NCAA March Madness: Midwest Region Preview (Pt. 1)

Mar 4, 2017; Stillwater, OK, USA; Kansas Jayhawks guard Josh Jackson (11) moves the ball against the Oklahoma State Cowboys during the second half at Gallagher-Iba Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

The March Madness season officially kicked off on Sunday, when the ranking and seeding of all 68 men’s teams who made the NCAA tournament bracket were announced in the annual “Selection Sunday” broadcast show. This is the time where college hoops comes to the forefront of the basketball landscape, with excitement and upsets abound.

Every fan filling out a bracket wants to know the inside scoop — what do all the numbers mean? Who matches up well with who? What team could be this year’s Cinderella? What top seeds are most susceptible to being knocked out early?

We know you don’t have time to watch every team and study them in depth — but here at BBALL BREAKDOWN, we do! So we have compiled information and summaries on each team to help you prepare for the tournament, make the best bracket choices available and enjoy the most exciting time of the year in sports.

Here is our look at the top of the bracket in the Midwest Region, where Kansas will be the heavy favorite to advance to the Final Four and plenty of teams exist with Cinderella potential.

 

The following games will be played Friday and Sunday from Tulsa, OK.

1. Kansas Jayhawks vs. 16. (N.C. Central/ UC-Davis)

Fresh off a stunner in the Big Twelve Tournament without Josh Jackson, Bill Self will have his Jayhawks playing with a fire and intensity that has led to his team dominating the Big Twelve over the last decade. Perhaps the loss to TCU, a stunner by any measure, was just what the doctor ordered. Frank Mason (20.8 pts, 5.1 ast) and Josh Jackson (16.4 pts, 3.1 ast) are unbelievable playmakers and as deadly a one-two combo as you’ll find in college basketball. Mason, a frontrunner for National Player of the Year, has carried Kansas on his back throughout much of the season. Jackson, a top-five pick in this year’s draft, has been superb in the second half of the year and greatly improved his outside shot.

But without Jackson, the warts were exposed on this Jayhawks team. They aren’t very deep, playing only seven guys consistently, and the playmaking burden on the two of them is daunting. When one is missing, in foul trouble or simply taken away, Kansas will struggle to find reliable offense. The Jayhawks will go as far as either of these two will take them, and hopefully the matchups bounce their way where opponents lack the defensive firepower to limit both or take one away completely.

That’s not to say Kansas is a two-dimensional team. Devonte’ Graham is a poised guard that can pass, shoot and defend. Their sharpshooter is Sviatsolov Mykhailiuk, a launcher from deep that spaces the defense. On the inside, efficient senior Landen Lucas has helped anchor the attack on both ends of the court.

Kansas shares the ball well and makes the extra pass — their assist totals show that much. But what the totals don’t show is how they generate those open shots or extra passes. Almost all of it is from Jackson or Mason drives. Kansas has other weaknesses: they have given up over 85 points on seven occasions, and are 3-4 in such games (whereas they’re 25-0 when holding an opponent under 85). These Jayhawks want to run and gun, speed things up and out-score their opponents. In March, against a multitude of opponents that can change the pace of the game and control tempo the way they want, Kansas doesn’t really have the defensive aptitude to win in multiple styles.

Of course, I’ve spent the last 300 words or so revealing some of the flaws in the nation’s top team throughout much of the season. Kansas is a decent bet to get to the Final Four — they won arguably the country’s best conference in the regular season by four games! Of course there’s a lot of good here, and the playmaking of a senior like Mason and a talent like Jackson can be enough to carry a team all the way. Just don’t think they’re invincible; if there’s one thing to learn from this week, it’s that defense and balance aren’t their strong suits. — Adam Spinella

After winning both the regular season and conference tournament in the MEAC, North Carolina Central enters the NCAA Tournament as a 16 seed and having to win a play-in game against UC-Davis to get to 1-seed Kansas.

North Carolina Central is led by star small forward Patrick Cole, who uses over 30 percent of the Eagles’ possessions while he is on the floor. Unfortunately, for North Carolina Central, Cole uses those possessions rather inefficiently. He attempts most of his shots from inside the arc, where he only converts at a 40 percent clip. Cole does, however, excel in getting his teammates involved – he assisted on 33.6 percent of his teammates’ made shots, good for 27th in the country this year. The Eagles’ secondary offensive options, Dajuan Graf and Del’Vin Dickerson, are perhaps its best options. Graf and Dickerson both produced a true shooting percentage north of 58 percent this year.

Defensively, North Carolina Central excels at forcing opponents into difficult shots, evidenced by their 14th overall ranking in defensive effective field goal percentage. The Eagles defend the three-point line exceptionally well, limiting their opponents to just 29 percent from behind the arc this year.

If North Carolina Central does get past UC-Davis, they will need to continue to play terrific defense to have any shot at Kansas. They would also be wise to get the ball into the hands of Graf and Dickerson a bit more. Even if they do, the Eagles will need to play by far their best game of the season to have a chance at upsetting Kansas.  — Matt Way

In his sixth season as head coach at UC-Davis, Jim Les brings the school to its first ever NCAA tournament. UC-Davis finished a game behind UC-Irvine for the Big West regular season title, but turned around and beat UC-Irvine in the conference tournament to secure its ticket to the Big Dance.

The excitement for UC-Davis begins and ends there. UC-Davis ranks as the worst team in the field according to KenPom, rating as the 218th best team in the country. Many of the struggles for UC-Davis come on the offensive end, where they rank as one of the worst (292nd) offense in the entire country. UC-Davis’ journey to the tournament saw them play only two teams in the KenPom top 125, and they lost both of those games.  

If UC-Davis has anything working for them, it’s experience – they boast four seniors and a junior in their starting lineup. Leading the way is senior shooting guard Brynton Lemar, who is the Aggies’ leading scorer, and their only regular rotation member who scores at an average efficiency.  

UC-Davis drew North Carolina Central in one of the 16 seed play-in games, and they’re an underdog even in that matchup. If they manage to get past North Carolina Central, they earn the right to play number one seed Kansas, where their first NCAA Tournament will almost surely end.  — Matt Way

 

8. Miami (FL) Hurricanes vs. 9. Michigan State Spartans

Jim Larranaga and the Miami Hurricanes followed up last year’s trip to the Sweet Sixteen with a strong 21-11 record in a tough ACC. While Miami’s record may not look stellar, they finished the season with a strong resume. Miami beat North Carolina at home and Virginia on the road, and managed to finish with zero bad losses.  

Miami’s success in 2016-17 was largely a product of their top 20 defense. While Miami may have no standouts defensively, they play great team defense and force tough shots at every spot on the floor. Miami finished the season in the top 100 in both two point and three-point defensive efficiency as well as block and steal rate. Miami’s steal rate is a credit to their team defense – they have four players that average at least one steal per game.

Offensively, Miami relies largely on junior point guard Ja’Quan Newton, who uses 28 percent of the team’s possessions when he is on the floor. Miami’s most efficient scorer, however, is its leading scorer Davon Reed. Reed scores efficiently at all spots on the floor, but especially from the free throw line, where he shoots 83.3 percent.  

Miami is a middle of the road team in this year’s tournament, and point guard Ja’Quan Newton will need to score more efficiently if Miami has any hopes of a run past the first weekend. — Matt Way

The road to Tom Izzo’s and Michigan State’s twentieth straight NCAA Tournament appearance wasn’t easy, but they made it. Michigan State enters this year’s tournament with 14 losses, led by two freshman big men with no tournament experience.

Miles Bridges, a future lottery pick, carried Michigan State for the majority of year, leading the team in points, rebounds, and blocks per game. Bridges does a little bit of everything; he can create for himself and others, he’s a load in the paint against smaller defenders, and he’s able to defend many different positions. Bridges’ defensive versatility is a big reason for Michigan State’s 35th ranked KenPom defense.  

Offensively, Michigan State leans on Bridges’ fellow freshman star Nick Ward, who sports a usage of 33 percent when he’s on the floor. Ward is a skilled player in the post and produced an efficient 59.7 true shooting percentage, as a result. Ward was also the best offensive rebounder in the country this year, something that’s critical to a Michigan State offense who struggles to find consistency.  

When Ward isn’t creating offense, it’s Michigan State’s third freshman, Cassius Winston, who creates most of the offense for the Spartans. Winston had one of the best assist rates in the country as a freshman, and his ability to penetrate can create serious problems for opposing defenses.

Ultimately, Michigan State is relying on three freshman with no tournament experience this year. If those freshmen play above their heads in March, Michigan State could make a short run. But, their lack of depth and inexperience makes them a prime candidate for an early exit for the second consecutive year. — Matt Way

 

The following games will be played Thursday and Saturday from Milwaukee, WI.

5. Iowa State Cyclones vs. 12. Nevada Wolfpack

The Iowa State Cyclones are one of the most dangerous teams in the field, fresh off their Big 12 tournament championship. The Cyclones start four seniors in Monte Morris, Matt Thomas, Deonte Burton and Nazareth Mitrou-Long. All four players average double digits in scoring and shoot over 38 percent from three. They’re led by Morris’ 16 points and six assists per game. Morris is moving up NBA draft boards and should be an early second round pick with room to move up with more strong performances in March.

Iowa State coach Steve Prohm came over from Murray State and has continued to run the Pace and Space system that Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg established in Ames. The Cyclones are 17th overall in KenPom rankings, included 13th in offensive efficiency. They’ve also played solid defense this year and are 43rd in defensive efficiency. Shooting 40 percent from three as a team, Iowa State can run anyone out of the gym when they’re hot and have wins over Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma State (3), Kansas State (2) and Miami. Their only bad loss was at Texas in conference by two points; eight of their other nine losses were to tournament teams, the other was to Iowa, one of the first four out.

Iowa State plays an offensive-minded Nevada team that’s a popular upset candidate. But Iowa State is coming into the dance having won nine of ten, and could be a dark horse to go all the way to the Final Four. — Eli Horowitz

In his second year as Nevada’s head coach, Eric Musselman has the team entering the NCAA Tournament hoping to pull off a first round upset as so many 12 seeds before them have. Nevada finished a strong season in the Mountain West with a 28-6, and have the offensive firepower to give Iowa State a serious game in the round of 64.

Nevada finished the season ranked 34th in the season in terms of offensive efficiency, per KenPom. Nevada’s offensive success begins with taking care of the ball (18th in country in turnover rate) and often ends at the free throw line, where Nevada attempts over 24 free throws per game.  

Leading the way to the free throw line is sophomore Jordan Caroline, who had the 29th best free throw rate in the entire country this season. Caroline only made 58 percent of his free throws, however. Senior wings Marcus Marshall and DJ Fenner also get to the line frequently, and they convert, impressively, at over an 82 percent rate.  

Defensively, Nevada excels the most at defending the three-point line, where opponents shot just 30.7% from behind the arc, ranking 15th in the country. Nevada will need to continue that good three-point defense to beat Iowa State, who shoots an impressive 40% from 3. Nevada will also need to work hard offensively to get to the free throw line, something Iowa State’s opponents have struggled to do all year long. If Nevada can defend the three-point line and shoot a lot of free throws, they have a solid chance at becoming another in a line of many 12 seeds to accomplish a first round upset. — Matt Way

 

4. Purdue Boilermakers vs. 13. Vermont Catamounts

If you’re looking for a team who can do a bit of everything, look no further than the regular season Big Ten Champions. Purdue sports a top 30 KenPom ranking on both ends of the floor and has the size that can give any tournament team serious trouble. Not to be overlooked, their guard play is better than it’s been in years past. P.J. Thompson has steadied the backcourt, while shooters provide spacing for their big men to dominate.

Offensively, Purdue’s focus generally lies with National Player of the Year candidate Caleb Swanigan. Swanigan is a force in the post and can step outside and knock down three-pointers (at a 43 percent rate). If Swanigan gets in foul trouble, Purdue simply looks to his backup Isaac Haas, who at 7’3” is nearly unguardable when he gets any sort of decent position in the paint. Carsen and Vincent Edwards can both create shots for themselves and others, and small forward Dakota Mathias is one of the best three-point shooters in the country, shooting 46 percent from 3 on great volume this year.  

Defensively, Purdue makes opponents work hard. Their defense is disciplined and can be stifling when opponents are stagnant offensively. Their one vulnerability is in their big men’s mobility. Both Swanigan and Haas are slow footed and can be taken advantage of in the pick and roll and off-ball cutting action. Despite that, Purdue’s defense ranked 16th in the country this year according to KenPom.

Should Purdue avoid a team with mobile, dynamic bigs, they are poised for a deep run in this year’s tournament. This is Matt Painter’s beat team in years. — Matt Way

The NCAA Selection Committee is always hot-and-cold with teams from the America East, and this year’s Vermont Catamount team is a great example why. They dominated league play, going unbeaten in a medium-to-weak mid-major pool of teams. They have no impressive wins to their resume on the year, losing to Providence, South Carolina and Butler all by double digits on the road. Properly rating Vermont, a team with top-end defensive metrics from KenPom and a highly efficient offense, is difficult to do.

Alas, here they are in the tournament looking to make some noise with a balanced attack. Super freshman Anthony Lamb led the team in scoring while only playing 22 minutes per game. Lamb isn’t afraid to let it fly (he hit six threes in the conference semifinals against New Hampshire), and he’s an undersized four-man that can give some major conference teams fits. Solid guard play steadies a team that averages only eleven turnovers per game — speeding them up may not provide success in beating the Catamounts.

Advancing for the Catamounts hinges on their defense. They block a ton of shots all over the floor, use their depth well and have defended on the interior very well due to their size on the wings. How that stacks up against a major conference opponent remains to be seen. These Catamounts will be super confident as they enter the tournament, with the nation’s longest winning streak. That has to count for something. If they get off to a good start against a tall Purdue team, they could be partying through the weekend in Burlington. — Adam Spinella


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