Tuesday, March 18, 2014

2014 NCAA Tournament Midwest Region Preview

The NCAA Tournament officially tips off on Tuesday night with the Play-in games (because, get real, calling them the "First Round" or the "First Four" is ridiculous) in Dayton. Here is a look at the Midwest Region, which is unequivocally the most difficult region in the bracket.

1. Wichita St vs 16. Cal Poly/Texas Southern
St Louis, Friday (CBS)

Wichita St is one of the most polarizing teams in the nation. Some people, like CBS Sports' Gary Parrish, think their perfect record is not a mistake and that they can navigate the brutal Midwest Region and win the National title. The Shockers have impressive early-season wins over NCAA Tournament teams like Tulsa, BYU, St Louis, Tennessee and NC Central before breezing through the Missouri Valley Conference. Wichita State returns 3 of their top 6 players from the team that went to the Final 4 last season but have gotten solid contributions up and down the lineup with 4 players contributing double-digit points, led by Cleanthony Ealy (15.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG) and point guard Fred VanVleet (12.1 PPG, 5.3 APG). The Shockers bench has also been productive as the team has 9 players that average more than 12 minutes of playing time per game. Cal Poly sprung a miracle run through the Big West Tournament from the #7 seed, knocking off #2 seed Santa Barbara and top-seeded UC-Irvine before beating Cal St Northridge on a 3-pointer at the buzzer to clinch the title. The Mustangs will face Texas Southern on Wednesday night (6:40pm, truTV) in a play-in game. Texas Southern is the 15th consecutive SWAC champion to receive a 16-seed and ended the season on a 9-game winning streak to secure the SWAC title.

8. Kentucky vs 9. Kansas St
St Louis, 9:40pm Friday (CBS)

Kentucky started the season as the #1 ranked team in the land but quickly fell from the "40-0" team before hitting rock bottom in early March with back-to-back losses to Arkansas and South Carolina. Kentucky is led by another slew of former McDonald's High School All Americans, including future NBA Lottery pick Julius Randle, who leads the team in points (15 PPG) and rebounds (10.5 RPG). John Calipari has had mixed success with his freshman all-star teams in the NCAA Tournament, but this group seemed to come together in the SEC Tournament and took Florida to the wire, just a week after getting shelled by 19 in Gainesville. That said, this Kentucky team is talented enough to go on a deep run to the Elite 8 or Final 4. Kansas State is one of the best defensive teams in the nation, ranking 25th in defensive efficiency. K-State struggled outside of Manhattan this season, going just 2-7 in true road games and 2-3 on neutral courts. The Wildcats did score big wins over Kansas, Iowa St, Oklahoma and Texas at home, which was enough to lift them into the NCAA Tournament. K-State will run out a bunch of players (10 average moer than 13 minutes per game and only one player averages over 30) but they don't have much scoring depth as only Marcus Foster (15.6 PPG) and Thomas Gipson (11.8 PPG) average in double figures.

5. St Louis vs 12. Xavier/NC State
Orlando, Thursday (TNT)

Beware the Billikens. I've warned you of this before, in my Conference Tournament Preview, but now that you have money riding on your bracket, you should definitely listen. Despite starting the season 12-0 in A-10 play and winning the conference with a 13-3 record, St Louis is ripe to be knocked off early. Of their 13 conference wins, 10 of them were by less than 8 points and they have dropped 4 of their last 5, including an early exit from the A-10 Tournament to St Bonaventure. If you're looking for a 5 seed to get knocked off, St Louis is probably a good pick. Xavier has been up-and-down since late January, and has gone just 6-8 in that time span (including being swept by Seton Hall).The Musketeers are an efficient team according to KenPom.com where they rank in the top 40 in offensive efficiency and the top 70 in defensive efficiency. Semaj Christon (17.1 PPG) is capable of getting hot and leading the Musketeers to 2 wins (NC State in the Play-in Game and over St Louis). However, for as good of a scorer as Christon is, he will have to out-duel ACC Player of the Year TJ Warren. NC State shocked everyone when their name appeared on the bracket, but they are perfectly capable of winning 2 games in this tournament. Warren (24.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG) is one of the most electrifying players in the nation with the ball in his hands, which certainly makes the Play-In Game (9:10pm Tuesday on truTV)

4. Louisville vs 13. Manhattan
Orlando, 9:50pm Thursday (TNT)

Louisville has been one of the most talked-about teams entering the tournament, primarily because everyone believes they were drastically under-seeded. The defending national champions have only lost once since the calendar turned to February (a 6-point loss at Memphis) and bulldozed through the AAC Tournament. Russ Smith, who led the Cardinals to the National Championship last year and is averaging 18.3 PPG and 4.7 APG this season, was dominant in the AAC tournament, averaging 25.7 points per game. A lot of people are picking Louisville to make a deep run in this tournament, and for good reason. However, we should not overlook Manhattan. The Jaspers are a senior-led team with wing George Beamon (19.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.6 SPG) at the forefront of their attack. Guard Michael Alvarado (12 PPG, 4 APG, 1.4 SPG) and center Rhamel Brown (10.1 PPG, 6 RPG) give the Jaspers balance at all three levels. Manhattan plays at a fast pace (rated faster than Louisville by KenPom's tempo ratings) and plays aggressive on the defensive end, ranking in the top 15 in the nation in both steals and blocks.

6. UMass vs 11. Iowa/Tennessee
Raleigh, Friday (CBS)

UMass got off to a hot start to the season, emerging victorious from the Charleston Classic with wins over Nebraska and New Mexico. The Minutemen had only one loss through the middle of January, but stumbled down the stretch, going just 8-7 in the second half of the season. UMass has a very good inside-out combo of Chaz Williams (15.8 PPG, 7 APG), who is in the top 5 in the nation in assists, and Cady Lalanne (11.4 PPG, 8 RPG). UMass is an up-tempo team that can put points on the board, but they have struggled to separate themselves from teams and have not won a game by more than 6 points since February 5. On the other side, the winner of the Iowa-Tennessee play-in game (9:10pm Wednesday on truTV) certainly has a legitimate chance to pull the upset here. Iowa has an up-tempo offense that can score with anyone in the nation, ranking 10th in points per game (82) and 4th in offensive efficiency. The Hawkeyes aer also in the top 11 in Rebounds and Assists. Iowa fell all the way to the play-in game thanks to dropping 6 of their last 7 games, including a home loss to Illinois and a loss to Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament opener. Aside from the last two, Iowa has scored at least 74 points in every game dating back to February 4, and their losses have come because they simply can't stop anyone on defense. Tennessee is almost the polar opposite of Iowa. They won 5 of their last 6 (the only loss was to Florida in the SEC Tournament) heading into the Dance and aren't a high-scoring team. The Vols average just over 71 points per game but actually rank in the top 30 in offensive efficiency because of their incredibly slow pace of play. Tennessee is excellent on teh defensive end, rating 16th in both defensive efficiency and points against. Ultimately, the play-in game will be a battle between Tennessee's half-court offense and Iowa looking to get out and run in transition. The team that wins the tempo battle will likely emerge victorious.

3. Duke vs 14. Mercer
Raleigh, 12:15pm Friday (CBS)

I'm a Duke fan and I'm going to tell you right now, this matchup terrifies me. Mercer is a very good team that beat last year's tournament darling Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun Championship to earn their first tournament apperance since 1985. Teams that give Duke problems are teams that can shoot from the outside and get excellent guard play. Mercer does both. The Bears are led by Langston Hall, an excellent point guard who averages 14.7 PPG and 5.6 APG and shoots almost 40% from downtown. As a team, the Bears shoot over 38% from behind the stripe and are a dangerous team that can get contributions from 12 different players on their roster. Mercer is in the top 40 in the nation in scoring, rebounding, assists and field goal percentage. On paper, Duke should be clearly the better team with potential #1 pick Jabari Parker (19.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG) and the smooth-shooting Rodney Hood leading the way. But Duke has been known to have cold shooting stretches this season and isn't the greatest defensive team. They have always struggled against guards that could put the ball on the floor and penetrate and the matchup against the hot-shooting Bears is worrisome for this Duke fan.

7. Texas vs 10. Arizona St
Milwaukee, 9:40pm Thursday (CBS)

Texas was one of the hottest teams in the country in mid-January after rattling off 4 straight wins against ranked opponents (#8 Iowa St, #22 Kansas St, #24 Baylor, #6 Kansas). Since then, Rick Barnes' team is just 6-6 and dropped a game to Baylor by 17 in the Big XII Tournament. Texas is a middle-of-the-road team on the offensive end and do most of their damage on the inside between Jonathan Holmes (13 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.3 BPG) and Cameron Ridley (11.2 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.2 BPG). The Longhorns are in the top 20 in the nation in both blocks and rebounds, but they don't force many turnovers and are just 3-5 since February 18, which isn't exactly confidence-insipring. In that time, 4 of Texas' 5 losses and and 2 of their wins were by double-digits. Luckily for Texas, they draw a team that is very similar in style in Arizona State. The Sun Devils dropped their last 3 games (getting swept in a trip through Oregon, including an overtime loss to Oregon St) and losing to Stanford by 21 in the first game of the Pac-12 Tournament. Arizona State features Jordan Bachynski (11.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 4.1 BPG) who leads the nation in blocks, having rejected more balls than Taylor Swift. Jahii Carson (18.6 PPG, 4.5 APG) and Jermaine Marshall (15 PPG) lead the Sun Devils on the offensive end. All in all, this is a matchup of two good defensive teams that both rebound and block shots well but struggle to score at times. It seems a rarity these days, but this one figures to be an old-fashioned win-down-on-the-blocks slug fest.

2. Michigan vs 15. Wofford
Milwaukee, 7:10pm (CBS)

The Big Ten Regular Season Champions landed on the 2-seed line after dropping the Big Ten Championship Game to in-state rival Michigan State. Incredibly, the Wolverines won the Big Ten by three games and finished the regular season on a 5-game winning streak. Last year's runner-up returns most of their lineup including Nik Stauskas (17.5 PPG) and Glenn Robinson III (13 PPG). The wild card here is going to be whether or not big man Mitch McGary (who only played in 8 games this season) can return to play in the NCAA Tournament. If he can, the Wolverines might be one of the favorites to return to the Final Four. If not, they are certainly capable of an early exit. Wofford is the Terriers, which makes sense because "Wofford" sounds like something a dog would say. The SoCon Champs are one of the slowest teams in the nation (339th in Tempo) but are 13-2 since January 20. The Terriers don't score a ton of points but will roll 9 guys through the lineup and have 3 players - including leading scorer Karl Cochran (15.7 PPG) that average over 11 points and 30 minutes per contest.

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