MIDWEST REGION PREVIEW
One thing is for certain, whoever makes it out of this region to the Final Four will have earned it. With undefeated Wichita State the top seed, the Shockers are joined by big-time programs like Michigan (Big Ten regular season champion and tournament finalist), Duke (ACC tournament finalist), Louisville (AAC regular season and tournament champion) and Kentucky (SEC tournament finalist). It doesn't stop there, with Saint Louis (Atlantic 10 regular season champion) and Manhattan (MAAC tournament winners), which are two of the toughest defensive teams in the country. If the Shockers want to finish the season undefeated, they'll have to beat some very strong teams, something that's missing from their resume this season.
No. 1 Wichita State - The Shockers enter the NCAA Tournament as the lone undefeated team in the country at 34-0, tied with the 1990-91 UNLV Runnin' Rebels for the best start to a season in college basketball history. Wichita State is deep, balanced and experienced, losing to eventual-champion Louisville in the Final Four last. Led by point guard Fred VanVleet, who averages 12.1 points and 5.3 assists per game, while shooting 44.7 percent from three-point land, the Shockers have four players who score in double-figures, while also ranking seventh in the nation in rebound margin at 7.8 per game. If there is one thing that works against them, it's that they don't have a single player taller than 6-foot-9, which could make them susceptible to bigger teams, something this part of the bracket does have.
No. 2 Michigan - The Big Ten regular season champion, Michigan was highly considered for the last No. 1 seed that ultimately went to Virginia, but a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament final kept the Wolverines from staying in the conversation. It was a remarkable comeback for a Michigan team that lost four of its first 10 games and then lost 6-10 forward Mitch McGary for the season due to a back injury. Led by Big Ten Player of the Year Nick Stauskas, who averages 17.5 points per game this season, Michigan is a solid three-point shooting team, with Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin joining Stauskas as regular rotation players who shoot better than 40 percent from deep. If there's a way to beat the Wolverines, it's to limit their ability to shoot threes and banging them inside, as they have yet to find a way to replace McGary's presence near the basket.
No. 3 Duke - The Blue Devils had a long-shot chance at grabbing a No. 1 seed, but they lost to Virginia, who won the ACC regular season crown, in the conference tournament championship game, pushing Duke to a No. 3 seed in an incredibly tough part of the bracket. The recipe for Duke this season is similar to years past: spread the ball and shoot the open three. When they're on, Duke is incredibly difficult to stop, especially with four players who shoot better than 40 percent from loiFng range. They are led by freshman phenom Jabari Parker (19.2 points, 8.8 rebounds per game) and sophomore Rodney Hood (16.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists per game), but they are not overly skilled in the interior and they are not great defenders. If the shots from deep aren't falling against a team with a solid low-post presence, Duke could falter.
No. 4 Louisville - The defending national champion is a surprising No. 4 seed after winning the American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles. The biggest knock against the Cardinals is their weak strength of schedule, ranking 80th in the country; their out-of-conference schedule is even worse, ranking 149th. Russ Smith (17.8 points, 4.5 assists, 3.4 rebounds per game) leads the team on the outside, while Montrezl Harrell (14.2 points, 8.2 rebounds per game) controls the inside. They are very deep, with nine players averaging at least 15 minutes per game, four of whom score at least 10 points. They are also good defensively, leading the nation in turnover margin at 6.9 per game. While the stats look good, it's tough to get too excited when they lost to every ranked team they played this season outside the conference.
No. 13 Manhattan - A Round of 64 matchup against the defending champions isn't ideal, but the Jaspers may just have the recipe for an upset. Making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in a decade, the Jaspers are led by 6-7 forward George Beamon, who averages 19.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. But Manhattan is more than just Beamon, with nine other players averaging at least 12 minutes per game. They are strong defensively, both on the inside, led by Rhamel Brown (3.7 blocks per game, third in the nation), and outside, holding opponents to 32.7 percent from three-point land, while averaging 8.3 steals per game (15th nationally). If the Jaspers can contain Louisville's Russ Smith, they have a chance to get by the Cardinals, setting themselves up for a likely defensive battle against Saint Louis for a Sweet 16 berth.
No. 14 Mercer - Mercer has been the best regular season team in the Atlantic Sun conference the last three years, and finally won the conference tournament this season to claim its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1985, beating 2013 Sweet 16 Cinderella Florida Gulf Coast in the final. Loaded with experience, the Bears have five seniors in the starting lineup, led by conference player of the year Langston Hall, who averages 14.6 points and 5.6 assists per game. While Hall is the biggest contributor, four others average at least eight points, and 12 players average at least nine minutes per game. Mercer is 24th in the nation in scoring (79.3 points per game), 10th in assists (16.4) and 29th in field-goal percentage (47.5). With three players who hit at least 39 percent of their three-point attempts, plus 6-10 forward Daniel Coursey (9.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.1 blocks per game) on the inside, Mercer could give Duke fits in the Round of 64 before facing UMass/Iowa/Tennessee for a spot in the Sweet 16.
No. 3 Duke - The Blue Devils have struggled defensively this year, and they can get stuck relying on the three-point shot too much. What comes at them in the Round of 64 is a Mercer team that has won 77 games the last three years and starts five seniors. With a shot to make some noise like last year's Sun Belt champion, Florida Gulf Coast, Mercer will throw all it has at Duke, which includes 12 players who play at least nine minutes per game. Duke usually tries to run teams off the floor early in the tournament, but the Bears aren't likely to fall down as easily as some of Duke's previous foes. Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood are extremely talented (and future NBA players), but if one is off, Duke could be in big trouble.
ROUND OF 64 UPSET
No. 14 Mercer vs. No. 3 Duke - It won't be easy for Mercer playing Duke in its own backyard, but upsets aren't supposed to be easy, right? The Bears bring a squad to Raleigh that is experienced, deep and ripe for an upset thanks to three players who shoot better than 39 percent from three and a 6-10 center who blocks more than two shots per game. Mercer's offense is very good, ranking 24th in the nation in scoring (three spots behind Duke), while showing the chemistry of a team that has played together for four years, averaging 16.4 assists per game, which is 10th nationally (Duke is 49th). If the Blue Devils start looking ahead to a possible Elite Eight game against Michigan, they could be watching that one from home.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Fred VanVleet, Guard, Wichita State - Wichita State enters the NCAA Tournament undefeated, and the motor that keeps the Shockers running is VanVleet. While his stats don't jump out at you (12.1 points, 5.3 assists, 1.9 steals, 44.7 percent shooting from three), there is no doubt that he will be the one leading them back to the Final Four. There are some big names in this bracket, such as Duke's Jabari Parker (likely a top-five pick in the NBA Draft), Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskus, AAC Player of the Year Russ Smith and Kentucky freshman Julius Randle, another likely top NBA pick, but VanVleet likely will be the one holding the regional MVP trophy with the Shockers heading to the Final Four. He is a player who steps up in big games, as evidenced by his 22 points, five rebounds and five assists during the Shockers' win over Indiana State in the MVC Conference tournament final, and the next few games don't get much bigger.
SWEET 16 PICKS
No. 1 Wichita State - At 34-0, it's tough to focus on a reason why the Shockers won't head back to the Final Four. A tough Round of 32 matchup against Kentucky looms, but after beating a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed in last year's tournament, the Shockers know how to get up for big games.
No. 2 Michigan - After winning the Big Ten regular season and losing to Michigan State in the conference tournament final, the Wolverines grabbed the second seed in arguably the toughest part of the bracket. With two potential games against double-digit seeds (Wofford and Arizona State), Michigan appears to have a relatively easy track to the Sweet 16.
No. 4 Louisville - Disrespected by the committee by landing a four-seed despite winning the AAC regular season and conference tournament, Louisville will be looking to prove that they belonged on a higher bracket line. They face a tough Manhattan team in the Round of 64, which may actually be a tougher game than a potential Round of 32 matchup against either Saint Louis, N.C. State or Xavier. If they can make it to the Sweet 16, they likely will find themselves against a Wichita State team looking to avenge last year's Final Four loss.
No. 14 Mercer - With five seniors in the starting lineup, plus seven others who play at least nine minutes per game, the Bears have the depth and experience to follow in fellow Sun Belt member Florida Gulf Coast's footsteps and book a trip to the Sweet 16. If they can get beyond Duke in the first round, they face either UMass (losers of three of their last five), Iowa (losers of six of their last seven) or Tennessee (21-12 this season).
FINAL FOUR PICK
No. 1 Wichita State - It's amazing to think that a team coming into the NCAA Tournament at 34-0 could have a chip on its shoulder, but that's exactly what the Shockers have this time around. After making the Final Four last season, they have won every game this season, and yet not once were they they the topped-ranked team in the nation. On top of that, they find themselves in easily the toughest part of the bracket, joined by Michigan, Duke, Louisville and Kentucky. While it's no guarantee they'll face even one of those teams thanks to some very strong double-digit seeds, Wichita State likely will have to beat some storied programs to return to the Final Four. After beating a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed in last year's tournament, the Shockers have the experience and talent to book a trip to Arlington, Texas, matching a similar run by Butler only a few years ago.