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.
1 Kansas vs 16 Penn
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
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
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.