by Paul West
After a regular season with no clear top dog but also a relatively small bubble, the 2017 March Madness tournament holds some interesting matchups and a lot of potential upsets. The Midwest Region holds a couple of under-seeded sleepers.
1 Kansas vs. 16 NC Central/UC Davis
With Josh Jackson suspended for a game, the Kansas Jayhawks lost to TCU in the Big 12 Tournament. But they come into the big dance as the third overall seed, and yet again, they’re a threat to make a title run. Led by 20.8 points a game from 5’11” Big 12 Player of the Year Frank Mason III, the Jayhawks can explode in transition and lock it down on defense. Mason also average 4.1 rebounds a game, and leads his team with 5.1 assists per game; he’s poised and fearless in the clutch, and when he’s on fire, he’s unstoppable. The aforementioned Jackson is the other half of arguably the best starting backcourt in the nation; he averages 16.2 points, 7.2 boards, and 3.1 assists per game. The Jayhawks can sometimes trot out sloppy possessions, which could hurt them later in the tournament; coach Bill Self will have to make sure his crew is mentally prepared to lock games down. The 25-8 NC Central Eagles and UC Davis Aggies are champions of the MEAC and Big West, respectively, and both are defensive-minded teams that attack the boards. Neither is likely to take down the Jayhawks. Pick: Kansas
2 Louisville vs. 15 Jacksonville State
The Louisville Cardinals battled their way though the brutal ACC Conference to go 24-8 on the season, but they still might be the most over-seeded team in the tournament. Coach Rick Pitino continues to go with his signature formula of length and lane clogging; unfortunately for the Cardinals, they haven’t got the kind of go-to scorer to bail them out of scoring slumps. Similar to Baylor, they tend to favor an approach of throw it at the rim, go get it and throw it up again; given their generally lackluster perimeter shooting, this approach will only take them but so far. The Jacksonville State Gamecocks, winners of the Ohio Valley-East Conference, don’t seem likely to stop them. Pick: Louisville
3 Oregon vs. 14 Iona
The Oregon Ducks lost in the Pac 12 final to Arizona, but are still considered one of the best teams in the country. The Ducks score 79.1 points a game and only give up 65 points a game; they can score and defend, and they can open the game up in transition. Unfortunately, 6’10” Montrealer Chris Boucher tore his ACL over the weekend and will miss the rest of the season; Boucher is rim-guarding presence on defense, and he gave the Ducks literal and figurative length. 6’9″ Jordan Bell, the team’s best overall defender, will have to step up in Boucher’s presence–but the diminished length and depth was a contributing factor in the team’s loss to Arizona, and might hurt their chances at a title run. The Iona Gaels are, as they’ve been for several years now, a team that scores a lot of points. They love to get out in transition, and 6’8″ senior guard Jordan Washington averages 17.9 points and 7. 4 rebounds a game. He averages barely half an assist per game, a curious statistic on a team that average 15.6 assists per game; this could mean that the Gaels will have to concentrate on ball movement and sharpshooting to beat the Ducks, instead of relying on Washington to carry them. It doesn’t seem likely, but if the total score in this one tops 160, it could get interesting. Pick: Oregon
4 Purdue vs. 13 Vermont
The Purdue Boilermakers are a physical team that won the regular season title in the Big Ten. 6’9″ sophomore Caleb Swanigan is already an NBA-level talent in the paint; he averages 18.5 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game, and he’s one of the best big men in the country. 7’2″ Isaac Haas is another dangerous big man, though he and Swanigan are rarely on the floor at the same time. Purdue’s team defense is smothering, and they have shooters who can get hot from outside. They average 80.1 points a game, 18.2 assists a game, and 37.9 boards a game, and they only give up 69.2 points a game. If they’re hitting from the perimeter, this is a dangerous team. The Vermont Catamounts are a tenacious team that’s on a 21-game winning streak and playing with confidence; unfortunately, they rely on heavily on points in the paint, which isn’t likely to happen against the Boilermakers’ front line. Pick: Purdue
5 Iowa State vs. 12 Nevada
The Iowa State Cyclones are a balanced, high-scoring, senior-heavy team with tournament experience. They beat Wet Virginia 80-74 to win the Big 12 Tournament, and they enter the big dance having won 9 of their last 10. They can be carried by a number of their perimeter shooters, and they share the ball and space the floor well; and when they get hot, they can beat anyone in the field. The Nevada Wolf Pack are similar, in that they share the ball and average 80 points per game; they have five players averaging double digits in scoring, led by senior transfer Marcus Marshall, who puts up 19.8 a game. The Wolf Pack also have three players averaging over seven boards a game, a testament to how they crash the glass. Neither team plays particularly good defense, so this one could be a race to 85. If the Cyclones’ shots aren’t falling, it could get interesting, especially if Nevada controls the board. if the Cyclones stay hot, they’ll advance. Pick: Iowa State
6 Creighton vs. 11 Rhode Island
The Creighton Blue Jays‘ season took a decided turn for the worse in January, when guard Maurice Watson tore his ACL. They’ve hung on admirably since then, pulling off gutsy wins during a tough Big East Conference schedule; but they aren’t the same team that was at the top of the rankings early in the season. Still, they’re tenacious and capable of scoring in bunches, and junior guard Marcus Foster has helped pick up the slack to the tune of 18.3 points a game. The Rhode Island Rams are a tough, scrappy team that won the Atlantic Ten Tournament. 6’3″ guard Jared Terrell is a broad-shouldered whirling dervish who can get into the paint and create scoring opportunities, and is also a rebounding threat against guards with slighter builds. The biggest caveat about the Rams is that they don’t shoot it especially well from the perimeter; this could be a problem if they surrender an early lead. Pick: Creighton
7 Michigan vs. 10 Oklahoma State
The Michigan Wolverines are getting hot at the right time. They’re a strong-shooting team with multiple outside threats, and they’ve got a whole bunch of athletic hybrid types who can drive the lane and keep the ball moving. They only allow 65.8 points per game, but they haven’t got a lot of mass in the paint; but keep an eye on 6’11” Moritz Wagner, an athletic jumper whose game is developing with each outing. Their other big man is 6’10” junior D.J. Wilson, a rangy floor stretcher who can close out to block shots and get up in the air for defensive rebounds. The team’s leading scorer and assist man, with 15 and 4.6 respectively, is senior Derrick Walton, Jr., a capable floor leader who often sparks them down the stretch. On the heels of a frightening experience in which their team plane skidded off a runway, the Wolverines rode a literal ‘happy to be alive’ emotional wave to win the Big Ten as the fifth seed. If a team that won a power conference’s tournament can be a Cinderella, the under-seeded Wolverines fit the bill. The Oklahoma State Cowboys are a team that scores 85.5 points a game, 8th in the nation; they’re led in scoring by 6’6″ guard Jawun Evans, who puts up 19 points a game while averaging 6.2 assists. The Cowboys are also on a three-game losing streak, albeit to Kansas once and Iowa State twice and only by a total of 17 points. They’re also not exactly stout on defense. This could be a fun one to watch. Pick: Michigan
8 Miami vs. 9 Michigan State
The Miami Hurricanes went 21-11 in a top-to-bottom tough ACC. They’re athletic, and tough on defense, but they lack both depth and experience. The Michigan State Spartans are also lacking in experience, but were 10th in strength of schedule and 13th in assists per game. Of course, they’ve also lost three of their last four, and four of their last seven. 6’7″ freshman forward Miles Bridges looks like an emergent talent, and averages 16.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Coupled with coach Tom Izzo‘s knack for dramatic postseasons–with all due respect to Miami’s venerable and respected coach, Jim Larranaga–this one seems to favor the Spartans. Pick: Michigan State
Upset alert: Michigan State. Not a huge upset, really, but Izzo’s set pieces coupled with solid ball movement should be the difference. Also keep an eye on the Iowa State-Nevada game.
Sleeper team: Purdue and Michigan. Interestingly, Purdue’s last two losses–their only two in their past ten games, and two of only seven losses this season–both came to Michigan. If they meet again, it would be to decide who escapes the bracket and makes the Final Four.
You might not have heard of: Jared Terrell. When he heats up, the Rhode Island Rams get energized; he’s compact, quick, and fearless.
Who makes the Final Four? Purdue. Third’s time the charm, as they finally figure out how to solve the Wolverines in an Elite Eight showdown between under-seeded teams.