It’s been three years and counting since a team emerged from the Midwest Region to capture the national title. But if ever there were a year for it to happen, the 2017 bracket certainly sets up favorably for a number of Midwest teams to end the streak and achieve college basketball’s highest honor.
The Midwest is loaded from top to bottom. I mean, have you looked at the region yet? It doesn’t have Duke in the field, nor does it have UCLA or Kentucky. So it might not be the most talked about region on a national scale. But from No. 1 seed Kansas on down the line, there’s a number of teams that were once -- or still are -- considered to be teams who can reasonably compete for a national title.
Three initial thoughts
1. Oregon getting a 3-seed is an example of this region’s depth. When the committee revealed its, the Ducks were the 9th team overall. That means they were the first No. 3 seed, with No. 2 seed Louisville being the 8th overall team. So you look at those top 3 seeds with Kansas, Louisville and Oregon and you have three top 10 teams -- all of which . That’s a lot of depth. Even with Oregon down a player in Chris Boucher, the Ducks boast Pac-12 player of the year Dillon Brooks, who can take over games. Each of the top 3 seeds were, at one point, considered to be a potential 1-seed.
2. No. 1 seed Kansas has a tough route. This is the downside (if you’re a Kansas fan) of having such a loaded top half of the bracket in one pod. The Jayhawks face the winner of UC Davis and N.C. Central (16-seed) in the first round and, assuming they win, would play the winner of Miami and Michigan State -- the former of which has played like a 6-seed over the past month. Also in the Jayhawks’ path: A potential matchup against Iowa State in the Sweet 16. The Cyclones beat Kansas this season and ended its ridiculously long home winning streak in the process. And in the Elite 8, Kansas could play either Louisville or Oregon or even Michigan, which is one some kind of March run after winning the Big Ten Tournament. All of those teams are talented and dangerous. The obstacles for KU are plentiful.
3. Michigan State as a 9-seed is awesome. There was a time when the Spartans were thought to be in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament altogether. But there’s a reason Tom Izzo is a Hall of Famer. Sparty is one of the best coached teams in the country and they got better as the season wore on. Now that they are on the 9 line, meaning they could face No. 1 seed Kansas in the second round. Tom Izzo vs. Bill Self. Miles Bridges vs. Josh Jackson. Where do I sign up? Can we book this immediately?
Bold prediction: Here’s the good news for Kansas: Both the No. 2 seed and No. 3 seed will be bounced before the Sweet 16. No. 2 seed Louisville gets Jacksonville St. in the first round before playing the winner of Oklahoma State-Michigan, two dangerous offensive teams that can hang a hundred on you without blinking. No. 3 seed Oregon will face Iona and, assuming it wins, play either Rhode Island or Creighton, both of which will cause the problems for the Ducks. I don’t think either team makes it to the Sweet 16. March is wacky with upsets, but I don’t even think these will be major upsets. I think whoever plays Oregon and Louisville in the round of 32 will have been vastly under-seeded when we look at the bracket in hindsight.
Best potential matchups
1. OK, I can’t hype the potential Michigan State vs. Kansas matchup and not put it here. That’s my dream matchup that could happen early. It’s a matchup of two historically strong programs, two coaches that will both be in the Hall of Fame (Self will join Izzo soon), and a whole bunch of dudes capable of playing in the pros. Michigan State has not lived up to the hype this year (this was said to be Izzo’s best freshman class ever), but this is a fresh start and not exactly a second-round matchup Kansas is loving.
2. Another early matchup that could go down is Michigan vs. Louisville in the second round. The Wolverines haven’t been in the spotlight as much as Louisville this season. But this potential matchup would be a rematch of the 2014 title game -- one that Louisville won 82-76. The Cardinals would most certainly be favored as a No. 2 seed against No. 7 Michigan, but John Beilein’s team is as hot as any, and they have Derrick Walton, Jr. playing like an All-American right now. Throw out the seeds.
3. Let’s be honest: the best possible outcome out of the Midwest is a Kansas vs. Oregon showdown in the Elite 8. And the path to that happening doesn’t make that seem totally unlikely, even though I just predicted that Oregon will be bounced before the Sweet 16 (Hey, I could be wrong, it’s happened on rare occasions before). Fact is, Oregon will play a team ranked no higher than a 6-seed before the Sweet 16, guaranteed. So the Sweet 16 could be No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 2 Louisville for a chance to play No. 1 seed Kansas. I don’t know about you, but Dillon Brooks is a player I want to see playing deep into March. The kid has a clutch gene and a level of enthusiasm for the game that’s impossible to hate. Dillon Brooks vs. Josh Jackson in the Elite 8 would be must-watch television.
Upsets to watch for
1. A dangerous double-digit seed in the Midwest is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys fell to a No. 10 seed after a slide to end the season, but Brad Underwood and his crew own the No. 1 ranked offense in the country in adjusted efficiency. Ahead of UCLA. Ahead of Kansas. Ahead of literally everyone. If OSU gets past Michigan in the first round, which is no lock, a potential round of 32 game vs. Louisville would be an interesting one. Louisville’s defense ranks sixth nationally in efficiency, so it would be a contrast of two major strengths battling. And with a future pro in Jawun Evans leading the charge, that could be a big upset brewing.
2. Watch for Nevada as a 12. Every year we talk about No. 12 seeds upsetting a No. 5 seed. It’s a given that you’ll pick at least one every year. In the first round you have a chance to make a good upset pick with No. 12 Nevada taking on No. 5 Iowa State, which is Matt Norlander’s second-likeliest 12-5 upset in the bracket. The Wolfpack are a little-known Mountain West team who won the league and the tourney title. And under second-year head coach Eric Musselman, they might be the most disciplined in the pod. This will be a sexy upset pick, so make it on your bracket right now. Go!
3. Hellooooooooo Rhode Island! Don’t think I forgot about you. The Rams have struggled to maintain full health all season, but boy have they come into their own lately. And that’s in part because they are finally at full strength. As an 11-seed, they are painfully under-seeded -- which means No. 6 Creighton is on upset alert. But the real upset (because i think Rhody has no issue with Creighton) is the round of 32 game in which they might play Oregon. The Ducks are down a star in shot-blocking phenom Chris Boucher, and could be bounced early against a Rams team that, when healthy, is as good as any in the A-10.
Six best players
1. Josh Jackson (Kansas): In terms of importance to a team’s success, Josh Jackson ranks first. The freshman phenom is a two-way wing who impacts the game in more ways than just his 16.4 points per game. He’s a lockdown defender, he can rebound and play above the rim, and most importantly, he can double as a power forward when Kansas opts to go small.
2. Caleb Swanigan (Purdue): Caleb Swanigan went from under-the-radar big man to legit National Player of the Year contender. He’s a double-double machine who has an uncanny ability to slice up defenses down low with his agility and strength. And when he’s not muscling up in the post, he’s a sneaky good outside shooter.
3. Miles Bridges (Michigan State): Of all the players on the list, Bridges might have the highest NBA upside. He averages 16.7 points per game this season and has carried the load for the Spartans down the stretch. It’s likely you’ve seen his highlight reel dunks somewhere on the SportsCenter Top 10. Bridges would rank No. 1 on the list of “players most likely to make you scream and jump out of your chair because of an insane dunk” list.
4. Monte Morris (Iowa State): If you’re into veteran players who have the ability to carry a team, look no further than Monte Morris of Iowa State. Morris is the most efficient point guard in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio. And he’s captaining maybe the hottest team in the country right now. He averages 18 points over his last 3 games (and just helped win a Big 12 tourney title).
5. E.C. Matthews (Rhode Island): Maybe not a pro prospect, but one heck of a college basketball player is Rhode Island’s E.C. Matthews. The junior guard averages a tick under 15 points per game and 4.2 rebounds. But he has the ability to light it up on any given night. He has 8 games of 20+ points, and one game of 30+. Guards rule the Big Dance, and Matthews could be the next in line a la Kemba Walker.
6. Dillon Brooks (Oregon): The Ducks went through a stretch from mid-November to late January in which they didn’t lose a single game, and Brooks was a big reason for that. Brooks was struggling to get back to full health early in the season, but when he’s at full strength -- which he seemingly is now -- he’s the impact player that can change a team’s ceiling. The Pac-12 player of the year was part of the team that got bounced by Oklahoma in the Elite 8 last season. I can guarantee you Brooks remembers that and is using it to fuel him.
Who I’m picking
Guard play rules supreme in the Big Dance, and no team is more adequately equipped to run the show than Kansas. The Jayhawks have Frank Mason, a National Player of the Year candidate, and Devonte’ Graham. Both average double figures in scoring, can quarterback the offense, and they dictate the pace of the game. The upper-classmen ball-handlers are enough to give me a reason to pick Kansas to come out of the Midwest.