by Paul West
This season was a months-long testament to college basketball’s ever-increasing parity. By Tuesday night of Championship Week, six top seeds had been knocked out of their conference tournaments. The Midwest Region is a balanced, wide open region full of dangerous teams with obvious flaws–and a top seed with a potentially serious problem.
1 Houston vs 16 Northern Kentucky
The Houston Cougars were considered the top team in the country for much of the season. They’re experienced, they have an elite coach in Kelvin Sampson, they have one of the best defenses in the country, and they crash the boards on offense. Their main weakness is free throw shooting, which could cost them late against a top-notch opponent. Another problem? Leading scorer Marcus Sasser suffered a groin injury right before the tournament, and thus far there’s no word on how long he’ll be out.
The 22-12 Northern Kentucky Norse won a tough Horizon League Tournament, and are led by 19.1 points a game from 6’2″ junior guard Marques Warrick. They slow things down on offense and force turnovers on defense; but they can get beat up on the defensive boards, which could be trouble. Pick: Houston
2 Texas vs 15 Colgate
The Texas Longhorns are a good free-throw shooting team that can score, pass, defend, and run the floor. They crushed Kansas–their second consecutive win over them–to take the Big Ten Tournament, and they’re coming in hot; they crushed Gonzaga by 19 points earlier in the year. They’re led by 6’2″ senior guard Marcus Carr, who averages 15.9 points, 3 boards, and 4.1 assists a game.
The Colgate Raiders are a high-scoring team that averages 18.5 assists a game and can light it up from behind the arc. 6’5″ senior guard Tucker Richardson dropped a triple-double in their berth-clinching tournament final. They’ll need their shots to keep dropping in if they want to advance. Pick: Texas
3 Xavier vs 14 Kennesaw State
The 25-9 Xavier Musketeers made it to the final game of a high-scoring Big East Tournament, losing to top seed Marquette. They average 81.4 points a game on 19.3 assists a game, and are an experienced, balanced squad. In January, they lost 6’9″ senior forward Zack Freemantle–one of three Musketeers averaging over 15 points a game–to injury, but they’ve stayed hot regardless; their starting backcourt of Souley Boum and Jack Colby combine for almost 32 a game, and 7-foot forward Jack Nunge puts up 14.1 with 7.8 boards and 2.1 assists. This is a dangerous team.
The Kennesaw State Owls won the ASUN Tournament as the top seed, in their first winning season as a Division 1 team. They rely on toughness, composure, defense, and occasionally getting hot from three–a good recipe for surprising a higher seed. They don’t shoot free throws particularly well, though, which could be a problem. Pick: Xavier
4 Indiana vs 13 Kent State
The Indiana Hoosiers went 22-11 in a tough Big Ten, and won both its games against Purdue. 6’9″ senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis–averaging 20.8 points, 10.9 boards, and 4.1 assists a game–is one of the best players in the draw, and one of only three averaging a double-double. Jalen Hood-Schifino scored 35 in a decisive late February win over Purdue, and if he provides secondary scoring, it could fuel a tournament run.
The Kent State Golden Flashes won a high-scoring MAC Tournament, and are an athletic squad that hassles opponents on defense and can score enough to be dangerous. They took Houston, Gonzaga, and Charleston to the wire in close losses, and won’t be overwhelmed by big moments. They’re not very big, though, so they’ll need to keep the ball moving and force some turnovers to have a shot. Pick: Kent State
5 Miami vs 12 Drake
The Miami Hurricanes went 21-7 in a tough ACC, fueled by a balanced, efficient offense. 6’4″ junior guard Isiah Wong leads them with 16.2 points a game, along with 4.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists. The ‘Canes aren’t a big team, though, and they struggle to get stops–a tough combination if they were to come across a loaded offensive team.
The Drake Bulldogs won the MVC Tournament as a 2 seed. 6’7″ sophomore guard Tucker DeVries leads them with 19 a game, and can hit the boards and distribute as well as shoot from deep. The Bulldogs are also sound defensively, and limit opponents’ second chances on the boards. This is a team that could win a couple of games. Pick: Drake
6 Iowa State vs 11 Miss State/Pitt
The 19-13 Iowa State Cyclones are a defense-first team that beat Kansas and Texas and swept three against Baylor. They force a ton of turnovers, which is their main key to victory; but they struggle from deep and the free throw line, which could be a problem.
The 22-11 Pittsburgh Panthers have lost three of four and five of eight, but they’re a high-scoring team that has a handful of wins over high-level opponents including Miami and Virginia. The 21-12 Mississippi State Bulldogs are a tough defensive team that only allows 61 points a game but struggles to score. Pick: Iowa State
7 Texas A&M vs 10 Penn State
The Texas A&M Aggies might be one of this year’s few questionable selections, but they’re battle-tested by a tough SEC–making it all the way to the SEC Tournament final against Alabama–and have won games against Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri. They get tons of second chances on offense and are good from the free throw line, which bodes well in a close game…but they don’t shoot well from deep, and will have to draw fouls and defend well to stay in games.
The 22-13 Penn State Nittany Lions took Purdue to the final seconds in the Big Ten Tournament final, and heating up at the right time is the likely reason they’re in the draw. 6’4″ senior guard Jalen Pickett has an impressive stat line, averaging 17.9 points, 7.3 boards, and 6.7 assists a game, and he leads a squad that can really get hot from behind the arc; they don’t get many second chances, though, so if their shots don’t fall, they’re in trouble. Pick: Texas A&M
8 Iowa s 9 Auburn
The Iowa Hawkeyes score 80.2 a game on 16.6 assists a game, and they beat Indiana twice this year. They don’t light it up from deep, but they hit their free throws and don’t turn it over much. 6’8″ junior forward Kris Murray scores 20.4 a game with 7.9 boards and 2 assists a game, and he and the Hawkeyes will have to get hot on offense because they don’t defend well.
The 20-12 Auburn Tigers are likely in by virtue of conference affiliation, but they’re a battle-tested squad that crashes the offensive boards and hits their free throws. They also get into foul trouble and don’t shoot particularly well from outside. Pick: Iowa
Bracket busters? Keep an eye on Drake, a well-rounded team with an elite scorer.
Best player you might not know yet? Drake’s Tucker DeVries, who can heat up and take over a game.
Who makes the Final Four? Texas. The Cougars could be in trouble without Sasser, and Texas spent much of the year looking like one of the best teams in the country; but this region could bounce a few ways.