March is here, which means everyone from Andy Katz to your grandma has filled out an NCAA tournament bracket. Someone might even win $1 billion doing so. (It’ll probably be someone’s grandma if it happens, don’t get your hopes up.) College basketball has more talent than it has had in years, which should make this season’s tournament all the more exciting. The Midwest Region may be the strongest of a challenging field of competitors this year. Here’s how it breaks down in the Round of 64:
(1) Wichita State Shockers vs. (16) Cal Poly Mustangs
After adorning the glass slipper last March, making it to the Final Four as a relatively unknown 9-seed, the Shockers enter this postseason sparkling, with a 34-0 record and a 1-seed. The path to prove themselves won’t be easy, as they’ve been placed in arguably the toughest region in the tournament, but if they survive the Midwest gauntlet, there should be no doubters. The Shockers will kick off their tournament with an easy win over the Mustangs before taking on more challenging trials.
(8) Kentucky Wildcats vs. (9) Kansas State Wildcats
Kentucky started off the season with a lot of hype, but has since had an up and down year, gradually slipping from the top of the national rankings until they were out of them all together. Aside from a couple hiccups, Kansas State was great out of conference, but a mixed bag in the talented Big 12. Kansas State had a few big wins over top teams in their conference, but only finished 10-8 in conference play and was bounced in the first round of its conference tournament (albeit by eventual Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State).
Kentucky is fresh off of narrowly failing to beat Florida, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, in the SEC tournament championship. That and its talent—Kentucky has at least two first-round picks on its team in Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein—will push it past a capable Kansas State team.
(5) Saint Louis Billikens vs. (12) NC State Wolfpack
Saint Louis is another team that’s making its return to March as a higher seed after surprising some people last season. This time, though, they won’t be underestimated. The Billikens will have their hands full with the Wolfpack, which is entering the tournament with a little momentum. NC State got to the third round of the ACC tournament after knocking off Syracuse and played its way into the NCAA tournament with a commanding win over Xavier.
The Wolfpack will look to ride sophomore forward T.J. Warren to the second round. Warren is averaging 24.8 points per game this season on 52.5 percent shooting. Take him out of the game and North Carolina will be hard-pressed for offense. But that’s easier said than done.
(4) Louisville Cardinals vs. (13) Manhattan Jaspers
The Cardinals are the reigning NCAA Champions and are many people’s pick to win it all again this year. They can probably thank their weak schedule for their seeding, but it shouldn’t make much of a difference. The Midwest is loaded, a frightening proposition for any team, and Louisville is a huge reason for that. The Cardinals return many of the key players from their title run last year; most importantly Russ Smith, a quick point guard who will be a tough cover for any team in the tournament. Louisville is poised to challenge for a deep run this March and the Jaspers might as well be a 16-seed.
(6) Massachusetts Minutemen vs. (11) Tennessee Volunteers
I’m starting to think that having to play your way into the tournament is an advantage. The winner has so much momentum, which is invaluable in March. Look at Florida Gulf Coast last year. Get on a roll and it could be hard to stop. Tennessee might not have the talent or the bracket position to make a deep run, but they’re coming off an overtime win over a talented Iowa team. That’s the kind of confidence a higher seed can’t buy.
(3) Duke Blue Devils vs. (14) Mercer Bears
Duke has been in the national conversation all season long and for good reason. The Blue Devils have talent, pedigree and are plenty capable of winning it all. At 26-8, Duke enters the tournament with a good-not-great record, but four of those eight losses came against top-six ranked opponents. The Blue Devils played in arguably the strongest conference this season and are led by a multitalented player that might hear his name called first in June’s NBA Draft—Jabari Parker.
Parker has played multiple positions for Duke all season and can do a lot of things offensively. Although he’s only a freshman, Parker has the ability to carry Duke far into the tournament.
(7) Texas Longhorns vs. (10) Arizona State Sun Devils
Texas closed the regular season with a 23-10 record, which carries more weight coming out of the loaded Big 12, but its roster lacks that “wow” factor. Arizona State, on the other hand, is led by Jahii Carson, an explosive and talented point guard who will give any opponent fits. Carson, who is averaging 18.6 points per game this season, will be playing at the next level, which probably can’t be said about anyone on Texas. That alone should put the Longhorns on upset alert.
(2) Michigan Wolverines vs. (15) Wofford Terriers
The Wolverines lost out on a 1-seed for being outplayed by Michigan State in its conference final, but it’s hard to imagine them slipping up in the first round here. While they’ll most likely get out of the Round of 64, this year’s Wolverines aren’t as talented last season’s, especially without Mitch McGary, who is likely out for the tournament. Their run may end at the Sweet 16 or earlier.
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