The Kansas Jayhawks had a fantastic season led by star guard, and likely National Player of the Year, Frank Mason III, and they have been handsomely rewarded for their success, getting the 1-seed in the Midwest Region, which will see the regional semis and finals take place in Kansas City, Missouri, a virtual home arena for the Jayhawks.
There are a lot of differing views of this region, with most experts giving Kansas the easiest path to the Final Four of any of the 1-seeds, while it is my opinion that the Midwest is the toughest region in this year’s Tournament. Outside of Kansas and the 2-seed Louisville, I believe that every other team has one of the toughest possible First Round games they could have had.
This region is home to three regular season champions of major conferences, and two additional teams who won major conference tournaments (and that doesn’t even include Louisville). Here is my preview of the First Round matchups in the Midwest Region.
*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom*
#1 Kansas (28-4) vs #16 NC Central/UC Davis
Friday 3/17, 6:50 pm TNT
Overview: It was an unceremonious exit from the Big 12 Tournament for the Kansas Jayhawks, as they were upset in the quarterfinals by TCU. This came after the Jayhawks won their 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title, calling into question whether the motivation was truly there in that TCU game. Nevertheless, this is one of the best teams Bill Self has ever had at Kansas, and they will be a popular pick to go all the way and win the National Title.
Key Players: You can go back to my First Four preview post to see who the key players for NCCU and UC Davis are, but for the Jayhawks, I already mentioned Frank Mason III at the beginning of this article. Mason is averaging 20.8 points and 5.1 rebounds a game this season, and he is the type of player that can carry a team to a title almost by himself. He has lots of help though, and the most polarizing player on this team is future NBA lottery pick, 6-8 freshman forward Josh Jackson. Jackson is a talented defender and a freakish athlete, and he was suspended for the TCU loss. If he plays, the Jayhawks almost certainly win, so he’s a definite factor.
Why KU will Win: Again, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, because a 16-seed has never beaten a 1-seed. I don’t see it happening here. Kansas is extremely talented, especially on the offensive end of the floor. A lot of times in March, guard play makes the biggest difference. Well, Kansas has one of the best backcourts in the nation. They move on without an issue.
#8 Miami FL (21-11) vs #9 Michigan State (19-14)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:20 pm TNT
Overview: Two teams that are trending in the positive direction will battle for the chance to upset the Kansas Jayhawks in the Second Round of the Tournament. You could argue that things aren’t great for Miami right now, having lost three of four entering the Tourney, but all three losses were to Tournament teams, and it was preceded by wins over Virginia and Duke. The Hurricanes are playing well right now. It has been a wacky season for Tom Izzo’s Spartan team, and they have also lost three of four heading into the Big Dance, but they are finally healthy, and it’s hard to bet against a healthy Michigan State team in March, even after what happened last year.
Key Players: Miami has a collection of very talented players, led by a trio of impressive guards in senior Davon Reed (15.0 PPG), junior Ja’Quan Newton (13.4 PPG) and freshman Bruce Brown (11.9 PPG). Those three will have to play well for Miami to have success. On the other side, the Spartans have one of the most talented freshmen in the country in forward Miles Bridges (16.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG), but another freshman who has come on strong as the season has progressed is center Nick Ward, who is averaging 13.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. He has become the most important player for Michigan State.
Why MIA will Win: It’s been a strange season for Michigan State, and I think if you look at these teams from top to bottom, all things considered, you have to consider Miami the better team. Both squads are better on defense than offense, but I believe the Hurricanes have more options offensively, giving them an advantage in this matchup. They won’t let the Spartans get anything easy because MSU really struggles at the free throw line. Miami ends up making the stops when they need to and they get the win.
Why MSU will Win: Are you going to bet against Izzo in March? Me either. I got burned by them last year, picking them to win it all only for 15-seed Middle Tennessee to play a perfect game and end my bracket pool chances from the get-go. This team is fairly inexperienced, but that could actually be a good thing. They’ll play like they have nothing to lose, and the freshmen Bridges and Ward will have huge games, leading the Spartans into the Second Round.
#5 Iowa State (23-10) vs #12 Nevada (28-6)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 9:57 pm TruTV
Overview: What a finish to the season for the Iowa State Cyclones. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they had a really good season from the start, including ending Kansas’s 50-plus game home winning streak, but they really turned it on at the end, winning six of their last seven in the regular season, and then winning three games in three days to win the Big 12 Tournament. Iowa State is peaking, and they are a dangerous team. But they can’t get too far ahead of themselves, because Nevada is not going to go down easy. The Wolfpack dominated the Mountain West this season, defeating Colorado State 79-71 in the championship game. This is a trendy upset pick.
Key Players: Iowa State, according to KenPom, is the 2nd most experienced team in this Tournament, and they are led by a talented quartet of senior starters, forwards Naz Mitrou-Long and Deonte Burton (combined 30.3 PPG), shooting guard Matt Thomas (44% 3PT) and star point guard Monte Morris (16.3 PPG, 6.1 APG). Morris is capable of taking over any game he is in. Nevada is extremely good as well, led by a couple potential future NBA players in 6-3 senior guard Marcus Marshall (team-leading 19.8 PPG) and 6-8 sophomore forward Cameron Oliver (15.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.6 BPG). If these two play well, Nevada could shock a lot of people.
Why ISU will Win: Nevada is an extremely talented 12-seed, but Iowa State is one of the hottest teams in the nation right now, and I simply don’t see them losing this game. The Cyclones do a great job taking care of the basketball, and Nevada really struggles with forcing turnovers. That doesn’t bode well for the Wolfpack. Deonte Burton continues his impressive play (over 18 PPG in the Big 12 Tournament), and the Cyclones get past Nevada and into the Second Round.
Why NEV will Win: It’s no secret that sometimes all it takes in the Tournament is for one player to get hot, and the team just rides the wave of that player. Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier single-handedly led UConn to national titles, for just a couple examples. Marcus Marshall is a game-changer in the same mold. Nevada does a fair amount of damage from the perimeter, and Iowa State tends to struggle playing defense out there. The Wolfpack get hot from distance, and win a shootout.
#4 Purdue (25-7) vs #13 Vermont (29-5)
Thursday 3/16, 7:27 pm TruTV
Overview: It was a down year for the Big Ten, but Purdue was clearly the best team in the league from beginning to end. For the Big Ten regular season champs to only get a 4-seed is all you need to know about how poor a season the league had. But don’t let that discourage you from believing in Purdue. They took Villanova and Louisville to the limit early in the season, and they have wins over Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Maryland and Northwestern (twice) to their credit. They are the more talented team in this matchup, but they don’t have the most momentum, as the Vermont Catamounts enter the Tournament on a 21-game winning streak, the longest active streak in the country.
Key Players: Purdue has a Player of the Year candidate in 6-9 sophomore forward Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan. Swanigan had 26 double-doubles this season (!!!!!!!), averaging over 18 points and 12 boards a game. He is an absolute beast in the paint, and he can step out and hit jumpers too. He’s the ultimate weapon. Vermont will have trouble stopping Swanigan, so they’ll need their star point guard, junior Trae Bell-Haynes (11.1 PPG, 3.8 APG) to play well. Freshman forward Anthony Lamb (team-leading 12.6 PPG) might be tasked with defending Swanigan, and while he is an impressive player, he’ll have his hands full.
Why PUR will Win: I mentioned the strong possibility that Vermont won’t be able to defend Swanigan, and it’s because they simply don’t have the size or talent necessary to limit Biggie. Especially when you consider that the Boilermakers have 7-2 Isaac Hass that they can put in there, causing even more matchup problems for the Catamounts. Purdue shoots it extremely well from the outside, but here, they will take advantage of their huge size/strength advantage and overwhelm Vermont.
Why UVM will Win: If you believe in momentum, then you’re probably picking Vermont here. The Catamounts hardly know how to lose, and that can be an invaluable trait for a basketball team. I think Vermont can let Swanigan get his, and focus on limiting the rest of the Boilermakers. That is the way I would attack this game if I were them. Do that, and I think they have a chance to pull the upset.
#6 Creighton (25-9) vs #11 Rhode Island (24-9)
Friday 3/17, approx. 4:30 pm TBS
Overview: There are a lot of teams in this year’s field that have basically had two different seasons in one. That might not be more true for a team than it is for Creighton. Star point guard Maurice Watson suffered a season-ending knee injury in a January 16 game against Xavier. Up to and including that game, the Bluejays were 18-1. Without Watson, they are 7-8. They did build some momentum in the Big East Tournament though, reaching the title game, where they fell to Villanova. For Rhode Island, it was a major question if they were going to get into the Tournament as an at-large team. Their profile was shaky at best. Luckily for their fans, Danny Hurley’s squad took it out of the Committee’s hands, defeating VCU 70-63 to win the A-10 and earn the league’s auto-bid. The Rams are finally healthy and playing their best basketball of the season.
Key Players: E.C. Matthews is a stud basketball player who has been ravaged by knee injuries in his career. When healthy, he’s been spectacular. He played in every game this season, averaging a team-leading 14.9 points per game. Senior Hassan Martin is another outstanding player for the Rams, but he too has been slowed a tad by injuries in his career. With these two guys healthy, Rhody is a dangerous team. Creighton really misses Maurice Watson, but they still have some great players. Kansas State-transfer Marcus Foster (18.3 PPG) is an extremely talented scorer, and freshman big man Justin Patton (13.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG) has been a revelation this year, coming out of nowhere to become a potential NBA lottery pick.
Why CRE will Win: I would feel really good about the Bluejays if they still had Watson, but I also think they’d be a much higher seed had he not gotten hurt. Creighton is still one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, and they like to play fast. That is a lethal combination if they are making shots. Rhode Island prefers to slow the game down, so if Creighton can play up-tempo and pour in shots like they normally do when they play well, the Rams don’t stand a chance in this one.
Why URI will Win: As I mentioned before, a healthy Rhode Island team is very dangerous. Don’t forget, they were a Top-25 ranked team coming into the season, so the talent is evident. They showed their potential down the stretch, and they enter this game on an eight-game winning streak. They play really tough defense both inside and outside, and if they can slow the game down and play at their pace, and force Creighton to take tough shots, I like the Rams to get the upset and move on to the Round of 32.
#3 Oregon (29-5) vs #14 Iona (22-12)
Friday 3/17, 2:00 pm TBS
Overview: The Ducks have had a fantastic season following their trip to the Elite Eight last season. They won the Pac-12 regular season title, and they reached the Pac-12 title game, barely falling to Arizona. It’s been great, but they will now have to overcome some adversity after senior center Chris Boucher tore his ACL in the Pac-12 semis. He is a terrific rim protector, and they will miss him a lot. The Gaels of Iona are back in the Tournament for the second consecutive season, needing overtime to take down Siena in the MAAC title game. Tim Cluess knows how to coach offense, and believe me, this team can score in bunches. They are fun to watch.
Key Players: The Ducks have a bonafide star in 6-7 junior Dillon Brooks. Brooks just has a knack for this game, and he led the team this season with 16.3 points per game while shooting over 41 percent from distance. I mentioned how this team will miss the interior presence of Chris Boucher, and that means that 6-9 Jordan Bell and 6-11 Kavell Bigby-Williams will need to step up to pick up the slack. I mentioned the Gaels’ great offense, and it is led by senior forward Jordan Washington. He was originally supposed to play at Arizona State, but ended up at Iona, and he has been stellar this season, leading the team with 17.9 points and 7.4 boards a game. Washington will likely benefit from the absence of Boucher protecting the rim.
Why ORE will Win: Many people have Oregon as one of the teams capable of winning a title this year, but some are backtracking off of that with the loss of Boucher. The Ducks should be out to prove that they are still one of the best teams in the country, and in this game, they just have way too much talent for Iona to keep up. The Gaels struggle to defend the perimeter, and Oregon can really shoot it. The Ducks get hot from distance and win this one going away.
Why IONA will Win: Iona is a good enough offensive team that if they can get hot, they will simply outscore teams. If Oregon struggles at all, the Gaels may smell blood in the water and take off en route to a massive upset. Iona will look to speed the game up, something Iowa State kept them from doing for the most part in last year’s 94-81 First Round loss to the Cyclones. If Iona can play their game, they’ll have a shot.
#7 Michigan (24-11) vs #10 Oklahoma State (20-12)
Friday 3/17, 12:15 pm CBS
Overview: What an incredible story this Michigan team is right now. Their plane crashed off the runway last Wednesday, delaying their trip to Washington D.C. for the Big Ten Tournament. They were very close to not make the trip, forfeiting their first round game against Illinois. The team decided they wanted to play, and they went on to win four games in four days, defeating Wisconsin on Sunday to win the Big Ten championship. It’s a little different, but this team is starting to remind me of the UConn team that won five games in five days to win the Big East, and then went on to win the National Title. This is a magical story, but it’s one that Oklahoma State would love to end in the First Round of the Tournament. The Cowboys started 0-6 in Big 12 play before winning 10 of their next 11 games. They limp into this game though, having lost their last three games.
Key Players: Michigan point guard Derrick Walton Jr. played out of his mind in the Big Ten Tournament, going for 29 points and 9 assists in the semis against Minnesota, and tallying 22 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds in the title game. He has put this team on his back, and they’ll need that to continue if they’re going to make a deep run. However, the best player on the floor in this game, and one of the best players that you know nothing about in this entire Tourney, is Oklahoma State sophomore point guard Jawun Evans. Evans is averaging 19.0 points and 6.2 assists per game this season, and he will be looking to become a household name.
Why UM will Win: This team’s story could be featured in a movie one day, it’s that bizarre and that amazing. But if that’s going to be the case, it can’t end with a loss in the First Round. The Wolverines have one of the most efficient offenses in the nation, and that does not bode well for an Oklahoma State team that is downright putrid on defense. They are especially bad on the interior, while Michigan loves to attack the rim. The Wolverines will dominate the paint and move on to another chapter in the story.
Why OSU will Win: For as good as Michigan’s offense is, Oklahoma State’s is better. KenPom says that the Cowboys have the most efficient offense in the nation this year, and they are battle tested having played in the toughest conference in the country. Win or lose, you are going to know the name Jawun Evans after this game. The Cowboys will run Michigan to death, Evans will go off for 30-plus, and Oklahoma State ruins any future movie plans based on this Michigan team.
#2 Louisville (24-8) vs #15 Jacksonville State (20-14)
Friday 3/17, approx. 2:45 pm CBS
Overview: First off, I have a confession to make. It was not until watching the OVC title game that I learned that Jacksonville State is located in Jacksonville, Alabama, not Jacksonville, Florida. And I bet I just taught you all something as well! Anyway, the Gamecocks were able to knock off #1 Belmont and #2 UT Martin to earn their first trip to the Big Dance in school history. They don’t stand much of a chance here against Louisville though. The Cardinals have been a top team all season long, and they will be looking to rebound from a disappointing quarterfinal loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament.
Key Players: A pair of talented guards do the majority of the damage for Louisville. Their leading scorer is 6-3 sophomore Donovan Mitchell, averaging 15.7 points per game. He is also a fantastic defender, notching 2.1 steals a game. His partner in crime is 6-2 junior Quentin Snider, who averages 12.7 points and a team-leading 4.1 assists per contest. Four different players average double-figures for the Gamecocks, led by junior guard Malcolm Drumwright (12.6 PPG). 7-0 junior Norbertas Giga will be tasked with dealing with the deep Louisville frontcourt, and I believe he is capable, averaging a team-leading 8.1 rebounds per game.
Why LOU will Win: Despite earning a 2-seed in the Tournament, I think Rick Pitino is probably a little disappointed with the regular season, and will look for his team to make up for it with a deep run in the Tournament. The Cardinals aren’t very efficient offensively, but they are balanced, and they will quickly be able to figure out where they are having success, and exploit that against an inferior team.
Why JSU will Win: We have seen 15-seeds beat 2-seeds before, and while it usually comes from out of nowhere, it’s almost always impossible to predict. There is no part of this matchup where I would give JSU the advantage, but they call it March Madness for a reason. Maybe Louisville has a cold shooting night, and the Gamecocks are able to take advantage and steal the game. Stranger things have happened, right?