July 14, 2024

NCAA Tournament Breakdown: Midwest Region

With the NCAA Tournament just a few days away, assistant sports editor David Bradford breaks down the Midwest Region and lists his contenders, pretenders, and perhaps a potential Cinderella.

Photo obtained via creativecommons.org. No changes made.

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A choir of children blissfully intoxicates your ear drums with heavenly harmonies. Their soprano-soaked vocals soar before giving way to a gently-strummed Keith Richards guitar and moaning French horn. Enter Mick Jagger, whose raw bluesy vocals depict a melancholy story of want vs. need before teaching us all an unforgettable lesson:

“You can’t always get what you want.”

Nearly 50 years later, that lesson engrained in the national psyche by The Rolling Stones remains poignant, especially on Selection Sunday. Whether through the bursting of a bubble or an unexpected lower seeding, the selection committee does not meet every team’s desire, but that’s what makes March Madness so captivating.

The Midwest Region features arguably the selection committee’s most controversial decision by placing the Michigan State Spartans as a No. 2 seed. Many believe that the Spartans, winners of the Big Ten Championship, earned a top seed, especially over the No. 1 seed Virginia Cavaliers, a team that neither won the ACC regular season or conference tournament championship.

But fans of college basketball should be grateful for this pairing. For the third straight year, Virginia and Michigan State find themselves in the same region. Both times, Sparty sent the Cavs packing.

Don’t think the Midwest is all about the blue-blood programs. Mid-majors such as Gonzaga and Arkansas-Little Rock have legitimate chances to play Cinderella. Iowa State looks to shake off last year’s stunning first-round upset by UAB. Seton Hall has all the momentum in the world. No matter what transpires, March Madness always gives fans of college basketball exactly what they need.

The Favorite

There are three things certain in life: Death, taxes, and Tom Izzo leading the Spartans to the Final Four. Michigan State continues to find the recipe for success. Throw skilled players, experienced leadership, snipers on the perimeter, and elite coaching in a blender, and what you get is a team ready for another deep tournament run. Add in a spice of motivation after being slotted as a No. 2 seed, and just like Jagger concludes in the chorus, the Spartans might find they have what they need: A chip on their shoulder.

Contenders

Tony Bennett’s squad deserves more than respect. Against RPI Top 50 teams, Virginia is 9-3, with wins over Villanova, California, West Virginia, Miami (twice), Louisville (twice), and North Carolina. With an improved offense, stifling defense, and veteran leadership, the Cavaliers have earned their status as a legitimate Final Four threat. Also, the Runnin’ Utes of Utah are led by seven-footer Jakob Poeltl. Anytime you have an NBA-level talent at the center position who can score, rebound, and shoot 65 percent from the floor, your chances of a run in the tournament are high. Lastly, the Boilermakers of Purdue have arguably the best front court in the nation and a strong defense that kept them close in games. They will be a tough out in the tournament.

Pretenders

The Iowa State Cyclones played 18 games against RPI Top 50 opponents (8-10). Any team that lived in the Big 12 this season and survived to tell the tale deserves respect. With that said, Iowa State is the Midwest’s top pretender. Aside from defensive struggles, the lack of dominance in the paint bodes well against an up-tempo Iona team that can scorch any team from three. If they survive, the potential matchup against Purdue would spell disaster for the Cyclones. The Boilermakers have the size to control the game in the paint and the defense to slow down Georges Niang and company. Preseason Big East polls picked Seton Hall to finish seventh in the Big East standings. The Pirates, without a doubt, exceeded expectations and put together an incredible resumé. But in March, experience does matter, and against a seasoned-squad like Gonzaga, a first-round exit is a real possibility for Seton Hall

The Sleeper

Purdue is known for its world-class engineering program, but head coach Matt Painter has engineered one outstanding basketball program as well. The Boilermakers’ first test is against the No. 12 seed Trojans of Little Rock, Ark., in what many view as an upset waiting to happen. Don’t tell that to the Boilermakers, who finished the season 26-8 with wins over tournament teams such as Michigan State, Maryland, Wisconsin (twice), Pittsburgh, and Michigan.

The “Cinderella”

The words Cinderella and Gonzaga don’t belong in the same sentence anymore, but the Bulldogs are my pick as the Cinderella of the Midwest. They reached the Elite Eight last March before losing to the eventual-champion Duke Blue Devils and have long-established themselves as a mid-major powerhouse. Losing experienced guards from last season obviously hurt the Zags this year, but their front court is as good as any in the country. A matchup with Michigan State in the Sweet 16 is a reasonable expectation for Gonzaga. If that matchup comes to pass, remember— anything can happen in March.

Players to Watch

Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine – No player will play under a larger microscope than Valentine after the season he had. The Big Ten Player of the Year averaged 19 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists per contest.

Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon – Brogdon doesn’t snag the national headlines like Valentine, but is just as effective. He not only leads the Cavs in scoring with 18.7 points per game, but his lockdown defense earned him the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

Iona guard AJ English – A star player can carry a team through March Madness. Iona’s AJ English is made of that cloth. Not only can he shoot from anywhere on the court, he has a knack for ball-distribution along the perimeter on a team that can make it rain from beyond the arc.

What I Think Will Happen

We are all waiting for the day where a No. 1 seed inexplicably falls to a No. 16 seed. Virginia is not that team. Hampton played three RPI Top 50 teams this season, losing all three by an average of 35 points. Texas Tech has seven players averaging at least eight points per game. You only find that kind of balance on a seesaw. They’ll defeat a Butler team that doesn’t have the same 2010 and 2011 magic, but lose to an experienced Virginia squad hell-bent on reaching Houston.

What’s March Madness without the obligatory 12-over-5 upset? A popular pick is Arkansas-Little Rock over Purdue, but I don’t see it. Who is going to stop AJ Hammons? Lis Shoshi? Not a chance. The Boilermakers were a couple of possessions away from topping Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship. They’ll have no issues with the Trojans, but Iowa State will have trouble against an Iona team that spaces the floor well. The Gaels’ star guard English will lead Iona past the Cyclones, sending Iowa State packing after the opening round for the second-straight March Madness.

Unfortunately for the Gaels, Purdue doesn’t lack the inside presence that Iowa State does and will end Iona’s run. Seton Hall is turning into a feel-good story after its Big East Championship win over Villanova, but Gonzaga’s experience takes care of business. Utah easily defeats Fresno State, but falls to the Bulldogs in a tight contest. The Spartans cruise past Middle Tennessee and Dayton to the Sweet 16.

Both Purdue and Gonzaga have shots at upsetting the Midwest’s top dogs, but you can’t mess with destiny. Michigan State-Virginia III will be a chess match between two excellent coaches. Late in the fourth quarter, with Valentine playing smothering defense and the Spartans clinging to a one-point lead, Brogdan will knock down a game-winning jumper, avenging the devastating season-ending losses of the past two tournaments, and sending Virginia to Houston.

 

Featured image courtesy of Max Goldberg

Edited by Cody McClure