It's time to start digging in, studying up, getting to know each region so you can completely overthink this on your way to winning your bracket pool.
I love it, you love it. I hope you've taken a minute or 10 to soak up the anticipation of the games ahead. The waiting is not the hardest part -- it's the best part. That bracket is clean and full of potential. And as you look about the field of 68, your eyes will drift to the bottom right corner. That's the Midwest pocket. It's the toughest of the four regions. You get three historically great programs in UNC, Kentucky and Kansas. You get the Big 12 Tournament champ (Iowa State) as a No. 6 seed.
You get a 31-3 team in Houston as a No. 3.
Auburn's red-hot as the No. 5, having won eight straight games, altering its course into this tournament in the process. The Midwest has the best of all the No. 8 seeds (Utah State) and -- I think -- the best of all the No. 9 seeds (Washington).
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Oh, and then there's Wofford: a No. 7 seed with the longest win streak in college hoops (20 games) and a genuinely good shot to make a deep run. The second longest win streak in college basketball belongs to New Mexico State (19 games). Yeah, guess which region it's in?
What I like about the Midwest is how strong the teams are -- which makes for a great combination of upset potential but also really good games. I peek up and down the first round and I don't see a lot of blowout potential. This part of the bracket is stacked.
Best first-round game
No. 7 Wofford vs. No. 10 Seton Hall: This is fixing to be a fun one. Seton Hall has been good as of late, winning four out of five and getting to the Big East Tournament title game. The Pirates also have a win over Kentucky; if SHU beats Wofford, it's likely going to have a rematch with Big Blue in the second round in Jacksonville.
Now, as for Wofford-Seton Hall, it's scheduled to tip around 9:40 p.m. ET on Thursday night. The Pirates have Myles Powell, who was the best player in the Big East in the final three weeks of the season. The Terriers have Fletcher Magee, who is three 3-pointers away from becoming the most prolific 3-ball shooter in men's Division-I history. This is a highly entertaining matchup.
Top potential matchup
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 Kansas: I'll go with the non 1-vs.-2 here, as that's often the obvious pick for best matchup. I think we can all acknowledge the No. 1 UNC vs. No. 2 Kentucky is the dream game in the Elite Eight. So let's set that aside. Instead. My choice, then is North Carolina vs. Kentucky. Roy Williams vs. his old school. In Kansas City!
Kansas is 5-6 all time vs. UNC but has won the last three times the schools met. The most recent example is from 2013, when the teams, in fact, met in the NCAA tourney. Top-seeded Kansas knocked off No. 8 UNC then. This season, seeing a smaller UNC team go up against a Kansas club that similarly doesn't have a lot of presence down low would be fascinating. And obviously you have to Hall of Fame coaches in Roy Williams and Bill Self. That would be a tasty, tasty Sweet 16 affair.
Upset lock of the regional
No. 12 New Mexico State over No. 5 Auburn: The Tigers are playing well,l no doubt, coming off their first SEC Tournament championship since 1985. But the 30-4 Aggies were the dominant team out of the WAC and also have much less of a travel situation heading into this game. Auburn played late into Sunday, has to travel to Salt Lake City and then has an 11:30 a.m. local tip.
And it's a shorter trip for New Mexico State, which gets a little more time off than Auburn. I like what Chris Jans' team has overall. NMSU is a program that makes the tourney almost every season, and this year's team is elite at rebounding. Auburn's small. New Mexico State is the deepest team in the field, too. That's my lock.
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Cinderella team that will surprise
No. 12 seed New Mexico State: The Aggies over Auburn for the reasons stated above, but if you want to look elsewhere, I'll say this: No. 7 seed Wofford does not qualify in the short-term as a Cinderella. When you're a No. 7 seed, that's not Cinderella territory. But if you're from a traditional mid-major league and you can win three games in the NCAAs? Then yeah, I think the Cinderella tag might be fair -- but you have to reach the Elite Eight.
And Wofford can reach the Elite Eight. The road would be tough. Getting Seton Hall, then probably Kentucky, the potentially third-seeded Houston is a rough road. But don't dismiss the Terriers just because you haven't seen much of them. This team is hot, experienced, well-coached and deep. Wofford coach Mike Young told me he will run out 10 guys in this tournament, no matter the opponent.
Team that will make a far-too-early exit
No. 2 Kentucky: Let's put aside Auburn and look for another candidate. For me, I'll say Kentucky. Yes, I have Wofford over UK in the second round. The Wildcats are a 3-point-averse shooting team. UK takes only 29.8 percent of its shots from the field from 3, which is among the lowest rates in college basketball. Can it survive a 3-point-shooting race with Wofford? (Only Minnesota is worse). Wofford, on the other hand, is the best 3-point-shooting team in the tournament and has size to match up with Kentucky.
Six players to watch
- Coby White, PG, UNC: He's an electric freshman who scored the most points in North Carolina state high school hoops history. White's so good/fun, he wasn't even overshadowed by the Duke quartet of freshman. He's the biggest reason why UNC is a 1 seed. Must-see.
- Dedric Lawson, PF, Kansas: Probably the best player in the Midwest. He had an All American-caliber season for Kansas and does everything for KU down low. Super reliable.
- Fletcher Magee, SG, Wofford: Magee has 502 3-pointers in his career. If/when he makes three more, he'll have the all time record for most by any men's D-I player. He figures to be an NBA player a year from now.
- Tyler Herro, SG, Kentucky: The best freshman on the Wildcats' roster, Herro does not run from the big moment. If Kentucky's going deep in this tournament, Herro is going to have a huge say in that.
- Vasa Pusica, SG, Northeastern: The Serbian from Northeastern is a 3-point-shooting baller. He pushed the Huskies to a CAA championship and figures to give his 13-seeded team a real chance against a wobbly Kansas team.
- Matisse Thybulle, SF, Washington: Squeezing in one more name here because Thybulle is the best defender in college basketball. Washington has real talent, but check out this guy and how smart he is on that end of the floor. Smooth yet tough. Great instincts.
Midwest Regional winner
No. 1 seed North Carolina: I will take UNC. The Tar Heels are the best team in the region, they've got a tough road but one that -- from a matchup standpoint -- seems to favor them. Roy Williams has never had a team play this fast. Tempos slow in the NCAAs but I still like North Carolina to rely on the veteran experience of Kenny Williams, Luke Maye and Cam Johnson. Toss in White and fellow freshman Nassir Little? And Leaky Black too? That's a Final Four squad and it's been showing as much for the past two months.