Midwest Region Preview: Wichita State lands in the 'glamour region'
Wichita State must get through a tough region that includes Kentucky, Louisville, Duke and Michigan to return to the Final Four.
The Missouri Valley Conference finished early and unspectacularly, with Wichita State running through the competition to finish 34-0. The Shockers have been on the back burner for a few days while the rest of the country keyed in on major conference tournaments, but now bubbles have burst and it's time to test the undefeated team that promises to play angry.
But Wichita State's plans to return to the Final Four were not helped by the NCAA selection committee. The Midwest is arguably the toughest region in the bracket, and the Shockers could run into a scare as early as the Round of 32 with SEC tournament runner-up Kentucky joining the party in St. Louis.
Three initial thoughts on the region
1. The Shockers headline the region, and the region highlights the tournament.
On the Selection Show broadcast, the Midwest was called "the glamour region." Wichita State's undefeated run makes every game a must-watch, and when you add the likes of Michigan , Duke and Louisville to the region -- not to mention Kentucky-Kansas State as the 8-9 game with the Shockers in St. Louis -- and it becomes the hottest ticket in the tournament. Doubters may have wondered if Wichita State was tested, but there will be no questions if Gregg Marshall's team can escape Indianapolis unscathed.
2. Louisville is a what seed?
As of Saturday night, there were sane individuals who believed that Michigan, Duke or Louisville could flirt with the No. 1 seed when the brackets were finally announced. Now they are all in the same bracket, with the Cardinals as arguably one of the toughest teams to beat. The American Athletic Conference champions won 12 of their final 13 games, including road wins at Cincinnati and SMU, and could be the team to hand Wichita State its first loss if they can take care of business against the Jaspers and avoid getting bounced by a pesky Saint Louis team.
3. Dayton might as well be a bonus Midwest Region site
One of the 16-seed play-in games and both of the at-large games in Dayton will play into the Midwest Region. That should make for some difficult bracket picks, particularly when you consider the upset ability of the teams involved. N.C. State just beat Syracuse in the ACC tournament, Xavier knocked off Creighton earlier this month, Tennessee proved its worth in tight battle with Florida in the SEC semifinals and Iowa , though they have been colder than a polar bear's toe nail down the stretch, can be incredibly efficient on offense and did beat Michigan by 18 last month.
Five best players in the region
1. Jabari Parker (Duke): Parker could be one of the most dominant players in this entire tournament, and Duke has played its best ball when the freshman phenom is attacking on offense. His 8.8 rebounds per game is tied for tops in the ACC and 19.2 points per game is second only to T.J. Warren (more on him later).
2. Fred VanVleet (Wichita State): Other Wichita State players score more, but the undefeated Shockers are paced by their 5-11 sophomore point guard. VanVleet (12.1 PPG, 5.3 APG) has been one of the most consistent players in the country in 2014 -- his first season as a starter.
3. Nik Stauskas (Michigan): No longer a shooting specialist, Stauskas leads the team in scoring (17.8 PPG) and was named the Big Ten Player of the Year. The good news for Michigan fans is that he's still pretty darn good at shooting threes (44.5 percent).
4. TJ Warren (N.C. State): The ACC Player of the Year is one of the most prolific scorers in college basketball, averaging 24.8 points per game. Warren has carried the Wolfpack offensively all season and averaged 33.75 PPG during a four game winning streak that included upsets against Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
5. Russ Smith (Louisville): Smith's offseason work paid off in a tremendous senior season. The Cardinals point guard has improved his assist numbers (4.7 APG) and shooting percentage from a year ago while still ranking second in the American in scoring (18.3 PPG).
Five bold predictions for the region
The biggest Round of 64 upset will be … Tennessee over UMass. The Volunteers turned around the season -- and cooled Cuonzo Martin's hot seat -- with a strong finish to the regular season and respectable showing the SEC tournament. With senior Jordan McRae leading the way, the Vols should be able to keep get out of Dayton and keep the momentum rolling against a UMass team that lost three of its last five games.
The lowest-seeded school to make the Sweet 16 will be … Arizona State. If last impressions are lasting, you think I'm nuts right now. The Sun Devils lost back-to-back games to close the regular season then got blown out by Stanford on Thursday in the Pac-12 tournament. But Jahii Carson is good enough to get hot and spark a few upsets, and Michigan seems more beatable than Wichita State, Duke or Louisville.
The player the country doesn't know now but will know by Saturday is … Fred VanVleet. Fans will remember Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker from last season's run, but the Wichita State's brilliant point guard will be the talk of the country by Monday after leading the Shockers past Kentucky and into the Sweet 16.
The Elite Eight showdown … No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 3 Duke. If Michigan is knocked off in the Round of 32, Duke should cruise to the regional final to face the winner of a brutal battle between Wichita State and Louisville. That game feels like a toss-up to me, but I'm siding with the Cardinals just based on the recent play of Montrezl Harrell and the nagging feeling that Rick Pitino's squad is just now playing its best basketball of the season.
The champion of the Midwest Region will be… No. 3 Duke. Jabari Parker is not just one of the talented players in college basketball, he's also a matchup nightmare. The entire Midwest Region began preparing for Parker on Sunday night, and it still might not be enough time to implement a plan to slow a versatile scorer of his caliber. Duke does not have a physically imposing front line, but Louisville does not have the personnel to take advantage of that weakness. Amile Jefferson is Duke's X-factor, and if he's active on the boards then Parker and Rodney Hood can take care of the rest.
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