TOP TALENT IS ABUNDANT IN THE MID-WEST
Sleepers & Giant Killers
The NCAA selection committee did the rest of the teams in the Mid-west region no favor by putting the Michigan State Spartans as a #3 seed. Sure, the Spartans finished with an RPI of 15, but this was a team ranked 5th in the nation by the AP/Coaches poll, and 6th in BPI and KenPom. They have three losses since the start of 2018, and two of those three losses were to cross-state rival Michigan. This Spartans team could be one of the best that Izzo has had in East Lansing in years.
Nobody around the country really thinks of the Auburn Tigers as a basketball program, but head coach Bruce Pearl led the program to its first NCAA tournament appearance in 15 years, and its first SEC regular season title since 1999. This Tigers team is balanced, and plays with the speed, shooting, and attitude you’d expect from a team coached by Pearl.
If you’re looking for a team that could cause some mayhem in this region, keep an eye on the Seton Hall Pirates. They finished the year ranked inside the top 30 in BPI and KenPom, and they have five quality wins against teams in the NCAA tournament this year. The Pirates roster features size and athleticism that makes them a nightmare on the offensive boards, which makes them a problem against guard-heavy teams.
Best & Most Underrated Players
This is the rare year where Bill Self’s cupboard isn’t full of one-and-done NBA prospects. In fact, for the second-straight year, his best player is a senior. Devonte’ Graham has saved his best for last this year, averaging a career-high 17.6 points per game, and becoming the Jayhawks go-to guy when things matter the most. He’s become a tremendously balanced scorer and facilitator, leading the Jayhawks in scoring and assists.
Duke’s “diaper dandies” get all the attention inside and outside Durham for their NBA potential, but Grayson Allen gets all the attention for all the wrong reasons. Still, whether or not you think of Allen as a dirty player, he’s also an integral part of this Blue Devils team, and the type of guy you hate playing against, but would love to play with. He’s the second-leading scorer among Duke’s starting five, putting in 15.5 points per game, and can be a streaky shooter from the perimeter, especially with teams focusing their efforts around Bagley and Carter on the inside.
Tra Holder for the Arizona State Sun Devils looked like he might be in the mix for the John Wooden award by season’s end, but his play this year mirrored the season that the Sun Devils had in general. Holder averaged 21.4 points per game during Arizona State’s 12-0 run, but has cooled down a bit, averaging “only” 16.6 points the remainder of the way. Still, he is an equally capable distributor as he is a scorer, and if Arizona State’s offense gets going, they could be a very dangerous team in the tournament.
Top NBA Prospects
If you fashion yourself an NBA scout, then you may want to pay very close attention to the Mid-west region, because there’s a staggering number of players in this region who will be playing in the pro’s some day.
You could argue that four of the top 10 NBA prospects in all of college basketball will be playing in the bottom part of the Midwest region. We’ll start with Marvin Bagley III from Duke, who brings a rare blend of scoring prowess, finishing ability, athleticism, rebounding, and motor, wrapped up in a 6’11 and 234lb frame. While there are some questions about what position he’ll play in the pro’s, he has an NBA-ready body and skillset.
That being said, Bagley’s teammate Wendell Carter Jr. might have been the best big man on the Blue Devils in big games this year. Carter is more of your traditional center (though he’s a tad shorter than Bagley, standing 6-foot-10 and 2
63lbs), showing the ability to score on the inside, rebound, and block shots.
Duke’s potential Sweet 16 opponent, the Michigan State Spartans, have their own duo of players who could be lottery picks.
Jaren Jackson Jr. might be the guy who ends up being drafted the highest among them all, seeing as how many scouts see him as the guy with the highest ceiling. At 6-foot-11 and 242lbs, scouts believe the Jackson still has room to fill out his frame (he won’t even be 20 years old when he enters an NBA training camp), and turn into a modern NBA center who can space the floor (he shot 40% from three).
Teammate Miles Bridges is a powerful combo forward with freakish athleticism and body control. While his playing style is certainly different, people have compared Bridges’ energy, aggression, competitiveness, and underrated (thought streaky) shooting ability to former Spartan Draymond Green, especially since both are seen as “tweeners” because of their (eerily reminiscent) size.
Last, but not least, let’s not forget Trae Young from Oklahoma. Young had a blistering first half of the season, which the media covered ad nauseum. But other teams began to take notice as well, and started collapsing defensively on him, forcing the rest of his Sooners teammates to beat them. That greatly stifled Young’s — and Oklahoma’s — overall offense. Young will likely come out and try to be a “Stephen Curry at Davidson, version 2.0,” but that’s only if opponents will allow it.
They might not be the top seed in this region, but the fundamental question in this region will be whether anyone can stop Duke from advancing to the Final Four. Kansas might be seeded as the top team in this region, but until they prove they’re anything other than tournament choke artists that we’ve grown accustomed to in years past, this is Duke’s region to lose.
The top three seeds (Kansas, Duke, and Michigan State) should be fine out of the gates. Same with Auburn and Clemson, as the latter avoids the dreaded 5-12 upset. After winning a game to get in the tournament, it’s hard to see Arizona State beating TCU, considering the Sun Devils have won back-to-back games only once since the start of 2018. Rhode Island beats an Oklahoma team that’s been in a miserable funk. Seton Hall beats NC State, given the Pirates’ ability to beat teams in the paint, and the Wolfpack’s lack of size to stop teams down low.
Kansas against Seton Hall should be a very good game, as the Pirates’ size and prowess on the offensive glass should give the Jayhawks a huge problem. Kansas should survive this scare, but we wouldn’t be surprised at all if Seton Hall advances to the Sweet 16. Expect Duke and Michigan State to sweat a lot less in the Round of 32, as they meet up in a potentially epic Sweet 16 battle. We give the slight edge to Auburn over Clemson, thanks to the experience of head coach Bruce Pearl.
In fact, we’ll take that one step further and predict the Tigers send the Jayhawks home early, yet again. On the other side of the bracket, in what could be the best game of the tournament to that point in time, take the Blue Devils to beat the Spartans in a star-studded affair. Once Duke gets into the Elite Eight, it’s hard to see them losing to Auburn.
Final Four Prediction: DUKE
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