RTC Bracket Prep: Midwest Region

Posted by Walker Carey on March 13th, 2018

Yesterday and today we will be rolling out our region-by-region analysis for the 2018 NCAA Tournament. 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).

Favorite: #2 Duke (26-7, 13-5 ACC). While Kansas is the top seed in the region, Duke’s overall talent makes the Blue Devils the favorite. According to KenPom, Duke ranks third in the country in offensive efficiency and seventh in defensive efficiency. The Blue Devils are led by senior guard Grayson Allen (15.7 PPG, 4.5 APG) and freshman phenom Marvin Bagley III (21.1 PPG, 11.5 RPG), which gives it a decided talent advantage on both the perimeter and inside nearly every time they take the floor. Neither Rhode Island nor Oklahoma possesses the offensive firepower to knock off Duke in the Round of 32, while a potential Sweet Sixteen match-up with Michigan State represents a rematch of a Champions Classic showdown where Allen scored a career-high 37 points in leading his team to victory. Considering #1 Kansas’ general inconsistency and questions surrounding the health of big man Udoka Azuibuike, the Blue Devils’ path to another Final Four appears clear.

Grayson Allen’s Last Hurrah Starts in the Midwest Region (USA Today Images)

Should They Falter: #1 Kansas (27-7, 13-5 Big 12). For a team that earned its 14th consecutive regular season Big 12 title this season, Kansas certainly experienced plenty of national doubt. There have been legitimate questions about the Jayhawks’ overall depth and interior play all season — and those discussion points were not helped by Azuibuike suffering a knee injury prior the to the Big 12 Tournament. That said, Kansas was able to win three games in three days at the Big 12 Tournament to take home the title and the Jayhawks appear to be playing their best basketball of the season. With senior guards Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk leading the charge, coupled with the emergence of sophomore guard Malik Newman, Kansas has enough offensive prowess to keep up with anyone in the field.

Grossly Overseeded: #10 Oklahoma (18-13, 8-10 Big 12). The Sooners were one of the best stories of the early portion of this season. Freshman guard Trae Young was drawing favorable comparisons to Stephen Curry for his outstanding perimeter game, and it appeared Lon Kruger‘s group was equipped to rise from the ashes of last season’s debacle to ascend to the program’s second Final Four in the last three years. That all came to a screeching halt when the calendar turned to 2018. Since Big 12 play began, Oklahoma has gone just 8-12 and has not won a game away from Norman. While Young looked fresh and explosive in the early season, he has looked tired and lethargic since (an astronomical nation-leading usage rate of 38.6 percent surely contributes). The committee has repeatedly acknowledged that it values early season play just as much as it does the late season, so you can certainly understand why the Sooners were selected to the Field of 68. The surprising part is how firmly they were in — getting a #10 seed and avoiding the First Four is a generous draw for a team that has struggled so much.

Criminally Underseeded: #14 Bucknell (25-9, 16-2 Patriot League). Following a loss to Boston University on January 2, Bucknell was saddled with a mediocre 7-8 record and was looking for answers. The Bison finished the year, however, by winning 18 of their last 19 games and dominating the Patriot League Tournament — winning their semifinal and championship games by 31 and 29 points, respectively. It seems like everything is humming along nicely for Nathan Davis‘ group as the NCAA Tournament commences this week. That is why it was surprising to see the Bison earn only a #14 seed and a rather intimidating match-up with a very talented Michigan State squad in Detroit. Advancing past the First Round will be a tough ask of Bucknell.

Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 seed or lower): #12 New Mexico State (28-5, 12-2 WAC). The Aggies will get after you defensively. Just ask Miami (FL). On Christmas Eve at the Diamond Head Classic, New Mexico State beat the Hurricanes by nine points while holding them to a 34 percent shooting night and a ghastly 4-to-14 assist-to-turnover ratio. That defensive effort was not just a mirage either, as the Aggies enter this weekend ranked 14th nationally in defensive efficiency. While having a great defense is a safety net, teams still need to find offense in order to pull off an upset or two in the NCAA Tournament. Luckily for Chris Jans‘ squad, it has some offensive prowess in the form of senior guard Zach Lofton (19.8 PPG) and senior forward Jemerrio Jones (11.0 PPG and 13.2 RPG). It would be a good idea to keep an eye on New Mexico State’s first round game against Clemson on Friday night, because if the Aggies look comfortable in the moment, it could be a sign of the beginning of a decent run.

Danny Hurley’s Team is Poised to Give Another Team Fits in the Dance This Year (USA Today Images)

Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #7 Rhode Island (25-7, 15-3 Atlantic 10). The Rams were likely looking at a #4 or #5 seed as recently as mid-January, but a late-season swoon where they lost four of their last eight games resulted in a #7 seed. Despite its recent play, Rhode Island is still a very dangerous team that should scare anyone in their half of the Midwest Region bracket. The Rams possess a dynamic, veteran backcourt of seniors Jared Terrell and E.C. Matthews, a pair who were very close to knocking off eventual Final Four participant Oregon in the Round of 32 a season ago. Having such good winning experience in the NCAA Tournament is often a prerequisite to a sustained run, and Danny Hurley’s squad certainly fits the bill of a team that can do some serious damage this month.

Carmelo Anthony Award: Devonte’ Graham, Kansas (17.3 PPG, 7.5 APG). If Kansas is going to make a trip to San Antonio in a couple weeks, it is going to need the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year to play like the Big 12 Player of the Year throughout. While the Jayhawks have several solid supporting pieces, Graham is who makes the team click. If you need more proof of Graham’s impact on Kansas’ fortune, look no further than the Big 12 Tournament final where his 18 points and 13 assists paced the Jayhawks to a comeback victory over a defensively ferocious West Virginia squad. Conversely, his three-point, two-assist outing in last season’s Elite Eight loss to Oregon contributed greatly to the #1 seed heading home early a season ago.

Stephen Curry Award: Trae Young, Oklahoma (27.4 PPG, 8.8 APG). Even with Oklahoma’s considerable struggles throughout the second half of the season, it would be unwise to think Trae Young cannot ultimately leave his mark on the NCAA Tournament. If the Sooners can regain their early season form and win a few games this March, it will most likely be because Young went Curry and put together a streak of dynamic performances.

Home Cooking: #3 Michigan State, 81 miles to Detroit. It seems a little ridiculous that the Spartans were sent to the Detroit pod while Michigan — a fellow #3 seed who beat Michigan State in both meetings this season — was sent to Wichita. Nevertheless, what matters now is that the Sparty faithful will make their presence known throughout the opening weekend. Not only is Michigan State the only team from Michigan located there, it will be the only midwestern team, period, in Detroit. Expect Little Caesars Arena to essentially become a second Breslin Center this weekend.

Trae Young Could Pull a Steph Curry and Lead Oklahoma to Several Wins if He Catches Fire (USA Today Images)

Can’t Miss First Round Game: #7 Rhode Island vs. #10 Oklahoma, 3/15 at 12:15 PM EST. The first game of Thursday’s slate is definitely worth keeping an eye on, as Oklahoma will try to remind the national audience why — despite recent struggles — the Sooners received so much national attention this season. Rhode Island will present quite the challenge, though, as the Rams possess a strong and experienced backcourt that has the ability to throw Trae Young completely off his game. You can bet that there will be a number of national headlines coming out of this game, one way or another.

Don’t Miss This One Either: #8 Seton Hall vs. #9 NC State, 3/15 at 4:30 PM EST. The Midwest’s #8/#9 match-up carries considerable intrigue as a battle of two talented but sometimes frustratingly inconsistent teams. The individual match-up to watch will be between Seton Hall big man Angel Delgado and his NC State counterpart Omer Yurtseven. Whoever gets the better of that battle will likely have a solid hand in determining which capable team advances to the Second Round to take on Kansas.

Lock of the Year: #3 Michigan State to the Sweet Sixteen (at a minimum). Given the twin factors of talent as well as location, it would be stunning if Michigan State does not advance to the Sweet Sixteen out of the Detroit pod. The Spartans are better than a #3 seed and will have the home crowd pushing them along. It says here that they will overwhelm Bucknell in the First Round before coasting to victory over the TCU/Arizona State-Syracuse winner in the Second Round. Sparty should already begin planning its trip to Omaha.

Juiciest Potential Match-Up – Purists: #2 Duke vs. #3 Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen. Duke and Michigan State can make legitimate cases for having more talent than any other team in the country. They have already played one great game this season — a Duke victory in the Champions Classic — so everyone should be hoping both teams make it through the first weekend for an epic Sweet Sixteen battle in Omaha. Should this game come to fruition in a little over a week, it will dominate national headlines all of next week and grab the prime time spot on Friday.

Juiciest Potential Match-Up – Media: #1 Kansas vs. #2 Duke in the Elite Eight. Two Hall of Fame coaches, two blue-blood programs, two senior leaders looking to make a lasting impact, two top seeds with a Final Four berth on the line? Yes, everyone signs up for this.

The Pressure is on Kansas to Get Back to the Final Four for the Third Time in Bill Self’s Tenure (USA Today Images)

We Got Screwed: #1 Kansas. While the Jayhawks certainly have a good chance to emerge from a strong Midwest Region pack and advance to the Final Four for the third time in Bill Self’s career, it will not be easy. Its First Round match-up appears more arduous than the usual #1/#16 game as Penn is the highest #16 seed over the last six years. Figuring Kansas gets past the Quakers, a Second Round game with either a tricky Seton Hall or NC State team looms. All of that difficulty will occur before the first weekend is over, and it doesn’t even include the possibility of Duke or Michigan State in the Elite Eight. This is not a cakewalk for a top seed by any stretch of the imagination.

Strongest Pod: San Diego (Auburn, Clemson, New Mexico State, College of Charleston). The San Diego pod does not contain any blue-bloods or the top players in this region, but it does include the region’s best chances at First Round upsets. Both #4 Auburn and #5 Clemson should be commended for completing very good regular seasons, but each team lost key contributors to injury in the back half of the season and are coming off humbling losses in their respective conference tournaments. #12 New Mexico State and #13 College of Charleston are legitimate mid-majors that certainly have the talent and coaching to pull off at least one upset.

Great Storyline: Duke’s fate. There is nothing in this region that will create more widespread national attention than if #2 Duke advances to the Final Four. Unsurprisingly, the item that would create the second-most widespread attention would be if Duke was unexpectedly beaten in an earlier round. There are many great stories that exist throughout March Madness, but none move the needle quite like Duke.

WCarey (318 Posts)

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