A couple of Big 12 teams highlight the Midwest, where the Sweet 16 will be played in Kansas City. Interestingly enough, neither Big 12 team in this region is a regular season co-champion. (Lol)
You want heavyweights? We got ‘em. North Carolina, Kentucky, and Kansas account for... well I’m not gonna add it up, but it’s a lot of Final Fours, National Titles, and overall wins.
You want underdogs? We got ‘em. Wofford is a popular Cinderella pick, and if Iowa State somehow makes the Sweet 16, they’ll basically have home-court advantage all the way through the title game. Don’t overlook whoever emerges from the 5-12 matchup, either, be it Auburn or New Mexico State.
Let’s take a look at each of the first-round matchups, preview some potential upset specials, and make a prediction on who will make it to Minneapolis for the Final Four.
(1) North Carolina vs (16) Iona
North Carolina has the statistical profile of a 2-seed, but nabbed the final 1-seed probably behind their two wins over Duke plus a win over Gonzaga. (And let’s be honest, they probably should have three wins over Duke.) The Tar Heels are one of just four teams in this tournament with a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense, per KenPom. One of the fastest teams in the country, Ole Roy has the secondary break humming this year, and UNC will look to run poor Iona - and anyone else in their way - out of the gym.
(8) Utah State vs (9) Washington
Utah State is one of the hottest teams coming in, winners of 10 in a row and 17 of their last 18. They are a well-rounded team, top-50 in both offense and defense. Keep your eye on USU’s Sam Merrill, who averages 21 points per game, along with 4 assists and 4 rebounds per game while shooting over 37% from behind the arc.
Washington’s top-20 defense will have it’s hands full with Merrill. The Huskies are just 4-3 over their last seven games, which includes a loss to sub-200 Cal. UW’s offense isn’t the best, posting under 50 points in two of their last four games.
(5) Auburn vs (12) New Mexico State
Auburn is another team that is red-hot coming into the tournament. The won the SEC Tournament en route to winning eight in a row and 10 of their last 11. The advanced stats have loved Auburn as an overall top-20 team all year, but the Tigers fell out of the polls in late January and never returned. This is a dangerous squad that gets over 43% of its scoring from behind the arc and will be a matchup nightmare for a lot of teams in this region.
Meanwhile, NMSU has won 19 games in a row, and showed well in non-conference losses against fellow tournament teams Kansas and Saint Mary’s. Despite not having a ton of height, the Aggies are a top-15 team in 2-point percentage, offensive rebounding, blocks, and steals.
(4) Kansas vs (13) Northeastern
At first glance, Northeastern looks like a team that could slay mighty Kansas. They take over 46% of their shots from behind the arc, and they are a top-15 team in terms of three-point percentage. However, Northeastern is a sub-250 team in several key defensive measures, and they don’t have anyone who can match up with KU’s bigs, especially Dedric Lawson. Additionally, the Huskies haven’t seen anyone with Devon Dotson’s quickness on the perimeter; it will be a tough order for them to stay in front of KU’s point guard defensively.
Kansas should be able to score at will, and Bill Self has plenty of time to figure out how to get his defense to stay in front of Northeastern’s shooters. Also keep in mind that Northeastern struggled to score against their P5 opponents this year (Alabama, Virginia Tech, Syracuse). Even though they went 1-2 in those games, their highest point output was just 68, and that was the win over Alabama, an NIT team.
(6) Iowa State vs (11) Ohio State
Iowa State entered the Big 12 Tournament on a bad stretch, going just 2-6 over their final eight games of the regular season. What a difference three wins in a row makes. Many consider the Cyclones to be a sleeper team, especially if they can make it to KC for the Sweet 16. ISU shoots well and doesn’t turn it over, but can be, let’s say, absent at times on defense.
Many are questioning Ohio State’s qualifications for entry to this tournament, and after review, I have to concur. I’m not sure what the Buckeyes are doing here. They don’t have much in the noncom, although wins over Cincinnati and Creighton are nice I suppose. They didn’t get to 20 wins on the season, and are just 7-13 in their last 20 games. Meanwhile, the only even semi-decent Big 10 win they got was a home game over Iowa. What is this team doing here? (Now watch them go on an Elite 8 run.)
(3) Houston vs (14) Georgia State
Houston will probably gets lots of love for the Kelvin Sampson redemption story, but pardon me for waiting a couple of years to see if anything comes out. After noncom wins over Oregon, LSU, and Oklahoma State, the Cougars rolled through the AAC with only a slight hiccup at the end in the conference tourney title game against Cincinnati. They boast a top-25 offense and defense, including the #1 defense in terms of eFG.
Georgia State is an OK squad, in the top half of D1 in offense and defense, but they are one of the worst rebounding teams - offensive and defensive - in the country. Let’s just say I hope they get the most out of Tulsa while they’re there.
(7) Wofford vs (10) Seton Hall
Wofford! Ah, everyone’s favorite upset special of this year’s tournament. They have the statistical profile of a 5-seed, buoyed mostly by a great offense that scores 40% of its points from behind the arc. They enter the tournament on a 20-game win streak, but didn’t get any nonconference wins of note, falling to North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Mississippi State by 11 points each while also getting blasted by Kansas by 25 points.
I’ve seen some pundits label Seton Hall as a dangerous squad, and that’s probably fair. They do have wins over Kentucky and Maryland, as well as Rutgers, Miami FL, Marquette, and Villanova. While they’re 4-1 over their last five games, that’s coming off a stretch where the Pirates went just 6-8, including a loss to sub-100 DePaul.
(2) Kentucky vs (15) Abilene Christian
Kentucky lost to Seton Hall, you say? Indeed, about four weeks after getting 30-balled by Duke in the opener. The Wildcats have come a long way since then, beating North Carolina and Kansas while sweeping Auburn in the SEC and splitting with Tennessee. Kentucky has a top-15 offense and defense, and is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country.
Abilene Christian had a nice year, going 27-6, but five of those losses were to sub-150 teams, including #231 Southeastern Louisiana and #311 Stephen F. Austin.
Most Likely Cinderella: Utah State
It seems to me like everyone is going with Wofford or Iowa State here, and those aren’t bad picks. I’m just not a believer in their second round matchups, and while USU would have to somehow knock off North Carolina to make a run, the Aggies have the shooters and the potential to keep up with UNC’s offensive firepower.
Favorite to Advance to Minneapolis: North Carolina
Let’s not kid ourselves. Roy’s Boys are one of the five best teams in the entire field, and they are probably not going to have to play Kansas in Kansas City. Even if they did, the Tar Heels would still be favored in that game. They will have to outscore people, but that’s what UNC does best anyway. Kentucky and Houston are the only other top-15 defenses in this region, and only one of them can advance to the Elite 8 for a potential matchup with UNC. To me, this means that Carolina doesn’t have any major concerns when it comes to matchups outside of a potential second-rounding meeting with Utah State.
Any of Kentucky, Houston, Kansas, Auburn, or Iowa State could make a run, but North Carolina has to be the odds on favorite.