Going into the NCAAs, the Midwest was billed as the most loaded region. Now it's the most volatile one after three of the top four seeds didn't make it to Saint Louis. Throw in Michigan State advancing despite losing Kalin Lucas to a torn Achilles and Tennessee's renaissance after midseason legal trouble, and there's really no telling what will happen this weekend. Any combination of the teams in the regional final is a realistic possibility, with Ohio State the nominal favorite to make it to Indy.
THE UNDERDOG: Northern Iowa
Kansas-killer Northern Iowa is the darling of the regional, although the Panthers won't get to enjoy that underdog feeling in their Sweet 16 game. Vegas has them as just a 1.5-point underdog against the wounded Spartans, and that might be unfair given UNI's quality and Michigan State's small sample of unimpressive work when Lucas was out/hobbled in early February.
BURNING QUESTION: What, exactly, is Tennessee?
The Vols seemed like a hardened bunch in Providence. All business, no real jubilation, quotes from coach to bench players hitting the talking points of "team as a family." This is not a classic Bruce Pearl team. They're limited offensively at times and have been all over the map against quality teams away from home, although most of the recent form is solid. If "good Tennessee" shows up, the Vols could be in Indy. If "bad Tennessee" shows up, the Vols could get smoked by Ohio State.
GAME BREAKER: Evan Turner, Ohio State
Ohio State's Turner is the lone superstar left in a regional that's filled out with three other teams that fit into the "sum is greater than their parts" category. He will have the ball -- and the Buckeyes' fate -- squarely in his hands.
INTRIGUING MATCHUP: Ohio State-Tennessee
The winner will be favored over either Northern Iowa or Michigan State in the regional final, so this Sweet 16 matchup carries a lot of weight to go with the intrigue. As mentioned in the Monday's Four-cast, the Buckeyes have been a lot more turnover-prone recently and, without a classic ball-secure point guard to handle the Vols' aggressiveness, could cough it up a bunch on Friday. Then there's the issue of the Vols' depth against the Buckeyes' Iron Five. Plus, Tennessee just beat an Ohio team coached by Thad Matta disciple John Groce, so the Vols should feel comfortable with a lot of what they'll see. There are a lot of interesting dynamics in this one.
HOME COOKING: None
There's no real blatant advantage here. All four teams are relatively regional and should be well represented. The Vols fans showed very well in Providence, although the bright orange made it easier to ID them in a sea of red and blue (Robert Morris, Richmond, Saint Mary's, etc).
NUMBER TO PONDER: 59
The number of possessions projected by kenpom.com in the Northern Iowa-Michigan State game. For tempo-free newbies, that's a really slow game. The Spartans, without Lucas, may need to try to speed things up and steal some baskets in transition, but that's not easy at all against UNI. This game could be a complete grind, and the more it stays in the half court, the more it favors the Panthers.
THE PICK: Ohio State
With Turner, the Buckeyes have been the most consistently good team in this bracket over the course of the season. It won't be easy, as they'll have to deal with Tennessee's grinding style and then either the confidence of upstart Northern Iowa or the familiarity and contempt of league co-champ Michigan State, but taking the best team with the best player seems like the best bet.
• STAPLES:Duke has talent, tools to take South• WINN:With Johnson healthy, 'Cuse will prevail in West• MANDEL:Kentucky's simply better than East opponents