Friday December 26th, 2014

Last year, Wichita State rode an undefeated regular season to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, where it was knocked out in the round of 32 by eventual national runner-up Kentucky. This year’s Shockers clearly are not last year’s bunch. They already lost once to a talented Utah squad, and nearly fell to much less talented teams in Alabama and Hawaii. The Shockers may not even be the best team in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Northern Iowa, the No. 24 team at, may hold that honor. After knocking off Iowa on a neutral court last weekend, UNI, it’s clear, may have its best outfit since the days of Ali Farokhmanesh. The Panthers now own wins over three teams from Power 5 conferences, and nearly took down VCU in Richmond, falling 93-87 in double overtime.

The Panthers rank 28th in adjusted offensive efficiency, better than teams like Michigan State, West Virginia and Texas. They’re also 29th in effective field goal percentage, 32nd in two-point field goal percentage and 52nd in three-point field goal percentage. The Panthers don’t necessarily do anything exceptionally well on offense, but they’re balanced, and they’re beginning to get a little national attention now -- they’re ranked No. 23 (AP) and No. 24 (Coaches’) in this week’s polls.

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Senior forward Seth Tuttle leads the team at 14.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. He has actually struggled in the team’s two most recent games, the loss to VCU and win over Iowa, but has otherwise been a consistent post presence. Outside of Tuttle, the Panthers don’t really have a go-to scorer. Junior guard Wes Washpun is averaging 11.7 points per game, but that’s inflated by his 27-point effort against the Rams. Washpun doesn’t take many threes, but he usually knocks down the ones he does attempt, connecting on eight of 10 this year.

The Panthers have one more non-conference game before kicking off play in the Valley, but that’s against South Dakota State. That means that their only chances for statement wins this year will come when they meet the Shockers at home and on the road -- and possibly a third time in the conference championship game. It’s obviously far too early to tell what teams will be on the bubble from the major conferences, but they will be keeping close watch whenever Wichita State and Northern Iowa get together. The Panthers already look like a prime bid stealer for the 2015 NCAA tournament.

South Region

1. Kentucky (12-0, Last week: South No. 1): The Wildcats embarrassed UCLA in Chicago last weekend, and bettors will now get less than even money for picking them to win the national championship. They own wins over Kansas, Texas and North Carolina, but will face their greatest test of the year against Louisville on Saturday.

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2. Gonzaga (11-1, Last week: South No. 3): The Bulldogs didn’t exactly impress with a 13-point victory over Cal Poly, wrapping their non-conference slate at 10-1. They’re second in the country in field goal percentage (53.6) and third in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom. Don’t expect too many challenges for them in the West Coast Conference.

3. Texas (11-1, Last week: East No. 2): An overtime loss to a Stanford team ranked just outside the top 40 on KenPom isn’t enough to send the Longhorns tumbling down the bracket. They’ve done enough this year to get some leash.

4. Notre Dame (12-1, Last week: N/A): We pitched the Fighting Irish as a possible top-16 team last week, and they moved into the top quarter of the bracket with a 31-point drubbing of Purdue last week. Jerian Grant (17.6 PPG, 6.2 APG) leads the nation’s No. 2 offense, in terms of adjusted efficiency.

East Region

1. Duke (10-0, Last week: East No. 1): Jahlil Okafor is rightly in the spotlight for the Blue Devils, but Tyus Jones has come up huge in big wins over Wisconsin and Connecticut and is getting nearly as much notice as his fellow freshman. Running point for the nation’s No. 1 team in adjusted offense will have that effect.

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2. Villanova (12-0, Last week: East No. 2): It wasn’t easy, but the Wildcats knocked off Syracuse in overtime last week, behind 25 points and 10 rebounds from JayVaughn Pinkston. With four players averaging double-digit points this year, the Wildcats challenge opposing defenses in a variety of ways.

3. Washington (11-0, Last week: East No. 4): By adding a win over Oklahoma to their previous victory against San Diego State, the Huskies have proven they can beat two very different, strong teams. It will be some time before we see them play Arizona or Utah, the Pac-12’s two other ranked teams, meaning they could be one of the last remaining unbeatens this year.

4. Maryland (11-1, Last week: N/A): The Terrapins are trending in the right direction, knocking off KenPom No. 24 Oklahoma State in Stillwater last week. Freshman Melo Trimble has stepped up in a big way, and the Terps should get Dez Wells back when they kick off Big Ten play against Michigan State on Dec. 30.

West Region

1. Virginia (11-0, Last week: West No. 2): We have our first shakeup on the top line, with the Cavaliers sliding ahead of Arizona after the Wildcats fell at UNLV on Tuesday. Virginia made a defensive statement last week by holding Harvard to one field goal in the first half, but they may not get another chance to impress until a trip to South Bend on Jan. 10.

2. Louisville (10-0, Last week: Midwest No. 2): Luckily for the Cardinals, Montrezl Harrell was suspended against Cal State Northridge but will be available against Kentucky. It’s silly to use the Wildcats as a measuring stick for anyone, but it will be refreshing to see the Cardinals play someone at, or in this case above, their weight class.

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3. Utah (9-2, Last week: South No. 4): Delon Wright is crucial to the Utes avoiding droughts like the one that plagued them during the first half of last week’s eventual win over UNLV. They have the defense to win in the Pac-12 but will need Wright to keep on being one of the conference’s best offensive players to hang with Arizona.

4. Kansas (9-2, Last week: South No. 2): We’re not ready to knock the Jayhawks out of the top 16 just yet, but they’re getting dangerously close to falling to a 5-seed, or worse, after their embarrassing loss to Temple. Still, they boast a 5-1 record against teams currently in the KenPom top 50. That will keep them around for another week. If they lose to Kent State, however, they’ll be heading into 2015 on the outside of the Bracket Watch.

Midwest Region

1. Wisconsin (11-1, Last week: Midwest No. 1): Since losing to Duke, Wisconsin has won all four of its games by double digits, including a nice road victory at California. Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker are all averaging at least 12 points per game.

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2. Arizona (12-1, Last week: West No. 1): The Wildcats followed up their close shave with UTEP (in their defense, the Miners should be a serious contender in Conference USA) with a loss at UNLV. That knocked them out of a top seed in favor of Virginia. The Wildcats are going to have to find more offense if they are going to help Sean Miller reach the Final Four for the first time. They rank 20th in adjusted offensive efficiency.

3. Iowa State (9-1, Last week: West No. 3): Marquette transfer Jameel McKay made his Cyclones debut last week against Drake, scoring eight points and grabbing five boards in 13 minutes. The 6-foot-9 center is going to be key to turning around a defense that currently ranks 77th in adjusted efficiency and is allowing a 48.4 percent effective field goal percentage.

4. Wichita State (10-1, Last week: Midwest No. 3): The Shockers have had a bad run over the last two weeks, even though they've only lost once. Before dropping the Diamond Head Classic championship to George Washington, they needed a 13-1 run to get past Alabama and a buzzer beater in overtime to dispatch Hawaii. They're barely inside the top 16.

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