NCAA Midwest Overview: Kansas, Louisville The Favorites

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Despite a stunning loss to TCU in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals on Thursday, Kansas was rewarded for winning the regular-season championship in Division I’s second-toughest conference behind the Atlantic Coast with the No. 1 seed.

But if you’re looking for a favorite, you might want to eyeball the No. 2 seed, Louisville. Although the Cardinals exited the ACC tournament in the quarterfinals with a loss to eventual champion Duke, they have the depth and go-to guy (Donovan Mitchell) every championship contender needs.

Aside from those teams, every team has its share of flaws that could result in a one-and-done showing. No. 3 Oregon lost center Chris Boucher to an ACL tear, an injury that may cost the Ducks a shot at a national title.

No. 4 Purdue has the potential Wooden Award winner in forward Caleb Swanigan, but might not have the guard play to survive a potential second-round matchup with Iowa State. The small-ball Cyclones can beat anyone, but can also lose to anyone if their guards can’t produce enough to make up for a below-average frontline.

Seventh-seeded Michigan comes into the tournament on a huge roll after winning four games in as many days to capture the Big 10 Conference tournament championship. No. 11 Rhode Island was a consensus top-25 team in preseason before struggling through most of the regular season due to injuries, but it got whole again in time to roll through the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament.

On paper, this might be the weakest of the four regions. But it could also be the most competitive region, and one where a double-digit seed like Rhode Island could last into the second weekend.

5 PLAYERS TO KNOW

Kansas G Frank Mason III: It only seems like Mason has been a Jayhawk for about 10 years, but in reality, he is just a senior. Albeit one who has the experience, skill and stones to be a possible March hero for a program that’s tanked as often as it’s succeeded when it most matters.

Purdue F Caleb Swanigan: The Wooden Award favorite has been a double-double machine and is virtually unguardable man-on-man at this level. Swanigan is good enough to carry the Boilermakers to Glendale, Ariz., for the Final Four, but are his teammates good enough to give him the help he needs?

Iowa State PG Monte Morris: At a program that has had more than its share of great lead guards, Morris might be the best ever. He combines scoring with the ability to pass for profit while limiting turnovers. Should Morris’ teammates score and find a way to get stops, this team might have a long run in it.

Michigan State G Miles Bridges: This might be the weakest Spartans’ team in years, but Bridges is worth the price of admission. If Bridges gets hot and his teammates remember that Tom Izzo teams usually win at this time of year, Sparty could do rare damage as an underdog.

Nevada F Jordan Caroline: The son of former NFL star Simeon Rice, Caroline transferred from Southern Illinois after a solid freshman year and has helped the Wolf Pack get over the top in the Mountain West. Caroline could enjoy a big first-round game against an Iowa State team shy on good players in the post.

4 NUMBERS TO NOTE

21: Vermont’s winning streak as it enters the tournament. The Catamounts edged Albany for the America East championship Saturday and feature the versatile Payton Hudson, the AE Player of the Year.

13: Kansas’ consecutive Big 12 Conference regular-season championship. No matter how deep the league is, the Jayhawks always find a way, even if they can’t consistently translate that into deep NCAA Tournament runs.

22: The shoe size of Purdue center Isaac Haas, who is more than a 7-footer with unusually large feet. Haas is the second-leading scorer for the Boilermakers at 12.8 ppg, canning nearly 59 percent of his field goals.

0: The number of NCAA Tournament trips for UC Davis prior to this one, which was cinched with a 50-47 win Saturday night over UC Irvine in the Big West tournament title game. It had lost to the Anteaters by 30 points a week earlier.

3 EARLY UPSETS

No. 11 Rhode Island over No. 6 Creighton: The Rams have better athletes than the Bluejays, particularly since point guard Maurice Watson was lost for the season with an injury when Creighton was a top-10 team. What’s more, Rhode Island rides into the tournament with all kinds of momentum after capturing the Atlantic 10 tournament. Book this one.

No. 12 Nevada over No. 5 Iowa State: The Wolf Pack were the best of a rather mediocre lot in the Mountain West Conference this season, but they have the balance and toughness to hang with and possibly take the Cyclones out. While Iowa State has a terrific backcourt, led by point guard Monte Morris, it can also be exploited inside by most teams and Nevada is equipped to take advantage.

No. 14 Iona over No. 3 Oregon: The season-ending ACL tear to Ducks center Chris Boucher gives the Gaels some hope. Tim Cluess-coached teams can score at will, and even though Iona has no one to match up with Dillon Brooks, Boucher’s absence should enable the Gaels to attack the bucket. If Oregon has an off-night shooting the ball, it could be one-and-done.

2 TEAMS TO BEAT

With Frank Mason and Josh Jackson, top-seeded Kansas has the star power any championship team needs. The big question is, can those guys play like stars for the next three weeks? The Jayhawks don’t have a ton of depth inside and should they run into a team that can attack the goal with post-ups or penetration, they could be in trouble.

No. 2 Louisville could be the team to beat because it has the most depth and maybe the most underrated star player in the country, sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell. But if the Cardinals run into an opponent that can handle the ball and make shots against their hybrid zone defense, they too are vulnerable.

1 GAME WE NEED TO SEE …

How about a regional semifinal between Big 12 rivals Kansas and Iowa State? The teams split regular season meetings, each winning on the road. That’s right, the Cyclones won at Allen Fieldhouse, which happens about as often as LeBron James getting called for traveling. Watching Monte Morris go up against Frank Mason would be appointment TV.

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