The Midwest region is, without a doubt, the toughest region in the 2014 NCAA tournament. Three of the four teams that made the Final Four last year have been placed in the Midwest. Wichita State, Michigan and Louisville are seeded No. 1, 2 and 4 in the region, with the three seed being the Duke Blue Devils.
The committee rewarded the Shockers weak schedule with an almost impossible run to win the national championship. Wichita State might have to play Kentucky, yes eight-seeded Kentucky, the preseason No. 1-ranked team, in the third round. Win that game and the Shockers will have a rematch of their Final Four game last year with the last team that defeated them, the Louisville Cardinals. Pull out a shocking victory against the defending champions and Greg Marshall‘s squad will have to play either last year’s runner-up Michigan or Jabari Parker and the Duke Blue Devils just to reach the Final Four.
Yes, the Shockers have a tough road, but so does just about every team in this region. Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino and John Calipari have all won national championships and will be looking to add one more to their resume. John Beilein, Rick Barnes and Bruce Weber are also very good coaches looking to win their first national championship. There is a very good chance that the eventual nation champion comes from the Midwest region this season.
*** *** ***
First Round Upsets:
(12) North Carolina State over (5) Saint Louis
T.J. Warren is the ACC Player of the Year and is one of the best offensive threats in the country. He is averaging 24.8 points, along with seven rebounds per game; add his 52.8 shooting percent from the field, making him a threat to take over a game single-handedly. Many were shocked when the Wolfpack were called on Sunday but I think they have a good chance to win two games in the tournament. Warren has scored 17 points or more in 30 of North Carolina State’s 34 games this season.
St. Louis has struggled down the stretch and is just 1-4 in their last five games.
(11) Tennessee over (6) Massachusetts
Tennessee is playing its best basketball of the year right now and comes into the tournament with some momentum. The Volunteers won five of their last six games, with that one loss coming to Florida in a tough SEC tournament game. Jarnell Stokes has been sensational this season, recording 19 double-doubles. The Minutemen have been inconsistent towards the end of the season and don’t have a win over a quality opponent since February 21 against VCU.
(14) Mercer over (3) Duke
If you are looking for one of those deep, shocking upsets, this may be the game you choose. Mercer starts four seniors and has played some tough teams out of conference. The Bears lost to Texas by three early in the year in Austin, defeated Ole Miss at Ole Miss and played Oklahoma tough in Norman. Mercer is a very efficient offensive team, ranking in the top 40 in the country in points per game (25th), assists per game (tenth) and field goal percentage (29th).
Duke has gone through stretches where they have a tough time scoring the basketball. The Blue Devils better be ready for a hungry Mercer team that has four starters looking to make their senior year one to remember.
Potential Key Matchups
Wichita State vs. Kentucky
The Shockers will have to play John Calipari’s freshmen if Kentucky can get past Kansas State in the second round. Kentucky was ranked No. 1 in the country preseason, but throughout the season the Wildcats’ youth was exposed. Although Kentucky is young and inexperienced, that may play to their advantage in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky, an 8-seed, no longer has the expectation to win, especially with the region they have been placed in. On the other hand, Wichita State’s perfect season has the nation watching the Shockers very closely, and the pressure to prove they’re as good as their record says they will now be tested.
Kentucky is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country and a big part of Wichita State’s success is scoring second chance points off offensive rebounds. I think Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein can give the Shockers a lot of trouble in the paint. However, the play of the Harrison twins will determine how long Kentucky survives.
Duke vs. Michigan
Michigan and Duke met earlier in the season in the Big Ten/ACC challenge and the Blue Devils emerged victorious. But Michigan is a significantly different team. In the matchup against Duke, Mitch McGary was still healthy and recorded a double-double. However, McGary hasn’t played since mid-December and Michigan has adapted well without him. The Wolverines won 11 of 12 after their loss to Duke and won the Big Ten regular season title.
Duke has played consistent all year but the win over Michigan was at Cameroon Indoor. All eight of the Blue Devils losses have been on the road or at neutral sites. This would be a tremendous Sweet 16 matchup and the winner very well might be headed to Arlington.
Wichita State vs. Louisville
The other Sweet 16 matchup in this region can very well be a rematch between Louisville and Wichita State. Louisville ended the Shockers’ Cinderella story in the Final Four last year, beating them by four in a close game.
Wichita State is 34-0 but the Cardinals might be the hottest team in the country. Russ Smith is better than he was last season and Montrezl Harrell has been unstoppable late in the year. Wichita State hasn’t seen a quality opponent such as Louisville since, well… Louisville last year. Will the Shockers shock the world and get revenge or will the Cardinals prove they are the team to beat again in March?
Players to Watch:
The Midwest region is full of big name basketball players. The list below doesn’t even include the Shockers big three in Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Cleanthony Early. Julius Randle and T.J. Warren are future first-round selections that were left off this list as well.
Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas, Michigan
Robinson and Stauskas played a big part in Michigan’s run to the Final Four last season. Robinson scored in double-figures in four tournament games and really gave the Wolverines a lift offensively. Michigan will need Robinson to do the same to ease the stress on Nik Stauskas.
Stauskas will probably be covered by the opponent’s best defender throughout the tournament and Michigan will need another player to be able to create their own shot in order to advance deep into the madness. Robinson has been getting into a groove as of late, scoring in double-figures in nine of the last ten games. He is averaging 13 points a game this season but will need to average more than that in the tournament if the Wolverines plan on winning it all.
Stauskas struggled some in the tournament against tough defenders but this season he has improved his game off the dribble. This sophomore duo will be fun to watch, especially if they get another chance at Duke and Louisville.
Russ Smith and Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Russ-diculous has been ridiculous of late. A career-high in assists to end the regular season with 12, followed by a 42-point performance in the conference tournament semifinal game has Louisville rolling into the tournament. Smith is having a better season then last year and has emerged into a leader on and off the court. His shot selection has improved and he is averaging a career-high 4.7 assists per game. His field goal percentage (47.5) and three point percentage (40.5) are both career-highs.
Montrezl Harrell has done his part to help Louisville return as a favorite to repeat, averaging 14 points and eight rebounds a game. Harrell recorded a double-double in the AAC Tournament championship game and will have to continue being a dominant force down low. This duo has its eyes set on winning back-to-back national championships.
Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, Duke
Duke might have the best one-two punch in the country in Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker. Both players can drive to the basket and finish strong at the rim as well as step back and consistently knock down their jump shot. Hood is a better perimeter player but Parker is a force in the post. Parker, arguably the best player in the country, is averaging 19.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and is shooting 47.5 percent from the field. Hood tallies 16.4 points per contest, making the Blue Devils unstoppable at times on offense.
If Hood and Parker can catch-fire these next six games, Duke has a very good chance of winning the region and advance to Arlington.
Who do you think is making it out of this region?
Follow Dan on Twitter at @D_Ingham5.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.