Yes, we don’t have March Madness, but because of great minds like Joe Lunardi at ESPN, we can have a glimpse at what the bracket may have looked like. In the latest State News series, we analyze and project what the NCAA tournament may have looked like, round by round, region by region.
Here is our projection of the Midwest Region First Round.
#1 Kansas V. #16 Siena
Preview: Let’s start with the Siena Saints. Led by rising sophomore guard Jalen Pickett, the Saints are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. After starting the season 7-9, the Saints won twelve of their last thirteen games to propel themselves to first place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Pickett is a star in the making for Siena, averaging over fifteen points a game as a sophomore, but can he be enough to lift the Saints over the Jayhawks?
It’s going to take a lot for the Saints to do that, as the Jayhawks are loaded. The star duo of Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike is a pairing you have to game plan not to stop, but to slow down. Dotson on the season is averaging eighteen points per game, including a thirty-one-point performance against fellow number one seed Dayton back in November at the Maui Invitational. Azubuike is built like a tank and it has translated into a nearly 78% field goal percentage for the seven-foot senior. The pick and roll action between Dotson and Azubuike is going to be tough for any team to stop in March, let alone Siena.
Prediction: This will not be a Virginia-UMBC type of game. Despite Siena’s hot streak, Kansas just has too much talent across the board and easily advances to the second round to please the home crowd in Omaha. Kansas 84-Siena 61
#8 Houston V. #9 Marquette
Preview: If it was not for Markus Howard being one of the best scorers the NCAA has ever seen, it would be Houston by a million. The Golden Eagles have lost six of their last seven, despite Howard averaging twenty-nine points per game in that seven-game stretch, including five thirty point plus outings. The key for Marquette in this one? Get someone other than Howard going.
Houston is one of the best defensive teams in the country as they are 12th in the country in points allowed per game at 62.1, but can they keep up with Howard? They’ll need freshman Caleb Mills and Kansas transfer Quentin Grimes to pack the same punch that Howard does and to make sure nobody other than Howard beats them offensively.
Prediction: Despite a big outing from Howard, a senior looking to go out in a blaze of glory, the Golden Eagles just won’t have enough firepower to get it done. Houston 71-Marquette 67
#5 Auburn V. #12 Liberty
Preview: The Liberty Flames are back and in the same position they were a year ago. If Danny Green was a basketball team, then he would be Liberty. This teams prides themselves on the three ball, and grit and grind defense on the other end, only allowing 53.4 points per game, which is the second best in the country. Finishing 30-4 on the season, with a regular season and conference tournament championship on their resume, look out Auburn.
Auburn is also back in the tournament after reaching the Final Four last season for the first time in school history. Led by experienced head coach Bruce Pearl, returning senior Samir Doughty, and possible top ten NBA draft pick Isaac Okoro, Auburn is poised for another deep run, or are they?
Prediction: Our first upset! Liberty is poised for a run after getting a taste of what that might be like in 2019. Liberty 71- Auburn 65
#4 Wisconsin V. #13 North Texas
Preview: Who would have thought Wisconsin would be in this position? After the departure of Kobe King and the calls for the firing of Greg Gard, Wisconsin turned their season around and earned a share of the Big Ten title. This is a team turning it on at the right time.
As for North Texas, they started the season dead in the water at 6-8 but turned it around with tenacious defense that ranks twenty eighth in the nation and finished 20-11. The Mean Green have a great one two punch in the backcourt in Javion Hamlet and Umoja Gibson that could make some noise
Prediction: Despite a strong finish, North Texas doesn’t have enough weapons outside of their backcourt to upend the Badgers. Wisconsin 74- North Texas 60
#6 Iowa V. #11 East Tennessee State
Preview: Iowa has the Big Ten Player of the Year and potential National Player of the Year on their side in Luka Garza. With a team full of guys from beyond the arc that can kill you, the only question for the Hawkeyes comes defensively, as they rank near the bottom in defensive metrics in the country.
East Tennessee State is a team that could have made the big dance even without a conference tournament championship. With wins over LSU and tough conference opponents UNC Greensboro and Furman, this team is legit. Despite being 56th in total offense, ETSU doesn’t have a single person that will hurt you, but rather a collective offensive effort that averages nearly around 73 points per game. Couple that with a top thirty defense in the country and this is a team that could make some noise.
Prediction: ETSU will stun the NPOY Luka Garza and move onto the second round for only the third time in their history. ETSU 83-Iowa 82
#3 Duke V. #14 Belmont
Preview: The team with the biggest target on its back year in year out is back again for more in Duke. Led by the usual star young guys in Vernon Carey Jr and Tre Jones, Duke is one of the main competitors to advance to Atlanta in the Midwest.
Belmont is coming into the tournament with tons of rest after winning their conference tourney almost two weeks before their matchup with Duke. The Bruins are one of the best offensive teams in the nation with three guys averaging double figures on a nightly basis. The Bruins will need to be hot from beyond the arc and find a way to limit Carey or get him into foul trouble to slay Goliath.
Prediction: Belmont gives the Blue Devils trouble as they got hot from beyond the arc and with Carey picking up two quick fouls in the first half, the Bruins head into the locker room up six at half. But the Devils rally in the second half and extinguish any hope the Bruins had. Duke 84-Belmont 78
#7 Providence V. #10 Arizona State
Preview: Providence comes into the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country, and the butterflies in Kentucky head coach John Calipari’s stomach begin to flutter. Luwane Pipkins has become the third scorer the Friars have been searching for all season with three of his last four games being twenty point plus outings. Friars head coach Ed Cooley is one of the most underrated coaches in the country and has his team ready for a run.
Our first member of Bill Walton’s conference of champions, the Arizona State Sun Devils. Led by Remy Martin, the Sun Devils finished 3rd in the Pac-12 this season and have the ability to score points in a hurry, but I’m not so sure the Sun Devils can even handle the heat the Friars are coming into March with.
Prediction: The Friars announce to the world they are here to stay. Providence gets hot and win in wire to wire fashion. Providence 84-Arizona State 67
#2 Kentucky V. # 15 North Dakota State
Preview: Kentucky is SEC champions once again and Calipari says this is one of his favorite teams he has ever coached. Immanuel Quickley has emerged as one of the best players in the country and has quickly risen up draft boards (I am truly sorry). With Tyrese Maxey’s ability to explode at any moment, Kentucky is dangerous once again.
North Dakota State gave Duke’s super team some trouble early last season in the first round, but we’re simply not up to the task and could not sustain their hot start. Can they finish the job this time?
Prediction: No. Quickley and Maxey shine in this matchup from beyond the arc, and blow NDSU back to Fargo. Kentucky 81-NDSU 60
Second Round Matchups
#1 Kansas V. #8 Houston
#4 Wisconsin V. #12 Liberty
#3 Duke V. #11 East Tennessee State
#2 Kentucky V. #7 Providence