NCAA Tournament bracket picks: Midwest Region
Best story line
Michigan survived a plane crash to get here. That’s a fact. The plane on which they were traveling to the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday abandoned its takeoff attempt because of high winds, could not brake in time to stop on the runway and then went through a fence, across a road, over a ditch and into a field. No one was hurt. Everyone evacuated cleanly. And then the Wolverines went out and won the Big Ten championship with four victories in four days. They were playing excellent basketball going into the tournament, but now that they understand how close they came to devastation, they are playing with an even greater appreciation of their teammates and their opportunity.
Josh Jackson, freshman wing, Kansas; Frank Mason, senior guard, Kansas; Caleb Swanigan, sophomore forward, Purdue; Dillon Brooks, junior forward, Oregon; Monte Morris, senior guard, Iowa State.
Best first-round game
No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 10 Oklahoma State. This is the most efficient offense in the nation (OK State) vs. the No. 5 offense (UM).That sounds like all kinds of fun, and it also features a magnificent point guard matchup between the Wolverines’ surging Derrick Walton and elite Cowboys sophomore Jawun Evans. OK State allowed its past three opponents an average of 89 points. Michigan will hope to see a similar commitment to D.
Seeded too high
No. 5 Iowa State. The Cyclones once again took over KC and won the Big 12 Tournament championship, but let us not forget they lost 10 times, including two against teams seeded lower in the field (No. 6 Cincinnati and No. 9 Vanderbilt) and to three teams that did not make the field. The Cyclones had three wins against the RPI top 25 and then a lot of Oklahoma State and Kansas State on its resume. More than half their wins against the field came against those two teams.
No. 11 Rhode Island over No. 6 Creighton. Here’s the Bluejays’ little secret: They are 7-8 since Maurice Watson suffered a knee injury in a January victory at Xavier. They essentially made Marquette (two losses) and Providence (one) into tournament teams because they were damaged and assured Xavier — also struggling with the loss of its point guard, Edmond Sumner — it wouldn’t lose the bid it was on course to claim.Four of the teams that beat Creighton since the injury scored 82 points or more. Rhody may not be dynamic enough to punish that D, but the Rams are good enough to win.
Best potential game
No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 2 Louisville in the Sweet 16. The Ducks did not play well in the Pac-12 title game, but there were times when their physicality and dynamism overwhelmed even Arizona’s impressive defense. The Ducks might be the nation’s best team at taking the ball and driving it — and running enough action on the opposite side of the floor to occupy help defenders. Louisville coach Rick Pitino and Oregon coach Dana Altman are two of the best pure tacticians in the game. Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell on Oregon’s side; Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel on Louisville’s. That’s a man’s game.
Best potential player matchup
Jackson against Brooks. Jackson had been the nation’s best player over the season’s final month, his evolving basketball skill gradually catching up to his spectacular athletic ability and competitive drive. That was before he was suspended for off-the-court incidents and missed KU’s Big 12 Tournament game against TCU, a game the Jayhawks lost. Brooks might have been the national Player of the Year if he’d been healthy from the start. He’s that good. He is stunningly powerful but also a capable playmaker and shooter. He has had some incidents on the court, including one that led to a suspension earlier in the year and a blow to an opponent in the Pac-12 title game that easily could have been called a flagrant foul. This could get interesting.
Get to know ...
The Vermont Catamounts. Representatives of the America East Conference and playing Purdue in a 13-vs.-4 game Thursday in Milwaukee, the Catamounts have not lost since Dec. 21, when they came to Indianapolis and I passed on the chance to see what was about to become America’s hottest team. They have not lost since the Obama administration — 82 days and 21 games and counting. Junior forward Payton Henson is from Arkansas, began his career at Tulane and found his way to Vermont in part because Green Wave teammate Josh Hearlihy had already committed to go there. Hearlihy hasn’t played a ton, but he helped the Catamounts land their No. 2 scorer. So he played a huge role in this.
Don’t be surprised if ...
Iowa State’s Deonte Burton emerges as a tournament star. A 6-5 force who can drive the ball down defenders’ throats, post up and shoot from deep when he’s hot, Burton might be the most difficult player to defend in the tournament. He can struggle with consistency and attention to detail. But this tournament is a how-are-you-tonight deal. On the wrong night for an opponent, he’s a matchup nightmare.
Nevada. The champion of the Mountain West Conference is extremely well coached by Eric Musselman and very capable of taking out Iowa State in the first round.
Final Four pick
Kansas Jayhawks.If a region is difficult to project, it’s always safe to go with Rick Pitino. And it’s tough to bet against Oregon’s team of he-men. But Kansas does have two of the six best players in the tournament, a coach who is a proven winner and the advantage of playing very close to home in the regional round. They could stay in their dorm rooms if they wanted and bus over to KC on game days. (Hint: They won’t do that). Josh Jackson has to continue — or, more accurately, resume — his ascent as a player to make this happen. He scored on a post-up from the right block in the Jayhawks’ final regular-season game that was so fluid and unstoppable that it seemed almost unfair that the player suddenly shooting better than 38 percent from 3-point range, blessed with the athleticism to drive the basketball on elite defenders and the to-the-hilt energy he exhibits in most situation in most games could also just take a smaller defender inside and score over him. But that’s part of the package, too. And that’s what should get KU to Arizona.