Breaking down the Midwest Region of the 2017 NCAA tournament:
State of the No. 1 seed
Kansas was in the running, if not the favorite, for the No. 1 overall seed before a quarterfinal faceplant against TCU in the Big 12 tournament. It was the first time the program had not made the semifinals of the league tournament since 2009. Yes, yes, freshman stud Josh Jackson was suspended for that game. But that in a way neatly encapsulated a season of big successes mixed with multiple disciplinary issues. The Jayhawks are 9–1 in games decided by three points or less—and that only loss was the 85–82 defeat by TCU. They remain a decent bet for the Final Four because they field two veteran guards (Frank Mason, a national player of the year candidate, and Devonte Graham) and a star one-and-done talent in Jackson. But, as ever, we wonder about their vulnerability in the field of 68. The Jayhawks began Selection Sunday with the nation’s ninth-most efficient offense but the 30th-most efficient defense, per kenpom.com. That second number is a little troubling; in the last four seasons, Kansas finished fifth, 22nd, 10th and third in defensive efficiency. A slip-up on that end could precipitate another March disappointment.
Upset watch: Rhode Island over Creighton
The streaking Atlantic-10 tournament champions might not have been in the field without winning that event. Creighton and possibly Oregon might have wished they hadn’t. The Rams have the 32nd most efficient defense in the country and defend the three-point line incredibly well: Danny Hurley’s crew ranked second in the country by allowing opponents to shoot just 29% from long range during the season. That’s a difficult matchup for a Creighton team boosted significantly by its 40% shooting from distance this season. And without Chris Boucher (torn ACL) in the middle, Oregon may be a much more perimeter-oriented offensive attack. Having faced Cincinnati and Duke already this season, Rhode Island won’t be overwhelmed by the moment or the opponents in its way. And that may propel it into round of 32, or beyond.
Toughest draw: Purdue
It’s not easy or very rewarding to be the Big Ten regular season champion, it seems. The Boilermakers could muster only a No. 4 seed, and while they get the geographically favorable positioning in Milwaukee, that about ends the list of favorableness. First comes Vermont, the America East champion which as of Sunday right ranks ahead of teams like Iowa and Illinois in the kenpom.com overall ratings. Should Purdue subdue the Catamounts and seeds hold elsewhere, next up is Iowa State, which won the Big 12 tournament and has lost just once since Feb. 7. And beyond that is a possible Sweet 16 showdown with Kansas, which some oddsmakers have installed as the favorite to win the national championship. Given the selection committee’s appraisal of the league, it’s a bad year to be the best team in the Big Ten.
Player to Watch: Michigan’s Derrick Walton, Jr.
Is the 6’1” senior guard on track to be one of the most impactful performers in March? Put it this way: Before Jan. 21, Walton, Jr. had scored 20 points in a game just four times. He had 20-plus in five straight games after that and then hit for 29 and 22 in the Big Ten tournament semifinals and final. He’s averaged 18.7 points over his last 15 games. He’s also played fewer than 36 minutes in a game only twice since late January. The Wolverines and their floor leader come into the field of 68 as sizzling as any squad. The question is how much they have left after winning four games in four days in Washington, D.C. If there is plenty remaining in the tank, then they have more than enough offensive firepower to keep pace with Oklahoma State and severely challenge Louisville’s defense.
Most intriguing matchup: Marcus Marshall vs. Monte Morris
And not just because we are huge fans of alliteration. The Iowa State-Nevada first round matchup will feature a high-level showdown of lead guards who are productive and play mostly error free. The 6’3” Marshall is the Wolf Pack’s leading scorer (19.8 points per game), ranks second on the team in assists (3.6 per game) and has committed just 55 turnovers in 1,200 minutes of playing time. The 6’3” Morris, meanwhile, leads the Cyclones in scoring (16.8) and assists (6.1) and has committed a mere 35 turnovers in 1,167 minutes. It’s doubtful that either will be harassed into an error-filled effort. But if either guard has a generally inefficient night, that could portend an early exit from the bracket.
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Coach who needs it the most: Michigan State’s Tom Izzo
Easy, easy, this isn’t hot-seat talk or anything remotely close to it. But for the sake of Izzo’s sanity, as well as the momentum of his program moving forward, a Sweet 16 run would be a boon. You might recall the Spartans suffering one of the biggest NCAA tournament upsets of all time a year ago, losing to 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee in the first round. Consecutive opening-game defeats would be a tough pill to swallow. Beat Miami and a Kansas team that looks maybe a teensy bit vulnerable, though, and suddenly we’re all once again talking about Izzo’s March magic.
Player with the most to prove: Oregon’s Dillon Brooks
Due to his own injuries, the season has not gone as smoothly as planned for the 6’7” junior forward. Due to the injury to Boucher, the NCAA tournament may not go as smoothly as planned for his team. But now we’ll see how capable Brooks is of carrying a team. He’s done it before, and he’s averaged 20.5 points per game since Feb. 2. He appears to be performing at the All-America level everyone anticipated. He will have to maintain that level, or maybe ramp it up a notch, if the Ducks are to make a Final Four run.