2017 NCAA Tournament Midwest Region Preview

Kansas stands head and shoulders above most other teams in the region. Will the Jayhawks advance to the Final Four?

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Well, it’s that time of the year again. The madness is finally here. Conference championships have wrapped up and the brackets are set. It’s time for everyone to fill out their bracket and test their luck, but before you do that, we have a few thoughts. If you’re looking for a perfect bracket, you came to the right place. Sit back and take some notes on the key Midwest storylines.

The Favorite

The obvious favorite to advance from the Midwest region has to be the Kansas Jayhawks. The reasoning here is simple: they are the most talented team in the region. In addition to their skill, this Kansas team has developed a grit and toughness to them, which few teams can match. Yes, Kansas has struggled to live up to their postseason hype in previous years. That will not be the case this year. The Jayhawks closed the regular season out by winning their 13th straight regular season Big 12 Championship. At 28-4, Kansas comes in as the weakest of the #1 seeds according to KenPom – a college basketball statistical analyst. That being said, the Rock Chalk Jayhawk faithful travel well and Kansas has one of the more favorable geographic paths to Phoenix, starting off in Tulsa and then traveling to Kansas City. This team has made a name for themselves this season with several crucial comeback victories, most notably their 14-point comeback in the final three minutes against West Virginia in February. In the madness of March, one of the most important skills a team can have is the ability to close out games. Kansas, led by senior guard Frank Mason III, has the upper-class leadership necessary to do exactly that.

Contenders

This region is full of half-contenders, but ultimately I think only one team has the ability to beat Kansas. Louisville was in the conversation for a No. 1 seed, though they would’ve been a weak one. The Cardinals checked in as one of the strongest No. 2 seeds in the bracket, according to KenPom, where the Cardinals are listed as the No. 6 team in the nation. The only question I have about Louisville is its ability to consistently score the basketball. Head coach Rick Pitino has the Cardinals’ defense in top form, with their length and athleticism giving them the ability to create mismatches at all five positions on the court. That being said, if star guard Donovan Mitchell doesn’t score double digits then Louisville often struggles to break 70 points. If the shots start dropping, this team has the ability to make an appearance in Phoenix for the Final Four.

Pretender

After going 29-4 in the regular season, Oregon entered Championship Week as a potential No. 1 seed. After losing forward Chris Boucher in the Pac-12 tournament, though, the Ducks dropped the conference championship game to Arizona and fell to a No. 3 seed. Junior forward Dillon Brooks has shown he has the ability to completely take over a game if necessary. Unfortunately, even if Brooks heats up and scores 20 to 25 points each night, I fully expect the Duck’s championship run to fall apart early. Without a great rebounder in Boucher, a moderately fast-paced offense will have the chance to string together long runs against Oregon’s slower defensive frontcourt. Oregon fans out there shouldn’t sleep on a potential second-round matchup against Rhode Island.

The “Cinderella”

Every year, some No. 9 seed somehow survives the first two rounds, getting coined the “Cinderella team.” Let’s be real here, unless there are double-digits next to their name, a team should not be referred to as a Cinderella team. Most analysts have Rhode Island as a trendy Cinderella selection, and I agree. The Rams have a very favorable first round matchup against a depleted Creighton team. Assuming they win and Oregon takes care of the No. 11-seed Iona, Rhode Island will face the No. 3-seed Ducks in the second round. As mentioned earlier, after losing Boucher for the season, Oregon is now thin in their frontcourt. That plays right into the hands of Rhode Island’s smaller, quicker roster. While I think the Rams are talented enough to win either of these games prior the injuries, they will certainly take advantage of playing two depleted rosters. Look for Rhode Island to ride the Cinderella wave straight to the Sweet Sixteen.

The Sleepers

The depth of the Midwest region this year is absolutely astonishing. According to KenPom’s statistical analysis and team rankings, the Midwest region hosts six of the country’s top-20 teams. This means several of the middle-ground teams are capable of quietly sneaking into the Sweet Sixteen. This year, I see both Michigan and Iowa State having the potential to make a deep tournament run. Both teams have won 10 of their last 12 games, as well as winning their respective conference championships. The Cyclones, led by Monte Morris, are one of the more explosive offenses in the country, averaging 81 and 10 3-pointers per game. The Cyclones have the ability to keep pace with any team in the country from behind the arc, but will certainly rely heavily on freshman Solomon Young to have a big presence in the paint. Michigan, on the other hand, is playing like a team of destiny after their “near-death” experience when their team plane skidded off of the runway while attempting to depart Ann Arbor for the Big Ten tournament. Some people will call it luck, others destiny, but this Michigan team is firing on all cylinders at the right time.

Players to Watch

Frank Mason III:  Kansas is going to rely heavily on an outstanding tournament from their senior leader. Mason averages 20.5 points per game and 5.1 assists. Kansas will need every bit of that if they expect to cut down the nets at the end of the month.

Dillon Brooks: I think Dillon Brooks will have an exceptional, although short, tournament. The junior guard is high on many NBA draft boards and his stock would continue to rise if he can carry Oregon deep into the field.

Monte Morris: Morris was the Big 12 outstanding player of the year and considered one of the best point guards in the nation. He averages 16.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game. If he can continue to keep possession and limit the Cyclones’ turnovers, expect the Iowa State to ride his shoulders into the Sweet Sixteen.

Prediction

I am not one to brag, but this is the year. I’m going undefeated. If you want to get rich or waste your money trying, here are your predictions. This region is full of talent, but lacks a solidified No. 1 seed. Heavy in what I’d call middle-of-the-road contenders, I expect that there will be a handful of upsets. In the end, though, I just don’t see anyone having the ability to beat this Kansas team. Ultimately, the Jayhawks will cut down the nets and move on to the Final Four for the 14th time in school history.

Edited by Quinn Pilkey

Featured image by Shane Adams, courtesy of CreativeCommons.org

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