The Midwest Region might be the weakest region in the tournament this year. Outside of the top 3 teams there isn’t a whole lot to like and even those teams can be head scratchers at times. Does Bill Self finally get back through to the Final Four this year? Can Rick Pitino win his 2nd title in 5 years? Or will Dillon Brooks and co. finally bring a championship back to the “Conference of Champions”?
1. Kansas Jayhawks (28-4)
How They Got There: Big 12 At-Large
Season Recap: The Kansas Jayhawks won their 13th consecutive Big 12 title and the sky is blue. The Jayhawks own that conference in a way that we haven’t seen since UCLA’s run at 13 back in the 60s and 70s. Kansas has one of the best back courts in the country, led by Senior Frank Mason. He’s as good of a leader as any. He can seal the game from the free throw line or hit a big 3 point bucket (48.9% 3-point percentage) when you need it most. His counterpart, Junior Devonte’ Graham is just as good. We have seen it year after year in the tournament where guard play goes a long way in hoisting the trophy. Oh and they have this guy named Josh Jackson. Yes, he has been in some trouble lately but he is still slotted to be in the top overall 3 of this years NBA draft. The Jayhawks made an early exit in the Big 12 Tournament this year (GO FROGS!) and will look to not repeat that in the NCAA Tournament. They will be at full strength (Josh Jackson served a one-game suspension in the Big 12 Tournament) come Friday night as they make their run for Phoenix.
Tournament Prediction: This is the year Bill Self and co. finally get through the bracket and back into the Final Four. Their guard play is too good for most teams to handle and they have the star power to make a run. Kansas will be playing in Phoenix against UNC with a trip to the title game on the line.
2. Louisville Cardinals (24-8)
How They Got There: ACC At-Large
Season Recap: The Cardinals are back in the dance after a one year postseason ban and they look poised to make a deep run. They finished the season tied for second in one of the toughest (if not toughest) conference in college basketball They are led by Sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell whose one of the best in all of the land. He leads the way for the Cardinals scoring just shy of 16 points per game. He has the ability to take over a game both on the offensive side of the ball and defensive side (2.0 steals per game). Some of the Louisville brass compare him to Peyton Siva, who you know, put Louisville on his back in 2013 and carried them all the way to a National Title.
Tournament Prediction: Louisville will make it to the 2nd weekend with no troubles from the likes of Jacksonville State or Michigan for a matchup with Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen. The Ducks will have found their groove without star rim protector Chris Boucher and send the Cardinals back to Kentucky.
3. Oregon Ducks (29-5)
How They Got There: Pac-12 At-Large
Season Recap: The Ducks turned in one of their best seasons of all time going 29-5 and coming up one game shy of a Pac-12 Conference Championship. They are led by NBA Lottery Bound Dillon Brooks who shoots a ridiculous 41.4% from beyond the arc. Team that up with Tyler Dorsey, Dylan Ennis, and Jordan Bell and you’ve got yourself one of the best quartets in the country. I should be also including Senior Chris Boucher in the mix but unfortunately for the Ducks, Boucher suffered a season ending torn ACL in the Pac-12 Semifinals last weekend. Boucher meant so much to this team and it is really a shame he won’t be able to be apart of this years tournament run. The Ducks will need to rise to the occassion and play their hearts out for their teammate if they want to make sure of a deep run this year.
Tournament Prediction: The Ducks take care of business on the bottom half of the bracket and will face off with Kansas in an Elite Eight Matchup in Kansas City. The Jayhawks will prove to be too much for the Ducks in what will be a home game for Kansas.
4. Purdue Boilermakers (25-7)
How They Got There: Big 10 At-Large
Season Recap: When you look up double double in the dictionary you will see two guys faces, one of which is Caleb Swanigan. He has accomplished a double double in 26 of his 32 games this year. If that is not efficiency then I don’t know what is. At times Purdue to be the cream of the crop in the Big 10 but two losses in the last month to Michigan gave people their doubts. Can anyone really trust any team in the Big 10 (other than the Terrapins, of course)? I don’t know that I can but if any team has that ability it is the Boilermakers.
Tournament Prediction: Unfortunately for the Boilermakers, they won’t be making it to the 2nd weekend this March as they will lose a close one to Iowa State.
5. Iowa State Cyclones (23-10)
How They Got There: Big 12 Conference Champions
Season Recap: Iowa State has seemingly always been in the National Championship contenders talk for the last three years but life without Georges Niang changed that talk. The Cyclones didn’t play a very attractive non-conference schedule and wound up losing their two biggest games against non-conference foes Gonzaga and Cincinnati. Then came conference play. They started off slow going 5-4 but then their showdown with Kansas came and their season took off. They ended the longest winning streak in the country at Allen Fieldhouse and carried that momentum all the way to a Big 12 Tournament title. Led by Monte Morris who takes care of the ball better than anyone in the country. The man averaged 5.71 assists to every turnover committed. That was good more than 1.5 assists than the next guy. Along with Monte Morris’ ability to protect the ball, the Cyclones have five guys that shoot 38% or better from distance. That could be both a recipe for success and recipe for disaster.
Tournament Prediction: I like Iowa State to make a run to the second weekend for a matchup with Big 12 rival Kansas. This will be another epic battle between the two but Kansas with send Iowa State home and end their title hopes.
6. Creighton Blue Jays (25-9)
How They Got There: Big East At-Large
Season Recap: Creighton entered this season with looking to get back to the tournament for the first time since 2013 and it all appeared to be well in Omaha for the majority of the season. The team was in the midst of its best program start going 18-1 in their first 19 games. The Blue Jays had one of the best starting five’s top to bottom and then the floor dropped. Star PG Maurice Watson tore his ACL on January 16th and the team began to struggle as they would go just 8-7 over the last two months of the season. Creighton will look to Kansas State transfer Marcus Foster and NBA Lottery Bound Justin Patton to lead them on a deep tournament run.
Tournament Prediction: Creighton will make it into the Round of 32 before falling to the likes of Dillon Brooks and the Oregon Ducks.
7. Michigan Wolverines (24-11)
How They Got There: Big 10 Conference Champion
Season Recap: Michigan enters March as one of the hottest teams in the nation. They have won 10 of their past 12 games with wins over Wisconsin (x2), Purdue (x2), and Minnesota and a Big Ten Tournament Championsip. They are loaded with senior leadership in their backcourt with Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton, Jr. and they have a very talented Sophomore Forward Moritz Wagner who can seemingly score from anywhere on the floor. Just over a week ago, Michigan was involved in a very scary plane crash and almost missed the Big Ten Tournament entirely. Instead they showed up in their practice garb on the 2nd day of the tournament and began to go to work. They rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency and if they can tighten up on the defensive end, this team may make another deep run in another March tournament.
Tournament Prediction: The Wolverines will take care of business in the Round of 64 but their undefeated postseason run will come to an abrupt halt against Rick Pitino and his Louisville Cardinals.
8. Miami Hurricanes (21-11)
How They Got There: ACC At-Large
Season Recap: Miami started off slow in ACC play going 2-4 in their first six games. They had losses to Wake Forest and Syracuse and the season looked like it would be lost. They were able to turn it around by winning 8 of their next 10. This team doesn’t excite anyone on the offensive end but they have one of the top defenses in the country. KenPom has them ranked as a top 20 defense and they are top 25 nationally. They will really need their defense to step it up if they plan on making any kind of run this year.
Tournament Prediction: See Sparty in March, pick Sparty in March. Miami loses a close on to Michigan State in the Round of 64.
9. Michigan State Spartans (19-14)
How They Got There: Big 10 At-Large
Season Recap: It’s March and Sparty is back, what’s new? The month of March needs to be recognized as “Izzo”. The Spartans haven’t missed a tournament since 1998. This year’s team has a much different feel to it. They played arguably the toughest non-conference schedule in the country. They opened the season against Arizona and then had games against Duke, Kentucky, and Baylor. All four of those teams are #2 or #3 seeds. The Spartans are very young this year and start three freshmen. (Maybe you’ve heard of them; Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford, and Nick Ward) They also let you know they are very young by the way they play. This team is missing the classic upperclassmen leadership that Izzo builds his teams around.
Tournament Prediction: Despite being young and lacking the veteran leadership, I like Michigan State to win their opening game against Miami. Miles Bridges has something to prove and won’t let Izzo have back to back one and done NCAA Tournament appearances. This will set-up a Round of 32 matchup with Kansas where I don’t think the youth of Sparty being able to withstand the Kansas powerhouse.
10. Oklahoma State Cowboys (20-12)
How They Got There: Big 12 At-Large
Season Recap: Oklahoma State had quite the eventful season. They went through the non-conference schedule going 10-2 with their only losses coming on the road to Maryland and in Hawaii to UNC. They then hit conference play and went on a six game losing streak which included home losses to Kansas State and Iowa State. Then they hit a switch and won 10 of their next 11 which included a win at West Virginia which (as much as this pains me to say) is one of the toughest places to play in the country. The Cowboys score better than all but two tournament teams (UK and UCLA) by averaging 85.5 points per game and they are the most efficient offense in the country. They are led by Sophomore Jawun Evans (19.0 ppg) and Junior Jeffrey Carroll (17.4 ppg). Oh and you can’t forget Phil Forte who just averages a mere 42% from distance. Oklahoma State can make some noise in this tournament if they can play an up tempo high scoring gaming.
Tournament Prediction: The Cowboys draw a match-up with the Big Ten’s Michigan Wolverines who happens to be one of the better defensive teams in the country. I think Michigan is able to tame this offense and Ok. State will be heading back to Stillwater earlier than wanted.
11. Rhode Island Rams (24-9)
How They Got There: A-10 Conference Champion
Season Recap: Rhode Island entered this season with high expectations. They returned Junior E.C. Matthews who missed the majority of last season and he did not disappoint this season leading the team in scoring with 14.9 points per game. The Rams were able to manage a 3rd place regular season finish on the strength of their defense. They were amongst the top in the nation in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense and closed out the season on an 8 game winning streak.
Tournament Prediction: Rhode Island gets an evenly match Creighton in the Round of 64. This one is going to come down to the wire as RIs defense will keep it close but I like Creighton to prevail.
12. Nevada Wolfpack (28-6)
How They Got There: Mountain West Conference Champion
Season Recap: Nevada ended Stevie Fisher and the San Diego Aztecs 3 year run of regular season conference championships and followed that up with a conference tournament championship to punch their ticket to the dance. This team really can really light it up from beyond the arc. The quartet of Marcus Marshall, Cameron Oliver, Jordan Caroline, and DJ Fenner all average 14+ PPG and shoot a combined 38.7% from distance. The only downside to this squad is their lack of defense and ability to get a stop when they need it most.
Tournament Prediction: Their matchup with Iowa State looks to be a very exciting matchup as both of these teams get up and down the court in a hurry and score a ton of points. This one will be closer than expected but Nevada won’t be able to get the stops on defense and will be heading home after being one and done.
13. Vermont Catamounts (29-5)
How They Got There: American East Conference Champions
Season Recap: Vermont is back in the tournament for the first time since 2012 after what has been an amazing run through the American East conference. The Catamounts are in the midst of a 21 game winning streak and blew through conference play going 20-0. They are led by diaper dandy sensation Anthony Lamb who avergaes just under 13 PPG. Lamb is hoping to flashback to 2005 when the Catamounts upset Syracuse in the 1st round of the tournament.
Tournament Prediction: I can’t trust any Big 10 team (other than Maryland of course) and this leaves the door open for the Catamounts. The biggest problem for the Catamounts will be how to handle Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan. Vermont will show signs of that 2005 upset but will ultimately lose to Purdue.
14. Iona Gaels (22-12)
How They Got There: MAAC Conference Champion
Season Recap: The Gaels finished 3rd in the MAAC and were wayy behind the favorite Monmouth but for the 2nd straight season they were able to steal the automatic bid from Monmouth. (You’ve really got to feel bad for the kids from Monmouth. They’ve had the best team in this conference, and bench performances, and yet they have to miss out on the dancing because of a mis-lapse in the conference tournament.) The Gaels are still seeking their first ever NCAA tournament win in program history.
Tournament Prediction: The Gaels will have to wait yet again for that elusive first ever NCAA tournament win as they are beaten handedly by the Oregon Ducks.
15. Jacksonville State Gamecocks (20-14)
How They Got There: Ohio Valley Conference Champion
Season Recap: Not much to say here about the Jacksonville State Gamecocks. They only managed a 4th place finish in the regular season and were 6 games back of the regular season champion, Belmont Bruins. They got hot when they needed to and made a run in their conference tournament. The Gamecocks better not take their first ever NCAA appearance for granted. It might be a long time before they get another shot.
Tournament Prediction: No upset special alert here. The Gamecocks lose big to Louisville.
16. UC Davis Aggies (23-12)
How They Got There: Big West Conference Champion
Season Recap: UC Davis finished the regular season in 2nd place of the Big West conference and avenged a late season blowout loss to UC Irvine to win the Big West conference tournament and punch their first ever ticket to the NCAA Tournament. According to Ken Pom, UC Davis is the lowest ranked team in the tournament field. This team does not play efficient offense either which is going to pose a major problem when facing a top notch opponent like Kansas.They ranked in the bottom third of the NCAA in points per game. Fortunately for the Aggies, they got to be a part of the First Four and experience a win at this stage.
Tournament Prediction: Don’t expect UC Davis to stay perfect in the big dance. Kansas has something to prove this season and UC Davis will be ending their season in the Round of 64.
Photo Credit: Kansas City Star/Getty Images