We are halfway through our preview of the 2016 NCAA Basketball Tournament, kicking off with the First Four tonight and tomorrow. We’ve already looked at the South and East Regions, and next up is the Midwest Region, which will see its semis and final take place in Chicago. Maybe the most questionable 1-seed resides in this region, as Virginia earned a 1-seed despite not winning the ACC regular season or tournament title, while Michigan State, the 2-seed in this region, won the Big Ten Tournament and are considered one of the top-3 teams in the country.
Any statistics discussed in the previews are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom, and we’ll again first take a look at the complete bracket.
#1 Virginia (26-7) vs #16 Hampton (21-10)
Thursday 3/17, approx. 3:10 pm TruTV
Overview: Maybe Virginia doesn’t deserve a 1-seed, but they are definitely one of the National Championship contenders in this field. Tony Bennett is one of the most underrated coaches in the nation, and it might not be that way for much longer. They’ll take on the Hampton Pirates in the First Round. Hampton is back in the tourney for the second consecutive year. They defeated Manhattan in a First Four game last season.
Key Players: Virginia has one of the best players in the country in senior guard Malcolm Brogdon. KenPom rates Brogdon as the 3rd best player in the country. He averages 18.7 points per game, and shoots over 40 percent from three-point range and over 88 percent from the free throw line. Along with guard London Perrantes and forward Anthony Gill, the Cavaliers have quite a trio. Hampton is one of the oldest teams in the country, and they are led by senior guards Quinton Chievous and Reginald Johnson. Johnson leads the team in scoring at 18.3 points per game, while Chievous scores 17 points per game and corrals 11 rebounds per game.
Why UVA will Win: Virginia plays at one of the slowest paces of any team in the land. They will look to slow this game down nearly to a halt, and limit Hampton’s possessions. Even when the Pirates have the ball, the Cavaliers are one of the best defensive teams in the country. They’ll be too much for Hampton.
Why HAMP will Win: They won’t, but if they can force some missed shots and get out in transition, they might be able to keep it respectable.
#8 Texas Tech (19-12) vs #9 Butler (21-10)
Thursday 3/17, 12:40 pm TruTV
Overview: These are two teams that had similar seasons. Texas Tech started off fantastic, then scuffled a bit at the beginning of the Big 12 schedule. But they scored wins over Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma down the stretch, and that was enough to get them to this point. Butler also played really well in the early going, and then struggled early in conference play. They did score two wins over Seton Hall late in the season, and with the Pirates winning the Big East Tournament, those wins are starting to look better and better.
Key Players: Senior guards Devaugntah Williams and Toddrick Gotcher lead the way for the Red Raiders, with Gotcher averaging 11.1 points a game and Williams 10.6. For Butler, it’s sophomore guard Kelan Martin (16.1 ppg) and seniors Roosevelt Jones (14.0 ppg) and Kellen Dunham (16.3 ppg) that lead the way.
Why TTU will Win: These are two very good offensive teams, but Texas Tech is the better team on the defensive end. Butler protects the ball very well, so for Texas Tech to have a chance in this one, they need to force Butler into some bad shots and some turnovers. The Red Raiders also prefer to play slow, so they need to keep Butler from getting out in transition. They are good on the offensive boards, so that will help in that regard.
Why BUT will Win: Texas Tech struggles to defend the perimeter, and that is good news for a Bulldog team that is among the nation’s best from behind the arc. They’re going to have to make threes if they’re going to win this game. As noted before, Butler does not turn the ball over very much. They need to value their possessions because Texas Tech is going to try to limit them by slowing down the game.
#5 Purdue (26-8) vs #12 Little Rock (29-4)
Thursday 3/17, approx. 4:30 pm TBS
Overview: Purdue is one of the biggest teams in the country, and that makes them not only fun to watch, but it gives them a huge (no pun intended) advantage over a lot of teams. They have given Michigan State two great battles this year, including coming out on top in overtime during the regular season. They are a sleeper team that I could see advancing to the Final Four. They’ll have a tough test in the First Round against the Little Rock Trojans, who have only lost four games all season. They have a win over San Diego State, who is another really big team. I don’t think they’ll be intimidated by the size of the Boilermakers.
Key Players: We know Purdue has size, as A.J. Hammons, Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas all play major minutes, and are all 6-10 or taller. Despite that, the key player for Purdue might be senior guard Raphael Davis. Davis is one of the best individual on-ball defenders in the nation. He has given some of the top players in the country, including Denzel Valentine, all sorts of problems this year. Little Rock is led by senior guard Josh Hagins, who averages 12.8 points, 4.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game.
Why PUR will Win: This is just a tough draw for Little Rock. They beat a big team in San Diego State, but Purdue is a different animal. The Boilermakers dominate the boards on both ends, while the Trojans struggle on the boards on both ends. That isn’t a good combination. Little Rock is one of the slowest playing teams in the country, and Purdue is very comfortable playing that style as well. Purdue’s talent should allow them to come out on top.
Why UALR will Win: I think the only way for Little Rock to win this game will be to have success from the outside. They just won’t be able to do much in the paint. Little Rock does get a fairly large percentage of their points from three-point range, so if they get hot from distance, they could steal this game from Purdue.
#4 Iowa State (21-11) vs #13 Iona (22-10)
Thursday 3/17, 2:00 pm TBS
Overview: Iowa State might be the best team in the nation that lost double-digit games. The Big 12 was brutal this year, and along with those losses were wins over Kansas and Oklahoma. They are looking to avoid a second straight early Tournament exit, after losing to 14-seed UAB in the First Round last season. It’s not going to be easy though, as they draw the Iona Gaels out of the MAAC. Iona didn’t win any big games out of conference, but they tested themselves against some really good teams, so they will be prepared for this match-up.
Key Players: This is the last chance for senior forward Georges Niang to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament. Niang is one of the best players in the country, averaging 19.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Another really good player in this game is Iona guard A.J. English. English, a senior, is one of the top scorers in the nation, averaging 22. 4 points to go along with 6.2 assists and 5.o rebounds a game.
Why ISU will Win: Both of these teams are great offensively, and both love to play fast. Iowa State is the more talented team, so that alone may be enough for them to get the victory. Niang will get his, but the area where Iowa State has a clear advantage in this one is on the perimeter. Iowa State shoots better from two-point range than from three-point range, but they have some good three-point shooters, and Iona really struggles to defend the perimeter. If the Cyclones make their threes, they’ll win.
Why Iona will Win: Iowa State does not foul much. They play decent defense, but they don’t like to be physical. That is fine with Iona, because they like to play on the perimeter. They want to get out in transition and get off a quick shot. They get more points from three-point range than a lot of teams. This game might come down to who makes more three pointers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the team that does that is Iona.
#6 Seton Hall (25-8) vs #11 Gonzaga (26-7)
Thursday 3/17, approx. 9:57 pm TruTV
Overview: What a finish to the season for Seton Hall. They started off hot again, and then lost four of five early in conference play. But instead of collapsing like they did last season, Seton Hall won 12 of their last 14 games, including the Big East Championship over Villanova. Gonzaga is back in the NCAA Tournament for the 18th consecutive season, and they had to win the WCC to get here. They avenged two regular season losses to Saint Mary’s by defeating them to clinch their berth.
Key Players: Seton Hall has a young, talented team, and the most talented of the bunch is sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead. Whitehead had some struggles during his freshman year, but he’s really figured it out in his second season, averaging 18.4 points and 5.0 assists per game. Gonzaga is led by a couple pro prospects in forwards Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis. Wiltjer, who won a National Title as a freshman at Kentucky, has experience in this tournament, and he is one of the best scorers in the country. Sabonis is a fantastic interior presence, and he is very efficient on the offensive end (61.7 FG).
Why SHU will Win: There will be a clash of styles in this one, and Seton Hall will have success if they can get out and run. They do a majority of their scoring from two-point range, and Gonzaga gives up a lot inside the arc. The one thing Seton Hall struggles with is protecting the ball, but Gonzaga does not force a lot of turnovers. As long as the Pirates do what they normally do, they should get a win.
Why GONZ will Win: Isaiah Whitehead is at the top of his game right now, but I’d argue that the Zags will have the two best players on the floor in Wiltjer and Sabonis. They can both play well enough to take over this game. Most of the numbers favor Seton Hall in this match-up, so I think they way Gonzaga wins this game is to rely on their stars. If Wiltjer and Sabonis play well, Gonzaga will win this game.
#3 Utah (26-8) vs #14 Fresno State (25-9)
Thursday 3/17, 7:27 pm TruTV
Overview: Utah played their best basketball at the end of the season, earning a 2-seed in the Pac 12 Tournament and making it to the league title game, where they lost to Oregon. This is a balanced team that could absolutely make a run to the Final Four. Fresno State is the lone representative from the Mountain West after they upset traditional league power San Diego State in the MWC Championship Game.
Key Players: Jakob Poeltl, a sophomore for Utah, is probably the best true center in the nation. He is averaging 17.6 points and 9.0 rebounds per game this season, and he has NBA scouts drooling. Fresno State has a super talented player as well in senior guard Marvelle Harris. He averages 20.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.2 steals per game this season. He’s fun to watch.
Why Utah will Win: Utah wins if they slow this game down and get the ball to Poeltl and company in the post. Fresno State likes to play a smaller lineup, and that’s hard to do against a team like Utah, who start two really good big men in Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma. The Utes shoot among the best percentages in the nation from inside the arc, and as long as they don’t settle for jump shots, they should be fine.
Why FRES will Win: Marvelle Harris is capable of taking over games, and if he gets hot, their might not be anything that Utah can do. If Fresno State can force some missed shots and get out in transition, they can have some success and give themselves a chance to get the win. A key for the Bulldogs will be protecting the ball. They’re one of the better possession teams in the country, and they’ll need to value possessions against a great offensive team like Utah.
St. Louis, MO
#7 Dayton (25-7) vs #10 Syracuse (19-13)
Friday 3/18, 12:15 pm CBS
Overview: Both of these teams have struggled entering the Tournament. Dayton has wins this season over Iowa, Monmouth and Vanderbilt, but they lost two of their last three home games, and were defeated in the A-10 semis by Saint Joseph’s. Syracuse has lost five of six games entering the Big Dance, and may didn’t even think they deserved to be here. They’ll look to prove the doubters wrong.
Key Players: Dayton’s most important player, especially in this match-up, will be senior forward Dyshawn Pierre. Despite being just 6-6, Pierre is often the tallest player on the floor for the Flyers, and they’ll need him to play big on offense and defense. Syracuse has one of the most underrated players in the nation in senior guard Michael Gbinije. The Duke-transfer is averaging 17.8 points per game while shooting over 40 percent from three-point range.
Why DAY will Win: Transition will be key for Dayton in this ballgame. You know all about Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense. The best way to beat the zone is to not allow the Orange to set it up. Dayton is an extremely good defensive team, and KenPom has them among the best defensive rebounding teams in the nation. They’re going to have to force missed shots and get out and run if they’re going to beat Syracuse.
Why CUSE will Win: One of the ways to beat a 2-3 zone is to get the ball into the paint, and then go from there. Dayton is undersized, and will have some trouble getting the ball inside. Dayton is not a great three-point shooting team, so if Syracuse can force a lot of jump shots, they’ll have success. They also will win this game by not giving Dayton anything easy. They Flyers are a poor free throw shooting team, so Syracuse should use fouls to its advantage.
St. Louis, MO
#2 Michigan State (29-5) vs #15 Middle Tennessee (24-9)
Friday 3/18, approx. 2:45 pm CBS
Overview: One of the biggest shockers on Selection Sunday was Michigan State not getting a 1-seed. Many people believe that they are the best team in the country, and they had just won the Big Ten Tournament title with a victory over Purdue. Tom Izzo doesn’t care what seed his Spartans are because he is one of the best postseason coaches in basketball history, and he has an unbelievably good team this year. They’ll face the C-USA Champions, Middle Tennessee, in the First Round. MTSU earned this bid with a victory over Old Dominion in the C-USA title game.
Key Players: Denzel Valentine would be my choice for National Player of the Year, and he recently guaranteed an National Championship for the Spartans. The senior guard is averaging 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. He also shoots over 44 percent from three-point range. He is the best all-around player in the nation, and he’s looking to further his superstar status here in the Tournament. Junior forward Reggie Upshaw is the best player on the other end of the floor. Upshaw averages 13.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Blue Raiders this season.
Why MSU will Win: Because they will settle for nothing less than a National Title this season. No team with those aspirations is going to lose to Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders’ strengths, which include three-point shooting and defensive rebounding, just aren’t advantages against a Spartans team that defends the three-point arc really well, shoots threes really well themselves and gets a ton of offensive rebounds.
Why MTSU will Win: Refer above for why they won’t win.
That’s three regions down, just one more to go. Next up will be the fourth region in the NCAA Tournament, the West Region, headlined by the red hot Oregon Ducks. Look for that preview tomorrow.