When you take a quick look at the Midwest Region of the NCAA bracket, a team or two, namely Virginia and Michigan State, stand out. After that, the field looks completely open.
The field also boasts two of the top three defensive teams. When compared to the other regions, this looks to be top-heavy but probably the weakest of the four. Here's a preview along with some predictions for the region:
#1 Virginia vs #16 Hampton
I'll cut to the chase, this game isn't going to be close. Virginia is one of the top ranked and rated teams in the country. It allows 59 points per game, third-best in the nation, and fourth-best on defense. On offense, the Cavaliers may not score heavily, just 70 a game, but when it's adjusted on KenPom, it turns out to be the 9th rated scoring punch. Hampton actually matches up nicely against Virginia, with neither team having a rotation player over 6'8", but their scoring and defensive abilities are considerably unmatched for what Tony Bennett's squad will do on both ends. The player to watch is 2nd Team All-American (SI and USA Today) Malcom Brogdon. The senior averaged 18 points and four rebounds a game with 46% overall from the field and 40% 3-pt shooting.
#8 Texas Tech vs #9 Butler
This is where the fun starts. They used to say (before the basketball gods endorsed parity in this election year) that brackets were won by correctly picking the 8/9 and 7/10 match ups. With Texas Tech, think balance. They have four players scoring in double figures, but none with more than 12. Overall, they have a top 30 offense according to KenPom and have shown an ability to do it in the biggest of spots by rattling off five-straight wins in February, including wins over Iowa State, Baylor, and Oklahoma. For Butler, they bring a big line up - no starter under 6'4" - and an ability to knock down threes (led conference). In addition, Texas Tech does not rebound the ball that well, which means be on the lookout for quick three point shots off missed baskets for Butler. To me this is a toss up and while Texas Tech has shown the ability to beat some of the best teams, I'm giving the edge to Butler
#5 Purdue vs #12 Arkansas Little-Rock
Purdue is a team to keep an eye on for a long March run. They are big (two 7-footers), skilled (beat Michigan State, Maryland, Wisconsin this year), and stick to the fundamentals. If not for going ice cold down the stretch against Michigan State on Sunday, they might've been crowned Big Ten Champs. I don't expect this to be too close of a game, but Arkansas Little-Rock has the second-best defense in the country (but when adjusted it's 35th) so they will try to slow down the speed of play, while also hitting Purdue with threes and forcing turnovers. In the end, Purdue's size and overall ability will win out.
#4 Iowa State vs #13 Iona
Playing in the Big 12 both hurt and benefited the Cyclones. If they had played in any other conference, I feel they would have come out with more wins and a higher seed. However, this is a battle tested team, led by Georges Niang, who never saw a shot they didn't like. Iowa State is 2-8 against Top-25 teams, which while not good, means they have played the best. Iona, however, hasn't played a Top-25 team which is partly why their RPI is 88. Both these teams like to score and neither plays particularly well on defense - which should make for a great NCAA game. Keep an eye out on how Iona shoots the ball to begin the game. They average 10 threes a games, but if those aren't falling, don't expect many rebounds (their tallest starter is 6'8" and they don't rebound well overall). This should be a thrilling game, but I expect Iowa State to play with the lead much of the game.
Prediction: Iowa State
#6 Seton Hall vs #11 Gonzaga
Arizona fans will recognize one of these teams. Seton Hall, however, is probably lesser known to those on the West Coast. The Pirates shocked the Big East by beating Villanova on Saturday to claim their conference's tournament championship behind the hot hand of Isaiah Whitehead. Seton Hall is a better defensive team than offensive, which is why Whitehead is so important. He's a player who can shoulder the scoring load if the rest of the team fails to produce (20 or more points in 9 of his last 10 games). On the Zags' end, they also come into play winning 10 of their last 12 and have one of the best scorers in college basketball. Kyle Wiltjer averaged over 20 a game this season, and at 6'10", is a match up nightmare. Add in their 7-footer Domantas Sabonis (17pts/11rbs) and you have one of the best front courts in basketball. That, though, is where the star power ends and the uncertainty begins. Opposed to Seton Hall with a talented ball handling guard, the Zags don't have much to show and that's what makes this team difficult to advance - but not impossible. My first upset will feature Gonzaga but it's not one I'd take to the bank.
#3 Utah vs #14 Fresno State
Another team Arizona fans will know well. Utah features All-American and Pac-12 Player of the Year Jakob Poeltl (18 pts/9rbs) along with stretch forward Jordan Loveridge. Utah comes in after getting crushed in the Pac-12 Championship game, but that should have no bearing on their performance against red hot Fresno State. The Bulldogs are fresh off a Mountain West Conference Championship, beating San Diego State and entering the tourney 11-1 in their last 12. This will be a game matching size and shooting ability (Utah) versus meticulous play and momentum (Fresno State), but I see no reason Utah doesn't come out unscathed.
#7 Dayton vs #10 Syracuse
For the record, my parents went to UD, so I'm slightly biased, but this is a team that, while slightly undersized, brings the effort. Three of their six losses came without Kendall Pollard and he's apparently healthy for the NCAA's. On the season, Dayton's defense is one of the best in the country (14th overall when adjusted), while their offenses are both susceptible to cold stretches. The Orange lost five of their last six, so momentum isn't on their side and many feel they didn't deserve to get in (so watch them make the Elite 8, right?!) Dayton's depth, defensive ability, and propensity to not settle for threes (something Syracuse's zone hopes you do) is what gives the Flyers the edge in my mind.
#2 Michigan State vs #15 Middle Tennessee State
Another title favorite is the Michigan State Spartans, who have one of the best offenses and defenses in the country thanks to potential National Player of the Year and do-it-all performer Denzel Valentine. If this game is close it'll be a shocker. Sparty offers a balanced approach with solid guard play and an unselfish big man in Matt Costello. This is a team which beat Kansas, Indiana, Louisville, Maryland, Purdue, and Providence this season. If you don't have them at least in your Sweet 16, reconsider. Middle Tennessee is led by Giddy Potts, a deadly three point shooter who averaged 15 a game. As Conference USA champs, they probably hoped to face someone less daunting than a Michigan State foe, but they at least get to experience what March Madness is all about.
Prediction: Michigan State