Is it that time of year again? Heck yeah it is. The 68 most deserving teams have almost all been selected, but the committee decimating the dreams of college kids and costing institutions millions of dollars worth of free advertising isn't going to get in the way of our having a good time, right? Today and yesterday we'll be breaking down each region for you; by the time the play-in games are over and you've put in your order for hot wings, we'll have you prepped for action.
Do you wish the play-in games would go away and the regions would just be 16 teams again? Do you enjoy the almost annual tradition of Virginia and Michigan State landing together? Do you think the best thing for attractive basketball is teams from sea level playing in the Rockies? If so, the Midwest is for you! You can squint to see Final Four talent on a handful of these teams; let's jump in.
Maybe this is just my flyover country bias showing, but I'm not impressed by Utah. Their resume is built more on winning the games they should have (except for @Stanford) and beating a bunch of bubble-ish teams than it is on sustained excellence. Their best win is probably a neutral court rock fight against Duke before Christmas, and their last game was a 31-point loss against Oregon. They may have pulled a golden ticket by getting to spend their first weekend at altitude, but I would favor the 4, 5, or 6 in this region against them on a truly neutral site.
Michigan State also has a real gripe, but it's hard for me to pull the trigger on calling the #2 underseeded, so here we land. Of the Boilermakers' eight losses, seven of them have been categorized as A games by KenPom, with the only exception being a road defeat to Illinois in January. They've beaten Maryland, Michigan State, Michigan (twice), Wisconsin (twice), and Howard, and they played Sparty to the wire in the Big Ten final. The committee whiffed hard on this one; it's not hard to look at this team and see them playing for a chance to go to the Final Four.
Easy to like:
#4 Iowa State
Guess who loves to get shots up and hates to defend? Me and probably you, but also definitely Iowa State. The Cyclones play fast, have the third-most efficient offense in the nation, and score well from inside and out. They're also one of the most experienced teams in the country. So why aren't they the prohibitive title favorite? Their defense, which isn't even in the top 100 in efficiency. Why waste all that energy when you could use it on offense? They'll probably wash out at some point because they can't get stops, but how can you not like a team that just wants to play some ball and not get bogged down in the boring details?
Fun to watch:
Iona jacks threes whenever they can. That's the only plan. A whopping 45% of their shot attempts come from behind the arc. They are 0-2 against tournament teams so far this year, largely because of the general insanity of relying on the three ball so heavily. Amazingly, they have just one game against the KenPom top 50, a season-opening loss to Valpo. They're probably going to get buried in the first round, but there's always that chance with a three-heavy team that they rip off a 12-2 run in about a minute thirty and put themselves in the montage.
Easy to hate:
Their coach is a whiner who make blatant attempts to manipulate the media, the NCAA, the Selection Committee, and anyone else he can whine to. He's Mick Cronin except Cronin doesn't have a decade of NCAA investigations into his crappy program. They run a gimmick defense that routinely gets torn apart by 50-year-old men at the YMCA (attack the high post and/or the short corner, get your mid-range buckets, adjust your knee brace on the way back down to defend). Their case was built on the idea that they shouldn't be judged on how they played without Boeheim, ignoring the fact that (a) Boeheim was out because he was suspended, not for any righteous reason and (b) they lost 5 of their last 6 with him. They are so easy to hate that I've said something almost nice about Mick Cronin and passed up the chance to hate on Dayton just because of how much I hate Syracuse. This isn't healthy for me; let's move on.
#6 Seton Hall
You already know this, right? Isaiah Whitehead was absolutely the best player in the Big East this year, and he's playing like the McDonald's All-American he was coming out of high school. Kevin Willard's talented crop of sophomores has finally come together in the second half this year; just since Valentine's Day, the Hall has beaten Xavier twice, knocked off Villanova, and run Providence off the floor. Speaking of Valentines (it's okay to be impressed with that segue; I went to school for this stuff), the nation needs to see Whitehead go up against Michigan State's star in the Sweet 16. With a nasty defense, a legitimate star in the backcourt, and an offense peaking at the right time, Seton Hall could ruin a lot of brackets this year.
#7 Dayton v. #10 Syracuse
I think Syracuse will win this one, but I don't want them to. At least a Dayton win puts them closer to the down stroke of the cycle of mid-majorness when DePaul hires away Archie Miller and UD has to start over with some nobody like Scott Morrison. That this will likely be the most intriguing matchup of the first round doesn't speak well for how excitingly this region will start off. Don't worry; it will get better later.
Player to watch:
Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
I know I've already spilled a lot of digital ink on Whitehead here, but I really think he has the potential to go all Oochie Wally Szczerbiak and win a couple of games on his own. I don't know how he has stayed under the radar like he has, but he's shooting the eyes out of the ball, distributing without turning it over, and playing stout defense without fouling, and all this while playing 80% of the team's minutes and posting a usage rate over 30%. He's a 6'4", 210-pound point guard; how many teams are equipped to deal with that? No question in my mind that this kid is about to be a star.