The Midwest Region was the landing spot for the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats, and with that, they become the region to watch. Kentucky or the field? Karl Towns, and company have plenty of quality teams to face up against to reach the Final 4. Maryland put together a great season, during their maiden voyage as members of the Big 10, Notre Dame is hot after beating Duke and UNC in route to the ACC Tournament Championship, and Kansas has played one of the toughest schedules in the country and are looking for revenge after a November beat down. The Mid-West also boats 7 players who have been considered NBA lottery picks during the course of the season, and even some of the smaller named teams are quality squads. Butler is dangerous, Wichita State lost Cleanthony Early, but shouldn’t be overlooked, and Texas could be a sleeping giant, both disappointing, but also insanely gifted. Whether it is Kentucky or the field, the tournament committee made sure the Wildcats would have plenty of competition when the put together the Midwest Region.
Why Kentucky Advances
John Calipari’s 2014-15 Wildcat team is by far the best team in the NCAA this season. They blew threw the SEC, and although not the strongest conference, Kentucky embarassed Kansas, handled Texas, and well, beat every single team they played this year. The 34-0 Wildcats are a beastly team. They are incredibly stingy on defense, have a plethora of NBA sized big men that blocked 234 shots this season. Karl Towns is a potential top pick, and although Calipari isn’t in full on platoon mode anymore, he has access to a roster full of guys who are good enough to step up and make a key play when needed. If Kentucky keeps doing what they have been doing all season long, then I think the chance they advance to the Final 4 is really, really good.
Why Kentucky Goes Down
While the overwhelming favorite to both arise the top team of the Mid-West region, and end up jubilantly celebrating to This Shining Moment next month, Kentucky is still a team that can be beaten on the right night. The Wildcats are still just a basketball team, and although huge down low, their talent level at the guard spot isn’t the dominant area of their team. The Harrison twins both have ice water running in their veins, but their big shots towards the end of games also have made up for ho hum performances. They have Devin Booker, a bona fide three point ace, but outside of him only Tyler Ulis sports a three point clip above average for an NCAA guard. The Wildcat’s 3 point percentage as a team, ranks just 144th in the country, and if another team were able to get hot from downtown, and find a way to bypass the brick wall that is their massive front court roaming the paint, they might have a chance. The chances of Kentucky losing before the Final 4 are slim, but a team like Notre Dame, or Maryland could potentially challenge the Wildcats down to the wire.
Sweet 16 Sleeper
If the Shockers can escape their first round matchup with Indiana, I feel they have a real shot to upset the Kansas Jayhawks if they can topple the Aggies of New Mexico State. Wichita State is a top 10 defensive team in the NCAA, and Gregg Marshall’s squad allows just 55.8 points per game. Kansas has been a team who’s prone to long scoring droughts, and when facing off against a team that makes every bucket a challenge, this matchup could mean trouble for KU. Pair that with Kansas’ tendencies to turn the ball over (12.5 per game and ranked just 183rd in the NCAA) and the Shockers have a legit shot to arise the top team in the Sunflower State this season. The Jayhawks certainly boast the the talent, and depth to dispatch WSU, but this showdown could result in the Shockers moving on to the second week of the NCAA tournament.
Final 4 Sleeper
You’d really be hard pressed to come up with a list of names of players more dynamic than Notre Dame’s senior point guard, Jerian Grant. The ACC Tournament MVP, and 1st Team All American is the type of player the NCAA tournament was made to showcase. Now take into account he plays for one of the highest octane offenses in the land, and has a wonderful supporting cast. Pat Connaughton is a gritty wing with three point range, and Zach Auguste’s size and touch in the post has been key for the Irish down the stretch of the ACC season. The Midwest Region boasts the most dominant team in the country, but if there’s a team that has the best chance to fight their way past Kentucky, I feel it’s Notre Dame’s insanely efficient offense, and star power that renders them the best possibility of completing a task that no one has been able to accomplish all season.
Top 1st Round Matchup
Wichita State vs. Indiana
The first round matchup that jumps out as the best game is the 7 versus 10 showdown between Wichita State and Indiana. Although I feel the Shockers have the potential to advance past the first week, doesn’t mean WSU is a lock to beat the Hoosiers. Yogi Ferrell is a player who can score in bunches, and Tom Creens’ spread offense can mean trouble for any team if they’re hot on the right night. Defense is something that the Hoosiers don’t really do at a high level, but teams that live and die by the three ball, often find a way to live for one more day come tourney time. This game is a true offense versus defense showdown. WSU’s stalwart defense could very well shut down Indiana, Fred Van Vleet, and Ron Baker are now tournament veterans, but this matchup between the free wheeling Hoosiers, and the old school, disciplined Shockers has the potential to be a good one.
Top Potential Player Showdown
Kentucky’s emerging big man, Karl Towns has been improving at a staggering game to game clip as the regular season came to a close, and a large test for him could be a potential 2nd round face off with Purdue 7 footer, A.J. Hammons. After a slow start to his junior season, Hammons has recently been imposing his will among the Big 10 heavyweights. Towns hasn’t gone toe to toe with a player as big and agile as Hammons all year, and this will be a good measuring stick for both players. A.J. has the size and athleticism that Towns will have to encounter on a daily basis next season, and this is a good opportunity for Hammons as well. A strong showing against a potential #1 pick, and a dominant Kentucky team might mean he could start seeing his name in 1st round conversations come June.
Top Under the Radar Matchup
West Virginia vs. Buffalo
The 5th seeded West Virginia Mountaineers are facing off against the Buffalo Bulls this week, and it has the potential to be a real barn burner. Bob Huggins’ WVU team has hung their hat on stifling press defense all season long, and the fast paced Bulls recently hung 89 points in the MAC title game. Buffalo is lead by former Sacramento King, and Duke Blue Devil, Bobby Hurley, and boasts the ball handlers and experience to potentially get past the Mountaineers. West Virginia’s press is a grueling mental test for any team they face off against. Regardless of outcome, this game could be a fun one. One team pushes the pace on offense, the other on defense, and I have a feeling this matchup could come down to a final shot.
Top 5 NBA Prospects
1. Karl-Anthony Towns. Kentucky Fr.
Towns stands 6’11.25’’ in shoes, possesses a 7’3.5’’ wingspan, and the agility that allowed him to measure a 36.5’’ max vertical leap at the Kentucky combine. The 19 year old big man not only looks the part of an NBA center, but he’s really hit his stride during the past month of the regular season. Karl has a nice foundation on his face up game, and although post up situations was an area he struggled with early in the year, it’s one element of his game that’s come along lately. Almost a lock in the top 3 this season, Towns has a high floor, and an even higher ceiling.
2. Kelly Oubre Kansas Fr.
A wing with a smooth left handed jumper, elite hops, and excellent positional size is always going to find his way into lottery consideration, and Kansas freshman, Kelly Oubre, has done just that after a solid conference season in the Big 12. Oubre plays very good defense, and has the tools needed to translate to the NBA. On offense Kelly has a nice, well-rounded, foundation, that has the potential to render him an effective scorer in the NBA. A player who isn’t the most NBA ready, Kelly will most likely need a year or two to develop in a reserve role, but his ceiling is extremely high.
3. Willie Cauley-Stein Kentucky Jr.
Junior big man, Willie Cauley-Stein has that elite trait that will directly translate to the NBA, and his ability to guard the rim, and guard multiple positions, is something that he will be able to hang his hat on at the next level. His great athletic ability makes him an ideal pick and roll defender, and at the Kentucky combine, he hit the 12’ mark on his max reach. A raw offensive player, and a guy who projects to be a specialist, his potential with the ball in his hands isn’t all that high, but he has improved his free throw shooting every year as a Wildcat, and he has the potential to be a very good defensive center.
4. Myles Turner Texas Fr.
Fellow freshman, Myles Turner, is another player blessed with elite NBA measurements. Projecting as a face up 4, Turner’s nearly 7’4’’ wingspan was a huge catalyst in him leading the Big 12 in blocked shots this season. He’s not the most gifted athlete, but his shooting touch is excellent for a player pushing 7 feet tall. Myles also has a number of post moves, and a nice quick release on his low post turn around. His lack of high level athleticism is the only thing that separates him from being a top 5 worthy pick, but his size, defensive reflexes, and jump shot make him an intriguing prospect.
5. Trey Lyles Kentucky Fr.
Lyles has been a steady force all season for the Wildcats producing very good shooting and rebounding numbers per minute. He’s got a huge wingspan for a PF, in the neighborhood of 7’2" and has a very smooth offensive game. The fact that he’s not even one of the Wildcats top offensive options just emphasizes the amount of talent this team possesses. Lyles will benefit from a strong performance in the tourney and can be a lottery pick with solid workouts.
Jerian Grant Notre Dame Jr.
Brother of Philadelphia 76er, Jerami Grant, son of 11 year pro Harvey Grant, basketball is seemingly in Jerian Grant’s genes. An explosive leaper, dynamic scorer, and great ball handler, Grant is a very well rounded guard with NBA size and athletic ability. Standing 6’5’’, and weighing in at 200 pounds, Jerian also dishes out 6.6 assists per game and sports an assist to turnover ratio over 3. A senior, Jerian Grant doesn’t have the immense potential other prospects have, but he’s a very good player with an NBA skill set, and the size and athletic ability to play both guard spots at the next level. how much talent is there in this region? Kentucky shooting guard Devin Booker could end up a lottery pick, and he didn’t make the top 6.