The NCAA Tournament usually has one ‘Region of Death.’ Based on name brands alone, the Midwest Region may hold that distinction in the 2019 edition of the Big Dance.
This region features a slew of accomplished programs and coaches. Seven of the coaches in the Midwest — Roy Williams, Bruce Pearl, Bill Self, Steve Prohm, Chris Holtmann, Kelvin Sampson and John Calipari — have reached the Sweet 16; five — Roy, Pearl, Self, Sampson and Calipari — have made it to the Elite Eight; four — Williams, Self, Sampson and Calipari — have made it through to the Final Four and three — Williams, Self and Calipari — have won at least one National Championship.
There are a lot of intriguing possibilities here, so let’s go through the breakdown here.
Who are the title contenders in the region?
You can start this conversation with the #1 and #2 seeds in the region. The North Carolina Tar Heels and Kentucky Wildcats are certainly contenders to cut down the nets in Minneapolis. The former may have some more juice than the other. Led by Luke Maye, the Tar Heels are an elite bunch who do just about everything well. Kentucky, meanwhile, has their usual strong defensive profiles coupled by great scoring in the form of Keldon Johnson and sharpshooter Tyler Herro. It would surprise nobody if these two squared off in Kansas City in the Elite Eight, and what a doozy that would be.
But what about Houston and Kansas?
The Kansas Jayhawks were pegged by many to be a title contender at the start of the season. Given what the roster composition was, it was easy to see why. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned for the Jayhawks. After a 25-9 season, Kansas will come into this NCAA Tournament with some of their more meager numbers offensively and defensively in some time.
The team boasts a solid triple threat from the perimeter in Devon Dotson, Lagerald Vick and Dedric Lawson . As a unit, however, they had hope they be on their game right out of the gate. The Northeastern Huskies squad they face in the Round of 64 ranks 13th in the nation in 3-point percentage. They have three players shooting at least 40.1 percent from 3-point land, including junior Bolden Brace who leads the team with a mark of 41.5 percent.
If they get into Kansas City, anything can happen with what will likely be a very pro-Jayhawk crowd behind them. But we’ll see if they can navigate through the waters. Based on how things have been? It could be a challenge.
The Houston Cougars meanwhile are an intriguing team. Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars went 31-3 this year, one of two teams heading into the NCAA Tournament with that many wins (the other being the Buffalo Bulls). They have an incredibly stingy defense, a defense that in fact ranks 2nd in 3-point percentage allowed and 5th in 2-point percentage allowed. Furthermore, their eFG% is tops in the entire country.
Offensively is where the Cougs find their struggles. They rank 99th in the country in PPG, with a mark of just 75.6 points per game. Corey Davis Jr. leads the team with 16.7 points per game and Armoni Brooks has put up 13.6 points per game. But after that, nobody eclipses the 8.0 PPG mark that Galen Robinson Jr. boasts. So while that defense may be a rigorous one, their offense may be what holds them back of a legitimate tourney run.
Will Auburn get 5-12’d?
Anything’s possible, but I think the Auburn Tigers have the one of the best shots of any 5-seed to avert that 5-12 upset. Their opposition, the New Mexico State Aggies, have had a great season out in the WAC. They come in with a mark of 30-4 on the year, and haven’t lost a game since January 3. They’ve whipped teams inside, ranking 9th in the country in 2-point percentage.
Auburn’s playing really good ball lately, however. They’ve gone eight for their last eight and have won 10 of 11 dating back to February 16. And while their perimeter defense has been a work-in-progress all season, NMSU does not shoot the 3-point ball very well. They could get hot — so could anyone — but it’s not likely that’s where they’ll win. And Auburn’s defense inside has been serviceable enough that I think they can take command of this one. They’ve been lights out from the perimeter lately and their 3-point shooting should carry them through to at least the Round of 32.
So... Iowa State...
Ah, the Iowa State Cyclones. Once 12-2 and 18-5, the Cyclones slid all the way down to 20-11 at the end of the regular season. And then in the blink of an eye, the dynamic with the Cyclones changed last week. Iowa State ran through the Big 12 Tournament and capped it off with a double digit win over aforementioned Kansas. They won by four against the Kansas State Wildcats but also blew out the Baylor Bears in their first leg of the tourney.
The three victories were aided in part by three different players. Talen Horton-Tucker took center stage agains Baylor, Marial Shayok grabbed the headlines against K-State and Lindell Wigginton was awesome against Kansas.
That kind of balance is what makes ISU a very intriguing team in this region. If they get through the Ohio State Buckeyes (and I think they will), they’ll likely have Houston on deck. I like the Cyclone offense more than the Cougar offense, so I wouldn’t be shocked if they advanced through to the Sweet 16. And where are the Midwest Regionals this year? The Sprint Center. AKA, Hilton South. Cyclone fans will likely pack the building as they do each March, and that could create a very fascinating environment for their Sweet 16 matchup if they get there. And, possibly, the Elite Eight, if they take care of business.
Of course, the Cyclones of old, who were mired in many a defeat could show themselves too. They’re a bit enigmatic in that regard, but they’re likely gonna be a sexy pick to make a run. And frankly, I can definitely see why.
Now, about Seton Hall...
Ah yes! We ARE a Big East blog after all! So let’s talk about the Seton Hall Pirates!
I hate their draw.
The Pirates got a 10 seed in this year’s tournament. Their opponent? One of the best mid-major teams in the nation, and a legitimately great team in the Wofford Terriers. The Terriers are ranked 19th on KenPom, and Mike Young’s team has one of the best offenses in the entire country.
They rank 2nd in the country in 3-point percentage, 4th in eFG% and 11th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. They have four players who’ve shot over 40 percent from 3-point land, including sophomore Storm Murphy who has drilled 50.6 percent of his 3-pointers this season. Yes. 50.6 percent. 3rd-best mark in the nation.
Myles Powell is more than capable of leading his Pirates to victory. But man, they got no favors in this matchup at all.
North Carolina over Iona
Utah State over Washington
Auburn over New Mexico State
Kansas over Northeastern
Iowa State over Ohio State
Houston over Georgia State
Wofford over Seton Hall
Kentucky over Abilene Christian
North Carolina over Utah State
Kansas over Auburn
Iowa State over Houston
Kentucky over Wofford
North Carolina over Kansas
Kentucky over Iowa State
North Carolina over Kentucky