Ah, the best time of the year. The drama of Thursday and Friday is only matched in magnitude by the anticipation in the days leading up. Every single game, player, and possibility needs to combed through diligently, so we can all succeed in our brackets or embrace the beautiful chaos of March Madness.
To make the whole thing easier to swallow, we’ll break the bracket into its four regions. From there, we’ll step beyond the arc and try to hit some threes, highlighting trios of the bests and biggests in each set of 16 teams.
Let’s polish things off with the mighty Midwest.
Three Most Interesting First Round Games
(5) Purdue vs (12) Arkansas-Little Rock
It’s not necessarily fair to narrow down Purdue to strictly “THEY ARE BIG”. I tried to for about 1,000 words for the ESPN Bracket Projection. The Boilers’ three highest usage players are all bigs who patrol the paint. They control the glass and block a ton of shots.
For a mid-major like Little Rock, it’s a daunting proposition. The Trojans played at the 6th slowest pace in the nation this season. If you’re going to play Purdue in the half court, you need to spread out their big men and make them come out to the three point line to guard. Little Rock did shoot a top 20 percentage from beyond the arc and has taller players capable of hitting jumpers.
This game will be a clash of styles. Whoever can execute their style more effectively comes out on top.
(4) Iowa State vs (13) Iona
We go from contrasting styles to two teams who share a philosophy. Iona was top 50 in tempo, scored the 18th highest percentage of points from beyond the arc, and never gets to the free throw line.
Iowa State played the 2nd fastest pace in the Big XII, and was top three in the conference in 3-point percentage, 2-point percentage, effective field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and a host of other stats which feature the word “percentage”. They were among the nation’s worst at heading to the charity stripe.
All of this really means one thing for the Iowa State-Iona game:
(6) Seton Hall vs (11) Gonzaga
And now, a Gonzaga fan telling you why Gonzaga will beat a team that just won their conference tournament in impressive fashion:
- The case for the Zags starts, in fact, with Seton Hall winning the Big East Tournament. Emotionally, the Pirates will need to dig back into their system to re-ignite their season. They’ll need to do so in Denver, Colorado at around 10:30 PM EST.
- Seton Hall has played six games against skilled offensive big men this season (this number is low because Seton Hall’s nonconference schedule was terrible. The best non-Big East team they played away from home was a neutral court game with Ole Miss). Here are those six games (the Big East Championship not being included due to Daniel Ochefu’s injury).
The January game against Ochefu stands as an outlier thanks to foul trouble. The Nova big man only played 17 minutes in that one.
So now they get Gonzaga,who has not just one elite forward, but two. Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis may well be the two best bigs the Pirates have faced all year, and they’ll face both at the same time. Seton Hall will attempt to stop 7’0 and 6’10 with 6’9 and 6’6. Or if you believe Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard, they may try something even crazier:
Derrick Gordon is 6’3. Kyle Wiltjer may be a stretch four (and a soft one at that), but he’s skilled enough in the post to shred a guy SEVEN inches shorter than he is. If Seton Hall doubles, the Zags shot the best 3-point percentage in their conference.
3. Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead took over at points in the Big East Tournament. Gonzaga will counter with WCC Defensive Player of the Year Eric McClellan, seemingly tailor made to guard Whitehead.
Three Best Players
Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia)
The thing that needs to be remembered about Brogdon is that while he plays some of the best defense in America and shoots the ball incredibly efficiently, he does so as a part of the Virgina offense. The Hoos played at the slowest pace in the nation, number 351. And yet Brogdon averaged 18.7 points per game. Virginia averaged 61 possessions per game. Compare that to someone like Xavier, 29th fastest in the country, at 72 possessions per game and imagine what happens to Brogdon’s numbers. All of the sudden he and Buddy Hield are neck and neck in the Player of the Year race.
Jakob Poeltl (Utah)
The Austrian is so smooth for a big his size, sometimes it’s hard to fathom. When he steps out to participate in a pick and roll, the whole building knows he’s diving to the rim, yet his footwork and surprising foot speed make him still able to get his body into a position to score. I know this sounds crazy, but when Utah plays this weekend, just watch Poeltl. Leave the ball for a while and just watch him move, with such a combination of grace and power, it will leave you either speechless or screaming for your favorite NBA team to draft him.
Denzel Valentine (Michigan State)
Valentine finished #2 in the nation in assist rate. This is notable for a number of reasons, but let’s focus on his size. At 6’5, Valentine plays a bit of a point forward role in college basketball. He was one of only two players 6’5 or taller in the top 50 of assist rate nationally (Kyle Collinsworth from BYU is the other). Valentine is the tallest player to finish in the top 10 nationally in assist rate since Evan Turner in 2010.
Honorable Mention (in no order): AJ Hammons (Purdue), AJ English (Iona), Georges Niang (Iowa State), Isaiah Whitehead (Seton Hall), Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga), Marvelle Harris (Fresno State)
Three Stats That Make You Say “Huh.”
- Iowa State’s opponents scored the second lowest percentage of points from the free throw line…Iowa State themselves scored the absolute fewest percentage of points from the free throw line. I can’t stop talking about this. If Iowa State or Iona shoots a foul shot on Thursday, let me know.
- Middle Tennessee State shot the third worst from the foul line in the country….”led” by second leading scorer Reggie Upshaw and an ugly 50.3 percent.
- Texas Tech played a whopping 16 games against teams in this tournament, and won 9 of them….Butler played 13 such games and only won 5.
Three Teams Who Could Make the Final Four
Virginia or Michigan State: Defense and style of play can either be crutches that the Cavs rely on or the cornerstones of a championship run. When the ball is tipped, they’ll have the best player on the floor and a better coach 95% of the time. It just so happens they’ve been placed in a region with Michigan State for the third straight year, and Sparty’s bested them the last two years. The Spartans are one of the only teams that can not only see Bennett and Brogdon but raise them with Izzo and Valentine. The inevitability of a Virginia-Michigan State Elite Eight match-up feels a lot like Wisconsin-Arizona did last year.
Dayton: The Flyers have been impressive all year despite injuries and they are getting healthy at the perfect time. They pull up their shorts and play great defense, ranking 13th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Coaching is so important in March and Dayton’s got a good one. Archie Miller has made runs the past two years with teams riddled by injuries, suspensions, and size issues. This year, he finally arrives to the gunfight with a little firepower in his holster.
Three Really Bold Predictions
Pretty sure I just said Dayton could reach the Final Four.
A second round Jakob Poeltl-Domantas Sabonis match-up ends with me losing my voice from yelling, “GIVE IT TO HIM” endlessly during post-ups without an entry pass.
There’s always one weird first round blowout. Last year it was Iowa over Davidson. This year, Texas Tech beats Butler by 25+.
Header image via AP Photo/Steve Helber
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.