Baniewicz Bracketology: The Monstrous Midwest
Only a madman would attempt to predict the NCAA Tournament's Midwest Region. Let's put on the straight-jackets and step into this hellacious minefield of talent.
Instead of going through every single matchup and telling you who is going to win the whole way out, I'll simply provide perspective and nuggets so you can let your March Madness run rampant. There are thousands of "experts" out there who provide full brackets for you to reference, but keep in mind most of them will be wrong too.
The Midwest region is by far the most brutal road to glory, so let's not waste one second and dive into the chaos.
Gregg Marshall, Witchita State's Head Coach, should send a hand-written letter to the NCAA Selection Committee saying, "Thank you very little." The Midwest region has four teams that could legitimately win it all, but we'd be wrong to start anywhere else than the only undefeated team in the nation.
The Wichita State Wheat Shockers are the first team to head into the tournament untouched since the UNLV Rebels did it 23 years ago, but they'll face one of the hardest roads in tournament history if they want to keep it rolling. None of their players had major scholarship offers, but they play stifling defense and play with some of the best chemistry in the nation. Gregg Marshall's squad, led by former Division-III star Cleanthony Early, should easily take care of their first round opponent, but then their reward will most likely be John Calipari's Kentucky squad. If they beat the 'Cats, then they meet our next contender...
There isn't a hotter team in the country than the defending NCAA Champions, the Louisville Cardinals. Rick Pitino's squad knocked off the Shockers on their way to a title, and their star guard, Russ Smith, is the type of player that can take over the tournament. Smith averages 18 ppg and just under five assists, but scored 42 in the conference tournament only two games ago. Good coaching and NBA talent are the two things you need to win the NCAA Tournament. If you have one, you're poised to make noise. If you have two, you're downright dangerous. Pitino is one of the best in the game, and the Cardinals have NBA skill all over the floor. Do the math. Vegas already has, and they usually don't lose.
Speaking of NBA talent, the Duke Blue Devils have one of the top three picks in next year's draft in do-it-all forward Jabari Parker. I would list you his stat line, but I'd rather put it to you simply. Parker can play every position on the floor and is impossible to defend. If you double team, he kicks it out to a plethora of three-point bombers. Pair that with lengthy swing-man and lockdown perimeter defender Rodney Hood and you have a team designed for tournament step. They've had recent tournament letdowns, but this team should easily coast to the Sweet 16. That's where we meet our last giant.
Things started off far from perfect for the Michigan Wolverines, but they started playing their best basketball at the right time of year.They started off a lukewarm 10-5, then went on a 15-3 tear in conference play. Versatile shooter Nick Stauskas took his game to another level this year, averaging 17.5 ppg and shooting well over 40 percent from the field and beyond the arc. Spike Albrecht, who played so well last tournament he decided to flirt with Kate Upton, can light it up when hot, and Glenn Robinson III is starting to prove he can live up to the "Big Dog" legacy with his highlight reel potential in transition. They're battle-tested and confident, and I'd be incredibly surprised if they didn't join these three other teams in the Sweet 16.
That is, of course, in a perfect world. Brackets were made to be busted, but who's going to do it?
We wouldn't call it the Big Dance if there weren't Cinderellas. The Midwest Region has four juggernauts, but any one of those Goliaths could meet their David.
The winner of your five-twelve matchup will have a chance to spoil a lot of Louisville brackets. The NC State Wolfpack's TJ Warren averages almost 25 points per game and an NBA lottery pick. Warren could turn Pitino redder than his tie if he catches flame, but they would have to get past the Saint Louis Billikens. Aside from having one of the best names in the tournament, the Billikens are one of the most fundamental teams as well. The Billikens lost both of their games against ranked opponents this year though, so this all might just be wishful thinking.
The Kentucky Wildcats are a no-brainer here. They might be the No. 8 seed, but they have NBA talent at every position. The problem is their youth and inexperience, which is a weakness that the Wheat Shockers will exploit to the fullest extent in their second round matchup. That being said, the possibility for an upset is always there when you have guys who are going to be on an NBA roster.
The Midwest Region has three play-in games. I clearly chose NC State to win one of those game, and your last noise maker should emerge from a play-in as well. The Tennessee Volunteers have two future NBA players in Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes, and if they can get past Iowa in the play-in and upset the No. 6 seed, Massachusetts, they have a good formula to topple Duke. Those are a lot of hurdles to jump, but it would be March if there wasn't some madness.
Any one of these squads could make you rip up your pretty bracket, but unfortunately this region is a bit too brutal for a Cinderella. So who will walk away from this bloodbath, you ask?
Final Four Bound: The Louisville Cardinal
Sorry, Shockers fans. Wichita State is the emotional pick here, but it was too much of a leap of faith for me to take. I like to see what's beneath me if I'm going to jump. With the Shockers you get a whole lot of unknown. With Louisville you get the defending NCAA National Champions with a coach that is absolutely clinical in the month of March. When Vegas thinks you're the best team in your region, I tend to agree. Prove me wrong, Gregg Marshall.
From watching the tournament my whole life though, I can tell you this might all be wrong by the end of the first weekend. Mercer could win it all, and we'd all be dancing with the Bears.