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Bracket Analysis: Midwest Region

Frank Mason, Kansas
Consistency is so tough to find in today's college basketball, with superstars showing up for one season then promptly heading off to the NBA and coaches leaving for big bucks every chance they can get. Yet, Kansas has become the prime example of consistency and reliability; winning the Big 12 for the 13th straight and beating Kentucky in the non-conference to earn a No. 1 seed. The major reason for the Jayhawks' success in '16-'17 has been an experienced and skilled backcourt, spearheaded by senior Frank Mason. Mason leads KU in points and assists, and is on the short list to win National Player of the Year. He is aided by terrific shooting two-guard Devonte' Graham, who has proven he can take over games on countless occasions. The backcourt pair gives the Jayhawks a distinct advantage over everybody they play with their reliable scoring punch and playmaking ability. Superb wing Josh Jackson has improved tremendously since the start of the year and remains a source of instant offense. If his inconsistent jumper can find its form in the tournament, Kansas has enough offense to overpower the vast majority of teams in the field. However, there is one thing that seriously concerns me with the Jayhawks roster, and that is the depth of the frontcourt. Veteran Landen Lucas has proven he can make plays, but Carlton Bragg has been suspended twice this season and his status going forward is always a question. Add in the loss of true freshman Udoka Azubuike, who was lost for the season due to injury, and Kansas is very thin up front. Their backcourt should be able to overcome that issue for at least a few games, but deep in the tournament against great teams it is something that could really be a problem for KU. Even so, the Jayhawks have the experience and playmakers needed to survive an interesting Midwest Region and make plenty of noise.

After going on a fabulous run to win the Big 12 Tournament (that was certainly helped by TCU's upset of Kansas, and K-State's win over Baylor), Iowa State enters the NCAA Tournament with significant momentum. Pairing that with late-season victories over both Kansas and Baylor, the Cyclones could be extremely dangerous as a five seed, especially if they get to the Sweet 16, because they know they can beat the Jayhawks. Veteran point guard Monte Morris is as good as anybody in the nation, and the driving force behind an ISU offense that averages over 80 points per game. Morris is not just a dangerous shooter, but a premier passer, with 6.1 assists on the year. He is helped by some other weapons in the backcourt, including former Marquette transfer Deonte Burton and sharpshooting wing Matt Thomas. Burton had some struggles early on but has adjusted to his role on the Cyclones' roster, as an athletic, attacking guard. He is helped by Thomas, one of the best three-point shooters in the Big 12, averaging 44 percent from downtown. Thomas' shooting is so big because it stretches the defense and opens things up for the plethora of guards Iowa State has at their disposal. Yet, much like Kansas, what worries me about the Cyclones is their lack of much frontcourt playmakers. They desperately miss powerful Jameel McKay and long-time star Georges Niang, who gave the group so much versatility. That lack of much frontcourt depth could be a serious problem with where Iowa State is situated on the bracket. They open up against Nevada, a scary 12 seed that won both the Mountain West regular season and postseason titles. If they can manage a victory, possible meetings with Purdue/Vermont loom, both teams that can pound it down low.

Purdue may have won the Big Ten regular season title and has National POY candidate Caleb "Biggie" Swanigan, but the Boilermakers are in for an awfully tough opening game against America East Conference Champ Vermont. The Catamounts are scorching hot right now, as they have not lost since late December, when they lost by 12 to Butler. They were 8-5 at that point, but enter the tournament at an astounding 29-5. Some can attribute it to the fact their schedule has softened significantly, but there is no denying how great of team basketball Vermont is playing right now. Much like some of the other hot mid-major teams in this year's field, they aren't doing it with flash or high-flying offense. It is their superb defense that is leading the charge, as Vermont is allowing just 61.6 PPG, 11th in the nation. They have the versatility and communication needed to be a dominant defensive team, and they will be creative with how they contain Swanigan, who can be an absolute nightmare if not defended properly. Offensively, the Catamounts share the ball extremely well, and there isn't one go-to star, which can be looked at as a positive or negative. Sophomore Ernie Duncan and forward Anthony Lamb are two of their most dangerous weapons, because of the fact they both shoot very well from the free throw line and can make things happen from deep. Another driving force for Vermont has been their poise and composure. Over the course of their now-21 game win streak if they have had a number of close games where their discipline and intelligence has led them to wins. If they can continue that in the NCAA Tournament, where so often chaos and craziness prevail, that is a huge advantage for the Catamounts.

Speaking about teams playing well at the right time, Rhode Island appears to be playing their best basketball of the season. A trendy Atlantic 10 preseason pick, the Rams struggled earlier in the year due to injuries and entered their conference tournament firmly on the bubble. Yet, Rhode Island came out and played terrific basketball to win the A-10 tourney, and their health is starting to fully return, making them quite a threat as an 11-seed. Guards E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell are guiding forces for the Rams' offense, as both are big, physical guards that can create some serious mismatches. Also sure to make a major impact are two high-quality transfers in Stanford Robinson and Kuran Iverson. Robinson started his career off at Indiana before coming to Rhode Island and is so great at finishing around the rim. Meanwhile, Iverson was a highly touted recruit at Memphis before things fell through there and he went north. He is distantly related to Allen Iverson (they are second cousins) and you can see some of AI's flash and playmaking in Kuran. With powerful forward Hassan Martin wreaking havoc down low, Rhode Island also has the post presence they need to compete in such a balanced and deep region. The Rams are a great defensive team who excels at pressuring ball-handlers, and their first round opponent will play right into that. Creighton looked like a possible dark horse Final Four pick before they lost senior PG Maurice Watson to a torn ACL, and the offense has struggled mightily without their leader. With that in mind, Rhode Island has a very good chance at pulling off an extremely common 6-11 upset, and with their arrow pointing up, the Rams could put together their deep tournament run since 1998 when they stunned No. 1 seed Kansas and made it all the way to the Elite Eight.

Picking the Midwest Region
First Round
1 Kansas over 16 North Carolina Central (First Four Winner)... NC Central might be able to win an interesting First Four game over UC Davis but they don't have the starpower to hang with the Jayhawks.
9 Michigan State over 8 Miami... This is not quite as good of a Michigan State team as we saw the last few years, but forwards Miles Bridges and Nick Ward will still be enough to prevail against the Hurricanes.
5 Iowa State over 12 Nevada... Nevada is an extremely dangerous 12 seed from an always underrated Mountain West Conference, but they don't anybody with the playmaking ability of Monte Morris to counter ISU.
13 Vermont over 4 Purdue... Are the Boilermakers really much better than last year's edition that choked away their opener to Little Rock? I don't think so, and the Catamounts could be even better than the Trojans.
11 Rhode Island over 6 Creighton... If these two teams were completely healthy it may be a different story, but the healthier Rams should be able to get the job done.
3 Oregon over 14 Iona... Overlooking the offensively-minded Gaels would be foolish, but Oregon has enough offense of their own to overcome an upset.
7 Michigan over 10 Oklahoma State... Those assuming Michigan will roll following a Big Ten title could be surprised; OSU is near the top in the nation in offensive efficiency. Even so, the Wolverines' D.J. Wilson gives them the advantage.
2 Louisville over 15 Jacksonville State... The Cardinals might not have got the attention they deserved in the crowded ACC, but this team is legit and should have no troubles with the Gamecocks.

Second Round
1 Kansas over 9 Michigan State... This is a very tough second round obstacle for KU, but Mason and Graham should be able to take advantage of a thin MSU backcourt.
13 Vermont over 5 Iowa State... While Morris and Deonte Burton will give Vermont troubles, the Catamounts suffocating defense and poised play could help them pull off another upset.
11 Rhode Island over 3 Oregon... If fully healthy Oregon might be my pick to win the region, but without ultra-valuable Chris Boucher, the Ducks could falter to the flaming hot Rams.
2 Louisville over 7 Michigan... While the Wolverines bring out a ton of offensive weapons, Rick Pitino is a great coach, and should have a defensive strategy set up to contain Michigan.

Sweet 16
1 Kansas over 13 Vermont... The Catamounts may be able to keep close to Kansas, but the starpower of the Jayhawks will just be too much over the course of 40 minutes.
2 Louisville over 11 Rhode Island... A big day from Donovan Mitchell and the rest of a speedy Louisville offense should be enough to end Rhode Island's hopes of a Cinderella story.

Elite Eight
1 Kansas over 2 Louisville... If the Cards can attack Lucas and KU down low and force foul trouble, I think they can surprise. I also think the trio of Mason, Graham and Jackson may just be too much for them in the end.

Midwest Region Champion: 1 Kansas Jayhawks

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