There’s not going to be a less competitive region than the Midwest this season, which seems like a lock to send Kentucky to the Final Four.
But the irony is that there may not be a more intriguing bracket than the Midwest. The No. 4 and No. 5 seeds could both end up being upset in the opening round of the tournament. Butler vs. Texas and Wichita State vs. Indiana are as juicy as opening round matchups can get. Kansas isn’t a lock to get past their No. 15 seed, and if they do, a matchup with in-state “rival” Wichita State could be waiting.
Things could get wild in this region … until people play Kentucky.
Three story lines to watch
- 1. The Chase for Perfection: Kentucky is six wins away from going 40-0 this season. I don’t think there’s a real threat to beat them in the Midwest.
- 2. Is Rick Barnes coaching for his job?: Depending on who you ask, the end of the Rick Barnes era in Austin may be coming to a close. Let’s assume, for a second, that he needs to make a long run in the NCAA tournament in order to keep from being forced into retirement. If he doesn’t, and Texas does open up, that will be one of the most highly-sought after jobs in the country because Texas is, at the very worst a top ten job nationally. Between the salary, the money the athletic department has and the relative lack of pressure at a football school, there’s an argument to be made that Texas is one of the four or five best jobs in the country. Just wait until you see the names that would get in the mix, which would really throw this coaching carousel for a loop.
- 3. Indiana owns this bracket: Not the team, the state. There are five programs from the state of Indiana in the Midwest: No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 6 Butler, No. 9 Purdue, No. 10 Indiana, No. 13 Valparaiso.
The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Notre Dame
Kentucky is obvious here, but I think this is the season that Notre Dame actually puts together a run in the NCAA tournament. That’s how much I like this team. They’re lethal from beyond the arc, Jerian Grant is as good as anyone at creating open looks for those shooters and Demetrius Jackson has been playing great of late. The Irish are coming off of an impressive win in the ACC tournament.
Final Four sleeper: No. 11 Texas
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. Texas. Whatever.
But keep this in mind: The Longhorns have the kind of talent on their roster to be a top ten team, and they seemed to finally find their footing late in the season, regardless of whether or not they blew that lead to Iowa State. They have the size to overwhelm Butler and Notre Dame, and anything can happen if they square off with Kansas in the Sweet 16.
Upsets that CAN happen
- No. 12 Buffalo over No. 5 West Virginia: The Bulls are dangerous. They have a pair of good guards, a requirement against West Virginia’s pressure, and the athletes up front to handle the Mountaineer bigs. Oh, and Bobby Hurley is their coach.
- No. 13 Valparaiso over No. 4 Maryland: Maryland doesn’t blow teams out, and in March, anything can happen in close games. If Valpo can slow down Dez Wells and Melo Trimble, they’ll have a real shot.
- No. 7 Wichita State over No. 2 Kansas: The Jayhawks could very well be without Cliff Alexander in this tournament, and there’s no telling if Perry Ellis or Wayne Selden will be back to 100 percent by the time the games kick off this week. And the Shockers were underseeded as a No. 7. More on KU in a minute…
Upsets that WON’T happen
- Anyone over No. 1 Kentucky: There are six teams that have a real shot of beating Kentucky this season. None of them are in the Midwest.
Feeling like gambling?
- No. 15 New Mexico State over No. 2 Kansas: This New Mexico State team is a very, very dangerous No. 15 seed. They’ve been to a number of NCAA tournaments in Marvin Menzies’ tenure, and part of the reason they struggled at times this season was that they played with their two best players for a long stretch early in the season. They’re healthy now, and they get that banged up Kansas team.
The studs you know about
- “The Lexington Skyline”, Kentucky: Karl Towns might be the No. 1 pick and Willie Cauley-Stein is the nation’s best defender. CBS announcer Ian Eagle coined the nickname on a broadcast earlier this month.
- Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: I’d argue that Grant is the MVP of college basketball this season. No one, and I mean NO ONE, is as important to his team as Grant is to the Fighting Irish. He’s not only a lethal scorer, but he creates so many open looks for teammates.
- Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, Wichita State: A year after entering the NCAA tournament undefeated, the Shockers were once again led by Van Vleet and Baker this season, finishing 28-4 on the year.
- Frank Mason, Kansas: Who had the best player on this Kansas team being the kid that originally committed to Towson? Mason is as tough as they come, and he’s got a habit of hitting big shots for Bill Self.
The studs the nation will find out about
- Melo Trimble, Maryland: People call the Terps lucky because they’re 11-0 in games decided by six points or less. I call them lucky they were able to get Trimble, because he’s as good of a closer as there is in college basketball.
- Justin Moss, Buffalo: Moss is a double-double machine for Bobby Hurley’s Bulls, a tough, athletic and undersized power forward that can wear a team down with his energy.
- Daniel Mullings, New Mexico State: The Aggies got stuck with a No. 15 seed in large part because Mullings was injured for a long stretch this season. Don’t be fooled; he can ball.
- Alex Peters, Valpo: Peters is a 6-foot-9 stretch four that was the best player on the Horizon League champions.
Best opening round matchups
- No. 6 Butler vs. No. 11 Texas: Texas has top ten talent but was one of the most disappointing teams in the country, while Chris Holtmann surprised everyone with just how good and scrappy the Bulldogs were. The Longhorns will likely be favored, and they may need to win to save Rick Barnes’ job.
- No. 7 Wichita State vs. No. 10 Indiana: Two teams built around terrific guard play that couldn’t possibly play different styles of basketball. Indiana relies on Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr. to get them up and down the floor, while Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker lead the Shockers in a slower, more deliberate attack.
Matchups to root for
- No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 7 Wichita State: The two best programs in the state, yet they don’t play during the regular season. If you know a Shocker fan, as them how they feel about this. Now imagine if they play with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. Yeah, I know, right?
- No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 1 Kentucky: The Fighting Irish don’t really do any of the things that a team needs to do to beat Kentucky, but they’re just so lights-out from beyond the arc that I can see them pulling off an upset by hitting 17 threes.
CBT Predictions: Kentucky. Come on. Like I’m picking against them.