Sweet 16 Preview: Breaking down what’s left of the Midwest Region

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The Midwest Region is the bracket that makes the least amount of sense as we head into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. No. 11 seed Gonzaga steamrolled Seton Hall and Utah to get this far, while No. 10 Syracuse dispatched Dayton and then took care of a Middle Tennessee State team that knocked off tourney favorite Michigan State.

No one outside of Murfreesboro was happier about MTSU’s win than Virginia. The Wahoos had lost to the lower-seeded Spartans in the last two tournaments, and it looked like they were headed down that road again. Now, they look like the favorites to get out of the region. Here is the full Midwest preview:

KEY STORYLINES

  1. Is this the year that Tony Bennett’s system finally pays off?: If you include the two wins that the Cavaliers landed last weekend, Bennett now has five NCAA tournament wins in seven seasons in Charlottesville. The past two tournaments, he got knocked out in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed and the second round as a No. 2 seed. That system that he’s become so well-known for hasn’t exactly produced tournament results, but the draw he got this season couldn’t possibly be any better. Get past Iowa State and he’ll be playing a double-digit seed for the right to get to Houston.
  2. Depth, depth, depth, depth, depth: That’s unequivocally this biggest issue for Iowa State, right? They play seven guys, and while there are six of them that get the majority of the minutes, legs isn’t really the biggest issue here. It’s the number of fouls. The only big man they have in that rotation is Jameel McKay. Virginia loves to throw the ball into Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey in the post. Gonzaga, if they face off with the Cyclones in the Elite 8, has Domas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer. Can McKay be a defensive presence and avoid fouling out for the fourth time in the last 11 games?
  3. Can a double-digit seed actually get to the Final Four?: There are two in the Midwest, and they’ll be playing each other in the Sweet 16, meaning that we’ll have at least one double-digit seed with a Final Four berth on the line on Sunday. Can Syracuse or Gonzaga pull it off?
Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon (15) and forward Anthony Gill (13) cheer their team during the second half against Georgia Tech in an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference men's tournament, in Washington on Thursday, March 10, 2016. Virginia defeated Georgia Tech 72-52. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon (15) and forward Anthony Gill (13) (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

WHY THEY’LL GET TO THE FINAL FOUR

No. 1 Virginia: The Cavaliers are the best team in the region and they have the best player in the region. No one in college basketball can do the things that Malcolm Brogdon can do. He can take over a game offensively — he’s the best in college hoops when it comes to reading screens off the ball — and he’s capable of totally shutting down just about any opponent that’s not a true center. He’s locked up everyone from star point guards to Duke’s Brandon Ingram to Butler’s Andrew Chrabascz. When will he get a crack at Georges Niang?

No. 4 Iowa State: The Cyclones have the ability to be absolutely lethal offensively. Monte’ Morris and Georges Niang are flat out studs. They can take over a game offensively and carry Iowa State to a win individually. And that’s before you factor in the likes of Matt Thomas, Abdel Nader and Deonte Burton, all of whom are capable of going off for 20 points on any given night. When the Cyclones get it rolling offensively, they’re very difficult to stop.

The Cyclones also matchup really well with Virginia’s defense; the things they do well are what you have to do to be able to beat the Pack-Line. They can hit threes over the top of it, they have a talented four-man that can create a mismatch and they play in transition, which would let them get down the floor before UVA can set their defense.

No. 10 Syracuse: The 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim has made famous is not an ideal matchup for the Zags given their issues in the back court this season. Can they avoid turnovers? Will they make enough shots to create space for Sabonis in the paint? And if the Orange can get to the Elite 8, all they have to do is win one game to get to the Final Four.

No. 11 Gonzaga: The Zags arguably have the best front line left in college basketball. Kyle Wiltjer is a nightmare to try and cover on the perimeter for opposing big men, and he’s not even the best big man on the roster. Domas Sabonis is. And while their guard play has been inconsistent, it doesn’t necessarily have to be all that great for them to advance. That’s the luxury of having a front line that can go for a combined 55 points and 25 boards without surprising anyone.

Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis, front, drives past Utah forward Jakob Poeltl during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game Saturday, March 19, 2016, in the NCAA Tournament in Denver. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

BUT THIS IS WHY THEY WON’T

No. 11 Gonzaga: The resurgence that Gonzaga has made in the last three weeks has been the result of much-improved back court play. Eric McClellan has scored more than 20 points in three of the last five games, while Josh Perkins is finally starting to show some of he’s able to do as a former top 50 prospect. When those two play well — when they hit jumpers and avoid turnovers — the Zags are dangerous. But if the only time that they’ve played that well has been recently. Will they stay hot, or will they regress back to the mean.

No. 10 Syracuse: The only thing that Syracuse doesn’t do well defensively is rebound the ball. They’re one of the 15 worst teams in the country when it comes to corralling an opponents’ missed shots. The Zags have one of the best rebounders in the country in Domas Sabonis, and it’s not outlandish to think he could get 10 offensive rebounds. The Orange also rely heavily on shooting threes, and like Oklahoma, they’re one off-night away from getting smacked around.

No. 4 Iowa State: I hate to belabor the point, but Iowa State’s front court depth is a real issue. Virginia has one of the most underrated front courts in the country — Anthony Gill is a nightmare to try and guard while Mike Tobey is a 7-footer that has NBA-level low-post moves — and we all know how good Gonzaga’s big men are.

No. 1 Virginia: Slowing down the tempo plays into the hands of a team trying to land the upset. It’s simple math. The fewer possessions that are played, the more likely it is that the lesser team can keep a game close. Virginia is the slowest team in college basketball. Literally. 351st.

THE X-FACTORS

  • Malcolm Brogdon vs. Georges Niang: The most fascinating part of the most interesting Sweet 16 matchup is going to be this particular one-on-one battle. Brogdon can shut anyone down that doesn’t play the five. He did it against Brandon Ingram. He did it against Andrew Chrabascz of Butler. He’s not going to keep Niang scoreless, but at some point he’s probably going to have to be the guy tasked with guarding him. When does that happen, and how successful will Brogdon be? That could be the difference in the game, and for my money, the winner of that game will be the team that is headed to the Final Four.
  • Eric McClellan and Josh Perkins: We touched on it a little bit earlier, but the difference between this Gonzaga team and the Gonzaga team that we had seen for much of the season has been the play of McClellan and Perkins. When they’re offensive threats, Gonzaga is a far more dangerous team.
  • Tyler Lydon, Syracuse: Lydon is the guy that makes Syracuse hard to guard. He can play the five for the Orange because of his length, but he’s also a sniper from three. The one issue? His ability on the glass. He weighs roughly 78 pounds. If he can hold his own on the defensive glass, the Orange might have a shot of getting out of the region.

CBT PREDICTION: Virginia cuts down the nets in Chicago.