Bracketology 2014: Midwest Region

Cleanthony Early and Fred Van Vleet have helped the Shockers earn their respect. Can they win the national title?
Cleanthony Early and Fred Van Vleet have helped the Shockers earn their respect. Can they win the national title?

by Paul West

After one of the more exciting NCAA basketball seasons in recent memory, Selection Sunday is finally here! Millions of bracketologists are studying, stressing and sweating over their March Madness picks. Here’s a region by region breakdown of the 2014 March Madness bracket.

Bracketology 2014: Midwest Region

1 Wichita State vs. 16 Cal Poly/Texas Southern (St. Louis, MO)

The 13-19 (yes, really) Cal Poly Mustangs play the 19-14 Texas Southern Tigers in what’s technically the first round of the tournament. The winner gets to play the 34-0 Wichita State Shockers, who made the Final Four last year as a 9 seed yet still have more naysayers than they deserve. It shouldn’t matter. If the Shockers don’t make it out of what’s being called the “group of death,” it won’t be because of this game. The Shockers are playing with a chip on their shoulder, and they have balance, leadership and coaching. They convert defense to offense, and they give up 59.6 points per game. This should be a get-in-rhythm game for them. (update: The Mustangs are in, at 14-19, and they’ve got their work cut out for them. Still, kudos to the super duper underdog.)  Pick: Wichita State

8 Kentucky vs. 9 Kansas State (St. Louis)

The Kentucky Wildcats are widely regarded as better than an 8 seed. That said, they’ve also been one of this season’s most frequent head-scratchers, despite their depth of talent. They have a 1-4 record against teams in the top 25, but they took Florida to the brink in the SEC Tournament title game. Every time you think they’re a bunch of crazy, unfocused kids, they surprise you. Then you give them a bit of credit, and they regress again. Meanwhile, the Kansas State Wildcats seem to win with toughness, grit and just hanging around until crunch time. They have a surprising 3-3 record against teams in the top 25, and they’re a perfect ‘trap’ opponent for a team like Kentucky. The Wildcats have an all-freshman starting five, and this one might depend on which Kentucky team shows up. Pick: Kentucky

5 Saint Louis vs. 12 North Carolina State/Xavier (Orlando, FL)

The Saint Louis Billikens went from rising star to plummeting in fairly short order, and just in time for March. They’ve lost four of their last five games, and have played themselves into the dreaded 5 seed–and even though it’s decided by a play-in game, the 12 seed will present a tough matchup. The NC State Wolfpack made it all the way to the final game of the ACC Tournament, and are a talented, athletic team that’s gelling at the right time. The Xavier Musketeers can be hard to figure out, but they’ve played tough down the stretch and have quality wins on their tournament resume. The Wolfpack’s balanced athleticism figures to make the difference in the play-in, and if the Billikens’ recent scoring woes continue, this could be another 12-5 upset. Pick: St. Louis

Russ Smith has been on fire lately. Can he lead the Louisville Cardinals to another title?
Russ Smith has been on fire lately. Can he lead the Louisville Cardinals to another title?

4 Louisville vs. 13 Manhattan (Orlando)

The Manhattan Jaspers score 77.4 points per game, and they’ve won eleven of their last twelve. They also haven’t played a top 25 team. The Louisville Cardinals have won twelve of their last thirteen games, thumping UConn 71-61 to win the AAC Tournament in their first season in the conference. Senior guard Russ Smith exploded during Championship Week, including a 42-point performance against Houston. The defending national champions are heating up, and now they have a bone to pick with the selection committee–Louisville’s designation as a 4 seed has been widely panned. The Jaspers will have their work cut out for them. Pick: Louisville

6 Massachusetts vs. 11 Iowa/Tennessee (Raleigh, NC)

The Iowa Hawkeyes were once considered a possible high seed. Now many are questioning their inclusion in the tournament, even in a play-in game. The Hawkeyes have lost six out of seven games–not to bad teams, per se, but they just can’t seem to get a win. Their defense has been porous, and they’ve suffered from poor possessions in key moments. Still, they’re tenth in the country in scoring at 82 points per game and if they get their act together, they’re a threat. As for the Tennessee Volunteers, they’re as much a jekyll-hyde team as Memphis or Kentucky, and nearly as talented. They’d won five in a row before losing to Florida in the SEC Tournament. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Minutemen are dangerous but also quite vulnerable. Undersized point guard Chaz Williams is an explosive speedster who can break down defenses, though he sometimes can be overly fond of his dribble and get himself into trouble. When UMass gets in rhythm, they can beat a lot of good teams, but they don’t seem as daunting as they did early in the season. This is a game worth watching for a possible upset, as both the Hawkeyes and the Volunteers have dangerous upside. (update: the Volunteers are in, and lookinf solid. UMass needs to beware.) Pick: Tennessee

3 Duke vs. 14 Mercer (Raleigh)

The Duke Blue Devils made it to the final game of the ACC Tournament, losing a tough one to Virginia. They have Jabari Parker, a 6’8″ freshman sensation who can shoot, rebound and finish with authority. They’re athletic and can shoot, and their defensive play has improved of late. But they’re still oddly prone to scoring droughts, which makes them vulnerable to a team like the Mercer Bears. The Bears score 79.3 points per game, are tenth in the country with 16.4 assists per game, and they rebound and can run up and down.They haven’t yet played a top 25 team, but all five of their starters are seniors; they won the Atlantic Sun Tournament by beating the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles 68-60, they’re fearless and they can win close games. Duke doesn’t rebound especially well, and if their shooters go cold, Mercer could be one of this year’s Cinderella stories. One thing that should work in Duke’s favor is the game’s proximity to their home turf. But if they have an off game, Mercer could give them a very hard time. Pick: Duke

7 Texas vs. 10 Arizona State (Milwaukee, WI)

The Texas Longhorns have looked vulnerable all season. They might be the most over-seeded team in the tournament, and the Arizona State Sun Devils are well designed to give them trouble. Like the Longhorns, the Sun Devils have split their last twelve games. They average 75 points per game, have a strong guard tandem and 7’2″ Jordan Bachynski is a monster in the middle. Texas is strong in the paint, as well, fourth in the country in offensive rebounds and fond of crashing the boards on both sides. This game could go either way. Pick: Arizona State

2 Michigan vs. 15 Wofford (Milwaukee)

The Michigan Wolverines were under consideration for a 1 seed until they lost the Big Ten Tournament title game, somewhat handily, to a reassembled Michigan State team. They’re athletic and quick, and they shoot as well as anyone. 6’6″ sophomore Nik Stauskas is a dynamic player who can drive, pass, rebound and shoot the three. When the Wolverines are lighting it up, they’re nearly impossible to stop. They struggle on the boards, and the Wofford Terriers are a defensive-minded team that holds opponents to 62.4 points per game. But unless Michigan really struggles, they should take care of business. This is another game where a high seed gets to play close to home, though it doesn’t seem like they’ll need the help. Pick: Michigan

Upset watch

If Duke has trouble with bad shot selection and neglects to get Parker heated up inside, Mercer could take advantage. This region is brutal (three of the last four national champions and three of last year’s final four teams? Seriously?), and full of teams that seem wrongly seeded, so most of its games could produce surprise outcomes.

Don’t sleep on…

Earlier in the season, I picked Saint Louis as a possible bracket buster. They climbed into the top ten, then backslid and are now in the historically upset-prone 12/5 seed line. If they right the ship, they could go multiple rounds.

You might not have heard of…

The Manhattan Jaspers’ George Beamon. A 6’4″ senior, Beamon is a guard/forward hybrid who averages 19.2 points and 6.6 rebounds a game and helps key the Jaspers’ up-tempo offense. He’ll probably have to have a big game for Manhattan to keep it close.

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