Given the names and history involved--the schools were intertwined long before Roy Williams returned to his alma mater--it's easy to look at the Midwest and focus solely on North Carolina and Kansas. Based on Ken Pomeroy's ratings, that's not entirely mistaken. The Tar Heels and Jayhawks are clearly the class of the Midwest. Still, there's nearly a 40 percent chance that someone else reaches the Final Four, and a deep field produces the possibility of a number of first-round "upsets" in seeding only.
(16) Lamar vs. (16) Vermont (Wednesday in Dayton, 6:30 p.m. on truTV)
Both Lamar and Vermont can take umbrage with being forced into one of the two First Four matchups involving conference champions. They rated ahead of all other 16 seeds, plus also two of the 15s (three in the case of Lamar). Much was made of Pat Knight's rant after a home loss on Feb. 22 to Stephen F. Austin and the Cardinals' subsequent six-game winning streak. However, Lamar was still in good shape after the loss. Texas-Arlington was the co-favorite in the Southland Conference, so when UTA was upset in the semifinals of the conference tournament, the Cardinals had only to win a rematch with Stephen F. Austin in the other semi to have a clear path to the automatic bid, which they ended up winning by 21 points. Vermont finished a game shy of Stony Brook in the America East Conference, but the Catamounts had superior season-long numbers and won the tournament final after escaping in double overtime against Hartford in the semifinals.
Winner vs. (1) North Carolina (Friday in Greensboro, 4:10 p.m. on TBS)
Of the two options, Lamar looks like the more dangerous 16 seed. The Cardinals are the nation's most experienced team with five senior starters and have faced some of the country's top teams, losing by 20 at Ohio State and 22 at Kentucky. The best team Vermont played all year was St. Louis, losing by 19 on the road. Lamar has a unique ability to get as many shots as possible with offensive rebounds and few turnovers, which explains the discrepancy between ranking 273rd in effective field-goal percentage and 84th in adjusted offensive efficiency. So the Tar Heels might need John Henson on the defensive glass should this matchup materialize. North Carolina expects Henson to play after missing the last two games of the ACC Tournament with a sprained left wrist.
(15) Detroit vs. (2) Kansas (Friday in Omaha, 9:57 p.m. on truTV)
It's not unusual for only one of the two teams in a 2-15 matchup to have a McDonald's All-American. What is extraordinary is that in this case it's the 15th seed. Ray McCallum, Jr. is one key reason the Titans aren't your average 15 seed. They also boast talented size in Indiana transfer Eli Holman, who thrived as a sixth man after returning from suspension, posting a 120.2 Offensive Rating. Still, Detroit's ratings were hardly spectacular for a 15 seed; while John Gasaway urges you to note that bad fortune with opponent three-point shooting was part of the reason, the Titans only outscored opposition in the nation's 14th-best conference by 0.04 points per trip. Kansas should be able to pack the interior and force Detroit, which shoots reluctantly and inaccurately from beyond the arc, to win over the top.
(14) Belmont vs. (3) Georgetown (Friday in Columbus, 3:10 p.m. on truTV)
Belmont was about eight points away from a six seed. The Bruins played a challenging non-conference schedule and went 9-5, but only one of the losses (at Memphis) came by more than five points. Give Belmont wins over Middle Tennessee and Marshall, let alone at Duke (a one-point loss in the season opener) and there is no way this is a 14 seed. Among mid-majors, just Creighton and Wichita State scored more efficiently. The Bruins' fleet of outside shooters, strong ball movement and playmaker Kerron Johnson will test Georgetown's defense, which ranked seventh in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. One key matchup to watch is whether Belmont can draw slow-footed Henry Sims away from the basket with pick-and-rolls and three-pointers. At the other end, the Bruins will need to find a way to stop the Hoyas' do-everything freshman forward, Otto Porter.
(13) Ohio vs. (4) Michigan (Friday in Memphis, 7:20 p.m. on TNT)
The MAC came down to Ohio and regular-season champ Akron, and the Bobcats crushed the rival Zips at home and outlasted them by one point in the title game. Akron and Marshall were the best teams Ohio beat all season, which doesn't offer much hope against a Michigan team playing its finest basketball late in the season. With freshman point guard Trey Burke maturing by the day, the Wolverines won seven of eight games before running into Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinals. So how can the Bobcats win? They'll need a huge game from their playmaker, junior D.J. Cooper, who was responsible for 36.6 percent of the team's scoring between his points and assists but made just 39.0 percent of his twos. They'll also need to force a bunch of turnovers (they rank second in the country in this regard) against a sure-handed team.
(12) California vs. (12) South Florida (Wednesday in Dayton, 9 p.m. on truTV)
In terms of season-long performance, this matchup between the last two high-major teams into the field looks lopsided. Pomeroy rates California the nation's No. 28 team, and South Florida No. 66. So why might this game still be competitive? First, there's the matter of location. The Golden Bears have to fly some 2,000-plus miles to get to Dayton by Wednesday, which explains why Nate Silver's projections--which account for travel--have the teams much closer than Pomeroy's log5 simulation. Second, California limped into the tournament with three losses in the last four games. Since losing starting forward Richard Solomon to academic ineligibility, the Golden Bears are thin both in the frontcourt and overall and have not been quite as effective.
Winner vs. (5) Temple (Friday in Nashville, 9:50 p.m. on TNT)
Under different circumstances, Cal might be the favorite in this game, what with a superior rating to Temple. However, the possibility of a loss to South Florida and even more travel between games makes the Owls the much safer pick. The Bulls' size would be interesting against a Temple team that goes 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 on the perimeter. However, it's unclear whether South Florida--the No. 178 offense on a per-possession basis--could score enough to beat the Owls. The Golden Bears boast more balance and have an elite perimeter stopper in Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jorge Gutierrez.
(11) North Carolina State vs. (6) San Diego State (Friday in Columbus, 12:40 p.m. on truTV)
One way or another, anticipate a close game in this early morning matchup. Of the Aztecs' 33 games, 13 were decided either by five points or fewer or in overtime. San Diego State went a remarkable 11-2 in those tossup games, which explains why a team Pomeroy rated No. 52 overall landed a six seed. By either rating, Steve Fisher did an admirable job after losing 85 percent of the possessions used by last year's Sweet 16 squad. The undersized Aztecs play sound defense and get efficient scoring from three-point specialist Chase Tapley. Still, North Carolina State looks like the favorite in this game, especially considering that San Diego State's travel will be nearly as onerous as California's. The Aztecs may not have an answer in the paint for C.J. Leslie, who started to capitalize on his immense potential during his second season on campus.
(10) Purdue vs. (7) St. Mary's (Friday in Omaha, 7:27 p.m. on truTV)
While the slow pace might mask it, look forward to an efficient offensive game between these two teams, both of them stronger with the basketball. Put another way, this is a matchup of the No. 100 and No. 103 defenses in the country in terms of adjusted efficiency, which is atypically poor for a 7-10 game. That's good news for a pair of fine point guards in Lewis Jackson and Matthew Dellavedova, who succeed in different ways. The 5-9 Jackson is all about quickness, while the 6-4 Dellavedova has superior size and shooting ability. The Gaels may use Stephen Holt (STEVE HOLT!) to defend Jackson if he's able to return from a sprained knee that sidelined him for the last five games, including St. Mary's win in the WCC Championship game over Gonzaga. The Gaels also need to figure out a way to deal with veteran Purdue star Robbie Hummel. St. Mary's frontcourt may not be quick enough to contain Hummel, which is one reason why the Boilermakers look like the favorite in this game. (That the Gaels are yet another California team heading back to the Midwest is another.)
(9) Alabama vs. (8) Creighton (Friday in Greensboro, 1:40 p.m. on TBS)
Expect this 8-9 clash to be one of the best games of the tournament's first two days. That starts with an even matchup; Pomeroy makes the Crimson Tide ever so slight favorites, but Cincinnati-Texas is the only closer game on paper. There's also a battle between elite units: Creighton's fifth-ranked defense against Alabama's ninth-ranked defense. Led by sophomore star Doug McDermott, the Blue Jays shoot the ball more accurately than anyone else in the country. McDermott has maintained the nation's third-best True Shooting Percentage while taking more than a third of his team's shots thanks to his polished post game combined with the ability to step away from the basket. Alabama counters with an elite athlete in NBA-bound senior JaMychal Green. The Crimson Tide's rating has slipped slightly since Anthony Grant suspended the team's other star forward, Tony Mitchell, for the season. However, Alabama was competitive with Florida before falling in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament.
Second Round and Beyond
As much as Kansas and North Carolina appear to be on a collision course to a much-anticipated meeting in St. Louis (where geography would favor the Jayhawks), Pomeroy's ratings show that matchup coming to fruition just a quarter of the time. Any of about seven other teams could play spoiler. The last two spots in the Sweet 16 are wide open. Michigan doesn't appear likely to get a particularly tough matchup in the third round, but the Wolverines aren't so dominant that they can coast by Cal, South Florida or Temple. Most likely, the winner of the Georgetown-Belmont game will reach the Sweet 16--about two-thirds of the time, by the numbers, so if you're feeling bold enough to take the Bruins over the Hoyas, go ahead and walk them into the Sweet 16 as well (like Seth Davis). Kansas could get a run from the winner of Purdue-St. Mary's. Either team is capable of going small and trying to create matchup problems for Jeff Withey while hoping not to get dominated on the offensive glass.
If this region does ultimately come down to the two favorites, expect a terrific game and give a thin edge to the Jayhawks.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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