Size or speed: what do you got?
A quick scan through the Midwest Region shows this fundamental matchup featured over and over again. Purdue, Gonzaga, Utah and Dayton are all teams led by some of the best major and mid-major frontcourts in the country. They are matched up with Arkansas-Little Rock, Seton Hall, Fresno State and Syracuse, respectively: four teams that have earned their spots in The Big Dance thanks to dynamic and multifaceted guard play.
Looking further down the bracket, potential Iowa State-Purdue and Seton Hall-Utah matchups offer further examples of the frontcourt-backcourt conflict.
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So perhaps it is fitting that the two top seeds are overwhelming favorites to win this region. Virginia and Michigan State are two of the most complete teams in the country. Both teams feature outstanding, NBA-caliber guards. But they are also both stacked in the post and almost prefer a physical, head-knocking game in the paint.
The Midwest Region semifinals and finals will take place on Friday, March 25, and Sunday, March 27, in Chicago. Here are Doc's Sports March Madness bracket predictions for the Midwest Region (with odds courtesy of Sportsbook.ag):
No. 1 Seed: Michigan State (+100 to win Midwest Region)
The Spartans are the best team in the field. Period. I don't care about their seed. Michigan State is the most complete team with the fewest question marks. They have an NBA-caliber go-to guy in Denzel Valentine, one of the best players in the nation. They have two other extremely experienced guards, Bryn Forbes and Eron Harris, who can get hot and carry an offense. They have excellent post play, on both ends, with super talented Deyonta Davis and versatile Matt Costello. The bench is stocked, and Tom Izzo is one of the best postseason coaches in college basketball history. Add it all together and you have a team that will be tough to top.
Michigan State Tournament Prediction: I think that Michigan State is going to win the national championship, and if they don't it would be somewhat of an upset. Look, I know that the best team rarely wins in the NCAA Tournament. Anything can happen in The Madness. But the Spartans were my pick at the beginning of the year (them and Kansas), and I'm not backing away now.
No. 2 Seed: Virginia Cavaliers (+200 to win Midwest Region)
It doesn't matter what your style of play is; when you face the Cavaliers you're going to play their game. And more often than not the Cavaliers play their game better than you do. Virginia operates at the slowest pace in the country, turning every game into a grinding battle of wills. But they are incredibly efficient on offense and defense, and this team never beats itself. Malcolm Brogdon is an All-American player and forward Anthony Gill can play with anyone. The Cavs have young talent off the bench and quality role players that just make key plays in big situations. They've also stepped out and beaten some of the best teams in the country, taking down West Virginia, Virginia, Cal and North Carolina.
Virginia Tournament Predictions: This might be Tony Bennett's best team yet. And after years of entering the tournament as one of the favorites, only to come up short, this might be their best opportunity to reach a Final Four. What worries me is that their style of play might inadvertently allow inferior teams to just kind of hang around. And in the last two minutes of any tournament game, anything can happen. Their strength could eventually be used against them.
No. 3 Seed: Utah Utes (+700)
This was one of the more surprising seeds of the tournament. It is not that Utah isn't an excellent team. They are. And they are certainly better than the team that got pummeled by Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. But Utah hasn't been a national factor in a long time. That could all change behind their stellar frontcourt, led by Jakob Poeltl and up-and-comer Kyle Kuzma. Utah is one of the largest teams in the field. But the key to their tournament will be the play of senior guards Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge. They're both three-year starters that have won a lot of games. And when it comes down to the nitty-gritty it will be one of those two taking Utah's biggest shots.
Utah Tournament Predictions: Utah is overseeded. But that doesn't mean they are necessarily ripe for an upset. The Utes have a relatively favorable draw in Denver this weekend. And most of this group nearly knocked out eventual champion Duke in last year's tournament (and beat the Blue Devils on a neutral court earlier this year). They are more than capable of busting a lot of brackets and taking down Michigan State. I just don't think they will because this team simply hasn't been reliable outside of Salt Lake City the past few years.
No. 4 Seed: Iowa State Cyclones (+1000)
The Cyclones started the season with dreams of a Big 12 and a national championship. But it has been a slow, steady bleed for this team since early December. They've gone just 12-11 since a 9-0 start and Iowa State is a team that can seemingly beat anyone or lose to anyone in the field. Things begin and end with three-year starter Georges Niang, a do-everything forward. Jameel McKay and lefty Abdel Nader are two more senior frontcourt players that are asked to play bigger than their frames. Monte Morris is a lightning-fast and incredibly underrated point guard, while junior Matt Thomas is a spot-up shooter. Iowa State's biggest issue is depth. The only other guy they really play is senior transfer Deonte Burton, so they essentially have a six-man rotation. They can also be averse to defense at times, and that makes them susceptible to being upset, much like they were by UAB in last year's tournament.
Iowa State Tournament Predictions: Spoiler alert: Iowa State is the team that makes me the most nervous in this bracket. They didn't lose to any non-tournament teams this year and have just one loss outside of the Top 45. So it takes talent to beat them. But, as I pointed out, they have been just a .500 team for the last three months, and the tournament is filled with talented teams. Do Niang and the other seniors have one final run in them? Or is this team simply too thin to be a factor?
No. 5 Seed: Purdue Boilermakers (+400)
With three forwards boasting NBA-caliber talent, the Boilermakers have the best frontcourt in the country. Seven-foot senior A.J. Hammons, 7-2 sophomore Isaac Haas, and 6-9 freshman Caleb Swanigan are nearly impossible to stop. And the Boilermakers surround them with a team of 3-point shooters that makes opponents pick their poison. Purdue is outstanding defensively, thanks in part to stoppers Vince Edwards and Raphael Davis. They have a lot of shooters on the perimeter. But they don't have a lot of playmakers. And this team has gotten erratic point guard play at times throughout the year. But Matt Painter is no stranger to winning big March games, and this is his best team since Robbie Hummel graduated.
Purdue Tournament Predictions: I actually think that Purdue has a better chance of beating Michigan State in a potential third showdown this year than Virginia would have in their first meeting. But to get to that point the Boilermakers may have to knock off Iowa State and Virginia. That's a tall order for a team that doesn't have a single pro prospect at the guard position.
No. 6 Seed: Seton Hall Pirates (+1000)
It's been a long time since the Pirates have been relevant on a national level. But they burst onto the scene last weekend with a barnstorming tour through the Big East Tournament, knocking off Villanova and Xavier on the way to a championship. Seton Hall starts five sophomores, led by star guard Isaiah Whitehead. If you haven't seen this kid play yet you are in for a treat. But he's not the only big-time player on this team, as wings Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez and forward Angel Delgado can all take over games. Only one team - Butler - has beaten the Pirates since late January, and this team has plenty of momentum.
Seton Hall Tournament Predictions: Did the young Pirates peak too soon with that mammoth run in Madison Square Garden last weekend? Or are they just scorching hot with the best yet to come? It is really tough to pinpoint exactly where the ceiling is with this team, and anything from a first-round letdown to a Sweet 16 burst wouldn't surprise me. But even if they make it through the opening weekend I can't see the youngsters getting past Michigan State's veterans.
Best first-round match up: No. 6 Seton Hall (+1) vs. No. 11 Gonzaga
There is a lot of young, raw, up-and-coming talent on the floor in this game. And the fact that the higher seed is an underdog to a double-digit seed shows what a razor-thin margin there is between these groups. Gonzaga senior Kyle Wiltjer already had one championship ring with Kentucky, and he's one of the most versatile scorers in the nation. And center Domantas Sabonis is simply brilliant around the basket. Gonzaga is back in its preferred underdog role as a double-digit seed. But it will take a max effort for them to punch their way past scorching Seton Hall.
Best potential second-round match up: No. 4 Iowa State vs. No. 5 Purdue
This contrast in styles would be the perfect microcosm of what this region is all about. Both of these teams have been tabbed at Final Four potentials at one point or another this season. And both boast NBA-level talent in the frontcourt. Iowa State has the edge in tournament experience, but right now there aren't many teams in the country executing their style better than Purdue.
Upset Alert (first round): No. 4 Iowa State vs. No. 13 Iona
Iowa State is a team that doesn't like to play defense. Instead, they rely on trying to simply outscore and outmaneuver their opponents. The problem for them here is that is exactly how Iona wants to play and the Gaels have a lot of different scoring options. A.J. English has averaged over 20 points per game the past two years and is one of the leading scorers in the nation. He is one of four senior starters that have been waiting their whole careers for a spot like this. Iona has won eight straight games, including beating an outstanding Monmouth team twice in the past month. They are hot and if they are making shots early then watch out.
Upset Alert (second round): No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 9 Butler
I definitely see some upsets occurring in this region in the first round. And that makes it difficult to spot many ripe spots in Saturday's games. But this is one that could be overlooked. Butler is a team that I've been waiting for all year long. They just haven't clicked (mainly because their interior defense stinks). But they have three guards with unique skill sets that can cause a lot of problems for opponents. Kellen Dunham is one of the best shooters in the country and Roosevelt Jones is a bear. If they can man-up and find any kind of post defense at all then the Bulldogs can compete with any of the top teams in the land. They won't mind a slowed-down, grind-it-out pace, and this is a team that's pulled big upsets like this before.
Dark Horse team: No. 6 Seton Hall
I really don't think there are many dark horse teams in this bracket, and I expect the top five seeds to dominate. But there is no denying that Seton Hall has momentum and the hubris of youth on its side. If the Pirates were good enough to beat Villanova and Xavier, two No. 2 seeds, then they have the firepower to take down anyone else that they could run up against in this region.
Team That Makes Me Nervous: No. 4 Iowa State
I think that any hope that Iowa State had of making the Final Four got flushed down the toilet when Naz Long got injured earlier in the season. But that doesn't mean that they don't have enough to be a major factor in this bracket. Niang is one of the best players in the country and Iowa State has a load of experience with the few guys it does play. I could definitely see this team knocking off Virginia and making a run to the Elite Eight. But I could also see them losing to Iona. They remind me a lot of Maryland down in the South; this is a boom-or-bust team that's impossible to get a true read on.
2016 Midwest Region Predictions: Every year there is a bracket that has a regional final matchup that is just so juicy you absolutely need it to happen. Last year it was in the West Region with Wisconsin and Arizona. This year that matchup is in the Midwest, where a potential Virginia-Michigan State game would be awesome. That game could've happened in the NCAA Championship Game if things had broken differently. Instead, these two titans will likely have to knock each other off just for the opportunity to advance to the Final Four, where more powerhouses await.
I think that Michigan State is the best team in the field and they are my national title selection. I don't really see many pitfalls or poor matchups for them prior to that potential clash with Virginia in the regional finals. I think both teams make it that far and Michigan State wins one of the best games of the tournament.
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and he is on an unbelievable run right now, more than doubling his clients' bankrolls in the last seven weeks while earning $13,900 in profit! Robert has banked 10 straight winning college basketball regular seasons and he will have his 8-Unit NCAA Tournament Game of the Year available on Thursday this week. There is no better moneymaker in the nation and Robert is looking forward to another amazing March Madness. Click here to get two days of college basketball picks for free - no hassle and no credit card needed.
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