The general consensus among many college basketball analysts when the NCAA Tournament brackets were released Sunday night was that the Midwest region, comprised of Wichita State, Michigan, Duke, and Louisville, was the toughest draw in the big dance.
As far as the Michigan Wolverines go, this will not be a cakewalk at all, but things are not as dire as they seem.
Michigan likely would have grabbed the number-one seed in the East that went to Virginia with a win over Michigan State, but that didn’t happen, and now they will be tested if they are to make a run similar to last year and get to the Final Four.
The Lead Dogs
#1 Wichita State: The Shockers enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated and looking to reach the Final Four for the second consecutive season. This is an experienced group that doesn’t have a star, but is very good across the board. The committee did them no favors with their opening weekend draw, as they will take on the winner of Kentucky/Kansas State. I have a feeling that Julius Randle could be a bit much for them to handle if it gets to that point, so I would say the Shockers are ripe for an upset this weekend.
#2 Michigan: We all know what this group is capable when firing on all cylinders, and that will need to happen in order for them to make it out of this region. From top to bottom, they are arguably the most talented in this region. They need their stars, Nik Staukas, Caris Levert, and Glenn Robinson III, to lead the way for them. If Michigan recaptures the fire they had prior to the Big Ten Championship game, they have a chance to at least play for the right to go to the Final Four.
#3 Duke: On paper, anytime you see Duke in your region, you immediately get scared. Duke is always a fantastic basketball team, but even with freshman star Jabari Parker, I see this year’s group bowing out in the Sweet 16. That being said, Parker is the kind of player that can put a team on his back and carry them to success on his own, a la Kemba Walker at UConn or Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse. I won’t write that off, but Duke is the team that will have the hardest time with their draw in the Midwest (even though they get to open up the tournament in their home state, again).
#4 Louisville: People are extremely high on Louisville going into this tournament, much like they were last year. Guard Russ Smith is back from last season and they also boast one of the most dominant forwards in the country in Montrezl Harrell. Many expected Louisville to be seeded higher than fourth, but their overall body of work spoke for itself, said the committee. A trip to the Elite Eight is not out of the question, but they will have to get past either Wichita State or Kentucky to get there, first. Louisville lost to the Wildcats earlier this season.
#8 Kentucky: I mentioned earlier that Kentucky could potentially knock off Wichita State this weekend. Not only do I think that’s possible, but there is a chance that Kentucky could find itself in the Final Four as an eight-seed like the Shockers did last year. They’ve had their ups and downs this year, but they still have incredible upside, lead by Julius Randle, James Young, and the Harrison twins. Randle is the kind of post presence that could give Michigan fits if it gets to that point, so don’t sleep on the Wildcats.
#10 Arizona State: If you’re looking for a team that could cause some chaos in your bracket this weekend, but likely won’t make it very deep, Arizona State has the potential to do that. They play Texas on Thursday and will likely play Michigan in round two with a win. Sophomore guard Jahii Carson has the ability to be a gamebreaker, and he will need to be prevented from going off. The potential for them to make the Sweet Sixteen is there.
So who comes out of this region and advances to the Final Four? In my bracket, I have Michigan and Kentucky in the Elite Eight, with the Wildcats advancing to North Texas. Kentucky boasts the post presence and outside shooting that the Wolverines have struggled to defend at times this year. They are extremely young much like Michigan is, but their upside is higher if they can get rolling early on in this tournament.
Whatever happens, Michigan seems poised to make another deep tournament run and it’s going to be an interesting journey to watch unfold.