Despite the tournament's number one overall seed Kansas being closer to Chicago than Louisville, their ultimate destination, the committee decided to give Virginia the number one seed in the Midwest Region. The committee must have also thought it'd be funny to set up another potential rematch between the Cavaliers and Michigan State in the Elite Eight. With a team most prognosticators had on the wrong side of the bubble getting in without a play-in game (Syracuse), two interesting west coast teams (Gonzaga and Utah), and a giant Purdue team that can create matchup problems for every team in the tournament, there are quite a few roadblocks between a UVA-MSU rematch with a shot at the Final Four on the line. Here's OFD's Midwest Regional preview.
|(1) Virginia Cavaliers||(16) Hampton Pirates||Raleigh, NC|
|(8) Texas Tech Red Raiders||(9) Butler Bulldogs||Raleigh, NC|
|(5) Purdue Boilermakers||(12) Arkansas Little Rock Trojans||Denver, CO|
|(4) Iowa State Cyclones||(13) Iona Gaels||Denver, CO|
|(6) Seton Hall Pirates||(11) Gonzaga Bulldogs||Denver, CO|
|(3) Utah Utes||(14) Fresno State Bulldogs||Denver, CO|
|(7) Dayton Flyers||(10) Syracuse Orange||St. Louis, MO|
|(2) Michigan State Spartans||(15) Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders||St. Louis, MO|
Possible Cinderella: #5 Purdue Boilermakers
While not a typical Cinderella, Purdue definitely has the talent to run through Iowa State, Virginia, and Michigan State to make a Final Four. The Boilers have lost to just one non-tournament team this season, and have wins over quite a few teams in the field. Bucking the recent trend of going small, Purdue frequently plays three post players. Caleb Swanigan, Vince Edwards, and AJ Hammons taller than 6' 7", and average more than 10 points and five boards per game. Hammons is a legit seven footer, and they've got another seven footer, Issac Haas, on their bench. The Boilers have 10 players averaging more than 12 minutes per game making them one of the deeper squads in the dance. They don't have the star power of other squads in the dance, but if they have multiple contributors playing well on a given night, they don't need a it.
First Round Upset: #11 Gonzaga over #6 Seton Hall Pirates
This isn't a vintage Gonzaga team, but Mark Few's Bulldogs still have a decent chance to pull an upset over Seton Hall. The Pirates are probably a bit overseeded after their wins in the Big East Tournament. KenPom's rankings have the Pirates at 26, and the Bulldogs at 28, so it's basically a coinflip game. The Zags will also feature one of the nation's top players in Kyle Wiltjer who is averaging over 20 ppg. Factor in travel time to Denver from the east coast, and that this game will start at 10:00 PM eastern (body clocks aren't just for Stanford football), and it's not hard to find a way for Gonzaga to pull the upset.
Can't Miss First Weekend Game: #4 Iowa State Cyclones v. #5 Purdue Boilermakers
Should both teams win their openers, Purdue facing Iowa State could be a fantastic game. The matchup would feature a nice clash of styles, as well. Purdue is pretty balanced with a top 25 offense and defense. Iowa State, meanwhile, is the Big 12's version of Notre Dame with a top 5 offense, and a defense outside the top 100. Additionally, Iowa State plays much faster than Purdue by 3.5 possessions per game. Both teams are talented enough to make a run deep into the bracket, but one of the two won't make it out of the first weekend.
Player to Watch: Denzel Valentine - #2 Michigan State Spartans
Since I already mentioned Wiltjer, and Irish fans have seen enough of Malcolm Brogdon in the ACC, we'll go with Big Ten POY Denzel Valentine. The Michigan State guard is averaging just under 20 points per game with 44.5% 3pt shooting. He's also great from the line shooting over 85% on his freebies. What makes Valentine special, however is the way he fills the stat sheet. In addition to the scoring, he's averaging over seven boards and seven assists per game. He had Sparty's first triple double since Magic Johnson when he went for 29/12/12 against Kansas early in the season. Valentine missed a few games during the season with a knee injury, but looked fantastic averaging 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 9.0 assists per game in the Big Ten tournament. He'll be ready to go for an Izzo squad that's usually fantastic at peaking during the tournament.
Top 4 Seed That Won't Make the Second Weekend: #3 Utah Utes
Utah is probably overseeded on the three line. Despite a solid season in the PAC-12, they lost all three of their games against conference champion Oregon. Teams may struggle to guard Utah's seven foot Austrian center Jakob Poeltl, but both Seton Hall and Gonzaga are ahead of the Utes in overall efficiency. While they shouldn't have too much trouble with Fresno State in round one, they could be prime for an upset in the round of 32.
Regional Final Pick: #1 Virginia over #2 Michigan State
While all of the other teams in this region are talented in their own way, neither pack the punch of the top two seeds. Virginia dealt with an injury to Justin Anderson during last season's NCAA Tournament loss to the Spartans. Two years ago, the two teams played another tight game in the NCAA Tournament that once again ended in an upset win for the Spartans. Ultimately I like the Hoos to finally get over the hump, and knock off MSU this time around. While Tony Bennett's packline defense rightfully gets the credit for Virginia's success, they have a top-10 offense to go with it this year. While no one would be surprised if Sparty or someone else knocked off UVA along the road to Houston, I think they've been too good the last few years not to make the Final Four.