NCAA Tournament Preview: Midwest Region
With big names like Kansas and Louisville headlining the Midwest, they quickly stand out as potential victors of his quarter of the bracket. However, three underdog conference tournament winners are all rolling and dangerous with Iowa State, Rhode Island, and Michigan ready to try to continue their runs. Oregon and Purdue are chalked full of talent and experience to boot. Vermont and Nevada are teams that are tough draws despite double digit seeds, and even in a down year, Tom Izzo’s teams are always dangerous. Whether a blue blood or an underdog advances, the Midwest will undoubtedly provide really interesting matchups, and potential upsets.
Why Kansas Advances
Rock solid backcourts are often the catalysts behind postseason runs, and it doesn’t get a whole lot more prolific than Kansas’ duo of Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham. These two have proved multiple times during the regular season that they can will the Jayhawks back into a game. Bill Self also has one of the elite freshman in the country, in Josh Jackson, at his disposal. Jackson’s energy and all around skill set paired with the dynamism of Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham’s steady hand give the Jayhawks three players capable of taking over a game. While not deep, Kansas’ talent at the top, and experience in the middle make them a tough out no matter when you run into them.
Why Kansas Goes Down
While it’s easy to notice how talented Kansas is in the backcourt, it’s almost equally obvious how thin they are down low. Landen Lucas is a terrific rebounder, and all around defender at the 5 spot, but after him the Jayhawks lack a lot of quality low post depth. Dwight Colbey is a big body, who has provided key minutes against the likes of Kentucky, and Texas, but is still far from big game seasoned. Further down the depth chart 6’8’’ freshman, Mitch Lightfoot, is both slight in build and in experience. He’s a springy shot blocker, but also yet to earn Bill Self’s trust. A giant sized front court, such the combination of Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan and Issac Haas could spell trouble for the guard oriented Jayhawks.
Sweet 16 Sleeper
Fresh off an A-10 Championship run, E.C. Matthews and the Rhode Island Rams get the once unstoppable Creighton Blue Jays. The problem is that Greg McDermott’s squad finished the season 7-8 after losing Maurice Watson Jr., who was leading the nation in assists, to a season ending injury. The rolling Rams could use their momentum on a team much different than the one who looked so deadly during the nonconference season. Another team stifled by injury could then be their opponent in the second round. While Oregon is a very talented team, the loss of Chris Boucher is fresh, and they have yet to have a lot of time to mesh without their premier shot blocker. The Rams are hot and some teams left to deal without crucial members of their lineups are in their way. This could have the makings of a Sweet Sixteen run for Rhode Island.
Final 4 Sleeper
With the size to get past Kansas, and the size to matchup with a Louisville, Purdue’s frontcourt is enough to outmatch the smaller teams, and go head to head against a super long and athletic Louisville squad at the bottom of the bracket. While guard play is often lauded during tournament play, a strong front court can do wonders as well in terms of matchups. The Boilermakers for that reason are my Final 4 sleeper out of the Midwest bracket.
Top 1st Round Matchup
Michigan vs. Oklahoma State
Perhaps the top feel good story of the conference tournament season was the Michigan Wolverines getting their plane blown off the runway en route to the Big 10 tournament only to rally for an totally unexpected conference championship. They draw a very evenly matched Oklahoma State team who had a conference tournament run of their own, making it to the championship game of the Big 12 tourney in Kansas City. Both teams have some really good guards. The Cowboys’, Jawun Evans and Phil Forte, and the Wolverines’, Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin. Some terrific guard play paired with some streaking teams could prove for a really good contest between OSU and Michigan.
Top Potential Player Showdown
Frank Mason III vs. Caleb Swanigan
While these two players will not directly match up with each other, they are two of the elite players in college basketball this season. Frank Mason III has dazzled all year long with his combination of athleticism, guts, and all around skill. Swanigan is almost a lock for a double double, and has imposed his will on the glass against every team he’s faced. Mason and Swanigan will not be guarding each other, but they’ll be leading their respective teams and have the potential for a Sweet Sixteen clash.
Top Under the Radar Matchup
Nevada vs. Iowa State
Iowa State may not seem like a team vulnerable to a first round upset. They rallied in the Big 12 tournament, and fought their way to a tournament championship. The Cyclones boast the most prolific point guard in terms of Assist to Turnover ratio in recent memory, as well as a surging Deonte Burton. The problem is that they drew the Nevada Wolfpack in the first round. While a humble 12 seed, Cam Oliver is a terrific player capable of doing just about everything out on the court. The Wolfpack is also a team that has rebounded the ball at a high level all year, and Iowa State is a smaller team who ranked just 222nd in the nation in rebounding. While the Cyclones are the favorite, Nevada has enough talent to make this game interesting.
Top 5 NBA Prospects
1. Josh Jackson, Kansas
Big 12 Freshman of the year, and Wooden finalist, Josh Jackson is also being considered among the top 5 prospects of the 2017 draft. With high level athletic ability, and a terrific all around skill set, Jackson can affect the game in so many ways when he’s out on the court. Jackson is no marksman, but he’s actually bolstered his 3 point percentage to a respectable .377% clip for the season. His free throws are not quite the same story, but with Jackson’s basketball IQ and athletic ability, you’d think these are fixable negatives.
2. Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Sporting a powerful frame, and a well rounded skillset, Miles Bridges has had a very prolific freshman season for the Spartans. While a tad undersized for the NBA, Bridges is already very strong, athletic and a 6’9’’ wingspan helps his projection to the next level. The tweener label is often mentioned when discussing Bridges, but with his athletic ability, and skillset, he’ll most likely find a spot contributing for an NBA squad.
3. Justin Patton, Creighton
A true 7 footer, Justin Patton has burst onto draft boards this year after redshirting for Creighton last season. Possessing great hands, and extreme efficiency around the rim, Patton is a productive college center with plenty of room for improvement. He’s not a high level rebounder, or shot blocker, but his size, mobility and touch make him an intriguing prospect to develop.
4. Donovan Mitchell, Louisville
One of the most improved players in college basketball, Donovan Mitchell has more than doubled his freshman scoring output and established himself as an alpha dog on Rick Pitino’s Louisville team. Averaging 15.7 ppg, and leading the ACC in steals, Mitchell is a two way player with room to grow. He’s just 6’3’’ and more of a combo guard, but the current NBA landscape is less concerned with the traditional point guard role that it once was. Mitchell is another “tweener” but also a player with the potential to stick on an NBA roster.
5. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
After a solid freshman season, Caleb Swanigan has taken his game and his pro outlook to another stratosphere as a sophomore. After establishing himself as a solid rebounder in his first season at Purdue, Swanigan and his 7’1.5’’ wingspan has even upped his impressive first year numbers on the glass. What really has pro scouts taking notice is his dedication to his conditioning and his emergence as a long range threat. Shooting 43% from deep and 79% from the charity stripe, Swanigan is more than a rebounder. He’s now a face up threat, who is dominating college basketball. He’s still only a shade over 6’8’’, but he’s clearly taken feedback about his pro outlook to heart, and made drastic improvements.