Midwest region reset: In Cleveland, Kentucky still the team to beat
The first weekend of the NCAA tournament is in the books, and 16 teams are still dancing. At the end of this weekend, we'll have our Final Four. Here's a look at how the West region fared in the Rounds of 64 and 32—and what to expect in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. You can also read about the East, South and West regions.
Strongest Final Four contender: Kentucky
The Wildcats may not have been the most impressive team of the opening weekend, but make no mistake: This is still their tournament to lose. No team in the country is more imposing defensively. After leading the nation in field goal percentage defense during the season at 35.1%, Kentucky has been even better in the NCAAs, limiting Hampton and Cincinnati to a combined 30.3%, tops in the field. Plenty of teams get intimidated just looking at Willie Cauley-Stein (7-foot), Karl-Anthony Towns (6’11”) and Trey Lyles (6’10”) when they take the floor. The way the Bearcats were able to hang around into the second half in their 64-51 loss in the Round of 32 might give some opponents hope that Kentucky could get surprised before the Final Four. But that would be false hope. Even against a West Virginia team that forces 19.6 turnovers per game, the Wildcats will win in part because they take great care of the ball, averaging only 10.6 turnovers per game. Also, it’s about time for Cauley-Stein, a junior forward, to have a monster game, not just a monster dunk.
Now that the Shockers have slayed their in-state rival, why can’t the Irish be next? Notre Dame has looked shaky in its first two wins, squeaking by Northeastern (a 69-65 win) and Butler (67-64 in overtime) while the Shockers survived Indiana before controlling Kansas in their Round of 32 upset. Wichita State takes care of the ball, averaging only 9.4 turnovers per game, and ranks in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom.com. Don’t be shocked by an Elite Eight trip.
Sleeper team: Notre Dame
Yes, the Irish have looked beatable in both wins so far, but Jerian Grant (16.8 points, 6.6 assists) and Pat Connaughton (12.5 points, 7.3 rebounds) give them a stellar senior backcourt. The Irish might be undersized compared to Kentucky (what team isn’t?) but the ACC tournament champions know how to win, going 7-1 this year against teams that have reached the Sweet 16. Don’t underestimate the power of an emotional rise, either: With news that head coach Mike Brey’s mother passed away early Saturday, his players will be even more eager to help their coach reach his first Final Four.
Player to watch: Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
A preseason All-America pick after a stellar 2013-14, VanVleet did not have the individual regular season many predicted, averaging just 12.7 points, 5.3 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals. But he’s been brilliant in the NCAA tournament, averaging 22 points, five assists, four rebounds and three steals in the Shockers' two wins. And he’s done it without much rest: VanVleet has played 74 of a possible 80 minutes. With fresh legs this weekend, the 6-foot junior guard is capable of more big-time play.
The Wildcats have probably already booked their tickets to Indianapolis; and if you’re a Kentucky fan, you should, too.