NCAA Tournament: Midwest Region breakdown

Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

NCAA Tournament: Midwest Region breakdown

This is the third time the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City has served as the Midwest Regional site. Expect a surprising regional champ if the first two occasions are any indication.

In 2019, fifth-seeded Auburn survived 12th-seeded New Mexico State by one point in the first round before blowing through blue bloods Kansas, North Carolina, and Kentucky to reach the Final Four.

In 2017, top-seeded Kansas earned the chance to play in Tulsa and Kansas City on the road to the Final Four. The Jayhawks crushed UC-Davis, Michigan State, and Purdue — only to suffer a 14-point Elite Eight loss to No. 3 seed Oregon before a heavily pro-Kansas crowd in KC.

Houston ranks as the nation’s No. 1 team according to the NET. Houston ranks as the nation’s No. 1 team according to KenPom. But the Cougars slipped to the No. 2 overall seed due to a 71-65 home loss to Alabama on Dec. 10. Houston’s chances to reach the Final Four in its hometown are directly correlated to Marcus Sasser’s health. Sasser (17.1 ppg) missed Sunday’s AAC title-game loss to Memphis after straining his groin Saturday but told reporters Sunday he believes he’ll be 100% for the NCAA Tournament.

Second-seeded Texas proved it could thrive in Kansas City against the best when the Longhorns thrashed Kansas in Saturday’s Big 12 title game. Like Houston, the Longhorns expect to have a key player back for the NCAAs, as Timmy Allen (10.5 ppg) missed the Big 12 tournament with a lower-leg injury.

When healthy, Houston and Texas both go nine-deep, and there’s a ton of athleticism, physicality, intensity, and skill at both ends of the floor. It would make for an incredible Elite Eight game if both can get there.

4 Indiana vs. 13 Kent State. Since 2018, the MAC’s NCAA entrant has gone 3-1 in the first round — and the only loser (Akron) missed a last-second, game-tying layup last year against UCLA. The Golden Flashes have great fifth-year guards (Sincere Carry and Malique Jacobs) to challenge IU freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino, but does Kent State have enough fouls to slow Trayce Jackson-Davis?

8 Iowa vs. 9 Auburn. The Tigers have gone 4-9 since Jan. 25 — but that includes five road losses by five points or less to NCAA teams. The Hawkeyes are the nation’s fifth-most efficient offensive team but also are struggling lately. Can they push the pace and hit enough 3s to frustrate Auburn and former Iowa assistant coach Bruce Pearl?

5 Miami vs. 12 Drake. The metrics say the ACC regular-season champion Hurricanes are way overseeded and should be closer to a 9 or 10. The Bulldogs aren’t the biggest, strongest, or fastest mid-major, but they could be the oldest. Soph Tucker DeVries was the MVC’s Player of the Year, and he’s surrounded by four fifth-year seniors that include unflappable PG Roman Penn.

Indiana senior Trayce Jackson-Davis ranks third on KenPom’s national Player of the Year rankings. He leads the Hoosiers in scoring (20.8 ppg), rebounding (10.8 rpg), passing (4.1 apg), and blocks (2.7 bpg). IU is best when the offense flows through TJD, and the lefty finds open men when double-teamed.

Penn State senior guard Jalen Pickett ranks eighth on KenPom’s list because he’s a triple threat (17.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 6.7 apg) who powers his way into the paint and sprays the ball to open shooters all around the 3-point arc. He’s why the Nittany Lions have their first bid since 2011.

Houston senior guard Marcus Sasser ranks ninth on KenPom’s list. He’s the Cougars’ go-to guy on offense (17.1 ppg), but he also smothers opposing guards as the tone-setter (1.7 spg) on the nation’s No. 4 defensive unit.

Penn State’s last eight games have been decided by four points or less — so it makes sense that the 10th-seeded Nittany Lions are just a three-point underdog Thursday against No. 7 Texas A&M. But Penn State has a tight turnaround after playing four games in 72 hours in the Big Ten tournament, which makes this the ultimate teaser line between two hot teams.

Third-seeded Xavier (-12.5) has lost No. 2 scorer and top rebounder Zach Freemantle for the year, but this line seems a little light against a Kennesaw State squad enjoying its first winning season and first NCAA bid. On the other hand, KenPom predicts a 12-point Xavier win.

There’s nothing Houston doesn’t do excellently. The Cougars defend to the death, lead the nation in blocks, rank third in offensive rebounds, and won’t be outfought.

One potential Achilles’ heel? The Cougars love to play s-l-o-w.

But second-seeded Texas and third-seeded Xavier have the personnel to speed them up and knock them out.

–Field Level Media

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