North Carolina primed to win Midwest regional
In assessing the matchups and pairings in this year's NCAA Tournament, the Midwest region struck me as the second strongest of the four regions, behind the South, and ahead of the East and West, in that order.
The third overall seed, North Carolina, may not be faced with a stiff challenge until perhaps the Elite 8 as its half of the region is rather weak. Conversely, the region's bottom half features two teams that can reach the regional final and possibly advance to the Final Four: Kansas and Georgetown.
Despite being ravaged by injuries to wing players, North Carolina features the foursome of Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller, a group who played together in last year's NCAA Tournament. After they walk past either Lamar or Vermont, they will face the winner of the Midwest's 8 vs. 9 matchup: Creighton-Alabama. In an interesting, but ultimately irrelevant game, I chose Alabama, who has won five of six after a mid-season skid.
Friday games in Nashville feature No. 5-seeded Temple taking on the winner of a play-in game between California and South Florida. While Cal may have been under seeded as a 12, South Florida grabbed the final Big East bid off of what was a relatively soft bubble.
That said, neither will beat Temple, a perennial Atlantic-10 power who was ranked for most of the season. In what looks to be their best team in years, No. 4-seeded Michigan should top MAC champion Ohio.
The region's bottom half has far more depth than does the top half. No. 2-seeded Kansas, on what is not a typical star-studded Jayhawk team, features both size and depth, and is led by Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson and crafty guard Tyshawn Taylor. Their first round matchup with Detroit will be followed by a Sunday clash with the winner of the 7 vs. 10 game: St. Mary's-Purdue.
This was among the most difficult first round games to forecast, but I ultimately became comfortable with Purdue, who captured the sixth and final bid from the Big Ten.
With several players who have postseason experience, a Boilermaker bunch led by Robbie Hummel in his final NCAA tournament appearance should have the size and scoring punch to top a St. Mary's team who lost three of their final five regular season games.
Like many other Big East teams in recent years, Georgetown has struggled big time in the "Big Dance," and though critics of Pittsburgh and Notre Dame may argue otherwise, Georgetown has been among the most disappointing Big East teams in recent NCAA Tournaments.
Their first round matchup with Belmont could pose some problems (if you recall, Belmont was on the brink of beating Duke in a 2 vs. 15 game in 2008), but Georgetown couldn't possibly lose two 3 vs. 14 matchups in the last three seasons.
The Steve Fisher-led San Diego State Aztecs aren't quite the No. 2 seed that they were last year, but are certainly formidable as a No. 6. I expect them to handle an average NC State team that was lucky to wind up on the right side of the bubble.
The Midwest's Round of 32 games will take place on Sunday. While Kentucky (vs. UConn), Syracuse (vs. Kansas State) and Michigan State (vs. Memphis) could all face a stiff first-weekend test, North Carolina should handle its second round opponent, and wait until week's end to face the winner of a Michigan-Temple contest.
Temple has some good wins (Duke, Xavier), but Michigan's play in the second half of the season has been too encouraging for me to bounce them in the tournament's first weekend.
Wins over Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Indiana speak for themselves, as I expect to see a Sweet 16 bout between UNC and Michigan. Kansas should have no problem with either Purdue or St. Mary's, but perhaps the most compelling Round of 32 matchup in the Midwest will be Georgetown-San Diego State.
If this were a typical Georgetown team or even an underachieving one, I would be hard-pressed to advance them to the regional.
But this Hoya squad has exceeded all preseason expectations and has gotten unexpected contributions, especially from their big man, Henry Sims.
As far as my bracket is concerned, the magic runs out for both Georgetown and Michigan at the regional in St. Louis.
When all is said and done, the Midwest Regional Final may be the best of the four, and I expect it to be a matchup between North Carolina and Kansas. Both teams have played their best basketball down the stretch, and despite neither having won their respective conference tournament, the Tar Heels and Jayhawks are two of the best five or six teams in the nation.
Ultimately, Head Coach Roy Williams (who, let's not forget, coached Kansas to the NCAA National Championship game in 2003 before leaving for UNC) and North Carolina will advance to New Orleans for the Final Four.
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