Rating the region: The Midwest is the toughest region in this NCAA tournament by a landslide. Kansas is a formidable No. 1, No. 2 Duke is the most talented team in the country and No. 3 Michigan State has two NBA lottery picks and, perhaps, this generation’s best postseason coach.
Contenders to cut down the nets in Omaha: Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, Rhode Island and New Mexico State (yes, really).
Pretenders who will be bounced early despite high seeds: No. 5 Clemson is the most vulnerable team, as it has lost five of its past eight games. Second-leading scorer Donte Grantham tore his ACL in January, which has hindered the Tigers throughout ACC play. No. 4 Auburn has also sputtered to the finish, as it’s lost four of six and is without injured forward Anfernee McLemore, who was lost for the season on Feb. 17. No. 6 TCU is No. 268 in effective field-goal percentage defense, which gives both toiling Arizona State and Syracuse a chance.
Cinderellas: It’s not a matter of whether New Mexico State will win a game. It’s a matter of how deep you want to pick the Aggies. Chris Jans and his merry band of vagabonds – Zach Lofton (19.8 ppg) attended San Jacinto College, Illinois State, Minnesota and Texas Southern before New Mexico State – are long, athletic and not intimidated. (They’ve beaten Miami, Davidson and Illinois.) Nine Aggies are transfers, including the best rebounder in the tournament, Jemerrio Jones (13.1 rpg). Colonial champion Charleston is also dangerous, as the backcourt of Grant Riller (18.7 ppg) and Joe Chealy (18.5) can shoot it on a deep run.
Team that doesn’t belong: Syracuse is representative of the committee’s worst decision this year, as the outrage could be heard from coast-to-coast. This is an offensively impotent Orange team that ranks No. 321 in effective field-goal percentage. Syracuse has been garish to watch most of the season. USC and Notre Dame fans have every right to be steamed. But this comes with a warning: The last time Syracuse didn’t deserve to get in the tournament (2016), it got to the Final Four.
Chances of a 1-16 upset: Obviously, the chances are never good when history shows a 0-for-128 track record. We’ll give Penn the best chance of any of the No. 16s in this field, as Steve Donahue is a crafty enough coach that he took Cornell to the Sweet 16. Penn is Kenpom’s highest-rated No. 16 seed in six years and ranks No. 2 in the country in 3-point field-goal defense, one of many things it’ll need to do well. Look for a close halftime score, and then the inevitable to occur.
Best potential round-of-32 game: New Mexico State-Charleston. Who doesn’t love a little chaos? With Clemson and Auburn limping home, the Aggies and Cougars can battle it out for a spot in the Round of 16.
Best potential Sweet 16 game: Michigan State-Duke. They are two of the handful of teams that can win the tournament, and they’ll be meeting much earlier than Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski would like. Michigan State has the poise, experience and shooters – (hello, Cassius Winston) – to blitz Duke’s lethargic zone.
Best potential regional final game: Michigan State-Kansas. Would you really take Bill Self over Tom Izzo? Me neither. This Kansas team has scrapped its way to the Big 12 title behind Devonte’ Graham. But with Udoka Azubuike’s MCL a looming issue – he’s expected to play against Penn – it’s hard to see Kansas muscling its way through this brutal bracket. Never pick against Izzo on a short turnaround.
Best coach: No one can build to a March crescendo quite like Izzo. Look for this to mark his eighth Final Four.
Underrated coach: Rhode Island’s Dan Hurley has the Rams in back-to-back NCAAs. If the Pitt or UConn job isn’t filled by the time the Rams tip on Thursday afternoon, a trail of speculation will follow Hurley. (Look for Pitt to be the favorite.)
Best player: Oklahoma’s Trae Young would have been a no-brainer for this in January. But with the Sooners in a tailspin, we’ll go with Duke’s Marvin Bagley III. The Chris Bosh clone will be coming to a moribund NBA franchise near you this summer. Just don’t ask him to guard anyone.
Best player you haven’t heard of: Bucknell’s Zach Thomas averages 20.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. He’s the caliber of player who could lead a first-round stunner. But this will be a case of good player, bad draw; it’s hard to envision Bucknell tripping up Michigan State.
X-Factor: Duke’s 2-3 zone defense looked at times during the ACC tournament as if the Blue Devils were wearing cement shoes. The young team has given inconsistent effort on that end of the floor. The fact that it has so much talent yet can’t guard teams in man-to-man speaks to a fundamental flaw that will trip the Blue Devils up at some point in this region.
Welcome March sight: Crafty veteran coach Lon Kruger is in his 32nd year as a major college coach. He’s led five different schools to the NCAA tournament. Don’t be surprised if he finds a way to resuscitate the Sooners, who have lost eight of their past 10 games.
Best part of this bracket: Star power. Kansas’ Graham won the Big 12 player of the year. All of Duke’s starting five is expected to get drafted. Yes, even Grayson Allen (second round). Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. will be lottery picks. The coaches aren’t shabby, either, as Self, Izzo and Krzyzewski are all in the Hall of Fame.
Pete’s Pick: Michigan State.
More NCAA tournament on Yahoo Sports:
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•Everything you need to know before filling out a bracket
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