By Ryan Mayer
The time is here. The NCAA Selection Committee has given us their opinion on the 68 best teams in the country and the bracket is in your hands. As you contemplate your upset picks and which teams to trust, you’ll probably flip flop a couple of times. To help, we’re going to break down each region for you one by one in our 2016 Bracket Breakdown series.
The Midwest region features heavyweights Virginia and Michigan State, red-hot Seton Hall, physical Utah and a promising up-tempo game between Iona and Iowa State. The biggest story line here was Tom Izzo and the Spartans, fresh off a Big Ten tournament championship, not being put on the one line and instead drawing the two in Chicago. As if the Spartans and their fans needed any more perceived slights or bulletin board material, the committee just gift wrapped them more motivation. As for Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers, they seem to get much less recognition this year than in previous seasons. Flying under the radar while teams like UNC, Kansas, Michigan State, etc played hot potato with the number one ranking during the year, the Wahoos are beating people into submission with the same physical, defense-first approach of its predecessors. Plus, Malcolm Brogdon is a stud. This should be a fun region to watch.
Favorite: Michigan State
All due respect to Virginia who earned a number one seed, but Michigan State has the feel of a gathering storm heading into the tourney. The Spartans have won nine straight games dating back to February 14th. And, outside of an OT loss to Purdue on February 9th, they have won 13 of their last 14 contests. That includes wins over Big Ten regular season champ Indiana, 5th seeded Maryland and Purdue, and 7th seeded Wisconsin.
Everyone in America knows about Denzel Valentine, the newest iteration of the Michigan State swiss army knife players, but Sparty is more than just a one man team. They feature a dangerous deadeye shooter in Bryn Forbes and front court duo Matt Costello/Deyonta Davis. Add to that Matt McQuaid, Gavin Schilling, and Marvin Clark off the bench and you’ve got a deep experienced team. Keep in mind, this is a team that reached the Final Four last season as a seven seed and lost only Branden Dawson/Travis Trice as key cogs.
Add to that the fact that the Spartans are 8-0 in neutral site games and 7-3 away from home this season, which bodes well for playing in the tournament format. Plus, there’s the wizardry that is Tom Izzo. Izzo is 46-17 in the NCAA Tournament, has reached 7 Final Fours with one title to his name. There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and Tom Izzo in March. The guy just wins. Do you really want to bet against him?
Upset Alert: Iowa State/Seton Hall
But didn’t you just say Seton Hall is one of the hottest teams in the tournament? Yep. This isn’t to say that the Pirates will definitely lose to Gonzaga in the first round, but it’s certainly a tough draw. The Bulldogs are experience laden and one of my potential bracket busters this year. Plenty to like about the ‘Zags in their match-up with Seton Hall and they could certainly make a run. Or, Seton Hall and Isaiah Whitehead could come out with their hair on fire as they have the past several weeks and just roll the Bulldogs.
Iowa State is on here because the Cyclones seem to fall flat each year come tournament time, and if there was ever a team capable of catching fire it’s Iona. AJ English, when he’s on, can connect from anywhere. He’s averaging 22 points per game on the season while hitting on 37% of his threes. Add to that a guy like Deyshonee Much (45% 3PT) and experienced big men Isaiah Williams, Jordan Washington and Aaron Rountree and the Gaels could pose problems for the Cyclones.
For Iowa State, they seem like a team that should be talked about as making a deep run. But, the offensive efficiency (3rd Ken Pom) doesn’t make up for the lack of defensive efficiency (101st Ken Pom). There’s a reason the cliche defense wins championships tends to prove itself out in March, and for the Cyclones facing a team like Iona (60th offensive efficiency) could provide the kind of high scoring affair that favors the little guy.
Again, this isn’t to say those upsets will definitely happen, but buyer beware.
Surprise Sweet 16 team: Gonzaga Bulldogs
We’ve covered the reasons why the ‘Zags could crash the party and win two games to advance past the opening weekend. The reason that they’re the pick here as opposed to Iona is even if the Gaels were to pull off a stunner against Iowa State, I don’t see them beating a Purdue team featuring two 7-foot behemoths in AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas. Gonzaga would most likely (barring upset) draw Utah in the Round of 32, which while it still isn’t favorable by any stretch (Jakob Poeltl, Jordan Loveridge and Kyle Kuzma all would have something to say about it), Gonzaga in my mind is more likely to take that match-up than Iona would be of taking the match-up with Purdue.
Kyle Wiltjer has heated up in his last five games averaging 19.2 PPG with 6.8 rebounds while shooting 52% from the field and 50% from deep. His front court partner in crime Domantas Sabonis has been just as hot averaging a double-double with 17.8 PPG & 11.4 RPG. Gonzaga is 24th in the nation in offensive efficiency and 55th in defensive efficiency with an experienced group. They are 28th overall in Ken Pom with their two opponents Seton Hall (26th) and Utah (29th) right in the same area code. Plenty of potential to pull off two upsets and make a Sweet 16 appearance.
Dark Horse Regional Champ: Purdue Boilermakers
The Boilermakers fell in the Big Ten title game to Michigan State, but they are still plenty dangerous entering the Big Dance. The reason for that? The big boys down low. AJ Hammons and Caleb Swanigan is a formidable starting duo, with Swanigan allowing Hammons room to work via his ability to step out and knock down a three. Then Matt Painter can bring in 7’2″ Isaac Haas off the bench. There’s not many teams that can match-up with that size. When you add a defensive stopper like Rapheal Davis to that group this is a physically imposing team that’s in the top 25 of both the offensive and defensive efficiency ratings.
The biggest tests that Purdue would face in attempting to reach Houston are the aforementioned Spartans and of course the top seed Virginia Cavaliers. Purdue has already beaten Sparty once and kept it close in both their other games, while Virginia doesn’t seem to have the same kind of size to match-up. I still have the Cavaliers and Spartans duking it out for the right to go to Houston, but don’t be surprised if Purdue spoils the party.
The Spartans are the popular pick to win the region and head to the Final Four and you’ll get no arguments from me. I’ve lost too many brackets over the years to the sorcery of Tom Izzo to bet against him this year.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.