The Midwest is the murderer’s row of the bracket this season. It’s the quarter of the bracket where the committee thanked Wichita State for their excellent effort this season and rewarded them with what is by-far the hardest bracket in the field and thus the toughest road to the Final Four.
(2) Michigan vs. (15) Wofford
Thursday 7:10, CBS, Milwaukee: (Ian Eagle/Jim Spanarkel/Lewis Johnson)
Breakdown: Michigan enters the tournament after having one of the most difficult schedules in the country. They are tried and tested and while they lost to Michigan State in the Big 10 Championship they are the real deal and a legit Final Four possibility.
Difference Maker: The bright yellow uniforms. They signify that Michigan int he building and they can run and shoot which all spells bad news for Wofford.
Michigan Wins If: They just play their game. They have shooters, athleticism and have shown the ability to play in big games.
Wofford Wins If: They can dominate the boards and shoot a high field goal percentage. Neither team is a great rebounding team so someone has to win the battle of the boards.
(5) Saint Louis vs. (12) N.C. State
Thursday 7:20, TNT, Orlando (Anderson/Bonner/Leahy)
Breakdown: NC State won their play-in game and now is trying to prove they belong. Coach K made some noise about them being good enough and they got in ahead of SMU so they have a lot to prove. They need to win one or two for justification.
Difference Maker: TJ Warren. He can score and if Saint Louis can’t stop him they will be going to Disney World for all the wrong reasons.
Saint Louis wins if: They can reproduce their early season magic. The end of the season skid made them a surprise 5-seed for some and they are a team with a lot to prove, not only for themselves but also for their conference.
NC State wins if: They can score. Saint Louis is a good defensive team, ranking in the top 50 in several defensive categories. If Warren and Ralston can get going the Wolfpack could win their second game and advance to the round of 32.
Prediction: NC State
(7) Texas vs. (10) Arizona State
Thursday 9:40, CBS, Milwaukee: (7) Texas vs. (10) Arizona State (Ian Eagle/Jim Spanarkel/Lewis Johnson)
Breakdown: Rick Barnes has one of those big, athletic teams that has had moments of brilliance this season but also moments where they seem lost. They are strong on the boards, which is a big problem for Arizona State.
Texas wins if: They dominate the boards like they have all season. A deep rotation of big bodies is a tough thing to overcome.
Arizona State wins if: They can find a way to make shots and get the Texas big men in foul trouble.
(4) Louisville vs. (13) Manhattan
9:50 Thursday, TNT, Orlando: (Anderson/Bonner/Leahy)
Breakdown: Louisville is a team that has figured it out heading into the tournament. They were awarded a four-seed which seemed low for a Rick Pitino team that was playing very well, won their conference tournament and is the defending national champs. After being put into the bracket of death, the Cardinals will have to bring their best game to win out.
Difference Maker: Russ Smith. If good Russ shows up and scores and makes good decisions Louisville is almost unbeatable. If bad Russ shows up and makes bad decisions and tries to force it, he can be hard to overcome.
Louisville wins if: Good Russ Smith Shows up.
Manhatten wins if: The stars align, Russ Smith gets hurt and Montezl Harrell gets in could trouble. The Jaspers don’t have much chance in this one.
(3) Duke vs. (14) Mercer
12:15 Friday, CBS, Raleigh (Kevin Harlan/Len Elmore/Reggie Miller/Rachel Nichols)
Background: This is the classic Duke verse not Duke. Mercer is one of those teams that would have a chance at pulling an upset if they were playing a team they matched up against.
Difference Maker: Coach K. Hard to imagine him not having the Blue Devils ready to roll against a 14 seed.
Duke wins if: Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood are at 50%. They are the toughest scoring tandem to stop in the nation when they are on.
Mercer wins if: They play a perfect game, manage the game, have no turnovers and Jabari Parker fouls out early in the second half.
(6) UMass vs. (11)Tennessee
2:45 Friday, CBS, Raleigh (Kevin Harlan/Len Elmore/Reggie Miller/Rachel Nichols)
Breakdown: 6 vs 11 games are always hard to predict because they tend to be evenly matched. This one is almost a push. Tennessee is ranked number 20 in rebounding and UMass is 26th.
Difference Maker: Tennessee had a hard fought overtime battle with Iowa to start the tournament. Their fatigue could play a role.
UMass wins if: Lightning quick point guard Chaz Williams does his best Earl Boykins impression and the Minutemen can win the rebounding battle.
Tennessee wins if: They aren’t too tired from an overtime win over Iowa to start the tournament. Jordan McCrae has to lead the way and Tennessee must win the rebounding column on the stat sheer.
(1) Wichita State vs. (16) Cal Poly
7:10, CBS, St. Louis: (Jim Nantz/Greg Anthony/Tracy Wolfson)
Breakdown: The Shockers are undefeated if you haven’t heard. They are well-balanced, play as a team, have great guard play and were in the Final Four last season. This is a very good team. Cal Poly snuck in by winning their conference tournament but only has 14 wins all year.
Difference Maker: Wichita State defends are rebounds as well as anyone in the country, which is something to be said for a mid-major.
Wichita State wins if: They show up. We always look for 16 to upset number one and while the Shockers got a tough bracket, they got an easy 16 seed.
Cal Poly wins if: pigs suddenly fly.
Prediction: Wichita State
(8) Kentucky vs. (9) Kansas State
9:40, CBS, St. Louis: (Jim Nantz/Greg Anthony/Tracy Wolfson)
Breakdown: Kentucky is a five-star freshman team. Loaded recruiting class, looks good on paper, struggles at times finding their identity on the court. Kansas State is a tough team out of one of the nation’s best conferences with one of the nation’s best freshmen.
Difference Maker: Willie Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle. When the low post tandem is on they are difference makers but they have disappeared at time this season.
Kentucky wins if: Their guard play is better than Kansas State. They have to shut down and outplay Marcus Foster to win.
Kansas State wins if: They can keep Julius Randle and Cauley-Stein off the boards. Like so many March Madness match ups, rebounds matter.