There are really two things that stand out when looking at this region of the bracket:
- The committee did no one any favors in the midwest. The No. 2 seed has a better draw than the No. 1 line
- This is the least intriguing region of them all, and that probably means that something insane is going to happen.
THREE STORYLINES TO WATCH
- Can Tony Bennett win in March?: That’s the biggest knock on the Virginia program, isn’t it? That they’re built for the regular season? They lost in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed in 2014. They lost in the second round as a No. 2 seed last season. (Both of those losses came to Michigan State, who Virginia could very well end up facing in the Elite 8.) The Cavaliers play the slowest tempo of any team in college basketball, which means they play into the hands of a team trying to upset them and also means they’re not built to come back from a deficit. Virginia has been the best program in the ACC for the last three years. Can they finally prove it in the tournament?
- Can ‘Mr. March’ do it again?: No one as more success in March than Tom Izzo, and this season he may actually have his best shot at winning an NCAA title since he, ya know, won the NCAA title back in 2001. For my money, Michigan State is the best team in the country. They have the nation’s best player, they shoot the you-know-what out of the ball and they have the size inside to avoid getting run over by bigger teams. They’re legit.
- Was the selection committee drunk when bracketing the midwest?: The most obvious issue here is that Syracuse not only got into the tournament, but they got in as a No. 10 seed. What? The Orange had an RPI of 71 — the highest for an at-large team ever — and must have gotten credit for not having their head coach for nine games during the regular season. That’s the only explanation, which isn’t a good one. But then there’s the issue of Virginia being the No. 1 seed in the Midwest when it would have made more sense for both parties if Kansas and Virginia had switched. Moreover, Virginia is a No. 1 seed in a region where they’ll likely see Michigan State and Purdue or Iowa State in Chicago. Those are three schools in the region with huge fanbases in Chicago. That’s brutal.
THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … ?: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 2 Michigan State
I actually think Butler is a decent matchup for Virginia, but I don’t think anyone in the first three rounds can pick off the Wahoos. And Sparty, like I wrote earlier, is playing the best basketball of anyone in the country.
FINAL FOUR SLEEPER: No. 3 Utah
Can a No. 3 seed be a Final Four sleeper? I’m going with it, but mostly because I really don’t love anyone else in the region. Iowa State doesn’t have the depth of the defensive toughness to win four more games. Purdue is no where near balanced enough, particularly if they have to go through a Virginia team that does a really good job of minimizing the impact of a front court. I don’t trust Seton Hall. They’re talented but mistake-prone. So I’m going with Utah, who I really do think is a dangerous team. They have the nation’s best big man in Jakob Poeltl, they surround him with big, athletic shooters and their guards have been better of late.
And we’re just going to go ahead and forget about that 31 point loss they took to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament, OK? Good.
UPSETS THAT CAN HAPPEN
- No. 11 Gonzaga over No. 6 Seton Hall: There’s two reasons for this: Will Seton Hall play with the same intensity they did in New York? And how will the Pirates deal with a front line that includes Kyle Wiltjer and Domas Sabonis?
- No. 12 Little Rock over No. 5 Purdue: Little Rock is really, really good. They won at San Diego State and won at Tulsa during non-conference. They also run a pack-line defense, which will help limit the impact of Purdue’s big men.
- No. 13 Iona over No. 4 Iowa State: How good is this game going to be? First to 120 points wins. Iowa State will have the best player on the floor in Georges Niang, but A.J. English is a stud and the Gaels are dangerous when they get it going offensively.
UPSETS THAT WON’T HAPPEN
- No. 14 Fresno State over No. 3 Utah: Rodney Terry has done a terrific job with the Bulldogs and Marvelle Harris can really play, but I just cannot see them beating this Utah team.
FEEL LIKE GAMBLING?: No. 6 Seton Hall to the Sweet 16
Like I said, I don’t love this Seton Hall team because they’re somewhat inconsistent. But they’re also playing fabulous basketball over the course of the last month. And while a lot of their success is a by-product of simply playing hard, they’ve got a dude in Isaiah Whitehead that can absolutely take a game over and he has enough of a supporting cast to get through a decidedly unimpressive pod.
THE STUDS YOU KNOW ABOUT
- Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia: Brogdon has been UVA’s best perimeter defender and one of the most lethal scorers in college basketball. There’s a reason he was a first team all-american.
- Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: He’s the National Player of the Year. Next question, please.
- Jakob Poeltl, Utah: I love Poeltl. He’s actually developed a post game this season, he can pass out of trouble and he still has those physical tools. He’s a great college big man.
- Georges Niang, Iowa State: Everyone knows who he is at this point, and he’s had his best individual performance this year.
THE STUDS YOU’LL FIND OUT ABOUT
- A.J. English, Iona: The only way you can truly appreciate how good this kid is is by watching him play in the tournament. He can go.
- Marvelle Harris, Fresno State: Harris has been the best player this season for the Bulldogs. I bet he has a big game in the first round, and I bet it comes in a loss.
BEST OPENING ROUND MATCHUP: No. 4 Iowa State vs. No. 13 Iona
These are two teams that eschew defense in favor of a run-and-gun style. They have superstars in English and Niang. They shoot a bunch of threes. I’m not exaggerating when I say I could see both of guys popping off for 40 points.
MATCHUPS TO ROOT FOR
- No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 2 Michigan State: The ‘Hoos have been eliminated by Sparty the last two seasons. Is this the year they get over the hump?
CBT PREDICTION: Michigan State cuts down Virginia’s