MIDWEST REGION PREVIEW
The top two seeds in the Midwest Region (North Carolina, Kansas) had excellent seasons, and Kansas was among the contenders for a No. 1 seed until very late in the season. Outside of that, the region is deep with battled-tested teams from big conferences (Georgetown, Michigan, North Carolina State, Alabama), which will provide a tough road to New Orleans and the 2012 Final Four for whoever emerges from the region.
No. 1 North Carolina - The Tar Heels are deep with talent, perhaps most notably in the frontcourt with forwards Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes, but guard Kendall Marshall has also emerged as a force in the backcourt. The wrist injury suffered by forward John Henson during the ACC tournament threatens to derail their plans for a deep NCAA Tournament run, but he is expected to play after missing the final two games of the conference tourney. Three of North Carolina's five losses this season came by less than five points, and all five came to teams that are in the tournament (two to Florida State). As long as Henson can play, a Final Four run could be in the offing.
No. 2 Kansas - The Jayhawks sometimes disappoint come NCAA Tournament time, but they are deep with experienced players and have not one but two stars in forward Thomas Robinson and guard Tyshawn Taylor. Losing in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament likely cost Kansas a No. 1 seed and should provide motivation entering the Big Dance. If they can fight off an upset bid from No. 15-seed Detroit in the first round, the Jayhawks could make a very deep run and may battle North Carolina for a trip to New Orleans and the Final Four.
No. 3 Georgetown- The national pundits did not necessarily have high expectations for Georgetown entering the season, but an early close loss to Kansas set the stage for a 23-8 record and a top-15 national ranking. The Hoyas have a fairly balanced attack led by guard Jason Clark (13.9 points per game), with four players averaging at least 9.5 points per game and five players averaging 3.9 or more rebounds per game as well. No. 14-seed Belmont presents the possibility for a first-round upset, but if the Hoyas can get past that, a deep tournament run is not out of the question.
No. 4 Michigan - The Wolverines were handled easily by Ohio State in the semi-finals of the Big Ten tournament, but otherwise have had an excellent season led by stars Trey Burke (14.8 points, 4.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds per game) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (14.6 points per game). Michigan has solid senior leadership in Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, and some quality wins under its belt (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin) as well. Of the top four seeds in the Midwest Region, Michigan might be the most ripe for an upset against MAC Tournament champion Ohio, but the Wolverines have enough talent to overcome that and perhaps make a run to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
No. 11 N.C. State - The Wolfpack put together a nice showing in the ACC tournament, and a close loss to North Carolina in the semifinals has created some momentum entering the NCAA Tournament. Leading scorer C.J. Leslie averaged more than 20 points per game in the last two conference tourney games and appears to be hitting his stride, as he has scored at least 18 points in seven of the last eight games. The Wolfpack might be able to pull a first-round upset against San Diego State, and a possible second-round game against Georgetown could be a fairly favorable matchup as well, due to their depth as six players average at least 20 minutes a game and a seventh averages just less than 20 minutes. Leslie qualifies as a go-to-guy, and the fact that he is playing well at just the right time stands to make North Carolina State tough to handle. Forward Scott Wood (12.5 points per game) serves as a good barometer for the Wolfpack; he averaged just 7.9 points per game in 11 losses. Sometimes a team with good momentum, regardless of anything else, can make a surprise run in the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina State may be that team in the Midwest Region in 2012.
No. 13 Ohio - Ohio won a close game against Akron in the MAC championship and enters the NCAA Tournament having won eight of its last nine games. The Bobcats' level of conference competition will be called into question, though, as first-round opponent Michigan is the first Big Ten team they have faced this season. But if leading scorer D.J. Cooper (14.7 points per game) can hold his own against Wolverines guard Trey Burke, Ohio could pull the big upset. The Bobcats have solid depth, with nine players averaging at least 14 minutes per game, and that may be tough for the Wolverines to handle if they (particularly Burke, likely guarding Cooper) get into foul trouble. A potential second-round game with No. 5 seed Temple or No. 12 seed (California or South Florida) may also provide Ohio with an upset opportunity against a mediocre team and lead to a Sweet 16 appearance as the Bobcats look to continue their late-season momentum.
No. 4 Michigan- The Wolverines have good talent and a solid tournament resume, but they were nearly ousted from the Big Ten Tournament by Minnesota, and six of their nine losses this season came by double-digits, including a 16-point loss to Iowa. Michigan may be ripe for an upset in the first round if No. 13 seed Ohio can manage to hang around late in the game. Bobcats' guard D.J. Cooper seems to hitting his stride, as he averaged 19.7 points and 6.7 assists per game in the team's three MAC Tournament games, and should be a handful on both ends of the floor for Michigan.
No. 11 N.C. State vs. No. 6 San Diego State - A four-game losing streak in mid-February had the Wolfpack's tournament hopes on the ropes, but a four-game winning streak that carried them to the conference tournament semifinals has the Wolfpack riding a wave of positive momentum despite being a 12-loss team. San Diego State obviously faced weaker competition in the Mountain West Conference and still ranked just 95th in the country in scoring (71.2 points per game) despite having two players averaging more than 15 points per game. The Wolfpack's depth might be hard for the Aztecs to handle in the end, and makes this the most likely game where a lower-seed will beat a higher seed in the Midwest Region.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Tyshawn Taylor, guard, Kansas - Taylor is Kansas' second-leading scorer (17.3 points per game) this season and has scored 20 or more points in four of the last five games. He has stepped up this year as a senior after averaging less than 10 points per game as a junior and has scored in double figures in all but three games this season. Thomas Robinson is the main man for the Jayhawks, but Taylor is a worthy second fiddle and an important part of Kansas' success. Since NCAA Tournament success typically comes down to strong guard play, Taylor might be one of the most important players on any team in the tournament this year regardless of region.
SWEET 16 PICKS
No. 1 North Carolina- The health of John Henson is a factor, but with or without him at 100 percent the Tar Heels have plenty of talent to reach the Sweet 16.
No. 2 Kansas - The Jayhawks have two of the nation's best players in Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, and, if they can get over the disappointment of not getting a No. 1 seed, should be able to easily reach the Round of 16.
No. 11 North Carolina State - It would take two upsets for the Wolfpack to reach the Sweet 16, but they match up well with first-round opponent San Diego State, and potential second-round opponent No. 3-seed Georgetown is ripe for an upset.
No. 4 Michigan - Michigan's toughest test might come against Ohio in the first round. If Michigan can avoid the upset, it should advance to the Sweet 16 no matter who it plays in the second round.
FINAL FOUR PICK
No. 1 North Carolina - The Tar Heels have four potential NBA lottery picks on their roster in Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall and John Henson, so talent is not an issue. The health of Henson, the team's leading rebounder (10.1 per game), shot blocker (2.9 per game) and third-leading scorer (13.8 points per game), is a big factor. He is expected to be healthy and probably could have played in the conference tournament finale had the stakes been higher. Even if Henson is not quite 100 percent early in the tournament, if he can be fully healthy and become a bigger factor during the later rounds, North Carolina will be headed to the Big Easy and the Final Four.