NCAA Tournament 2018 Preview: No. 1 seed Kansas dealt two tough foes in Midwest

It has been four years and counting since a team emerged from the Midwest Region to capture the national championship. Will the Midwest's No. 1 seed Kansas end the drought? The bracket sets up favorably for the Jayhawks out of the gate, but with Duke and Michigan State lurking in the same region, there could be an equal chance of any of the three rising from the ashes to make their way to San Antonio for the Final Four.

So which team should you pick to emerge out of the Midwest Region? Which team is the darkhorse? Let's take a look and run down the matchups and players to watch.

Three initial thoughts

1. Kansas has the easiest route to the Elite Eight among No. 1 seeds. The Jayhawks' toughest competition in getting to the Elite Eight, assuming results all fell chalk, would be No. 4 seed Auburn, a team that has lost four of six going into the NCAA Tournament. The bracket does balance itself out, though, because having both Duke and Michigan State in the same region as the Nos. 2 and 3 is a brutal draw. But it appears that the path for KU to make a third straight Elite Eight looks pretty smooth.

2. Michigan State's draw -- and its seed -- could work out well. The Spartans didn't have an A-plus resume because of the lack of opportunity to net quality wins in the Big Ten Conference. But them dropping to a No. 3 seed could actually work in their favor. Should they win their first two, they'd likely face No. 2 seed Duke -- a team the Spartans narrowly lost to earlier in the season -- before bouncing into the Elite Eight where they could face No. 1 seed Kansas. I think all the matchups they could face work out in their favor to get to San Antonio, even if the seed isn't desirable.

3. Oklahoma's draw is brutal. I don't think the Sooners, who have won only twice since February started, will win a game in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, I'm not convinced this team was deserving of a bid. Even if it sneaks past No. 7 seed Rhode Island in the first round, OU still has No. 2 seed Duke likely waiting on it in the Round of 32. Which means the Trae Young show may be a quickie.

Bold prediction

New Mexico State will advance to the Sweet 16 and push Kansas to the brink. Yes, No. 12 seed New Mexico State.

The 28-5 Aggies were head and shoulders above the competition in the WAC this season, and senior Zach Lofton is a heat check waiting to happen. They've got a solid, well-balanced team predicated on defense that will give Clemson more than it wants to handle in the first round.

Best potential matchup

The matchup I'm licking my lips thinking about is a potential Michigan State-Duke showdown in the Sweet 16. Should it happen, it would be a game between two teams that have lingered around the top five of the rankings all seasons. So it would essentially be a Final Four game in the Sweet 16. Bad for overall bracket balance, but great for TV.

Upsets to watch for

1. No. 13 seed Charleston over No. 4 seed Auburn will be one to track. The Cougars enter the postseason having won 14 of their last 15 games -- as opposed to Auburn having lost three of its last four -- and they've got a two-headed monster in Grant Riller and Joe Chealey that can light teams up on offense.

2. Syracuse over anyone. Remember 2016, when the Orange had to play their way in to the Big Dance, then they made a run all the way to the Final Four? This season has a similar feel. Syracuse plays Arizona State in the play-in game, and is once again a bit of a wild card. Jim Boeheim is a Hall of Fame coach for a reason.

3. Penn vs. Kansas. You don't need to be reminded that a 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed. So Penn beating Kansas would be the longest of long shots. However, the Quakers have the No. 2 3-point defense in all of college basketball -- a stat that will absolutely play a factor against a Kansas team that ranks 13th this season in 3-point percentage.

Six best players

1. Marvin Bagley, Duke. Bagley could be the No. 1 NBA Draft pick in a few months because of his ability to wake up and get 20 points and 10 rebounds with such ease. Bagley, arguably the ACC's best talent, is averaging 21.1 points and 11.5 rebounds per game for the Blue Devils this season. And he continues to get better, which is why Duke might be considered the favorite to win the region.

2. Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State. Jackson isn't the highest scorer or even most productive player on the glass for the Spartans, but he's a total X-factor because his upside is so, so high. He's a 6-11 big man who alters shots, has the ability to run the floor, and can body up big men. He can even step outside and drain 3-pointers if you leave him open, giving Sparty an added weapon on offense.

3. Miles Bridges, Michigan State. If it's talent you want, look no further than Miles Bridges. The 6-7 sophomore from Flint is Michigan State's leading scorer, second leading rebounder, and most important asset Tom Izzo needs to unlock another national title.

4. Trae Young, Oklahoma. The Sooners star is averaging more points and assists per game than any player in college basketball this season. He's drawn comparisons to Stephen Curry for his ability to hit 3-pointers, and his vision as a ball distributor is superb.

5. Grayson Allen, Duke. Grayson Allen is Grayson Allen: He's a great shooter, can play on the ball and run the offense, and he's a hustle-hard who impacts the game in a multitude of ways for Duke.

6. Devonte' Graham, Kansas. Devonte' Graham is a big-time scorer with a clutch gene unlike any player in the field. His 3-point stroke is smooth as silk, too, and it may not even be the best on his own team. Which is why KU is such a dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament.

Who I'm picking

Give me Michigan State not only to come out atop the region, but to win the whole thing. The combination of Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson -- two NBA caliber players -- will be too much for teams to overcome. And Sparty's guard play will, I think, give them the slight edge against teams like Duke or Kansas.

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