Bracketology 2018: Midwest Region

by Paul West

More and more in recent years, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is a wide open affair, with a number of credible title threats and no clear frontrunner. This year’s March Madness bracket is no different. Here’s a look at the Midwest Region.

The Kansas Jayhawks’ Devonte’ Graham is one of the best guards in the country.

1 Kansas vs 16 Penn

The Kansas Jayhawks are a physical, athletic team that seems to be heating up at the right time, taking the Big 12 Tournament with an 81-70 win over West Virginia. 7-footer Udoka Azibuke is a terrific inside presence, and dynamic senior guard Devonte’ Graham averages 17.3 points and 7.5 assists a game. Coach Bill Self knows how to get his teams prepared, and the team has the talent to take them all the way to the Final Four; but the’ll need to be careful with their shot selection if they’re going to stick around until the Final Four.
The Pennsylvania Quakers won the Ivy League Tournament on the strength of solid team defense and good perimeter shooting. Sophomore forward A.J. Brodeur averages nearly a double-double, and four of the Quakers average double digits in scoring; but they’re probably overmatched here, unless the Jayhawks get three-happy and give up a lot of easy possessions. Pick: Kansas
2 Duke vs 15 Iona
The Duke Blue Devils have looked, at times, like one of the best teams in the country; at other times, their porous defense and lack of depth have made them look like an early-round exit. They can shoot, as usual, and their ball movement and athleticism makes them tough to keep out of a game; freshman Marvin Bagley III averages 21.1 points and 11.5 boards a game, and is even more talented than the numbers imply. Senior guard Grayson Allen can score in bunches and shoot from anywhere, but his mercurial temperament and occasional disappearing acts on offense are a problem. If they get hot and stay hot, the Blue Devils can reach the Final Four;  if they get in foul trouble and more than one of them struggles from the floor, they can be upset by a high-scoring team.
True to their form of recent years, the Iona Gaels are high scoring, undersized, and defensively challenged; they’ve also got tournament experience, having been to the big dance three years in a row and five of the past seven years. As such, they’re an interesting matchup for a high-scoring, defensively challenged Duke team–and they could make things interesting. Pick: Duke
Miles Bridges and the Michigan State Spartans are a legitimate threat to win it all.

3 Michigan State vs 14 Bucknell

The Michigan State Spartans are one of the most talented, and at times exciting, teams in the tournament; they can score, defend, and rebound, and lead the country with 19.3 assists a game. 6’11” freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. is a lottery-pick talent who attacks the rim; leading scorer Miles Bridges is a highlight-reel dunk waiting to happen. The Spartans shoot the three as well as anyone, and are never out of a game–but turnover problems have plagued them on and off all season, and they’ve gone mystifyingly cold at times. They’ll want to avoid such a swoon if they want to make it to the final weekend.

The Bucknell Bison won the Patriot league decisively in both the regular season and their conference tournament. 6’7″ senior Zach Thomas is rangy and versatile, and averages 20.3 points, 9;2 rebounds, and 2.2 assists a game; 6’9″ center Nana Foulland is another interior threat who can score and rebound. The Bison can put up points, and they play with confidence. They’d be a threat against most teams, but the Spartans will likely be too much for them. Pick: Michigan State

4 Auburn vs 13 Charleston

The Auburn Tigers were one of the biggest surprises of the year, winning the regular season in an improved SEC and scoring 83.4 points a game. They’re over-seeded, though, and set up for a tough road to the Final Four.

The Charleston Cougars have three players averaging 17 or more points a game, and they outlasted a tough Northeastern team to win the CAA Tournament. The over-seeded Tigers are a winnable matchup for them; this might be a bracket-buster to look out for. Pick: Charleston

5 Clemson vs 12 New Mexico State

The Clemson Tigers are probably a bit over-seeded as a 5, though they made it to the ACC Tournament semifinals. They’re tough on defense, and have shown resiliency while battling injuries all year. Having a good year in a tough conference means you can’t quite count them out, but they lack the firepower to keep up with the better teams in the bracket and their defense, while tough, isn’t quite elite.

The New Mexico State Aggies come into the tournament after winning both the regular season and tournament titles in the WAC, and they’re the other half of a 12-5 matchup between teams who are quite solid, but not likely to go very far. Pick: Clemson

Trae Young, the only reason the Sooners are in the tournament, is must-see tv for hoops fans.

6 TCU vs 11 Arizona State/Syracuse

The TCU Horned Frogs are an intriguing potential sleeper. They flew under the radar in a solid Big 12 Conference, but went 21-11 and scored 83 points a game on 18.8 assists a game, the latter number being second in the country. 6’11” senior forward Vladimir Brodziansky is the leading scorer on a team with five players averaging double digits in points, and when the Frogs get going, they can get up and down the floor.

The Syracuse Orange wouldn’t tell you as much, but they might be as surprised by their entry as many of us are. It’s not that they aren’t talented; it’s that every time they seemed to be playing their way into a certain bid, they had the sort of outing which would have seemed to knock them out of the running. Lo and behold, here they are, up against another team whose bid is widely deemed questionable.

The Arizona State Sun Devils finished in 8th place in a strong Pac 12 Conference in which USC and UCLA, two of this year’s most egregious snubs (I count UCLA as a snub because it’s absurd that they were relegated to the play-in game), finished second and third. They put up 835 a game, and started the year off impressively, but they’ve lost five of their last six and haven’t looked very good in a while. Of course, everyone goes into the tournament with a proverbial fresh start, so maybe we’ll see the early season version of the Sun Devils? Pick: TCU

7 Rhode Island vs 10 Oklahoma

Tough they’ve lost three of their last five games, the Rhode Island Rams are a popular sleeper team in this year’s tournament. They won the regular season title in the Atlantic 10 Conference, and the Rams are a tough team who can score and defend. Senior Jared Terrell leads a balanced offense that puts up 76.8 points a game, and the Rams have hovered near the edge of the top 25 all season. They have what looks like a winnable matchup in the first round, and would like up against hot & cold Duke or defensively challenged Iona in the second round. The Rams could sneak their way into the round of 16.

The Oklahoma Sooners are ludicrously over-seeded, and most impartial observers think they’re the most dubious selection in the bracket, but you know why they’re here: Trae Young, one of 2018’s bumper crop of talented freshman, whose shooting range has been compared to that of Stephen Curry and who led the nation in points and assists. Unfortunately, they’ve been flat-out awful since the turn of the calendar year, and unless they begin to look more like they did in the fall, this will be a one-and-done venture. Pick: Rhode Island

Angel Delgado is a dominant post player for Seton Hall, one of this year’s big sleepers.

8 Seton Hall vs 9 NC State

The Seton Hall Pirates are tough and experienced, with four seniors in the starting lineup. 6’10” senior forward Angel Delgado is a force on the interior and a double-double machine; sophomore guard Miles Powell has improved dramatically throughout the year, enhancing the team’s spacing and ball movement; and senior forward Desi Rodriguez is another experienced and versatile big man. The team’s achilles heels are streakiness and questionable free throw shooting; but this is a team that can beat most of the bracket head to head.

The NC State Wolfpack are a bit over-seeded, but they have some quality wins this season and are battle-tested by a tough ACC schedule. Turkish-born seven-footer Omer Yurtseven has developed into a formidable presence, and the Wolfpack score 81.2 a game on the strength of ball sharing and transition play. Still, they don’t appear to be as dangerous as in recent years. Pick: Seton Hall

Upset alert: Charleston.

Sleeper alert: Seton Hall.

Best player you might not have heard of: Angel Delgado, because he isn’t yet a hoops household name–but he should be.

Who makes the Final Four? Michigan State puts it all together and goes on a run.

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