NCAA Tournament First Round Preview: Midwest Region

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*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

Midwest Region

Tulsa, OK
#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.

 

Tulsa, OK
#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.

 

Milwaukee, WI
#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.

 

Milwaukee, WI
#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.

 

Sacramento, CA
#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.

 

Sacramento, CA
#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.

 

Indianapolis, IN
#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.

 

Indianapolis, IN
#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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

NCAA Tournament Preview: Midwest

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.

Image68 (49)

Midwest Region

Raleigh, NC
#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.

 

Raleigh, NC
#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.

 

Denver, CO
#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.

 

Denver, CO
#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.

 

Denver, CO
#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.

 

Denver, CO
#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.