by Paul West
College basketball is wrapping up one of its most wide-open, parity-driven seasons in a long time; this makes it harder than usual to fill in your March Madness brackets. Here’s a region-by-region breakdown of the first round of the tournament.
Despite losing the ACC Tournament final to UNC, the Virginia Cavaliers drew the 1 seed in the Midwest region. The bad news for the Cavaliers: the 2 seed is Michigan State, who’s seemed to have their number for a couple of seasons now. There are some other tough teams in this region, including the Purdue Boilermakers and Iowa State Cyclones, and there are a bunch of intriguing matchups–many of which promise pitched battles in the paint.
1 Virginia vs. 16 Hampton
The Virginia Cavaliers continue to be one of the best defensive teams in college basketball, thanks to the ‘pack-line defense’ employed by coach Tony Bennett. The Cavs are second in the nation with 59.7 points allowed, and this is the key to their success; their team defense is a first-fingered glove that controls the game’s tempo and rarely gets caught out of position. Senior point guard London Perrantes doesn’t score much, but he’s one of the best three-point shooters in the nation and he has a knack for clutch shots; the real centerpiece of the offense is 6’5″ forward Malcolm Brogdon, also a senior. Brogdon averages 18.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, and when he takes over, he opens things up for an offense that otherwise struggles. Aside from their offensive struggles, Virginia’s achilles heel might be that they don’t rebound much for such a strong defensive team; their defense is better at forcing bad possessions and turnovers than it is at cleaning the glass. Rebounding is the strength of the Hampton Pirates, who won the MEAC Conference title and have won 8 of their last 9 games. The thing is, the Pirates don’t shoot the ball especially well and don’t have a top-notch scorer to break down the pack line. This would be a very big upset. Pick: Virginia
2 Michigan State vs. 15 Middle Tennessee
The Michigan State Spartans won the Big Ten tournament, prompting many to believe they’d earned a 1 seed. Instead, they got a 2 seed in what appears to be a fairly tough region. The Spartans are up to the challenge, though: they’re on of the most dangerous teams in college basketball, and they’re almost certainly the best of the four 2 seeds. They’re coached by Tom Izzo, one of the game’s best strategists and motivators. They’re physical, balanced and tough. They average 80.2 points per game, they’re 6th in the country with 41.9 rebounds per game, they’re 17th in the country with 63.4 points allowed per game–and they’re first in the country with 20.7 assists per game. This kind of balance is represented by 6’5″ senior Denzel Valentine, who’s averaging a staggering 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. And again, they’re a 2 seed. The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders have a stout defense, and they have the nation’s most accurate three-point shooter in Giddy Potts. They also shoot a preposterous 61.7 percent from the free throw line, which is nearly last in the country. They also have a slim, at best, chance of pulling off the upset here. Pick: Michigan State
3 Utah vs. 14 Fresno State
The Utah Utes are hard to figure out. They have one of the best big men in the country in 7-foot Jakob Poeltl. They’re capable of looking like one of the better teams in the country–but the’ve also been blown out a surprising number of times. They lost 90-66 to Miami in November; they lost 67-50 to Wichita State in December; and they’ve lost all three of their games with Oregon by double digits, including a 77-59 pounding in January and a downright stupefying 88-57 dismantling in the Pac-12 tournament. When the Utes lose, they often lose big. This makes their matchup with the Fresno State Bulldogs interesting, as the Bulldogs are a tough team that’s on a roll. They rebound well, and they have a driving force on offense in senior guard Marvelle Harris, who averages 20.6 points a game along with 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists. If they come out confident, the Utes better not come out flat. Pick: Fresno State
4 Iowa State vs. 14 Iona
The Iowa State Cyclones should probably be a 3 seed. They’re experienced, balanced and tough, and when they’re clocking, they can beat anyone in the country. They can get up and down the court, and they spread the ball around: they’re 15th in the country with 81.8 points a game, and 23rd in the country with 16.5 assists per game. Like a few other teams in the draw this year, they’re led on the court by a senior: the versatile Georges Niang, a 6’8″ forward who averages 19.8 points and 6.2 rebounds and has excellent playmaking vision. One of the Cyclones’ weaknesses is that they’re weak on the boards–which is also the primary problem of the undersized Iona Gaels. The Gaels are a fast-paced small-ball team that in some ways mirrors the Cyclones: they share the ball, to the tune of 15.8 assists per game, and they put up points, to the tune of 79.6 per game. Like the Cyclones, they rely on ball movement and jump shots and they don’t rebound very well. Their offense is driven by 6’4″ senior A.J. English, who averages 22.4 points a game along with 5 rebounds and 6.2 assists. English is one of the elite scorers in college basketball, but he does a lot bit of everything, as well. The Cyclones are a bit more physical than the Gaels, largely from acclimating to the tough Big 12 division; this might be the difference in what could be a very high-scoring game. Pick: Iowa State
5 Purdue vs. 12 Arkansas-Little Rock
The Purdue Boilermakers have one of the toughest front lines in the country. 7-foot A.J. Hammons has a presence that belies his 14.9 points and 8 rebounds per game; on another team, those numbers would likely be much higher. He plays alongside Vince Edwards, a 6’7″ sophomore who averages 11 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists a game and can occasionally shoot from outside. There’s Caleb Swanigan, a 6’9″ freshman who averages 10.4 points and 8.2 rebounds; and if that wasn’t enough, there’s 7’2″ center Isaac Haas, who averages 9.9 points and 3.8 rebounds a game. Sometimes it’s a wonder anyone gets a rebound off the Boilermakers at all; they’re 10th in the country in rebounding with 41.2 per game, and they rank 5th with 17.8 assists. This translates into 78.2 points a game, and they only give up 64.5 points a game–and all of this might have you wondering: why are they a 5 seed? Because the Boilermakers have trouble with turnovers. If they can avoid giving away possessions, they could make a deep run in the tournament. The Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans went 29-4 in the Sun Belt Conference, and they’re 3rd in the country with a stingy 59.9 points allowed per game. They also create a lot of turnovers, which is what they’ll have to do to take the Boilermakers out. The thing is, even if they create enough turnovers to keep the game close, their offense moves at a glacial pace; Purdue should win this one. Pick: Purdue
6 Seton Hall vs. 11 Gonzaga
The Seton Hall Pirates are one of the hottest teams in the country. They went through Xavier and Villanova on their way to winning the Big East Tournament, and they’re winning with defense, aggressive rebounding and the inspired play of Brooklynite Isaiah Whitehead. 6’9″ sophomore Angel Delgado leads a frontcourt that gets after it on the boards; the Pirates average 40 rebounds a game, and they’ll have their work cut out for them against the big men of Gonzaga. The Gonzaga Bulldogs average 39.6 boards a game, and they have two of the game’s most well-rounded big men: Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer. Sabonis is the 6’11 son of the legendary Arvydas Sabonis, and he’s reminiscent of his dad both in size and scoring craft-and he’s still only a sophomore. Wiltjer is a 6’10” senior who transferred from Kentucky a couple of years ago, and he combines size, athleticism and the ability to score in bunches. Sabonis averages 17.4 points and 11.6 rebounds a game, and Wiltjer averages 20.7 and 6.5 respectively. The Bulldogs might only be in this bracket because they beat St. Mary’s in the WCC title game; but now that they’re here, they’re yet another midrange seed that’s an Elite Eight threat. They also score a lot more, on average, than the Pirates–and this could be the key difference, unless Whitehead continues to play out of his mind. Pick: Gonzaga
7 Dayton vs. 10 Syracuse
The Dayton Flyers went 25-7, they’re tough defensively, and they reflect the tenacity of coach Archie Miller; they rebound well, and they spread the ball around on offense; they’re in the tournament for the third year in a row. They also don’t have a ton of size, they’ve faltered since the start of conference play, they’re weak from the free throw line as well as behind the arc, and they don’t seem to have an obvious way to beat the well-known Syracuse zone. The Syracuse Orange have been up and down since the return of coach Jim Boeheim, and along with Dayton they’re one of the more controversial entries in this year’s bracket. They have talent, as with 6’8″ forward Tyler Roberson and 6’7″ forward Michael Gbinije; but they’re consistently inconsistent, and it’s hard to say which way this one will go. Pick: Syracuse
8 Texas Tech vs. 9 Butler
The Texas Tech Red Raiders are a balanced team out of the Big 12 Conference. Coach Tubby Smith has gotten the most out of a team that didn’t seem destined to go far; now they find themselves in the big dance, somewhat to the consternation of bubble teams like Monmouth and Georgia. The Raiders don’t stand out in any category except free throws, which they collectively shoot at 74.6 percent. The Butler Bulldogs score 80.6 points per game, and they’re good from three-point range. These are two of the more curious selections in the bracket. Pick: Butler
Upset alert: Fresno State over Utah. The Utes looked like a train wreck in their last game against Oregon, and they’ve dropped clunkers intermittently this season. Fresno State could surprise them.
Could make a run: Iowa State or Purdue. It wouldn’t make sense to say Michigan State, as they arguably should be a 1 seed.
You might not have heard of: Marvelle Harris, the a triple-threat guard who could lead the Fresno State Bulldogs to an upset victory.
Who makes the Final Four? Michigan State. They’ll likely square off against Virginia in the Elite Eight, but they have the Cavaliers’ number and will win in a thriller.