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2024 Bracket Analysis: Midwest Region

Anton Watson, Gonzaga

The Top Seed: Purdue Boilermakers

The last time we saw a No. 1 seed fall to a 16 in the NCAA Tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers stormed back to win a National Title the year following in one of the greatest sports redemption stories of all-time. Can the Purdue Boilermakers repeat the script? Last season’s shocking loss to Farleigh Dickinson was the culmination of a string of disappointing March exits for the Boilermakers, a trend the program hopes will come to an end in 2024. It’s the same core in place that was upset last season, with the important addition of Lance Jones providing the Boilermakers an extra bit of experience in the backcourt. The presence of Jones and his importance shouldn’t be overlooked, but all eyes remain on Zach Edey, the overwhelming favorite to take home a second consecutive National Player of the Year. We’ve seen Edey put up gaudy numbers each of the last two years, but what he does this March will determine his legacy. Is he going to remembered as a player that choked on the sport’s biggest stage, or will a redemptive 2024 run be the grand finale he’s searching for?

Don’t Forget About: Gonzaga Bulldogs

The Gonzaga Bulldogs were my National Title pick a season ago, but even with a magical three to lift them over UCLA in the Sweet 16, they couldn’t overcome a UConn team on a mission in the Elite Eight. A year later, things feel different. The Bulldogs spent a big chunk of the 2023-24 campaign hovering near the bubble line and although a late-season push secured them a five seed, they still enter as an overlooked team on this year’s bracket. And to be fair, there’s no Drew Timme, Corey Kispert, or Jalen Suggs on this team. But, you should never count out Mark Few and the Bulldogs, and they feel like a team that can still inflict major damage in this region. Ryan Nembhard, who followed his brother to Spokane after beginning his career at Creighton, paces the offense with expert precision, while Anton Watson and Graham Ike up front are a load to handle. There aren’t as many shooters on this team, but Few has done an excellent job disguising their weaknesses and if their defense can maintain the intensity its displayed over the last few weeks, they may not need that shooting. McNeese State does offer a stiff challenge in the first round, and Will Wade’s team will be a popular upset pick, but I think the Bulldogs will be around for a while. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if they end up being the team that comes out of this region – I remain that high on this program.

The Cinderella Possibility: Samford Bulldogs

The 12 and 13 seeds in the Midwest are going to be popular picks this year, but I’m picking the Samford Bulldogs as the likely “Cinderella” in this region. The Southern Conference Champion won 29 games on the regular season, fueled by an offense that is going to run, run, run. In fact, with an average of 86 points per game, the Bulldogs have the nation's sixth best offense, one that shares the ball and plays about as fluid and smooth as you are going to find at this level. Their ability to run is aided by their depth - this is perhaps the deepest mid-major team in the country, one that can genuinely go 10-11 guys deep without much issue. They're going to look to use those fresh legs at every opportunity, and even better, their first round matchup is an ideal one. This is the weakest Kansas team we've seen in some time, potentially the weakest four seed in the bracket. To add insult to injury, quite literally, the Jayhawks are also expected to be without wing Kevin McCullar for the entirety of the NCAA Tournament, robbing them of a key veteran piece who has ample experience in March. Bill Self has typically run short benches with the Jayhawks, but this team in particular feels remarkably thin - keeping up with Samford for a full 40 minutes seems like a tall order. And if the Bulldogs can get past Kansas, you never know. McNeese State could certainly upset Gonzaga, but even if Gonzaga advances, Samford is a tough matchup for them. There's opportunity for this team to go on a run, but at the very least, I like their chances to win their first NCAA Tournament game in school history.

Buy Stock Now: Oregon Ducks

Bid-stealers were everywhere during conference tournaments, and in the final edition of the Pac-12 Tournament, the league saw its own in the Oregon Ducks. The Ducks weren't even sniffing the NCAA Tournament field, but ripped off four straight victories when it mattered most to gain entry as an 11-seed. They not only arrive with significant momentum, but history is on their side. In the last four NCAA Tournaments head coach Dana Altman has coached the Ducks in, they've advanced to the event's second weekend each time. That includes the run Oregon made as a 12-seed back in 2019, a situation much the same, with the Ducks winning the Pac-12 Tournament to gain an automatic bid to the Big Dance. That team was led by crafty guard Payton Pritchard, but this Oregon team is a bit different. It's been the big man, center N'Faly Dante, who has been unstoppable in recent weeks, punctuated by a 25-point effort over Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship Game. He's helped out by a pair of capable guards in Jermaine Coulsnard and Jackson Shelstad, whose importance may come more on the defensive side of things, at least in their opening game against South Carolina. The Gamecocks have an electric 1-2 punch in Meechie Johnson and Ta'Lon Cooper, two fearless playmakers who came to South Carolina from Big Ten country. If Oregon can find a way to contain them, the work Dante and company have done on the other end makes them a tough out. It could propel them to a second round matchup with Creighton, where a potential Dante battle with fellow big Ryan Kalkbrenner awaits, a true treat for anyone who still loves old-school, back-to-the-basket basketball.

Don't Touch this High Seed: Tennessee Volunteers

Rick Barnes' March struggles are well-documented at this point, but yet again, the Tennessee Volunteers enter the NCAA Tournament with a top seed next to their name and expectations on deck. The Volunteers did impress during the SEC schedule, no doubt, going 14-4 in an ultra-competitive league and claiming the regular season crown. But, losses in both their regular season finale and first SEC Tournament game left a sour taste right before the most important part of their season, and going back to the non-conference, this team really struggled against quality competition. A quality win against Illinois aside, Tennessee lost to Purdue, Kansas, and North Carolina all in a row. Sure, all three quality losses, but it just feels like a reminder of the frustrating place Volunteer basketball has been stuck in for awhile now - they're good enough to win plenty of games and earn a top seed but when it comes down to truly toppling the elites of the sport, they just haven't been at that level. Fortunately, do-it-all Dalton Knecht gives them a fighting chance any time they step on the court, but can he get any help out there? The Volunteer offense has a frustrating knack for disappearing for long stretches, and if history tells us anything, that's unlikely to change this March. Oh, and their first round matchup? It just happens to be the darlings of the 2022 NCAA Tournament, Saint Peter's. Now, I don't envision the Peacocks going on a run this time around, but crazier things have happened - they don't call it ''March Madness'' for no reason.

Picking the Midwest

First Round

1 Purdue Boilermakers over 16 Grambling -- No 16-seed surprise for the Boilermakers this time around, as Zach Edey and company pound the SWAC Champs. 

9 TCU Horned Frogs over 8 Utah State Aggies -- A true coin flip game here, but I'll roll with the battle-tested Horned Frogs and their collection of explosive guards.

5 Gonzaga Bulldogs over 12 McNeese State Cowboys -- Will Wade's Cowboys are going to be a popular upset pick, but I trust Mark Few in March, and the Bulldogs find a way to outlast McNeese.

13 Samford Bulldogs over 4 Kansas Jayhawks -- Perhaps Bill Self and the Jayhawks are going to make us look like fools for doubting them ahead of March. But, there's little reason to have confidence in this team right now, and Samford is a brutal matchup for them.

11 Oregon Ducks over 6 South Carolina Gamecocks -- Lamont Paris and South Carolina have been one of the coolest stories in college basketball, but I am all in on Oregon to keep on humming.

3 Creighton Bluejays over 14 Akron Zips -- Akron is a sneaky 14-seed who could give Creighton some troubles, but Baylor Scheierman and the Bluejays are just too much.

7 Texas Longhorns over 10 Colorado State Rams -- Texas has had a rollercoaster of a season, but Max Abmas and Tyrese Hunter are one of the best backcourts in America, and they should be enough to overcome the Rams. 

2 Tennessee Volunteers over 15 Saint Peter's Peacocks -- No Saint Peter's magic this year, unfortunately. Dalton Knecht is the difference-maker as Tennessee sets themselves up for a matchup with a fellow 'UT'.

Second Round

1 Purdue Boilermakers over 9 TCU Horned Frogs -- TCU simply does not have anyone that can counter Zach Edey in the post. I mean, does anybody?

5 Gonzaga Bulldogs over 13 Samford Bulldogs -- The battle of the Bulldogs should be a fun one between teams with opposing strengths. This is going to test Few's coaching chops, but I think he figures out the right strategy to succeed.

3 Creighton Bluejays over 11 Oregon Ducks -- I just about went with Oregon to move on in this one, but the Bluejays find a way to beat their old head coach, Dana Altman, and his Ducks. 

7 Texas Longhorns over 2 Tennessee Volunteers -- Another game featuring a head coach going up against his old school, as Rick Barnes looks for vengeance against the Longhorns. Unfortunately, I like Texas in the upset.

Sweet 16

5 Gonzaga Bulldogs over 1 Purdue Boilermakers -- I actually would love a Purdue redemption arc, I truly would. But it just feels like this season is going to end in disappointment, and there are multiple landmines in this region. I'm going to roll with the team I trust more in this spot, knowing this could finally be the year Matt Painter proves me wrong.

3 Creighton Bluejays over 7 Texas Longhorns -- Lots of fun guards to watch fly up and down the court in this one, but the difference is Ryan Kalkbrenner down low, who overpowers the Longhorns to fuel a Creighton win.

Elite Eight

5 Gonzaga Bulldogs over 3 Creighton Bluejays -- If I'm going to pick a team higher than a four seed to make the Final Four, it's going to be a program I trust and Gonzaga has earned that right. This Bulldog team has their warts, but they're playing great basketball down the stretch and still have a roster that can carry them deep. I think they find a way to come out of the Midwest unscathed.

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