NCAA March Madness: Midwest Region Preview (Pt. 2)

Mar 11, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Creighton Bluejays center Justin Patton (23) directs his teammate in front of Villanova Wildcats forward Eric Paschall (4) during the first half of the Big East Conference Tournament final game at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-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 bottom 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 Sacramento, CA

6. Creighton Blue Jays vs. 11. Rhode Island Rams

Going 7-8 since January 16th, the Blue Jays have been a mess since star point guard Maurice Watson tore his ACL and was announced to miss the entire year. Watson was the nation’s assist leader at the time, and his presence has completely warped the Blue Jays style of play and their depth. Despite his absence, the Blue Jays have only lost to one non-tournament team all season, and their level of play was high enough with Watson still active that the Blue Jays still managed to secure themselves a six-seed in the tournament.

Ready to step up to the plate is projected first-round pick Justin Patton. Patton is a mammoth of a center, shooting 70 percent from two-point range and a miraculous 8-13 from deep. They have a ton of shooters, including two stretch-fours that are above 40 percent from three and provide the perfect inside-outside balance for Patton to operate. They want to be an up-tempo team, but knowing they have something that is reliable in the half-court might get them past a team that tries to slow down the pace.

Guard play is the worry. Freshman Davion Mintz has been forced into action too early, and he’s not exactly the steadiest option. Remove him from the equation and there are still capable guards that can all handle the ball and create on offense. Kyri Thomas (3.4 assists) and Marcus Foster (2.4 assists) are decent creators, but they’re both turnover prone (2.0 for Thomas, 2.2 for Foster) and those numbers have only gone up since the Watson injury. Foster, the Kansas State transfer, has the ability to take over games and be a star for the Blue Jays. He carries the scoring load on the perimeter and could be the best player in his pod.

Thomas also is the centerpiece of their defense, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and a hell of a pressurer on the perimeter. He can lock down great opposing wings and make sure they struggle to breathe or even get a touch. While the Blue Jays offense has always been the rage under Coach McDermott, their defense is a top-forty unit this season.

At the end of the day, Creighton needs to figure themselves out and play the way they are capable. Teams that can pressure their guards will give them fits, but few teams can account for the defensive responsibilities needed to take away Justin Patton and the relentless shooters surrounding him. The difficulty in predicting Creighton to make a run revolving around Patton is the body of work they’ve put together without their superstar point guard. — Adam Spinella

Trying to peg the Rams as a group is similar to NBA scouts trying to hit on their best player, E.C. Matthews. Prognostications have been up and down, from at large candidate to outright bust of a team, all the way back to bubble team before winning the Atlantic-10 automatic birth. Matthews, a streaky shooting wing with smooth mechanics and decent playmaking, has gone the same way, hearing his name in lottery projections for mock drafts or left out of the draft entirely. Alas the Rams grabbed the 11 seed and are a team perhaps peaking at the right time that will need to cover its flaws to move past the first round.

While Matthews gets most of the attention, Hassan Martin may be the best two-way player the Rams have. Martin is one of the nation’s top shot blockers, while also averaging 14 and 7. Martin’s shot blocking presence has allowed the Rams to be the second stingiest defense against the three on the perimeter. They play three guards and chase shooters off the line, knowing that Martin and Kuran Iverson are two men waiting behind them to clean up the garbage. Rhode Island loves to pressure in the full-court and take other teams out of their stuff.

Offense is all about Martin and Matthews, both of whom can anchor the attack in different ways. The X-Factor is Terrell, a 215-pound guard with a decent outside shot. Keeping Terrell out of the paint isn’t easy, but when he’s knocking down threes, he and the Rams are at their best. Rhode Island is a woeful free throw shooting team. Like any team they need to score at the rim and on the interior to win. But a game plan that abandons the three in favor of drives won’t see a high return in terms of points per possession.

Dan Hurley has his team on an eight-game win streak heading into the tournament, making them one of the hottest teams out there. The Atlantic-10 leaders in scoring defense will hope that level of play has prepared them for a run in the NCAA’s. At the end of the day, their ability to move forward will hinge on their outside shooting — Matthews must stay hot and other shooters need to step up if the Rams want to move past Creighton or into the Sweet Sixteen. — Adam Spinella

 

3. Oregon Ducks vs. 14. Iona Gaels

Just hours before the Pac-12 tournament championship game, Oregon received bad news. Senior forward Chris Boucher will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Boucher, a projected second round pick before the injury, and a key starter on last year’s elite eight team, sacrificed this year to come off the bench as Oregon wanted Jordan Bell to anchor an offense with four perimeter players. In the new role, Boucher averaged 11.8 points per game, 6.4 rebounds per game and 2.5 blocks per game. He’s a lanky big man who at almost seven feet tall can knock down three’s, protect the rim and is quick roll man. Oregon, who only played eight players in most games with Boucher, will now have to lean on the unproven Kavel Bigby Williams on the biggest stage.

Despite the tough injury news and the loss to Arizona in the title game, this is a team that was the Pac-12 co-champion with Arizona and lost just five games this season: UCLA, Arizona, Baylor, Colorado and Georgetown. Although the latter two losses may be considered bad by the committee, Colorado and Georgetown are competitive teams that normally make the tournament.

Oregon is a really balanced team. They’re 33rd in the country in points allowed, 48th in points scored, and 24th in assists good for near the top-20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Led by Dillon Brooks, a 6-foot-6 wing player who also projects to be a 2017 second round pick, Oregon has a true closer. Brooks hit game winners against Cal and UCLA this season, and can get his own shot against any collegiate-level defender. But the Ducks don’t rely on one player; this is a team that can play inside-out with Bell in the paint and everyone in the rotation can shoot.

Defensively, the Ducks limit opponents to close to 40 percent from the field. Their aggressive on the ball, whether in man or zone, and the have the right mix of physicality and athleticism to bother most opponents. This is a team that held Arizona to 58 points in a 27-point drubbing and held UCLA to 82 and 87, well below the Bruins country-leading average, in two games this season.

Oregon has more than enough to make it to the second weekend in March. But let us not sugar coat; the Boucher injury is a huge blow and probably takes them out of the national title equation. —Eli Horowitz

The Iona Gaels are dancing again. In what was essentially a road game, the Gaels won their second straight MAAC tournament championship, beating Siena 87-86 in overtime on the Saints home court. This wasn’t Iona’s best campaign under Tim Clues; the Gaels were just 12-8 in conference with losses to Rider, Niagara, Canisius, Quinnipiac and Fairfield. They also lost out of conference to Delaware and Towson. Thus, their resume won’t scare any opponents, but a deeper dive suggests this is a team that could upset anyone.

The Gaels are experienced, playing four seniors and just one freshmen in their rotation. They have balanced scoring, and are led by a senior in Jordan Washington who’s capable of scoring 20 plus in any given game. Stylistically, Iona is a team that can get out in transition and shoots 40 percent from three as a team, good for 19th in the nation. They were the most efficient offense in the MAAC, and were effective both running as well as in the halfcourt.

Defensively, Iona ranks 202nd in KenPom measurables, a low number for a tournament team. Ultimately, they hope to get into a shootout where they think they can run with anyone. Drawing Oregon, the Gaels will have their hands full guarding Dillon Brooks and company. But they’re capable of making it a game with their shooting.  — Eli Horowitz

 

The following games will be played Friday and Sunday from Indianapolis, IN

7. Michigan Wolverines vs. 10. Oklahoma State Cowboys

In the middle of the Big Ten regular season, Michigan looked like a bubble team at best.  But, as John Beilein teams usually do, Michigan improved and now looks like it could be a dangerous team in the NCAA tournament. Beilein, one of the best coaches in the country on a routine basis, has done an incredible job to salvage a talented scoring team and get them to play a more well-rounded style.

Michigan’s late season improvement is largely due to the improvements it made on the defensive end of the floor. Once ranking in the bottom half of all Division I teams defensively, Michigan’s young bigs began to pick up Beilein’s hedge and recover scheme, sparking the team to a 6-2 record in its final 8 games.  Michigan sustained that good play by winning the Big Ten Tournament.

Perhaps no one was more critical to Michigan’s late season surge than its senior point guard Derrick Walton. Walton routinely took over games in the second half of the Big Ten regular season, and was arguably the conference’s best player over that stretch. Walton commanded a lot of attention because of his great play, and Michigan’s complementary players thrived as a result.

Moe Wagner became a force in the pick-and-roll late in the season for Michigan, combining his mobility with 41 percent shooting on three pointers to bring a unique dynamic to the Michigan defense from the center position. Wagner is just one of many great three point shooters for the Wolverines: six of their eight rotation players shoot north of 37 percent from behind the arc.  

If Michigan can sustain their defensive improvements in the NCAA tournament, they have the shooters and the offensive firepower to surprise teams in March. From a bubble team to a dangerous middle seed, the Wolverines resume (four wins against Purdue and Wisconsin) is proof that they cannot be overlooked.  — Matt Way

After starting 0-6 in the Big 12, Oklahoma State won nine of their last 12 to finish 9-9 in conference and 20-12 overall. Coach Brad Underwood engineered the number one offense in the country according to KenPom, which has them as the 24th ranked team overall. For Oklahoma State it starts with their guards and standout sophomore Juwan Evans. Evans is averaging 19 points, 6.2 assists and 1.8 steals and is yet another point guard on the 2017 NBA Draft board. He’s joined in the backcourt by Jeffrey Carroll and Phil Forte III, who shoot 43 and 42 percent respectively from three. As a team they shoot 46 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three and 79 percent from the line, including 95 percent from Forte III.

Their best win was at West Virginia and they have several other nice wins including at Wichita State, at Kansas State and against Arkansas. At the same time, the Cowboys were 1-8 against Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia and Iowa State, the top four teams in their conference. A lot of that has to do with defense, where they rank 133rd in defensive efficiency.

The Cowboys are one of the toughest teams to figure out; they’re capable of outscoring anyone, but their defense isn’t good enough to beat elite teams consistently. This team could easily bow out early to a hot Michigan team, or make a run into the second weekend. — Eli Horowitz

 

2. Louisville Cardinals vs. 15. Jacksonville State Gamecocks.

Louisville and Rick Pitino find themselves in a familiar position entering the NCAA tournament – a top seed (2) who does their strongest work on the defensive end of the floor.  Louisville has the 6th most efficient defense in the country this year according to KenPom. That strong defense led Louisville to an outstanding 24-8 record without any bad losses. Louisville lost in their first game of the ACC tournament to a strong Duke team, but that’s no reason to count Louisville out in this year’s tournament.

Louisville’s great defense is sparked by its rim protection. Junior Anas Mahmoud is one of the best shot blockers in the country. Fellow big men Jaylen Johnson, Mangok Mathiang, Ray Spalding are all very good rim protectors in their own right. Louisville’s excellent rim protection led to the 6th best block rate in the country. That affected opposing offenses even when they weren’t driving to the rim – Louisville ranked top 25 in the country in both two point percentage and three point percentage.

Offensively, Louisville goes as its leading scorer Donovan Mitchell goes. Mitchell sports a 25.6% usage while still maintaining a very low turnover rate, and he does it on solid efficiency. Point guard Quentin Snider is usually the one passing Mitchell the ball – Snider tallied 4.1 assists per game this year while only turning it over 1.5 times per game.  

Mitchell and Snider, along with starter Deng Adel, do bring something that Pitino’s Louisville teams often haven’t: outside shooting. Mitchell and Snider both are high volume three point shooters on good efficiency, while Adel provides at least some threat from the small forward position.  

That extra dimension to Louisville’s offense may be key in their chances in this year’s tournament. Having multiple three point threats in the starting lineup to go with several excellent rim protectors gives Louisville one of its most complete teams in recent memory. If they can continue to shoot well in the tournament, they’re as good a bet as anyone to make it to the Final Four. Their defense will be tested in a big way in the second round, playing either Michigan or Oklahoma State, two of the best offenses in the country. — Matt Way

Coach Ray Harper is taking the Gamecocks to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, but he’s no stranger to the big dance. Jacksonville State is the third team in six years he’s brought to the tournament, having done so at Western Kentucky as well. This has been a Gamecocks team that has built it’s entire season on defying the odds — picked to finish 12th in the Ohio Valley and winning only eleven games last year.

Offensively the Gamecocks have a very balanced attack, with four players in double figures but none higher than 13 points per game. Every starter averages at least one assist, and small forward Erik Durham is shooting 48 percent from three. Their starters carry a heavy load in terms of minutes played, but when the bench does come in, they all have the green light and are aggressive. Their inside-oriented, passer and screener type of attack keeps the ball moving and gets high quality shots most times down the court.

Jacksonville State needs a big tournament from seven-footer Norbertus Giga, the Lithuanian anchor of their defense. He and his supporting cast hold opponents to less than 45 percent shooting inside the arc — one of the best marks in the country. They start four upperclassmen, and despite their newness to the NCAA Tournament, they play a poised style of basketball. Against an undisciplined team that struggles to score outside the paint, Jacksonville State could absolutely do some damage. Against a team as strong as Duke, they may need an additional trick up their sleeve. — Adam Spinella


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