NCAA Tournament Midwest Region Breakdown: Can UNC Survive a Difficult Road?

The Tar Heels have been battle-tested this season and have all the tools to make another trip to the Final Four, but Kentucky and Kansas are among those who have their say in the Midwest Region.
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The 2019 NCAA tournament bracket has been released, and for the next 72 hours March Madness pool enthusiasts and hoopheads alike will be filling out brackets and diving into debates over which teams will be cutting down the nets in Minneapolis. With the path to the Final Four set, we’re sizing up the players, teams and games to watch in each region. What to make of the Midwest, home of No. 1 seed UNC?

State of the No. 1 Seed: North Carolina

UNC has been largely overshadowed by arch-nemesis Duke and, to a lesser extent, Virginia for much of this season, but the Tar Heels are every bit the national title contender. Top-10 nationally in efficiency on both ends of the floor, this North Carolina team plays at the familiar breakneck tempo we’ve come to expect from Roy Williams-coached squads and is also excellent on the boards due to its impressive size. It’s also a team with an intriguing experience dynamic, as it is anchored by three senior starters but often driven by a freshman: point guard Coby White, who has emerged as a playmaker and has March star potential.

The Tar Heels enter the tournament coming off a loss to Duke in an instant classic ACC semifinal; their only other loss in the last two months is to fellow No. 1 seed Virginia. Among their best wins this year were two victories over a Zion-less Duke, a home win over Gonzaga and a season-opening win at Wofford. They faced the country’s second-toughest schedule and came out of it 27–6—but one of those losses was to Kentucky, the Midwest’s No. 2 seed, who could be looming for a regional final rematch in Kansas City. Another tough second-weekend possibility: a potential Sweet 16 matchup with Kansas in what would practically be a home game for the Jayhawks. North Carolina has been through the wringer already and it won’t be getting easier any time soon.

Who Has the Toughest Draw: No. 3 Houston

Houston has a hard road for a No. 3 seed coming off a 31–3 season. Georgia State’s bombs-away offense could be trouble, but more imposing is a potential second-round matchup with Iowa State, a No. 6 seed that is only one spot behind Houston in overall adjusted efficiency and ranks the highest among all four No. 6 seeds in the tournament.

The Team That Could Bust Your Bracket: No. 7 Wofford

Seventh-seeded Wofford is a perfect Cinderella candidate, as it ranks 19th nationally in kenpom’s adjusted efficiency ratings and excels from outside (41.6% from three as a team, second-best in the country). A likely second-round matchup with Kentucky would be daunting, but the Terriers are the best non-chalk bet to make it deep in the Midwest Region. But proceed with caution: Seton Hall and Myles Powell won’t be an easy out in the first round.

Player to Watch: PJ Washington, Kentucky

PJ Washington grew into a force for Kentucky this year, but the 6’8” sophomore forward has a few lesser games in recent weeks. His development as a versatile offensive threat was pivotal for the Wildcats’ overall growth during the season’s second half, so they will be looking for him to return to his late-January and February self to help push them toward Minneapolis. When he’s on, Washington can knock down shots from outside and be a reliable post-up presence that can give opponents fits.

Most Intriguing Matchup: No. 5 Auburn vs. No. 12 New Mexico State

Auburn is going to have its hands full with New Mexico State in the first round. The Aggies haven’t lost since Jan. 3 and while that was to fledgling D-I upstart Cal Baptist, they are a team that can rebound with anybody (a sore spot for Auburn on defense), is disruptive on D and scores efficiently from inside the arc. They also shoot a lot of threes, which can pile up quickly. The Tigers are flying high after winning the SEC tournament, but can’t look past the WAC champs.

Regional Finalists: North Carolina vs. Kentucky

There is plenty of potential for fun in this region, but I think it ends up coming down to North Carolina and Kentucky, who are both in the group that has separated themselves as national championship-quality teams. The possibility of Kansas effectively getting a home game should it make the Sweet 16 is intriguing, but frankly, the Tar Heels and Wildcats are too good to doubt.

The Pick: North Carolina

Talent, size, rebounding, shooting, and experience get the Tar Heels to their third Final Four in four years.

March Madness 2019: Print the complete NCAA tournament bracket