NCAA Tournament: Breaking Down The Midwest Region

Mar 4, 2017; Stillwater, OK, USA; Kansas Jayhawks guard Frank Mason III (0) reacts after the game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Gallagher-Iba Arena. Kansas won 90-85. Mandatory Credit: Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

March Madness has arrived, and the best week in sports has arrived. What are the key storylines in the Midwest region of the NCAA Tournament and who will ultimately prevail to make an appearance in Phoenix?

No week of basketball offers the same level of drama, excitement and sheer number of games than the first week of the NCAA tournament.

Starting from Selection Sunday through the “First Four” and opening two rounds of the tournament, this week offers everything a basketball fan could desire.

With the finalization of the bracket Sunday, the four regions are set.

Out in the Midwest, teams will play their opening rounds throughout the country before the winners meet in Kansas City for the Sweet Sixteen.

Who are the favorites in the Midwest region? What are some major storylines to keep an eye on? And ultimately who will win the Midwest and travel to Phoenix for the Final Four?

Mar 4, 2017; Stillwater, OK, USA; Kansas Jayhawks guard Frank Mason III (0) reacts after the game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Gallagher-Iba Arena. Kansas won 90-85. Mandatory Credit: Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

The Favorites

Prior to their Big 12 tournament loss to the TCU Horned Frogs, the Kansas Jayhawks had the inside track on the top overall seed in the tournament. The tournament instead lined them up second, but arguably gave them the most favorable draw of any No. 1 seed in the nation.

After losing just four games all season — and just two during another dominant run through conference play — the Jayhawks once again are among the favorites not only to win their region but cut down the nets in Phoenix.

Bill Self has now claimed 13 straight Big 12 titles for the Jayhawks, tying the UCLA Bruins of the 1960s and ’70s for most all-time.

Their primary contender for the region will be the Louisville Cardinals, who claimed the No. 2 seed in the Midwest.

While Rick Pitino’s teams are always tenacious on defense, this squad has been one of his more up-and-down units, falling from their early-season rankings as the top defense in the nation. But even so that fall landed them as the sixth defense in the nation, according to Ken Pom.

The Cardinals are led by breakout sophomore Donovan Mitchell, the team’s best offensive creator by far and a lockdown defender himself. Louisville will be counting on Mitchell to spark transition offense for them if they hope to win the region.

The No. 3-line holds the Oregon Ducks, a team that just a handful of days ago was eyeing a top seed. In the semifinals of the PAC-12 tournament Oregon’s starting center Chris Boucher went down with a torn ACL.

After losing in the tournament final to Arizona, junior Dillon Brooks and the Ducks will seek to win the region from a lower seed.

The Purdue Boilermakers are the fourth seed in the Midwest, which is both too high and too low. The Big Ten sent seven teams to the Big Dance, but their conference champion could only net a fourth seed.

But Purdue also bowed out early in their conference tournament and failed to ignite a truly dominant campaign around their All-American center Caleb Swanigan.

Mar 12, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Rhode Island Rams guard Jared Terrell (32) reacts after the final buzzer against the Virginia Commonwealth Rams during the second half of the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship game at the PPG Paints Arena. Rhode Island won 70-63. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Upset Specials

Every fan of college basketball is immediately on the lookout for potential upsets when analyzing a bracket, and the Midwest region is no exception.

Packed with exceptional offenses and teams with both elite strengths and glaring weaknesses, this region is rife for action from the lower seeds.

The game most ripe for an upset is the matchup between the sixth-seeded Creighton Blue Jays and the 11th-seeded Rhode Island Rams. Creighton has gone just 6-5 over their last 11 games, a far cry from an 18-1 start to the season.

The loss of Maurice Watson, the nation’s leader in assists, has been a difficult challenge to overcome.

The Rhode Island Rams come in as one of the hottest teams in the nation, winning the Atlantic 10 tournament to ensure its spot on the bubble did not turn into disappointment on Selection Sunday.

A preseason top-25 team, the Rams are finally healthy  and should be around even odds to pull off the upset.

Elsewhere a few other matchups show the favorites to be vulnerable. Nevada is the rare mid-major stocked with elite size, which will give a smaller Iowa State team trouble in the 12-5 matchup.

In that same pod, Vermont storms into a matchup with Purdue on a 21-game winning streak.

While the Catamounts seem to lack the firepower to overcome the size and shooting of the Boilermakers, a scenario where Purdue center Caleb Swanigan gets into foul trouble suddenly unlocks a path to victory.

For those coming here for bracket advice — a mistake, assuredly — write that Rhode Island victory in pen. Every year a few upsets get passed around as locks and for good reason. But don’t get too excited — this region may not flip over as much as others.

Mar 12, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Michigan Wolverines guard Derrick Walton Jr. celebrates prior to the trophy presentation after the Wolverines’ game against the Wisconsin Badgers in the Big Ten Conference Tournament championship game at Verizon Center. The Wolverines won 71-56. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Key Storyline

The most-discussed storyline in the region will be the harrowing week the Michigan Wolverines had, from their plane sliding off the runway in a snowstorm to winning four straight games for a Big Ten tournament crown, becoming the lowest seed ever to win the tournament.

Second to that story-line will be the many traffic infractions of the Kansas Jayhawks, and specifically the most recent mistake by key freshman Josh Jackson — one that kept him out of a Big 12 tournament loss to TCU.

Kansas players and coached will be asked repeatedly about that “distraction.”

The true storyline of note to watch in this region is offense. The seed lines are packed with teams boasting dynamic offenses, starting with the nation’s top-offense in Oklahoma State. The Cowboys recovered from an 0-6 start in the Big 12 to finish 9-9 and 20-12 overall.

First-year head coach Brad Underwood, just one year removed from leading the Lumberjacks to a first-round upset of West Virginia, will seek to lead this team to another upset.

They will face the aforementioned Wolverines, who boast the fifth-best offense, according to Ken Pom. This team can score from every position and blitzed a Big Ten often known for defense.

With the all-offense and little-defense styles these two teams flaunt, fans could see one of the highest-scoring games in recent memory.

Mar 9, 2017; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino coaches against the Duke Blue Devils during the second half of an ACC Conference Tournament game at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sportsat Barclays Center.

Best Matchup

As every region does every year, the Midwest region offers a number of enticing matchups. The big-big matchup of Purdue (Caleb Swanigan) and Vermont (Anthony Lamb) should be fun to watch, as will the offensive explosion when Oklahoma State meets Michigan.

Any game with Kansas is worth watching for the sheer amount of talent the Jayhawks trot out, but their potential Sweet Sixteen matchup with Iowa State would be a rematch of Kansas’ only home loss of the season.

The Cyclones came into Allen Fieldhouse and stole a victory back in early February.

The best matchup short of the Elite Eight should come in the Sweet Sixteen, when the Louisville Cardinals will potentially meet the Oregon Ducks.

While the Ducks did lose center Chris Boucher for the season, they have another dynamic big in Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Bell who can step into more minutes for this team.

The Cardinals will have to overcome a tough matchup in the Second Round, as their press will be tested by either Michigan or Oklahoma State. The Ducks offer a very different matchup for Pitino and company, as their athleticism and wing scoring are tough for any team to defend.

With Dillon Brooks and Donovan Mitchell facing off, two of the region’s best two-way players will go head-to-head for the right to advance to the Elite Eight. With the inconsistency of the Jayhawks in recent tournaments, a victory in this game may mean a trip to Phoenix.

Feb 1, 2017; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks guards Frank Mason (0) and Devonte’ Graham (4) celebrate after forcing a turnover during the second half of the game against the Baylor Bears at Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks won 73-68. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Players To Watch

The Midwest region features a number of top-shelf college athletes, and many of the players in the mix for All-American selections will show their abilities in the region.

The list is headlines by the Kansas Jayhawks. Wooden Award finalist Frank Mason III is a force on offense and defense, draining shots from around the court and locking down opposing guards.

Beside him at Kansas is freshman phenom Josh Jackson, one of the nation’s best wing defenders and a capable primary scorer on any other team.

Another likely All-American is Caleb Swanigan, who put up 18.7 points and 12.8 rebounds for Purdue, notching an elite 25 double doubles.

Purdue has surrounded Swanigan with shooting to take advantage of his ability to draw double teams on every play — except for when he steps outside and drains three-pointers himself.

Louisville is headlined by sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell, and Oregon is led by crunch-time maestro Dillon Brooks. Iowa State point guard Monte Morris is one of the most efficient ball-handlers in NCAA history, averaging 6.2 assists while never turning the ball over.

In his last 11 games, Morris has 73 dimes and just three turnovers.

Feb 11, 2017; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Monte Morris (11) drives the ball toward the basket while being guarded by Oklahoma Sooners guard Kameron McGusty (20) in the first half at James H. Hilton Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Rachel Mummey-USA TODAY Sports

Picking The First Weekend

While the world waits for a No. 16 seed to finally upset a No. 1 seed, Kansas will easily take care of business in their opening round game against either North Carolina Central or University of California-Davis.

On the No. 2-line, the Louisville Cardinals will smother Jacksonville State and advance to the second round.

The third-seeded Oregon Ducks will take on the Iona Gaels, a popular upset pick in recent years under head coach Tim Cluess. But despite the loss of Chris Boucher, the Ducks are too athletic and Dillon Brooks too good to go out this early.

Things begin to get interesting in the 4-13 matchup, with Purdue and Vermont matching up strength-for-strength. The nation’s hottest team will play strong two-way basketball and upset Purdue to advance.

They will play the Iowa State Cyclones, who will win a tough game against Nevada.

Sixth-seeded Creighton is in turmoil and 11th-seeded Rhode Island is on fire, leaving the Rams as the easy pick for another upset. While the Wolverines are the nice story, they also have the worst defense, and the Oklahoma State Cowboys will grab Brad Underwood another NCAA win.

In the 8-9 matchup, the Miami Hurricanes will beat out Tom Izzo and his young Spartans.

In the second round, the Kansas Jayhawks will win another game big, blowing out the Miami Hurricanes. Iowa State will hold onto the ball and maximize possessions to stop the Vermont Cinderella run at one game.  The Oregon Ducks will do the same to the Rhode Island Rams.

The most intriguing second round game will take place with the Louisville Cardinals and the Oklahoma State Cowboys. The team that can defeat Louisville is one that can overcome the press and score quickly, and the Cowboys can certainly do that.

But the Cardinals have not missed the Sweet Sixteen in six years, and Pitino’s squad will find a way to pull out the victory.

Kansas, Iowa State, Oregon and Louisville will advance to the Sweet Sixteen in Kansas City.

Feb 22, 2017; Berkeley, CA, USA; Oregon Ducks forward Dillon Brooks (24) dribbles the ball around California Golden Bears guard Charlie Moore (13) during the second half at Haas Pavilion. The Ducks won 68-65. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Who Wins The Midwest?

The Big 12 showdown between the Kansas Jayhawks should be a great game, with Iowa State point guard Monte Morris facing off with Frank Mason III. While Kansas is the better team, and I am picking to advance, this is a game the Jayhawks cannot afford to look past.

On the other side of the bracket, the Louisville Cardinals and Oregon Ducks will play a tight game with a lot of turnovers and missed shots. Despite the loss of Chris Boucher, this Oregon team is strong and will pull off the mild upset to advance to the Elite Eight.

The much more significant upset will happen here, as the Oregon Ducks continue their run by defeating the Kansas Jayhawks. While Bill Self has pulled off an amazing run in the Big 12, his teams have wilted recently in the tournament, and this season will fall in line yet again.

Dillon Brooks is one of the nation’s best scorers, and perhaps its best crunch-time scorer. From Oregon’s tournament run last season to games this year where Brooks nailed late shots to give the Ducks the win, this team is primed for tight contests against good teams.

The Oregon Ducks will represent the Midwest region in the Final Four.

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