The Midwest features some of the more disciplined teams in the tournament, including two that could arguably be one seeds. Virginia and Michigan State, two efficient offenses, are on a collision course for what could be a dream matchup in the Elite 8. Purdue, Iowa State, and Utah are somewhat overlooked on the national stage, and all three have their flaws. It’s a great region to take a risk and pick upsets in because of the top-heavy nature of their one and two seeds.
Their style may not be aesthetically pleasing, but the Cavaliers are a legitimate national championship contender.
Tony Bennett’s team is in the top 10 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency: they allow only 59.7 points per game, second in the nation, due to their pack-line defense. It’s become the staple of a program that predicates itself on being tough and against the grain. Trying to execute a simple reversal on the perimeter against Virginia is difficult, and teams that come in unprepared without one-on-one playmakers often struggle to solve the puzzle that the Bennett defense throws at them.
The Cavs are also incredibly efficient in their Mover Blocker offense. With down screens, flare screens, and a deliberate pace, it’s very difficult to get Virginia to make a mistake with such a simple pattern of movement.
Guards London Perrantes and All-ACC point guard Malcolm Brogdon are a terrifying duo in the backcourt because of their playmaking ability and strong command over the offense. Try too hard to take away their guards and all their bigs are capable finishers down low. The Cavaliers shoot above 40 percent from three as a team, further evidence that they rarely take bad shots and uncontested looks from outside.
Teams that have the most success against Virginia are those with strong playmaking guards who can fly in transition. But the Cavaliers are super experienced in close games, and are 8-3 against Top 25 teams this season. They aren’t afraid of the moment and almost never panic, even in the face of a hot streak from the toughest competition.
That said, the only marquee contest the Cavs won away from John Paul Jones Arena was in a neutral site battle with West Virginia, while they dropped road contests at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Virginia is a strong national championship contender, yet don’t be surprised if they struggle to shoot as effectively now that they’re on the road.
The Pirates are back in the NCAA Tournament for the second-straight year. One of the best rebounding team in the country, Hampton is absolutely massive all around the court. They also feature a dynamic duo of top-notch players. Reginald Johnson Jr. (18.3 PTS, 3.7 REB, 4.1 AST) and Quinton Chievous (17.0 PTS, 11.0 REB, 2.1 AST) are skilled, experienced and savvy.
Coach Ed Joyner is one of the most boisterous personalities you will encounter on this stage as well; his supposed “call from God” on his cell phone before last season’s 1 vs. 16 matchup was a grand moment, and the passion he exuded when the Pirates won the MEAC tournament this season was off the charts delightful to watch. Beating a one-seed like Virginia won’t be easy for Hampton; they must be disciplined on both sides of the ball for a full 40 minutes. No team is as good at making you pay for being out of position as the Cavaliers.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech is back in the tournament for the first time since 2007, and much of that is due to the coaching prowess of Tubby Smith. Tubby, who continues to find success wherever he goes and is one of the most underrated in the profession, has revamped this team’s defense, giving up less than 70 PPG while playing in one of the most difficult conferences in the country.
It’s been a team effort the entire season; no one player stands out as the go-to offensive threat, and four starters are in double figures on the season. Wins over Texas, Iowa State and Oklahoma all came at home, with their best road in occurring in Waco against a stingy Baylor squad. The Red Raiders were able to hold onto an NCAA birth after dropping three of their last four, including a first-round Big Twelve tournament defeat at the hands of TCU.
Butler doesn’t penalize the Red Raiders for their biggest weakness: offensive rebounding. That could give the Red Raiders a chance to get out of the first round, especially since Butler will have nowhere effective to stick shut-down defender Roosevelt Jones. Both these teams have battled inconsistencies, and as of now, the Bulldogs are on the upward trend moreso than the Raiders. Still, this is as much of a round one toss up as it gets. Both teams will have their hands full against a strong Virginia squad, though Texas Tech is similar to the Cavaliers in many ways, just not as talented.
A supremely talented starting five and a renewed offensive attack have Butler back to clicking at the right time near the NCAA Tournament. Chris Holtmann’s team played itself off the bubble and into an eight-seed by winning three of their final four regular season games, including a strong win against Seton Hall. Roosevelt Jones (14.0 PTS, 6.6 REB, 4.7 AST) is as versatile as he is tough. He’s a stocky wing that can guard multiple positions and create matchup nightmares on the other end. His offense has improved drastically, though he’s not a perimeter scoring threat. Kellen Dunham (16.3
PTS) and Kelan Martin (16.1 PTS) are the top scorers on a team averaging more than 80 a night, and the team has over-achieved with a young frontcourt. A 3-5 record against Top 25 teams is highlighted by a neutral site win over Purdue and a road contest against Seton Hall. But Butler struggled most with high-octane offenses this year.
Luckily, Texas Tech does not present such a challenge. Instead, the Red Raiders could hurt Butler with their balance and depth. As always with the Bulldogs, they must find ways to win if their shots aren’t falling early. They’ve garnered a bit of a reputation as a frontrunner. Without overlooking the difficult matchup in the first round, it is hard to imagine Butler toppling Virginia unless they shoot an incredibly high percentage from the field and from three.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”NCAA” title=”More NCAA articles” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
One of the most intriguing teams in the tournament, Purdue is build around their massive size and frontcourt athleticism. Twin towers A.J. Hammons (14.9 PTS, 8.0 REB, 2.4 BLK) and Caleb Swanigan (10.4 PTS, 8.2 REB, 1.8 AST) are dynamic bigs that are near impossible to match up with. Focus too much on one and the other will dominate you down low. And forget about attacking one to get them in foul trouble; Isaac Haas is ready to come off the bench, and he’s the most offensively potent of the three (9.9 PPG in 14.4 minutes). The Boilermakers are a solid outside shooting team (37.2 percent) and a tremendous free throw shooting team. When they’re clicking, the only way to stop their bruising attack is to have the physicality to match them inside and keep them off the glass.
But that’s when Purdue is clicking. Freshman Caleb Swanigan often takes too many ill-advised outside shots; he’s 21-72 (29.2 percent) from three on the season. A.J. Hammons looked great in the Big Ten tournament, but has disappeared for stretches in the past. Defensive-stopper Rapheal Davis only shoots 38 percent from the field and can be a real liability if he’s not being used to take away a big-time scoring threat. The Boilermakers are turnover prone as well, and without strong guard play they could be susceptible to the wrong matchup.
Purdue’s success is predicated on them doing what they do well: rebounding, finishing in the paint with strength and shooting the three with efficiency. For a team that plays in the Big Ten, it’s surprising to see Purdue has only played four games against the Top 25, and is 2-2 in those contests. Without overlooking a dangerous 5-12 matchup with the Trojans, the matchup with Iowa State presents one of dangerously contrasting styles. Get through to the Sweet Sixteen, and they face a Virginia squad that will eat their guards alive. Nobody in this bracket can match Purdue when firing on all cylinders, but based on their track record, it’s hard to bet on that this time of year.
Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans
Chris Beard has the Trojans as a true Cinderella already, turning around an improbable season to lose only four games and make the NCAA Tournament as a twelve seed. Beard is a coaching veteran of every rank; but the experience of his roster has allowed the team to make quick improvements to such a high level. Almost everyone in their rotation is a junior or a senior, another recipe for disaster when considering the formula for success this time of year. The Trojans are a top-tiered defense, making fantastic strides in a short amount of time: they’ve only ceded 70 points twice since February 1st. Two road wins over San Diego State and Tulsa give a notch in their belt that the Trojans are for real and can do some serious damage this time of year. Their depth is also an advantage, as is their outside shooting; UALR doesn’t take many bad shots, and converts their opportunities at a high rate.
Stopping Purdue in their matchup comes down to interior defense and discipline. Both Mareik Isom and Lis Shoshi are taller than 6’9″, and finding two starters of that size at a mid-major is the first task in beating a major conference power built to bash teams on the interior. Their offensive attack is balanced, and point guard Marcus Johnson Jr. is one of the most accurate snipers in the country. Purdue must decide where to place defensive-stopper Rapheal Davis, essentially a “pick your poison” between Johnson and the physicality of backcourt mate Josh Hagins. Purdue doesn’t have the personnel to speed up the game on UALR and get them out of their rhythm. If the Trojans do pull off the upset, a daunting clash of styles await against either Iowa State or Iona.
Iowa State Cyclones
It’s hard to imagine a team as talented as the Cyclones dropping an opening round game in the NCAA Tournament two years ago. Last season’s defeat at the hands of UAB was a sobering wake-up call for a team with veteran leadership. Under the direction of new head coach Steve Prohm, this offense has continued to be one of the most torrid in the land. Averaging 81 points a game, they are led by super senior Georges Niang (19.8 PTS, 6.2 REB, 3.3 AST) and point guard Monte Morris (13.9 PTS, 4.1 REB, 6.9 AST). Niang can score inside and out, as can Morris, who has become incredibly adept at running the show without turning the ball over (4.09 A:TO ratio). Four others average double figures for ISU, including Jameel McKay, one of the most unheralded interior defenders in the Big Twelve.
Besides McKay, very few members of this team are interested in playing defense. They don’t force any turnovers on the perimeter to help McKay out either. Iowa
State’s depth is a huge issue behind their top six: after Deonte Burton (10.0 PPG), no player averages more than 3 points off the bench. Prohm had a cushy out-of-conference schedule, only dropping a neutral site game to Northern Iowa and a road contest to Texas A&M. The Cyclones haven’t won three games in a row since January 25th when they drubbed Kansas, slipping at the wrong time in the season. The Cyclones are 2-8 against Top 25 teams this season.
While the upperclassmen and their leadership can take a team far in the tournament, the Cyclones are scary to put your faith into at this time of year. All the signs of implosion are there; from depth to defense, cold streaks and trouble against elite competition. Stopping Iona’s elite guard A.J. English will be no easy task, nor will preventing a Purdue onslaught on the interior. If the Cyclones can survive a brutal pod and get to the Sweet Sixteen, anything can happen. But one thing is clear: the Cyclones aren’t going to try and stop anyone. They need to outscore them to win.
The MAAC Champion Iona Gaels are one of the hottest teams in the tournament, having won 12 of their last 13, including two wins over potential at-large bid Monmouth. The Gaels are left by star guard A.J. English, who is averaging 22.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 6.2 assists in his senior campaign. Tim Cluess and his Gaels are no stranger to the NCAA’s, and with experience and a star player, the team is dangerous. As an NBA prospect, any team facing Iona will have a game plan and a lot of attention to put on English. Iona is built for that type of attention: they average nearly 17 assists per game, top twenty in the nation. The Gaels have not beaten a quality opponent other than Monmouth this year.
The good news for the Gaels is that Iowa State will provide very little defensive resistance, allowing them to play at their pace (averaging 79.6 PPG). A shooting contest will break out for sure, with both teams relying heavily on transition and the three pointer. If A.J. English can step up on the defensive end and the Gaels four-guard lineup can contain Georges Niang or force him to play from the perimeter, they have a shot at winning the first round matchup. To be a true Cinderella and make the Sweet Sixteen, they must survive the onslaught from Purdue down low, which is not an easy task.
Seton Hall Pirates
After toppling both Xavier and Villanova in the Big East tourney, no team enters March with greater momentum than Kevin Willard’s Seton Hall squad. One of the best defenses in the country, Seton Hall doesn’t do much that’s overly complicated. They have won 12 of their last 14 with only two of those wins consisting of less than two
possessions. Both losses came at the hands of Butler, who may have the formula to stymie the Pirates attack (we’ll get to that later). But the Pirates do what they do very well: Isaiah Whitehead (18.4 PTS, 5.0 AST) paces the attack on offense, and though he can get out of control, he’s one of the best playmakers in the tournament. Turnovers are frequently an issue for Seton Hall; they have more turnovers this season (457) than they do assists (447).
The Butler Bulldogs were able to shoot better than 50 percent against the stingy Pirates defense in both meetings this year, a main reason why Seton Hall lost both meetings. Butler also got easy points by getting to the free throw line, continually placing pressure on Willard to dip into his bench. Senior Derrick Gordon was the only bench player to score for the Pirates in either contest as well, something that cannot happen for Seton Hall if they want to advance.
Gonzaga can present similar matchup difficulties, with a stingy interior presence in Domantas Sabonis and a heady point guard in Kevin Pangos. The Zags can sting you with their scoring and outside shooting, but will be hard pressed to get to the free throw line in the way Butler has. Gonzaga is not an easy first-round matchup for Seton Hall. Beyond there, the star clash between them and Utah will be exciting to watch, as would be a showdown with Denzel Valentine and Michigan State.
Mark Few’s squad squeaked out a WCC tournament championship and kept their streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances alive at 18. This isn’t the balanced, do-it-all group that Few is used to winning with. More than ever, the Zags are reliant on their two best players: Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis. Wiltjer (20.7 PTS, 6.5 REB) can light it up in a hurry, and his 42.4 percent stroke from deep makes him a dangerous defensive assignment. Pay too much attention to him and Sabonis (17.4 PTS, 11.6 REB) will dominate you down low. Sabonis is incredibly skilled, scoring inside and out with great footwork and timing. The Zags are more solid on the defensive end than they get credit for; granted their competition is fairly weak, but the WCC is filled with skilled offensive teams.
Beyond Wiltjer and Sabonis, Gonzaga is fairly weak. Their third best player, freshman point guard Josh Perkins, has a 2:1 A:TO ratio but struggles with exceptionally athletic opponents. Trusting in a freshman point guard, especially against a skilled and experienced Isaiah Whitehead for Seton Hall, will not be easy for the Zags. If Few can solve Seton Hall’s stingy defense and create easy shots for his team, the Bulldogs could advance to play a Utah squad they match up with very well.
The Utes are heavily reliant on their frontcourt and the old-school style of basketball they play. Leading the way is Jakob Poeltl, the Austrian center that has more than justified his hype as an NBA prospect. Poeltl is averaging 17.6 points and 9 rebounds a game while shooting 65.6 percent from the field. He’s capable of taking over games at both ends, and we’ve all seen what dominant big men can accomplish in March. Frontcourt mate Jordan Loverdale (40.2 percent from three) is fantastic at stretching the floor around Poeltl to give him space to operate inside, and together they’re a fantastic one-two punch that’s built for March success. Larry Krystowiak is also one of the most consistently successful coaches that nobody talks about.
Long-range sniper Lorenzo Bonam can also provide offense for the Utes, but their guard play is suspect for a team that garnered a three seed. They don’t force many turnovers, are rarely the most athletic guards on the floor and too often defer to the frontcourt talent. Utah’s defense is the definition of solid, without forcing many turnovers or mistakes on opponents. They’re also the weakest team on the glass of any top seeds in the Midwest, meaning they have to continue to convert a high percentage of their shots to continue to advance.
Don’t sleep on their first round matchup with Fresno State, who has a tandem of very athletic and talented guards. Beyond the Bulldogs lie Gonzaga and Seton Hall, featuring great guard play. The potential showdown between Poeltl and Sabonis for a Sweet Sixteen birth is worth salivating over as well. Looking at Michigan State, the way to get past the Spartans is to ride Poeltl early and often. Utah doesn’t force many mistakes, and the Spartans don’t make many, so establishing a bruising low post game is necessary for Utah to get to the Elite 8. It’s all in Poeltl’s hands now.
Fresno State Bulldogs
The Mountain West struggled mightily this season, and the Bulldogs are the league’s lone birth in the NCAA’s. Don’t sleep on them just because of that. While FSU only has two players averaging double-figures, you absolutely need to be aware of Marvelle Harris. The Mountain West Player of the Year, averaging 20.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists, is not the most efficient player by any means. That said, he’s incredibly athletic and is savvy at getting to the free throw line. When Harris attempts 10 or more free throws, Fresno State is 8-2. Torren Jones has been missing from the frontcourt due to a medical issues, and Cullen Russo and Karachi Edo have filled in admirably.
For Fresno State to take down Utah, those two have to play a near perfect game down low and on the glass. While Marvelle Harris will get his, someone else has to step up and knock down shots. The Bulldogs don’t commit a lot of turnovers, but they must knock down open shots if they want to advance in the region. The Bulldogs are not a very efficient team, and that means betting on them for an upset is a high-risk proposition.
Back in the NCAA tournament, Archie Miller is ready to work his magic once again. Dyshawn Pierre and Charles Cooke lead the offensive attack for Dayton, who averages 73 points a game and has four players in double figures. Scoochie Smith (11.7 PTS, 4.3 AST) is an experienced point guard who was a member of the Flyers’ 2014 Elite Eight run. But Dayton is a stingy defensive squad with really good rebounding despite their lack of size. Dayton rarely gives up second-chance points, something that is often overlooked when measuring a team’s defensive effectiveness. Post threat Kendall Pollard has battled injuries leading into the tournament; if he’s healthy, this Dayton team can be dangerous and make some noise in the Midwest.
Dayton is a physical, guard-oriented team that can rebound the ball well. Playing a 2-3 zone could be the cure in the opening, as rebounds are there to be had if the Orange get lazy. The Flyers must hang onto the ball, make shots from the outside and find ways to score easy baskets near the rim. It’s hard to bet against Archie Miller in March, and that experience could carry the Flyers to another first-round win. Beyond Syracuse, a tough matchup against Michigan State is winnable if the Flyers can figure out how to defend the three. They’ll have a quickness advantage against Sparty, and must use it to limit transition and chase shooters off screens.
It’s a gift that the Orange made the tournament, with only four wins over tournament teams — all of which were ranked at the time. They struggled mightily in the ACC, especially down the stretch, where they were 1-5 in their last 6. Boeheim’s team was only 6-9 away from the Carrier Dome, and loaded up on soft non-conference wins at home, reflected in their 68th ranked RPI. Nonetheless, the Orange are in the big dance once again, battling consistency issues and the everlasting drama that has been the last few seasons in Syracuse. Still, Michael Gbinije (17.8 PTS, 4.1 REB, 4.4 AST) and Malachi Richardson (13.2 PTS, 4.3 REB, 2.3 AST) posses NBA-level talent. The Orange have shot more threes than in recent memory for a Boeheim team, despite a horrid shooting season from usual sharpshooter Trevor Cooney (33.2 percent FG, 34.2 percent from three).
That Syracuse 2-3 zone is still a struggle to figure out for teams that do not shoot it very well. That makes it difficult to get past a red-hot Michigan State team and into the Sweet Sixteen, even if they are able to topple the Flyers out of the gates. Dayton isn’t an outstanding three point shooting team, and they struggle with turnovers, meaning the crisp zone and length the Orange possess could give them fits. But Syracuse must find their own scoring groove and stave off the lack of momentum they have right now.
Michigan State Spartans
How Tom Izzo’s team did not get a one-seed is truly a travesty. They won the Big Ten tournament in convincing fashion, feature one of the best all-around players in the country in Denzel Valentine, and only struggled when he was out of the lineup. With Valentine, the Spartans are 26-4 and tearing up opponents both in transition and the half court. Valentine’s super stardom cannot go overlooked in the collegiate ranks: since the NCAA formally started tracking assists, he’s the only player to ever record averages of at least 19 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. Put a smaller guard on him to try and speed him up, and Denzel will throw the ball over the top to his teammates or will take you in the post himself. Put size on him, and he’s loose in transition and a nightmare to guard coming off screens.
Similarly to Virginia, nothing that the Spartans run on offense is overly complex. Lots of floppy action with guards coming off down screens for shots on the perimeter. They love to re-screen for their guards and drop-down post out of that action, and spread the floor effectively with multiple shooting threats. The Spartans lead the country in assists per game with over 20 — an incredibly high mark for a major conference power playing in a traditionally difficult defensive league. This might be the best offensive team in the country, shooting 43.5 percent from three as a team around Valentine. Bryn Forbes (48.4 percent), Eron Harris (42.7 percent) and Denzel Valentine (44.7 percent) are all lethal when coming off those down screens.
Betting against Izzo and the Spartans is not something you want to do in March. No coach has reached a higher percentage of Final Fours in history, and with a dynamic go-to player and leader in Valentine, this team certainly is capable of handling any defensive group that comes at them. Defending Jakob Poeltl of Utah will be their first formidable matchup, but Utah may struggle to guard them. On the top side of the bracket, Purdue and Virginia pose the biggest matchup difficulties, and the Purdue matchup in the Big Ten title game should give the Boilermakers hope. The biggest test for Michigan State will be their defense, especially in the interior. If they can hold down a team from getting easy baskets and respond to threats of strong post scorers, this is a team that could be cutting down the nets in Houston.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
With no wins over tournament teams and their best victory an overtime trumping of Auburn at home, the Blue Raiders are proof that the C-USA is not what it used to be. Despite UAB’s win last season over Iowa State, these Blue Raiders don’t seem to pack a similar punch. That said, their two best players are legitimate Division I scoring threats that can ball with the best of them: Giddy Potts is shooting an unbelievable 50.3 percent from three, while the offense runs completely through big man Reggie Upshaw (13.8 PTS, 8.7 REB). Upshaw is a legitimate athletic beast that poses problems for opponents that struggle to keep him off the glass.
The Blue Raiders leave points at the line, as they’re the worst free throw shooting team in the tournament (61.7 percent). Even if they can hang in a close game against Michigan State, it’s unlikely they will be able to pull it out if they get into a free throw shooting contest. The Spartans have the length to bother Potts, the nation’s most accurate three point shooter, and enough interior size to stymie Upshaw. 15 over 2 upsets are becoming more trendy, but this is one to avoid.