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NCAA Tournament preview: Midwest region

Sam Petri
Tamin Lipsey Dribbles around TCU player at the ISU vs. TCU game at Hilton Coliseum February 10, 2024

Teams to watch

No. 1 Purdue:

Purdue is going to be an interesting team to watch. Either the Boilermakers will crash and burn early on, or they will win it all. There really is no in-between.

On paper, Purdue is one of the favorites to win the national championship. It has a top-five offense in the nation and a top-25 defense. Along with that, Purdue has the nation’s most prolific scorer this season in Zach Edey, who stands at a whopping 7-foot-4.

Not many teams can deal with Edey, which is why he leads the nation in points per game with nearly 25 and almost leads the nation in rebounds with nearly 12. The walking double-double giant could do some damage in the tournament, especially against teams that have not dealt with that size in their own conferences.

The only issue with Purdue is obvious, though. At the end of the day, Purdue is Purdue. The Boilermakers were convinced last season that it was their year and they were upset by a No. 16 seed in the first round. Although I do not see that happening again, Purdue could easily drop a winnable game earlier than expected.

No. 3 Creighton:

Creighton is one of my favorite teams coming out of the Midwest region. The Bluejays are a team that can hang with any team in the nation, as was shown in recent weeks. Creighton did not just take down Marquette, a top-10 team at the time, but it also toppled UConn to drop the Huskies from their top spot in the nation.

I know Creighton got knocked out in the first round of the Big East Tournament, but do conference tournaments really matter?

The Bluejays are as balanced as it gets, ranking in the top 15 in adjusted offense and top 25 in adjusted defense, according to Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings (KenPom). Pair that with a relatively easy and upset-prone region and Creighton could make the Final Four with ease.

No. 12 McNeese State:

McNeese State will be a fun underdog to watch. The Cowboys are entering the NCAA Tournament with a record of 30-3. They are one of four teams that have 30 or more wins, with two of those teams being UConn and Houston, two No. 1 seeds.

I know having 30 wins while playing in the Southland Conference is not as impressive as the Big East or the Big 12, but it gives McNeese State a lot of momentum going into the first game. Along with their record, the Cowboys boast a lot of interesting stats that make them a dark horse pick for a deep run.

McNeese State is No. 3 in turnover margin, falling just behind Houston and Iowa State. Along with that, the Cowboys are top 10 in turnovers forced per game. Not only is their defense pesky, but they also rank in the top 10 in 3-point percentage, which is a crucial stat for teams primed and ready to pull off an upset.

No. 13 Samford:

Samford is another team that can do damage in the tournament if it gets hot. I will talk more about the perfect first-round matchup the Bulldogs have, but the biggest thing to note is how fast they play.

Samford is top 15 in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom, which relates to the pace of play. The Bulldogs are fast and can score with ease. Their style of abusing fastbreaks and knocking down 3-pointers at a high rate could be tough to deal with.

The biggest stat to note is that Samford comes in the top 10 in 3-point percentage while averaging 10 made threes a game. The Bulldogs are No. 6 in effective field goal percentage and No. 7 in fastbreak points. On defense, Samford also forces the sixth-most turnovers a game by any team.

All around, Samford is just a pesky team that is itching to make miracles happen.

Matchups to watch

No. 6 South Carolina vs. No. 11 Oregon:

Despite the margin in the rankings, these two teams are relatively close to each other.

South Carolina is a team that made it through a tough SEC schedule fairly well and picked a slew of quality wins. The Gamecocks took down teams like Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee on the road. They also showed they could lose to anyone at any time.

Given that fact, Oregon is a team that is randomly hot at a great time of the year. The Ducks won the Pac-12 Tournament and took down Arizona, a No. 2 seed.

Given how both teams are floating around the top 50 in net ranking and each has similarly-ranked offenses and defenses, the game could be a toss-up despite it being a No. 6 vs. No. 11 matchup.

No. 5 Gonzaga vs. No. 12 McNeese State:

I know I hyped up McNeese State a lot up above, and I really want to be confident in the Cowboys’ chance at an upset, but Gonzaga is probably the toughest draw they could have gotten. Of all the No. 5 seeds, Gonzaga is the most upset-proof team.

Gonzaga is on fraud watch, especially because it has been a bit overrated throughout the season since it has one of the weakest strength of schedules of any top team in the tournament. The West Coast Conference did not provide much of a challenge to the team that was coming off an Elite Eight appearance a year ago.

Even knowing that, Gonzaga still has a top-10 adjusted offense, according to KenPom, and is top 50 on defense. Gonzaga is almost a sure thing to make it past the first round and should have an easy path to the Sweet 16.

Given that the most upset-proof No. 5 seed is going against the most upset-capable No. 12 seed, this could end up being a great game.

No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 13 Samford:

Samford has the best opportunity in the entire bracket to make a Cinderella run through the tournament. We saw Princeton do it last year and Saint Peter’s do it the year before.

Kansas somehow snuck into the No. 4 spot despite the lackluster season and injury concerns. Kansas head coach Bill Self announced Tuesday that Kevin McCullar Jr. is ruled out for the NCAA Tournament. Given that the Jayhawks’ other leading scorer, Hunter Dickinson, is also dealing with injuries, Kansas will be majorly crippled.

We saw how Kansas fared without McCullar and Dickinson in the game against Cincinnati. Samford has upset written all over it, and Kansas is by far the weakest top-four seed in the tournament.

No. 8 Utah State vs. No. 9 TCU:

This will be a game to watch because whoever wins has a good chance of upsetting Purdue.

I have been high on TCU all season, and despite recent struggles, the Horned Frogs do have experience taking down giants. TCU’s fast-paced style of play is paired with one of the top defenses in the nation. TCU comes in the top 50 in adjusted offense and has the No. 31 adjusted defense, according to KenPom.

Utah State is a team that can keep up with TCU, as the Aggies nearly have a top-50 defense while still coming in the top 40 on offense. The interesting thing about the matchup is despite TCU being the lower seed, they rank 15 spots higher in the net rankings.

This could be a classic example of a No. 9 seed proving why the seeds should have been flipped, and if TCU wins, it has a solid chance of sending Purdue packing.

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