I'd argue that the Midwest is probably the most uninteresting region. It's probably the weakest region from top to bottom. North Carolina and Kansas are fine, but this region has soft 3-6 seeds. In fact, the only seed that's particularly strong is Belmont at the 14.
There also aren't any obvious interesting story lines here, other than a potential Roy Williams Bowl in the Elite 8 between Kansas and North Carolina. If there's one thing to do in this bracket it's to pick a lot of upsets. The odds are strong that Kansas and North Carolina will end up against each other in the Elite 8 anyway, so there's not a lot to lose. And like I said earlier, it's always wise to pick major conference teams to pull upsets over small conference teams. We'll have two chances here with the 12/5 game and the 11/6 game. So have fun with this region.
My Picks:12. California over 12. South Florida
16. Vermont over 16. Lamar
1. North Carolina over 16. Vermont
9. Alabama over 8. Creighton
4. Michigan over 13. Ohio
12. California over 5. Temple
11. NC State over 6. San Diego State
3. Georgetown over 14. Belmont
10. Purdue over 7. St. Mary's
2. Kansas over 15. Detroit
Thoughts:In the slop that was the Pac-12 this season, California was the lone bright spot. Cal is actually a pretty good team that was simply punished by being in such a poor conference. They just didn't have chances for big wins. South Florida had a terrible non-conference performance, and if they'd been stuck in the Pac-12 then they'd never have had a chance at an at-large bid. But because they were in the Big East they were able to pick up wins over Louisville and Cincinnati, and were able to make the Tournament. Throw in USF's excellent defense and poor offense with a defensive-minded California team and this could be an awfully low-scoring game. But I think California is just the better team. South Florida is not a good team - they got very lucky with their Big East schedule and then were lucky in close games. Neither Sagarin or Pomeroy rates them among the 65 best teams in the nation. So you're probably not picking the 12/12 play-in game in your bracket contest, but if you are I'd take California.
Obviously North Carolina isn't going to be concerned about either of the 16 seeds. Of the two 16 seeds, I think the Tar Heels are more likely to see Vermont. Vermont is a team that has been really hot (they've won 14 of their last 15 games) and they actually have a legitimately good defense. Lamar depends on scoring points off of offensive boards, and I think Vermont has the size and defensive rebounding ability to limit that.
Detroit is actually a really good 15 seed. Their overall resume isn't wonderful, but remember that their core is Ray McCallum and Eli Holman. Holman missed ten games early in the season, and took a while after that to get in form. They closed the season very strong, winning 10 of their final 11 and rolling through the Horizon League tournament. There will be a lot of pressure on Jeff Withey to handle Holman here. I don't think Bill Self wants to risk Thomas Robinson getting in foul trouble. But that said, as good as Detroit is, you simply can't pick them over Kansas here. Don't even think about it.
Belmont/Georgetown is another popular upset pick, and this is one I actually buy into. Belmont is simply a very, very good 14 seed. Pomeroy rates them the 23rd best team in the country, and Sagarin has them 24th. For comparison, that means that the computers rate Belmont better than the 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13 seed in this region. And I think Belmont presents a tough match-up with Georgetown in terms of personnel. They want to get out and run and turn teams over, and Georgetown typically has more trouble when they don't play at a deliberate pace. Also, Georgetown likes to run their offense through Henry Sims, and their guards are not tremendous ball handlers. That's again not a good sign against a Belmont team that is going to try to prevent much half court offense on either side of the court. That said, one of my rules is to never pick 14 seeds to win. I can make an exception here if you are in a bracket contest where you get a big advantage for picking lower seeds to win. But if you're not getting that, I just can't pull the trigger on a 14 over a 3.
Michigan is a soft 4 seed, but I think Ohio is a good match-up for them. Ohio relies on forcing a ton of turnovers, and that's not going to happen against Michigan. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr are both excellent ball handlers, and Michigan's wing players are all very experienced and used to dealing with Big Ten defenses. And I really wonder how Ohio is going to score. If they don't get turnovers, they're pretty awful at half court offense. Michigan will try to slow down the pace and to keep turnovers to a minimum. Unless their game plan totally blows up, the Wolverines should win fairly easily.
Temple against California would be an interesting battle between mirror image teams. Temple plays a deliberate, steady offense that relies on good shooting. California, meanwhile, is a very good perimeter defense that doesn't force any turnovers but that never fouls and can do a good job of limiting open shots. On the other side of the floor, California likes to score by getting the ball into the paint, which will be effective against an undersized Temple team. I honestly don't think either team has a clear advantage in raw play. But all of the tiebreakers here go to California. You want to pick 12/5 upsets, particularly involving major conference 12 seeds and mid-major 5 seeds. In addition, the computers actually rate California as the better team. So they're my pick. If South Florida does get past California, though, I think I'd give the edge to Temple. USF relies on suffocating interior defense, and they can be vulnerable to teams that can shoot well over the top, like Temple can. And USF's offense is just awful.
NC State is a team that went through a very interesting weekend. They lost a controversial heartbreaker to North Carolina that, to many, knocked them into the NIT. But on Sunday they got the news that they'd get to play on in the NCAA Tournament, and they ended up with a very fortunate seed. San Diego State is a very weak 6 seed (in fact, both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate NC State as a better team than San Diego State). San Diego State was very fortunate in close games this season (10-3 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime). The key match-up in this game will clearly be NC State's offensive rebounding against San Diego State's defensive rebounding. On the other side of the ball, San Diego State will try to attack the paint to get to the line, but NC State has the length and athleticism that they should be able to limit San Diego State's chances. In my view, there are no obvious match-up reasons to pick San Diego State here, and all of the tiebreakers go against them. Anytime I have a major conference team playing a higher-seeded mid-major where they are rated better by Sagarin and Pomeroy? I have to take them.
Purdue/St. Mary's would be a match-up between two teams that are much better on offense than on defense. Purdue is a very steady team with a ton of quality guards. They are thin on the interior, with Robbie Hummel and then not much else. St. Mary's, though, is also a team that depends heavily on guard play. They're not going to be able to take advantage of Purdue in the paint. And while they have a lot of perimeter players that are great at attacking the basket, Purdue should be able to keep up with players like Lewis Jackson and Terone Johnson. Kelsey Barlow would have been very helpful in this game, and Purdue will miss him. One more concern for Purdue is that they are fairly dependent on three-pointers, and St. Mary's is very good at defending the perimeter (they led the WCC with a 24.0 3PA/FGA ratio on defense in conference play). But in my view, Purdue is narrowly better, and they're my pick.
Alabama finished 8th in the nation with a 43.4 eFG% against, but they're going to be facing the best shooting team in the nation in Creighton. It will be very interesting to see how Anthony Grant schemes against this prolific Creighton offense. And certainly a serious concern is how this meager Alabama offense will be able to keep up with a Creighton team that is going to find a way to score a decent number of points, even against Alabama. But my answer to that is the fact that Alabama won't need to score a lot in the half court to win. Creighton finished only 9th in the Missouri Valley in offensive turnover rate (turnovers on 18.9% of offensive possessions in conference play), and Alabama will feast on that. Creighton has proven in the second of this season to be relatively mediocre at everything other than shooting, and I just think that's a bad formula for the NCAA Tournament. Alabama is my pick.
My Picks:1. North Carolina over 9. Alabama
4. Michigan over 12. California
3. Georgetown over 11. NC State
2. Kansas over 10. Purdue
Thoughts:I think that the key for North Carolina against Alabama will be Kendall Marshall not trying to do too much. He can get turned over if he tries to do too much, and Alabama uses turnovers as fuel. If Marshall can just get the ball across half court each possession and gets the ball into the paint, North Carolina will win easily. The fact that North Carolina has bigs that can handle the ball will help them against the press. They can be used as safety valves, and will be able to see over traps. If I were North Carolina, I'd be much more concerned about Creighton than Alabama. North Carolina's interior defense is very good, but their perimeter defense is just okay. If Creighton gets hot behind the arc, North Carolina is going to have be efficient offensively to keep up. But as I said, I think there's a greater-than-50% chance of Creighton going down in the Round of 64, so I'm definitely not going to pick them to get past North Carolina.
Michigan is a soft 4 seed, but they have a fortunate path to the Sweet 16. They get a reasonable 13 seed, and a soft 5. And as I said, I think they'll be playing the 12 seed - California. Certainly California will try to attack Michigan in the paint, challenging the Wolverines to guard Harper Kamp, Allen Crabbe and Richard Solomon. On the other side of the court, the challenge for California will be stopping Michigan's guards. Trey Burke seems to be able to get into the paint at will against anybody, and Cal does not have a defensive eraser in the paint. Michigan does take a lot of three-pointers, and that's a concern because they're not a vintage John Beilein outside shooting team, but they won't need to shoot the lights out to win this game. Also, don't forget that Michigan has an easier path into this game, so if you need a tiebreak then that's it. Michigan would probably prefer to play Temple, because the Owls have a very poor perimeter defense. But at the same time, Temple can't rebound and they're poor defensively. I'd pick Michigan against them also.
No matter who I picked in the Georgetown/NC State game I wouldn't feel great about it. Obviously NC State could easily lose to San Diego State, and I also feel Georgetown has a very good chance of falling to Belmont. If there's on Sweet 16 team that I end up losing in Round of 64, it's most likely to be this one. Head-to-head, I certainly think Georgetown has the advantage over NC State. The one thing NC State can do well is offensive rebound, but Georgetown led the Big East in defensive rebounding percentage (69.3% in conference play). NC State isn't going to turn Georgetown over, so the Hoyas are going to be able to run their system. NC State used to run a quasi-Princeton offense themselves, when Herb Sendek was there, but there are no players left from that era. NC State hasn't played a team like Georgetown this season. I also don't think San Diego State will have be much competition against Georgetown. They also cannot speed Georgetown up or turn them over. The one advantage San Diego State would have is that they can attack the paint and get to the rim (particularly Jamaal Franklin), and Georgetown only finished 12th in defensive free throw rate. But like I said, I don't even think San Diego State will be in this game. Georgetown could very easily fall to Belmont, but if they get past that game then they'll be a clear favorite in the Round of 32.
The trouble that Purdue would face against Kansas would be handling Jeff Withey and Thomas Robinson at the same time. Robbie Hummel could guard one of them, but that's it. And if Hummel gets in foul trouble then it'll be all over for the Boilermakers. Purdue's one chance in this game would be getting hot behind the arc, a vulnerability of the Kansas defense. But Purdue has only really caught fire a few times all season. I wouldn't bet on it happening against Kansas. St. Mary's is probably a tougher opponent for Kansas because they have so many offensive weapons that they can score on anybody. But they also will struggle to handle the Kansas size. St. Mary's struggled this season with Gonzaga's bigs, and Gonzaga doesn't have a player like Thomas Robinson. Either way, Kansas is my pick.
1. North Carolina over 4. Michigan
2. Kansas over 3. Georgetown
North Carolina can't complain much if they get Michigan in the Sweet 16. Michigan is a soft 4 seed, and I only have them here because the rest of that pod is so soft. Michigan doesn't have great three-point shooting this year, so they're dependent on the ability of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. to get in the lane. But even if those two can beat their primary defenders, they're going to get erased by John Henson and Tyler Zeller, two of the best shot blockers in the nation. Meanwhile, Michigan is a poor rebounding team, and they'll get destroyed on the glass by North Carolina. I can't see any reason to pick Michigan here. Meanwhile, California is a team that can do a good job of defensive rebounding, but doesn't have anywhere near the offensive firepower to keep up with North Carolina. Temple would probably be the bigger threat because of their ability to get hot on threes (they hit 40.2% behind the arc this season). But either way, take North Carolina.
Kansas is also going to have a soft Sweet 16 opponent here. As I said earlier, I could see any of the four teams in the 3/6/11/14 pod making the Sweet 16, and none of them will scare the Jayhawks too much. Georgetown is a strong defensive rebounding team and Kansas doesn't turn anybody over, so Georgetown won't get run off the floor. The concern is that Georgetown's offense just hasn't been particularly efficient this season. They don't have players like Austin Freeman or Greg Monroe anymore. Hollis Thompson hasn't quite developed as quickly as I thought he would. If Tyshawn Taylor or Thomas Robinson goes off, who is going to match them? Throw in the fact that this will be a quasi-home game for Kansas, and Kansas is clearly the pick. If you have either NC State or San Diego State in this game, I'd view NC State as easy fodder. San Diego State has the size and athleticism to match Kansas, but they don't have the offensive weapons (particularly the three-point shooting) necessary to match the Jayhawks scoring.
2. Kansas over 1. North Carolina
As I said at the top of this post, it's hard not to see North Carolina and Kansas ending up in this game. There are obviously no bad teams here, and on any given day it's possible for North Carolina or Kansas to lose, but any loss would be a major upset. I can't see a reason to project any upset like that. Now, before even looking at the match-ups, Kansas seems to have the advantage over North Carolina. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy have Kansas as the very slightly better team, and that doesn't take totally into account the late season injuries for North Carolina. John Henson should be back at 100%, but Dexter Strickland won't. Throw in the quasi-home court advantage and I'd expect Kansas to be a 3-4 point favorite in Vegas.
North Carolina's one advantage in this match-up would be on the boards, where Kansas has been spotty. North Carolina doesn't shoot the ball well, but if they can dominate the glass then they can get some easy put-back baskets. If they can slow down Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey then that will put a lot of pressure on Tyshawn Taylor to win the game by himself, which is a very bad formula for Kansas. Taylor is wildly inconsistent, and he could easily turn the ball over ten times and blow the game. But in my view, Kansas is the better team and they'll basically be at home. And North Carolina doesn't have the depth to take advantage of the thin Jayhawks bench. Kansas is the pick.
Obviously you're free to disagree with me and put other teams into the Elite 8, but asking any of the teams in this bracket to knock off both North Carolina and Kansas back-to-back is way too much. Don't put any team other than North Carolina or Kansas in your Final Four. I can see an argument that North Carolina can frustrate the Kansas bigs and can turn Tyshawn Taylor from Good Tyshawn to Bad Tyshawn by making him be the focal point of the Kansas offense. So feel free to disagree and put the Tar Heels in the Final Four. But for your own good, stay away from Michigan, Georgetown, Temple and San Diego State. Just trust me.