With the first weekend of the NCAA men’s tournament over, the playing field has been whittled down from 68 to 16 with four teams in each region. Obviously, Tar Heel fans are familiar with four of those 16. One of them is the Tar Heels themselves, heading up the South region.
Despite some scares, the rest of the South region ended up being pretty chalky, with just two upsets which were probably chalk by anybody’s standards who weren’t the selection committee (In case you forgot, Kenpom’s #8 was seeded lower than Kenpom’s #40. HOW?).
If you need a refresher on the South region’s other top seeds, check out the Tar Heel Blog preview. Meanwhile, though, it’s starting to become time to look at the other four regions on the bracket, because we’re not the team and we can look ahead all we want, and there’s a lot of basketball going on. Let’s start off with the Midwest region, on the same side of the bracket as the South.
The Midwest region has also been fairly boring up to this point, with the exception of a potentially over-seeded #2 Louisville team falling to #7 Michigan. The winner of this region will play the winner of the South region in the Final Four.
Key Players: G Frank Mason III, G/F Josh Jackson, G Devonte Graham
How they got to the S16: Bill Self’s Jayhawks won their 1 vs 16 matchup nearly as easily as Carolina won theirs, drubbing UC Davis 100-62. Then, they faced a day of questioning whether they could stand up to Tom Izzo and the #9 Michigan State Spartans before dispatching them 90-70, delaying the narrative for another year.
Outlook: UNC fans are all too familiar with Self and Kansas. This year’s Kansas team looks a little bit different from those that UNC fans have come across in years prior, however, being much more perimeter-oriented this year. In fact, five of their top six scorers are listed as guards on sports-reference.com/cbb.
The group is led by the fairly diminutive senior Frank Mason, who is a front-runner for this year’s Wooden Award. After him, however, Kansas boasts a tall and long perimeter featuring freshman standout Josh Jackson, whose stats are eerily similar to his similarly named Tar Heel counterpart.
Despite the teams’ perimeter orientation, they are one of the better rebounding teams in the nation. They can be taken advantage of on the inside, but they have had an incredible season despite this and will be a touch matchup for anybody, with an incredible knack for winning close games. Kansas will have played #4 Purdue by the time of publishing.
Key Players: G Dillon Brooks, F Jordan Bell, G Tyler Dorsey
How they got to the S16: The Neon Ducks (trademark pending) brought back a veteran squad, most of whom had been part of the 2016 #1 seed. They easily beat #14 Iona and looked to have drawn a relatively simple matchup in the Round of 32, facing a surprising #11 Rhode Island team after their upset of Creighton (I certainly wasn’t celebrating. Nope. Not at all.).
Rhode Island showed up and gave Oregon all they could handle before Dorsey hit a few key three-pointers late to help his team come from behind and win. Oregon is a new-generation program; they rank in the top 50 in the nation in three-pointers attempted while their corresponding stat for two-pointers is just about average. Despite the impressions that this may give, they have an imposing defensive interior, ranking first in the nation in blocks.
The team’s defense is generally outstanding, ranking first in the PAC-12 in total steals and holding opponents to just 65.6 points per game. On the other hand, Oregon is only a decent rebounding team and is prone to turning the ball over at an unusual rate given that they play at a slower tempo than average.
At the time of writing, Oregon leads #7 Michigan 35-32 at halftime.
Update: Oregon won
Key Players: F Caleb Swanigan, C Isaac Haas, F/G Vince Edwards
How they got to the S16: The Boilermakers are quite the contrast to their regional counterparts, living and dying through their frontcourt. Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan is somehow simultaneously Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks; having worked relentlessly to get his body down to playing weight (Meeks) and transforming through immense hard work at basketball to become college basketball’s best rebounder and overall big man (Johnson). He’s also got a jump shot that extends out to the three-point line, and he’s not afraid to use it.
Swanigan is one of the single most impressive players in college basketball, and I would not be surprised to see him single-handedly carry his team past Kansas and maybe beyond. He is ably supported, though, by Haas and Edwards, neither of whom is quite as imposing a presence as he is but both of whom are very capable scorers on the interior.
The rest of the starting lineup is capable support on the perimeter, and the team averages over 40% from behind the arc. That said, though, the team runs through Swanigan. Nobody on the team other than him is a good rebounder, and he scores 23% of their points. Stopping him, or even slowing him down, is easier said than done, but it’s necessary to beat Purdue. If he can be neutralized, the rest of the team is much easier to deal with.
Update: Purdue lost.
Key Players: G Derrick Walton, F Moritz Wagner, G/F Zak Irvin
How they got to the S16: Michigan had an extremely average season before catching fire in the Big 10 Tournament after narrowly avoiding disaster on the airplane trying to get there. They upset Purdue, Minnesota, and Wisconsin on their way to becoming the lowest-seeded team ever to win the Big 10 tournament.
This fire continued into the NCAA tournament, where they narrowly escaped Oklahoma State on the back of 16-29 shooting from behind the arc. They then beat #2 Louisville in a game that was not nearly as much of an upset as the relative seeds would indicate, but was mildly surprising nonetheless. Moritz Wagner had his breakout game, with a career high 26 points after averaging 12.2 all season. Michigan’s star guard Derrick Walton leads the team in scoring and is second on the team in rebounding at an imposing six foot nil. The rest of the team is fairly balanced, with all 5 top minute-getters scoring 9 points per game or more.
Michigan is one of the more “new-school” teams in the tournament; 45% of their field goal attempts have been three-point attempts. UNC fans are very familiar with how such a team may live and die, and after a certain game in Greenville, South Carolina, much of the rest of the nation might be as well. Take away the three-pointer, or hope to get a little lucky, and Michigan becomes a much less intimidating team.