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2023 March Madness Bracket Analysis: Midwest Region

Marcus Sasser, Houston

The Top Seed: Houston Cougars

Since taking over at Houston, Kelvin Sampson has built an absolute machine. The Cougars have won 27 or more games every season since 2017-2018, with the exception of the COVID-shortened '19-'20 campaign. It hasn't been just beating up on weaker opponents in the American Athletic Conference, either. They have advanced every year since 2018 and played in their first Final Four in nearly four decades back in 2021. Sampson has another dangerous team on his hands this season, headlined by Marcus Sasser and a potent backcourt. Sasser isn't 100 percent entering the NCAA Tournament; he missed the AAC Championship Game and the Cougars have kept his health status under wraps, but there's an assumption that he will return at some point in the near future. If he does miss time, Houston will lean heavily on Jamal Shead and Tramon Mark, who have both proven they can hand the scoring load when needed. However, this is a program that isn't going out every night expecting to score 90 points. It's a team defined by their defense, a suffocating, swirling mess that slows games to a slog. It's proven to be quite effective for Sampson and company, even if it's not pretty. Don't be shocked if it sets the tone for another deep run, as the Cougars match up well with nearly everyone in the region and are such a tough out, especially on short rest.

The Cinderella Possibility: Drake Bulldogs

After a long absence from the Big Dance, Drake is playing in their second in three years, and has a team that could create some chaos. Although they didn't end up winning the Missouri Valley regular season title, the Bulldogs still won 27 games and are led by one of the country's most underrated stars, Tucker DeVries. The son of head coach Darian DeVries, Tucker averages 19 PPG and can really shoot it, posting a 39 point percentage from three. He's not the only Drake guard that can score in a hurry, as they feature three other weapons in the backcourt rotation, namely Garrett Sturtz and Roman Penn. Teams may be able to bully them inside on occasion, but this is a tough basketball team that plays much larger than they look. Even though they play a team I like a lot in the first round, Miami, don't be surprised if the Bulldogs win at least one game, and they could certainly win more depending on how the Indiana/Kent State game shakes out.

The Cinderella Possibility: Pittsburgh Panthers

Power-conference teams aren't generally considered "Cinderellas" but as a "First Four" participant, Pittsburgh fits the mold. Not much was expected from the Panthers heading into the season; they hadn't played in an NCAA Tournament since 2016 and head coach Jeff Capel was firmly on the hot seat. Instead, Pitt has been a pleasant surprise, winning 23 games and earning a spot in the field of 68. Even as an 11-seed, history is in their favor. A "First Four" team has advanced to the second round every single year since its inception in 2011, except for one time, 2019. Even in that year, one came awfully close, as Belmont lost an absolute heartbreaker to Maryland. I trust this Pittsburgh team much more than either of the other two "First Four" teams, Arizona State and Nevada, and they play an Iowa State team that has had a brutal past month-and-half. Don't overlook their chances of victory, which could set them up for a winnable game in the second round against Xavier.

Welcome to the Dance!: Kennesaw State Owls

Just three years ago, Kennesaw State was coming off a 1-28 season and had fired head coach Al Skinner. Fast forward to this March, and the program is playing in their first ever NCAA Tournament. It's one of the most incredible turnarounds in recent college basketball history, and head man Amir Abdur-Rahim may end up being poached by a power program in short order. The Owls, who won the A-Sun, will face quite the first round test with third-seeded Xavier, but just to get to this point has to feel incredible, and deserves recognition.

The Storyline Team: Texas Longhorns

It's been a tumultuous season in Austin off-the-court, due to the situation surrounding former head coach Chris Beard. Beard was arrested December 12 on a charge of assault/strangulation and after a leave of absence, Texas made the decision to move on from him three weeks later. The Longhorns could have quit after the firing of Beard, but they instead responded to the adversity under interim Rodney Terry. They put together a strong regular season and played in the Big 12 Tournament Championship, coming up just short against Kansas. It was enough to earn them a second seed and even better, a top seed in arguably the weakest region on the bracket. That's not to disrespect the other top seeds, but Houston is the weakest No. 1 seed in my opinion, and Xavier the weakest three. It sets up a superb opportunity for a team with loads of talent that has serious National Title potential. The backcourt of Marcus Carr and Tyrese Hunter may be the nation's best and up front, Christian Bishop and Dylan Disu can overwhelm opponents. Add to that the fact that the team has seemingly played with a different energy under Terry, I think this team has a great chance to come out of the region.

Picking the Midwest

First Round

1 Houston over 16 Northern Kentucky -- Even if he is able to go, Houston may choose to rest Marcus Sasser for this one, as they shouldn't have too much troubles with the Norse.

8 Iowa over 9 Auburn -- Is this the year Fran McCaffery finally earns himself a spot in the Sweet 16? First, the Hawkeyes will have to get past a feisty Auburn team, but their edge offensively should help them prevail.

12 Drake over 5 Miami (FL) -- The 'Canes were the most consistently strong team in the ACC this season, but I like the upset chances. The combination of Darian DeVries and his son, Tucker, will be an oft-discussed storyline if they can come out on top.

4 Indiana over 13 Kent State -- You never know what version of Indiana you're getting on a daily basis and the MAC Champion Golden Flashes are no slouches. Trayce Jackson-Davis and Jalen Hood-Schifino are enough to put the Hoosiers over the edge.

11 Pittsburgh over 6 Iowa State -- The loss of Caleb Grill late in the year has really hurt Iowa State's NCAA Tournament hopes. Although Gabe Kalscheur can give them a fighting chance, I'm picking the upset.

3 Xavier over 14 Kennesaw State -- A short-lived first Division I NCAA Tournament appearance for Kennesaw State, as they have nobody that can slow down Xavier's capable guards.

10 Penn State over 7 Texas A&M -- The Aggies receiving a seven seed was a real shocker, until their likely second round opponent was unveiled moments later (Texas). The Selection Committee may have wanted an in-state battle, but PSU spoils it in their first appearance in the Big Dance in over a decade.

2 Texas over 15 Colgate -- Few teams play as up-tempo as Patriot League Champion Colgate and they gave Wisconsin real issues last season, but this Longhorn team is at a different level.

Second Round

1 Houston over 8 Iowa -- A real battle of opposing styles. Houston's going to want to slow the game down to a halt, while the Hawkeyes look to create offensive fireworks. I trust Houston more, especially in March.

4 Indiana over 12 Drake -- Should be a fun Midwestern duel between one of the sport's biggest brands and the upstart Drake Bulldogs. Drake is a bit undersized, so I'm not sure how they'll be able to slow down Jackson-Davis inside.

11 Pittsburgh over 3 Xavier -- Am I leaning too far into the "First Four" theory? Maybe, but I like this Pitt team a lot, and the Musketeers are going to miss Zach Freemantle. 

2 Texas over 10 Penn State -- Jalen Pickett could be a problem for the Longhorns, but I'm not sure he'll be able to counter the overwhelming force of Marcus Carr and Tyrese Hunter for an entire 40 minutes.

Sweet 16

1 Houston over 4 Indiana -- I do believe Indiana can go on a run if they're in the right state of mind, but the Cougars are still the smarter pick to move on to the Elite Eight. Sasser should be healthier at this point, and they have an obvious advantage in the backcourt with no Xavier Johnson.

2 Texas over 11 Pittsburgh -- Do the Panthers have the ingredients to make their first Elite Eight since 2009? I like this team, but that's a lot to ask for a program playing in their first NCAA Tournament since 2016.

Elite Eight

2 Texas over 1 Houston -- A Lone Star battle that will send the winner to Houston for the Final Four. The Cougars are such a tough out, but I love the balance Texas can bring and they should be able to create against this stifling defense.

Midwest Region Champion: 2 Texas Longhorns

As I said, this is the weakest region on the bracket for me, at least in terms of the low seeds. Houston isn't 100 percent, Texas has had a weird year, Xavier hasn't sold me, and Indiana is frighteningly streaky. Without an overwhelming favorite, I'm going with the 'Horns, who check a lot of boxes and would be a great story.

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