2016 NCAA Tournament — Midwest Region Breakdown: Virginia & Michigan State Meet Again
The NCAA Tournament committee likes to crack jokes. They have Kentucky and Indiana projected to play each other and the two schools refuse to schedule regular season games against each other. Same goes for Texas A&M and Texas, and Michigan and Notre Dame despite the historic sports rivalries. Virginia and Michigan State don’t have the same legendary rivalry, but they have played the last two years in the NCAA Tournament and the committee decided to drop them in the same region again this year. Is third time the charm for Virginia after losing the last two years to Michigan State? What makes this Virginia team different than the previous two Virginia teams?
I will say I do think this Virginia team is slightly more cohesive than previous teams. Last year they had to work Justin Anderson back into the equation and he just never got the scoring back to where it was before his wrist injury. The roles are very well defined on this year’s team. Malcolm Brogdon is the go-to scorer and probably shakes out as one of the 15 best players in this tournament. London Perrantes and Anthony Gill have elevated their offensive games to be secondary threats while the rest of the cogs in the wheel move effectively. Virginia is ranked 9th in offensive efficiency this year according to KenPom as opposed 24th last year and 21st the year before. The defense, which has been top 5 in the past three years, and the quality coaching of Tony Bennett are the consistent things from year to year.
The problem is that Michigan State is better than they were in the past two seasons. Their efficiency #s are better than they were in the previous two years and their senior core of Costello, Forbes, and Valentine has been through all the wars. The way they execute offensively and defensively is a pleasure to watch. I don’t think I’ve seen a team this year run more pick and rolls with the screener slipping to the rim more often than Michigan State. Denzel Valentine may not be the smoothest player, but his style is so effective and productive as the offense runs through him.
There’s going to be a chip on Michigan State’s shoulder after not being a #1 seed and Virginia is considered the team that took it from them. That matches the revenge factor. Izzo doesn’t care about seeing as we’ve seen in the past, but that doesn’t mean he can’t use it as motivation. It’s going to be a great game between these two teams in the Elite Eight, but Michigan State will move on to the Final Four and eventually cut down the nets in Houston.
The rest of the region doesn’t blow you away. Utah is the weakest #3 seed. They went on a late run, but lost to Oregon three times. If you neutralize Jakob Poeltl then you can neutralize the Utes. Gonzaga and eventually Michigan State should be able to do that. Seton Hall has a great sophomore class, but the young guys will likely come in hungover after a Big East Tournament win. Isaiah Whitehead, however, has the ability to be a tournament changer. Gonzaga’s intriguing because of their dynamic duo in the post of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis. The loss of Przemek Karnowski killed Gonzaga’s depth, but opened up more minutes for Sabonis to shine offensively. Eric McClellan will draw the assignment of stopping Whitehead in the first round match-up and he’s one of the best defensive guards in the country.
Eleswhere we’ve been waiting for years for Iowa State to make a run. They’re not as deep this year because of an early season injury to Naz Long, but they have the ability to beat anyone in the country. Unfortunately the first round match-up against Iona will be a track meet the Cyclones could lose. Purdue has come on of late, but I worry about their guard play. They’re so reliant on their bigs and don’t have the shot makers for the final seconds of games. Coach Matt Painter needs to fine Caleb Swannigan every time he shoots a three pointer. Swannigan plays like a blind and homeless Antoine Walker.
First round upset that will happen: Gonzaga over Seton Hall
Everyone is familiar with Gonzaga as the glorified mid-major who can’t get out of the first weekend anymore. Let’s remember that this core of Gonzaga players got to the Elite Eight last year before losing to Duke and has plenty of talent. Their experience in the tournament and their skill upfront will be a factor against Seton Hall. For a young team like the Pirates, winning the conference tournament is a nice building block but it also clouds the tournament future. They will likely come out flat and less-hungry than you’d want them to coming into the tournament. I’ve got no respect for the Big East and love the way Gonzaga’s bigs play the game.
First round upset that will happen: Iona over Iowa State
This is a riskier shot than the selection above, but for this region I’m highlighting two potential upsets I feel good about as opposed to telling you one that won’t happen. Meet A.J. English, son of former NBA player A.J. English. (Yes, that’s a little confusing, but they have the same name.) English drops 22+ a game and is the kind of player that wins his team games by himself. He took over the MAAC final vs. Monmouth to get Iona the win. The Gaels also have three other guys who score in double-digits. Neither Iowa State nor Iona play defense that well, so this game will be a high-scoring affair. The Gaels have a chance and English will take care of the rest.
Best Non-Bracket Bets:
Gonzaga PK over Seton Hall – As detailed above, the Zags will win the game inside with the most talented players on the floor.
Iona +8 over Iowa State – Eight points is an easy number for Iona to cover given their ability to score and Iowa State’s inability to defend.
Butler -4 over Texas Tech – I have absolutely no faith in Tubby Smith’s ability to coach. (Not recruit, but coach…)
Little Rock +9 over Purdue The Trojans can play defense and Purdue’s not exactly an explosive offensive team because their lack of three-point shooters