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If you like Selection Sunday drama, start your bracket analysis in the Midwest.
The list of surprises in the Midwest starts at the top with No. 1 seed Virginia, a loser in its conference championship game on Saturday night, and No. 2 seed Michigan State, a winner in the Big Ten title game on Sunday. While fans believed to understand the landscape, the entire group of No. 1 seeds had more combined losses than ever before so this is not exactly a clear-cut decision in terms of where to draw the line among the top six or eight teams.
“[Virginia had] the No. 2 overall strength of schedule, No. 3 in the RPI, finished runner-up in the regular season and obviously a very close game in the ACC Tournament final,” selection committee chair Joe Castiglione said on CBS on Sunday. “A lot of our committee felt good about them as a possible one-seed line and felt like even the loss in that tournament championship didn’t change their minds all that much.”
But Virginia also has some history with Michigan State. The Spartans bounced a No. 1 seed Virginia from the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16 in 2014 and a No. 2 seed Virginia (as the 7-seed) in the Second Round last season.
Will they meet for a third straight postseason? More on that below. First, let’s get into more of the drama from the Midwest.
Three initial thoughts on the region
1. The star power is absolutely insane in this region
Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine might be the National Player of the Year. Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon and Utah’s Jakob Poeltl are worthy picks for first-team All-American. Georges Niang has been one of the best players in the Big 12 for several years now and Isaiah Whitehead has not only powered Seton Hall to a Big East Tournament but made a name for himself as one of the most electrifying players in college baskeball.
And that’s just scratching the surface.
Not every game in the first round pops off the bracket but a closer examination shows a must-watch player in almost every single game. We might not have a ton of buzzer-beaters in the Midwest, but there will be plenty of highlights from some of the game’s best.
2. Iowa State and Purdue are lurking
Iowa State is coming into this year’s tournament after one of the most unexpected first round exits in 2015 — after the loss, which happened on Thursday, more than 90 percent of the brackets on CBSSports.com were busted — and that veteran-led team should come into the Iona game with a sharpened focus on avoiding a similar fate. A.J. Hammons and Purdue looked good in the Big Ten Tournament but cannot take a very good Little Rock team lightly. If both teams avoid the first round upset it will make for a fascinating game in the Round of 32 that should produce a worthy challenger for Virginia.
Joe Castiglione not only acknowledged Jim Boeheim’s absence from the team because of a nine-game suspension — the Orange went 4-5 over that stretch — but pointed out that many of the team’s 13 wins came on the road, and many against quality opponents (this obviously excludes St. John’s).
“Player availability, coach availability — we’re aware of it,” Castiglione said. “But when it gets down to comparing the teams, we look at what they did, the games that they played, where they occurred. In the case of Syracuse, five top-50 wins. You look at what they did in their conference, the games they won at either neutral sites or on the road.
Boeheim campaigned for consideration after the Orange were bounced from the ACC Tournament by Pittsburgh earlier this week in what seemed like a tournament elimination game. Four days later both teams are in the tournament, and now Syracuse is back in the NCAA Tournament after a self-imposed ban a year ago.
Five best players in the region
1. Denzel Valentine (Michigan State): Valentine has been flirting with a triple-double nearly every time he steps on the floor recently and his versatility will be necessary if the Spartans are going to rip through the Midwest and return to the Final Four.
2. Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia): The only player in conference history to win ACC Player of the Year and ACC Defensive Player of the Year in the same season has become a cold blooded killer on both ends of the floor. He locks down the oppositions best player and hits dagger threes at the end of the shot clock.
3. Jakob Poeltl (Utah): Poeltl’s development this season has made Utah a different team than when the offense ran through Delon Wright a year ago. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s just different. But in a game where the skilled big man can be a tremendous asset Poeltl stands out among his peers.
4. Isaiah Whitehead (Seton Hall): Is there anything better than a Brooklyn native playing in the Big East with an absolutely fearless attitude on the court? Whitehead is already averaging 26.0 points per game in the month of March and led the Pirates to back-to-back wins against Xavier and Villanova on the way to a program-defining conference tournament title. Watch Whitehead from the moment that first round game tips, trust me.
5. AJ Hammons (Purdue)/Georges Niang (Iowa State): Both seniors, both stars for their team and absolutely necessary to any plans of making a run in this tournament. If that Iowa State-Purdue game I mentioned earlier comes to fruition, this is the most intriguing matchup on the floor.
Five bold predictions for the region
The biggest Round of 64 upset will be … Syracuse over Dayton. When there is a lot of drama about a team making the cut, I like to skew the other way and predict that team to win. For example, three teams in college football made bowl games with losing records and fans acted like it was an awful thing they were allowed to play in December. Those three teams all won their bowl games.
The lowest-seeded school to make the Sweet 16 will be … Seton Hall. I wanted to pull the trigger on Little Rock or Iona here but think if either team pulls off the upset in the first round it won’t be able to repeat the feat over the weekend.
The player the country doesn’t know now but will know by Saturday is … Dayton’s Scoochie Smith. The Flyers’ guard from the Bronx has takeover potential on offense but mostly has his impact in a more well-rounded fashion by getting steals, transition buckets and facilitating the offense. Plus, his name is Scoochie and everyone loves a good name.
The Elite Eight showdown … No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 2 Michigan State. The nightmares for Wahoos fans are starting on Sunday night and will continue through late March.
The champion of the Midwest Region will be … No. 2 Michigan State. The 1-seed snub means Michigan State has a chip on its shoulder, and Tom Izzo thrives when a team has a chip on its shoulder. Heading into championship week I told anyone who asked the only two Final Four teams I felt comfortable penciling in right now were Kansas and Michigan State so, unfortunately for Virginia, that means a third-straight loss to the Spartans.
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