The long wait is over. March Madness begins tomorrow in earnest. If you're putting together a bracket or just looking for more information on who else is in the same region as Iowa State, look no further. We've got 16 teams to cover, some of them more in-depth than others, so without further ado, let's get to it.
#1: Virginia Cavaliers (26-7, 2nd in ACC)
Top seed in the Midwest region are the Cavaliers from Virginia, who are fresh off of losing to the North Carolina Tar Heels in the ACC title game. They are widely regarded as one of the best defensive teams in the country, and they're also incredibly efficient on the other side of the ball. According to KenPom, they hold the #9 rated offense and the #4 rated defense, although part of that stems from their slow pace of play, averaging about 20.1 seconds per offensive possession.
Leading the Cavaliers is guard Malcolm Brogden, without a doubt one of the best players in the country. He's dropping 18.7 ppg, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists, all while shooting 46.8% from the field and a smidge over 40% from deep. Joining him is Anthony Gill, a 6-8 forward good for 13 and 6 a game. Coached by Tony Bennett, a defensive guru, they have a squad that is poised to make a deep run in the tournament.
#2: Michigan State Spartans (29-5, 2nd in Big 10)
Standing in the way of Virginia is the team that knocked them out of last year's NCAA Tournament and very nearly took their #1 seed away this year. Not a whole lot needs to be explained about Michigan State; Tom Izzo always seems to have the program peaking at the right time after some mid-season struggles, and no matter who's on the court for him, they usually get the job done in March.
This season, the man at the helm is Denzel Valentine, one of two realistic finalists for the Wooden Award. He's putting up video game numbers: 19.6 points, 7.5 boards and 7.6 assists a game, even when defenses know he's the man to stop. It's not shocking the Spartans played their worst ball of the season when he was sidelined, and he's the main factor in their current nine game winning streak. If he shows up like he has all season long, Izzo could very well be making yet another Final Four appearance.
#3: Utah Utes (26-8, 2nd in Pac-12)
There's only one name you need to know when it comes to the Utes - Jakob Poeltl. Seven feet tall, averaging 17.6 ppg, 9.0 rbg, and 1.9 apg, he is an absolute force unto himself. Oh yeah - he's also shooting 65.6% from the field. Must be easy when your head brushes the bottom of the net.
Utah is the least foul-prone team in the country per KenPom, but consequently, they don't force a lot of turnovers. Their defense mostly focuses on guarding the paint, where their Austrian behemoth awaits. Their perimeter defense suffers because of this, giving up 36.8% from outside.
Oh, if you haven't heard - Utah has eliminated 91% of homelessness, per a reliable source.
#4: Iowa State Cyclones (21-11, 5th in Big 12)
If you're a frequent WRNL reader, or you've watched more than one Iowa State game, then you know all about this team. Incredibly efficient, unselfish offense; mediocre defense; and very short bench. Look for our game preview to run tomorrow morning for ISU's opener against Iona.
#5: Purdue Boilermakers (26-8, 3rd in Big 10)
Make no mistake, this is a very good Purdue team. AJ Hammons is one of the best big men in the country. During the beginning of the Big 10 Championship game, they focused on his footwork, and my Lord the kid can move. Pairing him with another big like Isaac Haas, is almost unfair. Together, they score 24.8ppg, grab 11.8 boards, and reach over 14 feet in height.
Given their frontcourt, it's no surprise they're the 10th best rebounding team in the country. But also importantly, they share the basketball too, dishing out 17.8 assists a game, good for 5th in the country. Without a doubt, this is a Boilermaker team every bit deserving of the praise it has received throughout the year, and it's well-built to make a deep impact on the NCAA Tournament.
#6: Seton Hall Pirates (25-8, 3rd in Big East)
Seton Hall is legit. They just took down Villanova in the Big East Tournament, and while that might not seem significant given that Nova has been susceptible to inconsistency at times this year, it's important to remember that momentum can be a huge factor in tournaments. Isaiah Whitehead shouldn't be remembered as a possible name for one of your back pimples - the dude is good. 18.4 PPG and 5.0 APG as a sophomore, he also plays some fantastic defense and has helped the Pirates achieve a 17th overall defensive rating per KenPom.
The trouble is, Seton Hall doesn't shoot the ball particularly well, and are prone to relying on Whitehead to make something happen for them. So the saying goes, "Hero ball is the best ball until it isn't." If he gets hot, Seton Hall might be a surprise Sweet Sixteen team. If not, it could be an early bus ride home.
#7: Dayton Flyers (25-7, 1st in A-10)
Oh Dayton, what happened? Highly regarded and ranked at various points during the year, the Flyers lost track of things down the stretch, losing to powerhouses like St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island before being bounced out of the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament by Saint Joseph's, who also beat them during the regular season. Despite this, they remain one of the better rebounding teams in the country, topping out at #14 per KenPom.
Four players average double digits for the Flyers, led by Charles Cooke at 15.7 per game. Joining him is Dyshawn Pierre at 13.0, who also is the team's leading rebounder, pulling down 8.6 a contest. They also have a point guard named Scoochie Smith, and if that's not a reason for them to beat Syracuse, I'm not sure what is.
#8: Texas Tech Red Raiders (19-12, 7th in Big 12)
It speaks to the strength of the Big 12 that Texas Tech, the worst Big 12 team to make the field, is given an #8 seed by the tournament committee. They're no laughingstock though, as they proved at multiple points throughout the year, most notably a five-game stretch in February that probably secured their spot in the postseason. Their recent exit from the Big 12 Tournament at the hands of TCU was surprising, but Tubby Smith has the Red Raiders ahead of schedule in terms of their rebuild.
#9: Butler Bulldogs (21-10, 4th in Big East)
Yet another efficient offense for the Midwest Region, Butler boasts the 19th rated O according to Ken Pomeroy. They simply do not turn the ball over. Add in the fact that they shoot 38.7% from deep as a team and that makes their matchup with Texas Tech especially interesting.
A two-headed Kellen attack leads the Bulldogs, Kellen Dunham and Kelan Martin, putting up 16.3 and 16.1 points a game respectively. The guy pulling the strings for Butler though is Roosevelt Jones, giving out 4.7 assists a game, grabbing 6.6 boards, and scoring 14.0 points a game himself. Overall, the first round matchup with Tech is the closest of any 8/9 seed pairing, and the one I'm personally looking forward to.
#10: Syracuse Orange (19-13, 9th in ACC)
If this is how Jim Boheim is going to be going out, then he'll be doing it in style, so long as that style revolves around a 2-3 zone and bears a weird resemblance to Bernie Sanders. Losers of five of their last six, many were surprised the Orange made the field, and it'll be interesting to see what they bring Friday versus Dayton.
The danger man for Cuse is Michael Gbinije, and if you can pronounce that last name correctly on the first try, I'll buy your next Clone Cone. The 6'7" Nigerian-born guard averages 17.8 points a game, and is really the Orange's main scoring threat. The roster has decent size across all five positions, which contributes to their typically stingy defense, but they still allow opponents to pull down 35.3% of their misses, one of the worst marks in basketball. That may be the damning statistic that dooms Syracuse to an early exit.
#11: Gonzaga Bulldogs (26-7, 1st in WCC)
1997. That's the year Gonzaga last missed the Big Dance. That streak was in danger this year, as a preseason touted team failed to achieve expectations and deliver despite talent across the roster. Kyle Wiltjer is a threat from any spot on the floor, averaging 20.7 points while shooting 42.4% from deep. The rest of the offense is still potent, but things just haven't been the same since Kevin Pangos graduated last year. If they can perform as they've been able to at times this year and continue to shoot the ball well, they definitely stand a good chance as an upset over Seton Hall.
#12: Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans (29-4, 1st in Sun Belt)
They allow the 3rd fewest points in the country, giving up only 59.9 a game, while also forcing a lot of steals and holding opponents to a 45.1% effective field goal percentage. Unfortunately, that's mostly from playing in the Sun Belt conference, where offensive skill appears to be in very short supply. Nevertheless, here the Trojans find themselves, playing in the Madness. They have yet to play a top-25 team this year - the closest they can claim is a game against Texas Tech, which they lost by 12. Not many Trojans will be needed this weekend for Arkansas-LR; look for them to catch an early ride home after their matchup with Purdue.
#13: Iona Gaels (22-10, 2nd in MACC)
I won't spoil the preview we'll be putting out, but suffice to say that Iona is a lot like Iowa State in the sense that they'll get out and run with teams. A trendy upset pick, I don't think they've got what it takes to handle the Clones. But with Monte Morris' shoulder injury, who knows how things could play out.
#14: Fresno State Bulldogs (25-9, 2nd in MW)
The last of the Bulldogs in the Midwest, Fresno State does one thing exceptionally well: they don't give up many steals, coughing it up on only 6.1% of their offensive possessions. Does this mean they have what it takes to bring down Utah? Probably not, but I figured it was an interesting fact to share. They are also on a nine-game winning streak, in large part because of a man by the name of Marvelle Harris, whose name you'll hear a lot during their game with the Utes. He averages 20.6 PPG, 4.7 RPG and 4.4 APG, and will likely be the only thing keeping the Bulldogs in the game come Thursday.
#15: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (24-9, 2nd in C-USA)
Ah, Texas Tech's distant cousin on the Smurf side of the family. I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time on them. It's late as I write this, they're playing Michigan State, and really, they don't have a lot going on that is impressive. They do shoot 3-pointers at nearly a 39% clip, so if they will take down Goliath, look for it to be because of a barrage of stones cast from outside the arc.
#16: Hampton Pirates (21-10, 1st in MEAC)
This marks the 15th anniversary of the fateful 2001 upset that Cyclone nation still remembers all-too-vividly. In this year of basketball parity, will this be the year at #16 seed knocks off a #1, and will Hampton be the one to accomplish it? If Reginald Johnson has something to say about it, they will. Averaging 18.3 PPG and 4.1 APG for the 7th best rebounding team in the country, the Pirates just might have what it takes. Virginia has been inconsistent at times this season, but most respected websites give them over a 95% chance of winning.
So Who Wins?
This region offers a great blend of differing styles of gameplay that should make for some truly entertaining basketball. Bearing that in mind, I don't see Virginia making it to the Final Four. Their grind-it-out style of offense and defense will rattle some teams, but there's too much offensive firepower here to be contained. Michigan State is probably the best bet to make it, but they could face a stiff test in Utah in the Sweet Sixteen
As for the pick you're probably most concerned with, being on this website, I see Iowa State handling Iona in a run-and-gun shootout, only to face Purdue in the 2nd Round and succumb to their skilled big men. The Clones simply don't have enough big bodies to stop them, and if you look at a lot of their losses, it was skilled big men and their ability to rebound that was the key. I'm not saying it's a for sure thing, because when Iowa State gets into a groove on offense, we can hang with anyone, but it will for sure be a battle.
At this moment, I'd probably lean towards a Virginia, Purdue, Utah, Michigan State Sweet Sixteen showing, with Michigan State taking care of Virginia in the Elite Eight. Look for Gonzaga to upset Seton Hall, and Texas Tech-Butler to be one of the games of the tournament (I never thought I'd say anything like that about Texas Tech...).
Disagree? Join our bracket pick'em (PW: ProhmanEmpire) and prove you know more than I do about the Midwest Region!