. After scoring a ridiculous 1.42 points per possession to edge #10 Oklahoma State on Friday, the Wolverines overcame an eight-point halftime deficit against #2 Louisville, withstood a late surge, and upset the Cardinals in a dramatic rematch of the 2013 National Championship game. Now back in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in three years, Michigan appears to have all the pieces necessary for another Final Four run — veteran guard play (Derrick Walton Jr. averaged 18.0 points and 8.5 assists this weekend), a skilled frontcourt (D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner combined for 43 points against Louisville), and a brilliant coach willing to bust out the Super Soaker just at the right time. Watch out for John Beilein’s group.
Except When I Make Stupid Decisions. By pegging #12 Nevada as a Sweet Sixteen sleeper, I vastly underestimated # 5 Iowa State’s overwhelming fan base. It was like Hilton Coliseum North in Milwaukee on Thursday night, a raucous environment that helped the Cyclones to go on several scoring bursts to keep the Wolf Pack at arm’s length. Whenever an Iowa State three-pointer fell, the crowd would erupt, making it difficult for a very capable Nevada club to sustain their second half runs. Ames, Iowa is a good 5.5 hours from Milwaukee, but you could have fooled me. Never underestimate the power of a neutral court “home” crowd.
First Weekend MVP: Caleb Swanigan, Purdue. There were a lot of great candidates in this region (especially Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey), but Biggie Swanigan’s excellence cannot be overstated. Despite being swarmed every time he touched the ball against #12 Vermont on Thursday, the 6’9” sophomore logged 16 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three blocks in the victory. In Purdue’s resilient victory over #5 Iowa State on Saturday, the big man nearly tallied a triple-double, finishing with 20 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high seven assists. Perhaps most important, though, was his enormous, game-winning offensive rebound following Dakota Mathias’ miss on the front end of a one-and-one with 11 seconds left and Purdue up two. The Boilermakers will only go as far as Biggie takes them. If this weekend was any indication, there’s no reason that destination cannot be Glendale.
Breakout Star: D.J. Wilson, Michigan. The bouncy Wilson (10.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG) had a breakout season for Michigan alongside fellow sophomore Moritz Wagner, so his outstanding play against #10 Oklahoma State and #2 Louisville is not overly surprising. But it is worth praising. The Sacramento native averaged 18.0 points and 3.5 blocks per game, using his length and athleticism to shine on both ends of this court. His breakout “moments,” though, came at the charity stripe: Wilson, who went 10-of-10 from the foul line for the weekend, knocked down a pair of game-clinching free throws with four seconds left against the Cowboys, then did it again — this time with 10 seconds on the clock — to finish off the Cardinals.
More Home Cooking: #1 Kansas, 40.3 miles to Kansas City. The last time Kansas played an NCAA Tournament game in Kansas City, the top-seeded Jayhawks trailed #8 North Carolina by nine points at the half, only to outscore the Tar Heels 49-28 in the final 20 minutes and win by 12. According to the Associated Press game story, all it took was a few Kansas three-pointers “to bring more than 18,000 fans — the vast majority of Kansas fans — to their collective feet.” The recap goes on, “It wasn’t long before that haunting chant of “Rock, chalk, Jayhawk, K-U!”…began to echo through the cavernous building.” Why reference a game from 2013? Because the scene will look very similar on Thursday night with when the Jayhawks battle Purdue. Godspeed, Boilermakers.
Best Regional Semifinal Game: #1 Kansas vs. #4 Purdue. This game features arguably college basketball’s best guard (Kansas’ Frank Mason III) and it best big man (Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan). And that’s not even to mention Josh Jackson, the freshman phenom and future top-five pick who scored 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting against Michigan State in the Round of 32. Can the Jayhawks handle the Boilermakers’ massive frontcourt? Can the Boilermakers, which withstood Iowa State’s second-half surge on Saturday, keep Mason and Jackson at bay and prevent the crowd from taking over? Expect a heavyweight battle in Kansas City on Thursday night.
Best Regional Final (Projected). #1 Kansas vs. #7 Michigan. This may seem counterintuitive, considering #3 Oregon is the higher-seeded team, but the Ducks struggled against #11 Rhode Island on Sunday, clearly affected by the absence of rangy forward Chris Boucher (11.8 PPG, 2.5 BPG). Michigan, on the other hand, is absolutely rolling, winners of seven straight entering Thursday night’s game. Derrick Walton Jr. might be the best point guard left in this NCAA Tournament behind Frank Mason III, and sophomore forwards Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson are playing so well the NBA may come calling soon. Even senor Zak Irvin — who has been inconsistent for much of the year — is playing his most efficient basketball of the season. Perhaps most importantly, there are few coaches in this sport as tactically savvy as John Beilein, which may prove crucial with only one day to prepare in between games. This could be great Elite Eight showdown.
Top Storyline: Kansas’ Frank Mason III vs. Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan for National Player of the Year. Except here at RTC, NCAA Tournament performances are not considered in the National Player of the Year race, but that won’t prevent the media from jumping all over this storyline. Mason, once a three-star Towson recruit, has seemingly been the leader in the clubhouse all season, his 20.8 PPG and 5.2 APG propelling Kansas to its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title. All Swanigan (18.5 PPG, 12.6 RPG) has done, meanwhile, is rack up an absurd (and nation-leading) 34 double-doubles in leading Purdue to its first outright Big Ten championship since 1996. No matter which player puts forth a better effort on Thursday, expect Twitter to be rife with debate.
Top Storyline for Contrarians: Big Ten proving doubters wrong. The Big Ten sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament this year, but none seeded higher than Purdue at #4. According to some pundits, the conference had a bad (or at least a down) year. With three teams now in the Sweet Sixteen, though — including two in the Midwest Region — the league appears to be acquitting itself quite nicely. If Michigan and Purdue both advance to the Elite Eight, expect folks in the Midwest to start asking for an apology to anyone who doubted the quality of the Big Ten this season.
Who wins: Kansas. On a neutral court, Purdue would be a serious threat to upend the Jayhawks. But Thursday night’s game in Kansas City will not be played on a neutral court, and it’s hard to envision Purdue’s inferior guards minimizing Mason and Jackson’s impact. And while Swanigan, forward Vince Edwards, and 7’2” center Isaac Haas were able to combine for 55 of the Boilermakers’ 80 points against the undersized Cyclones on Saturday, it’s doubtful they will be able to carry a similar load against Kansas’ also impressive size (e.g., 6’10” Landen Lucas and 6’10” Carlton Bragg) and length (e.g., 6’8” Josh Jackson and 6’5” Lagerald Vick). In a short turnaround against #3 Oregon or #7 Michigan, expect the Rock Chalk crowd to overwhelm the Ducks or Wolverines.