by Paul West
The Madness is finally here! After a whacked-out Championship Week full of upsets and buzzer beaters, the field of 68 is finally set. Before you fill in your brackets, you need some Bracketology. I’m here to help. Please don’t shoot the messenger.
The Midwest Region is probably the weakest of the four, with the obvious exception of the top overall seed. Many observers think the Kentucky Wildcats have been given a cakewalk, but there are a couple of teams in the bracket that they won’t want to overlook.
1 Kentucky vs. 16 Manhattan/Hampton
The Kentucky Wildcats are the first team from a major conference to enter the tournament undefeated since…the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, who were the last team to complete an undefeated championship season. Coached by the controversial John Calipari, the Wildcats are a human wave attack of big, athletic players with skill. They can score from inside and outside, they love to run the floor, and they play defense with aplomb. 7-foot junior Willie Cauley-Stein is rounding out his game and playing team ball, even as he’s one of the most singularly dominant forces in college basketball. No disrespect to the Jaspers or the Pirates, but this 16-1 upset just isn’t very likely. Pick: Kentucky
8 Cincinnati vs. 9 Purdue
These are two tough teams who don’t shoot very well. The Bearcats have been strong lately, and they’re 6th in the country in points allowed. They’re also 13th in blocks, and they attack the boards with the kind of manic intensity that might decide this game. Won’t be a pretty one. Pick: Cincinnati
5 West Virginia vs. 12 Buffalo
You wouldn’t believe it to watch them sometimes, but the West Virginia Mountaineers score 74 points per game. They’re 57th in the nation in offensive rebounds, 50th in assists, and first in steals. But wait: the Buffalo Bulls score exactly 75 per game, are 16th in offensive rebounds and 44th in defensive rebounds. They, too, can take it away, averaging 7.6 steals per game. Coach Bob Huggins is a veritable March Madness fixture who will prepare the Mountaineers well…but the Bulls follow the lead of coach Bobby Hurley, known for his scrappy postseason tenacity back in his days playing with Duke. The Bulls have played both Kentucky and Wisconsin this season, and they won’t be daunted by the moment. The Mountaineers are probably a bit over-seeded, and they struggle to shoot from the perimeter, which might be the key if the Bulls pull off the upset. This could be very interesting. Pick: West Virginia
4 Maryland vs. 13 Valparaiso
The Terrapins are a tough team that plays solid defense, and 6’2″ freshman guard Melo Trimble is tough, quick and can get to the rim. Dez Wells is a 6’5″ senior guard-forward hybrid who’s second on the team in points, rebounds and assists. They’re also good in close games: until losing 62-58 to Michigan State in the Big Ten semifinal, they were an incredible 11-0 in games decided by six points or less. Valparaiso is also a tough team that defends pretty well, but the Terps should be too much for them. Pick: Maryland
6 Butler vs. 11 Texas
The Texas Longhorns are one of this year’s head scratchers. So talented, and at times they can look so good. But man, they can look bad. They’re the kind of team that can heat up and go three rounds, or go cold and look ridiculous. Yet despite their struggles, they’re still fourth in rebounds per game and first in blocks as well as 39th in points allowed. The Butler Bulldogs are stingy on defense as well, but Texas’ explosiveness will likely be the difference here. Pick: Texas
3 Notre Dame vs. 14 Northeastern
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish just finished an impressive run to the ACC title. They can shoot as well as just about anyone, and despite being a long-range shooting team they’re second in the nation in field goal percentage. They spread the floor and share the ball, and they have a couple of guys who can take games over: 6’5″ senior guards Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. The Northeastern Huskies turn it over too much, and don’t do any one thing well enough to pose a real threat. Pick: Notre Dame
7 Wichita State vs. 10 Indiana
In one of the more baffling seed-allotment years in memory (and that’s saying something), the Wichita State Shockers are certainly under-seeded. They aren’t as good as they were last year, but they’re not that far off, either. Junior guard Fred VanVleet is an experienced leader who was with last year’s 1 seed that spent all season shocking (see what I did there?) the nation. He and junior guard Ron Baker make up a backcourt that knows how to handle the spotlight and comes up big when it counts. The Indiana Hoosiers lucked out with a 10 seed after spending the week on the bubble, and they’re 26th in the country in strength of schedule. They’ve shown some toughness this year, and they’ve also had disappointing outings. Junior guard Yogi Ferrell is their floor leader and leading scorer, and the Hoosiers will really need his leadership to pull this one off. Pick: Wichita State
2 Kansas vs. 15 New Mexico State
The Kansas Jayhawks are athletic, explosive, and just the kind of team that can be a surprise Final Four entry. They’re first in strength of schedule and 8th in BPI. They’re also streaky as heck, and the New Mexico State Aggies are a scrappy team with some size. The odds of an upset seem pretty long, but coach Bill Self might want to get his guys mentally ready. Pick: Kansas
Upset alert: Buffalo. They take after their coach, and they might take advantage of a poor shooting day by West Virginia. The Mountaineers can handle them, but they can’t spend the night throwing bricks.
Watch out for: Notre Dame. They’re battle-tested, they’ve beaten Duke twice, and if they get hot, they can rain threes. They might be one of the only teams that can challenge Kentucky if they cross paths. Key word might.
You might not have heard of: Dez Wells. He’s not in the national spotlight, but he’s a dynamic player who can put the Terps on his back.