Best First Round Matchup: Seton Hall vs. Gonzaga
In a matchup of two of the hottest teams in the country, the Pirates from Seton Hall will take on the Bulldogs from Gonzaga with a birth in the round of 32 on the line. While Seton Hall was already a lock as an at-large, their performance in the Big East tournament was eye-catching. They defeated two No. 2 seeds Villanova and Xavier along with Creighton to claim their first Big East tournament title since 1993. Gonzaga, on the other hand, needed to win the West Coast Conference tournament just to make it to the big dance. They defeated Portland and BYU before knocking off St. Mary’s in the championship game 85-75 to claim the title and ultimately bounce the Gaels from the NCAA tournament field.
This matchup features a major contrast of styles. The Zags rely on their dominant front court to carry them which features senior Kyle Wiltjer and sophomore Domantas Sabonis who averaged a double-double on the season. Conversely, the Pirates almost exclusively play through their point guard, freshmen sensation Isiah “The Prophet” Whitehead. Whitehead, a five-star recruit, has completely changed the complexion of this Seton Hall team and capped his excellent freshman campaign with a game for the ages against Villanova in the Big East final. How Seton Hall handles the size of Gonzaga and how Gonzaga handles Whitehead will ultimately decide the outcome of this game. Seton Hall does have some size down low, namely Angel Delgado and Ismael Sanogo, but it remains to be seen if they can match the skill and athleticism of Wiltjer and Sabonis.
Another important factor to consider here is the experience of Gonzaga. Both Wiltjer and Sabonis played in the tournament last year and came within one win of reaching the Final Four. Seton Hall is not blessed with nearly as much experience, and starts five sophomores none of which have played in the NCAA tournament. In fact, the only upperclassman that gets consistent minutes for the Pirates is senior Derrick Gordon, who also has never been to the tournament.
This matchup will certainly be one of the more entertaining games of the first two days of the first weekend. Will Seton Hall be suffering from a post Big East title hangover when they square off against Gonzaga? The answer may have a major impact on the outcome of this one.
Team on Upset Alert: Iowa State Cyclones
Another year and another high seed for Georges Niang and the Iowa State Cyclones. I apologize in advance to those who had Iowa State in the Final Four last season, but let me remind you that this same Iowa State squad lost in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament to 14th seeded UAB. That team entered the NCAA tournament fresh off a Big 12 tournament title and was hot as any team in the country. It was impossible to predict that Iowa State was going to get upset on that day. However, this current version of Iowa State is not nearly as good as last year and is on upset alert for day one.
Their opponent, Iona, has the goods to beat Iowa State at its own game. As has been the case for most of Georges Niang’s time in Ames, the strategy of the Cyclones is just to out score you. They are fine with giving up 80 as long as they can score 90. Although the Gaels are certainly not as good offensively as the Cyclones, they will have no trouble keeping up on the scoreboard. Iona averages 79.6 points per game, only 2.2 less than Iowa State, who averages 81.8 PPG. They have scored over 100 points more times than Iowa State has this season, including 102 against Monmouth, considered by many worthy of an at-large selection.
You would expect that Iowa State, who has played their fair share of shootouts this season, would be able to win a shootout against a mid-major in Iona. However, if the Gaels are making their threes early and Cyclones start off cold, it may be Iowa State chasing Iona rather than the other way around.
Sleeper Team: Purdue Boilermakers
The Purdue Boilermakers are the quintessential sleeper. Not many people know a lot about them. They are lost in the shuffle of the Big 10 with teams like Michigan State, Maryland, and Indiana. They do nothing flashy. However, Purdue has the experience and talent to make a deep run in the Midwest region.
First let’s talk about the players on their team who drive this engine. Senior A.J. Hammons averages 15 PPG to go along with eight rebounds and is one of the better big men in the country. Freshmen Caleb Swanigan, a highly touted five-star recruit, has improved consistently throughout the season and can be a difference maker for the Boilermakers. Sophomore Vince Edwards flashed his potential in the Big Ten Final against Michigan State, as he led all scorers with 19 points.
The road for Purdue is manageable and gives them an opportunity to go all the way to the Final Four. While no game will be easy, Purdue has a realistic chance against each team they may face.
In the first round they’ll receive everyone’s upset pick, Arkansas Little-Rock. Although the Trojans are 29-4, they only have one victory over a team in the field of 68, Tulsa, who was the last team put in the tournament. In the second round, they could run into Iowa State. Despite Iowa State’s offensive prowess, Purdue has the ability to slow the game down and play in the half court while Iowa State does not. Next, they could run into the region’s No. 1 seed Virginia. Virginia is an excellent team who has had an incredible season, however, Purdue can match their defensive intensity with Hammons, who is 2nd in the Big 10 and 20th in the entire country in blocks per game (2.4). The Boilermakers are capable of playing the grind-it-out style that Virginia thrives on. Finally, Purdue could play Michigan State in the Elite 8. Even though many experts have the Spartans winning the entire tournament, Purdue lost to Michigan State by only four points on a neutral floor two days ago in a game that they could have easily won.
Although Purdue will not be picked by many to win the Midwest, they are certainly as dangerous as any team in the region.
Favorite to win region: Michigan State Spartans
Question: Is there anyone who actually believes Virginia deserves a one seed over Michigan State except the selection committee? The Michigan State Spartans finished the regular season on a nine game winning streak culminating with a 66-62 victory over Purdue in the Big Ten championship game. Virginia, on the other hand, went nearly eight minutes in the second half without recording a single field goal against UNC and lost 61-57 in the ACC final. Yet, the selection committee decided to put the Cavaliers on the one line instead of the Spartans.
Regardless of the committee’s decision, Michigan State is the clear favorite in the Midwest region. No player in the country is playing better than senior guard Denzel Valentine. Valentine did his best to channel his inner Russell Westbrook in the Big Ten tournament, averaging a near triple double for the three games, 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 9 assists per game. His play has also allowed players like Matt Costello and Brynn Forbes to improve their games exponentially.
Michigan State will certainly be favored in their first three matchups of the tournament against Middle Tennessee, Syracuse or Dayton, and most likely Utah or Gonzaga. The Spartans could run into one-seeded Virginia, who they have beaten the past two NCAA tournaments once in the Sweet 16 and once in the round of 32.
Their favorable draw and recent dominance over UVA makes Michigan State the clear pick to win the Midwest region. Valentine and Izzo have everything it takes to make it to the Final Four and possibly cut the nets in Houston.