NCAA Tournament: Breaking down the Midwest Region

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Purdue gets a home-state start in Indianapolis, but the No. 1 seed in the Midwest has anything but an easy road to the Final Four.

A fight for Phoenix includes No. 2 seed Tennessee, third-seeded Creighton and a possible dream of a 4-5 matchup in the second round between Kansas and Gonzaga.

The Zags are in their 25th consecutive NCAA Tournament. But to set up a date with the Jayhawks in Salt Lake City, Gonzaga must get through No. 12 McNeese State, coached by former LSU coach Will Wade.

Kansas limps into the tournament with injury concerns for two starters: Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar Jr. missed the Big 12 tournament loss to Cincinnati last week.

There’s ample star power in the region, starting with Purdue’s Zach Edey. The 7-foot-4 center led the nation in scoring at 24.4 points per game and averages a double-double.

Yet, should history get a say, the door is open for chaos in the Midwest.

History is uneasy for the Boilermakers, including a first-round loss last year after a 29-5 season. Coach Matt Painter has never been to a Final Four with just one Elite Eight (2019) on his resume.

Purdue lost to a No. 16 seed (Fairleigh Dickinson) as a No. 1 seed last year, and two years ago the Boilermakers were shown the exit by Saint Peter’s, a No. 15 seed.

Tennessee has two Sweet 16 appearances since Rick Barnes was hired in 2015, but the Vols are 0-2 in those regional semifinals.

TOP SHOT: Purdue (29-4) is one of six Big Ten teams ticketed for the tournament and claimed the regular-season title, anchored by the reigning National Player of the Year in Edey. Purdue has wins over Tennessee, Marquette (Maui) and Arizona and a pair of victories over Illinois on an impressive resume.

Tennessee won the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship and climbed to No. 4 in the Top 25, knocking on the door of a No. 1 seed in the tournament. Then the Vols stumbled in the SEC tournament and had to hope for a gentle landing on the bracket. Though well-loved underdog and No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s, darling of the 2022 NCAA Tournament, is no easy opener, starting the Dance nearby in Charlotte, N.C., won’t hurt.

A win in the first round could push the Vols into a matchup with Barnes’ former team, Texas, on Saturday. The seventh-seeded Longhorns meet the winner of First Four foes Virginia and Colorado State.

GAMES TO WATCH: 4 Kansas vs. 13 Samford Not the usual Jayhawks squad in more ways than one, Kansas isn’t a great shooting team and the health of two of the team’s top interior scorers and rebounders, Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar Jr., isn’t ideal. Samford lives and dies by the 3, which is exactly the archetype the Jayhawks have struggled to handle this season. Samford averages 25.1 3-point attempts per game.

“With Samford, what have we labored with most this year? Teams that shoot a tone of threes and struggling to make up the difference,” KU coach Bill Self said Sunday night.

5 Gonzaga vs. 12 McNeese State McNeese State will get a lot of love as one of four 30-win teams in college basketball this season. But the Southland Conference champion is in the tournament for the first time since 2002 and can’t love the location of this one: a location in the Rockies that Gonzaga has played at before. The Cowboys have won 11 in a row and ride Shahada Wells in a fast-paced offense that could pull off the upset.

GET TO KNOW …

Baylor Scheierman, Creighton One of three Bluejays averaging more than 17 points per game, Scheierman is a fifth-year senior who never leaves the floor and put up averages of 18.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.0 steal in 32 games. Need one in crunch time? Scheierman hasn’t missed a free throw since Feb. 13.

Dalton Knecht, Tennessee The SEC’s co-leading scorer at 21.1 points per game and a projected NBA lottery pick, Knecht had huge games in spotlight matchups: 40 points against Kentucky, 39 vs. Auburn, 37 at North Carolina.

Zach Edey, Purdue Of course you know the 7-foot-4 All-American, who enters the tournament with seven consecutive games with 25-plus points. He’s only moved if he wants to budge and rebounds everything within a 6-foot radius of the rim.

Shahada Wells, McNeese State Wells made sure the Cowboys were in this rodeo with back-to-back 27-point games in the Southland Conference tournament. He leads McNeese in scoring (17.8 points per game) and passing (4.8 assists per game) and is the engine of an offense with no brakes.

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5 Gonzaga (-5.5) vs. 12 McNeese State If you are moneyline shopping before the tournament and believe Gonzaga is vulnerable against a team with some of the same strengths Saint Mary’s flexed in the West Coast Conference tournament, McNeese opened as a +225 outright winner Sunday night.

6 South Carolina (-1.5) vs. 11 Oregon The Oregon moneyline is +105 and you might like to know coach Dana Altman has never lost a first-round NCAA Tournament game during his time with the Ducks.

8 Utah State (+3.5) vs. 9 TCU The Horned Frogs are favored for a reason — TCU can fly and the total of 146.5 reflects expectations for a high-scoring showdown, with the winner likely drawing No. 1 Purdue.

OUT OF THE MIDWEST: If ever the paved path was there for Purdue to advance to the Final Four, 2024 is that bracket. Purdue has more shotmakers and has executed in tight games — forgiving the turnovers and free throws that were the undoing against Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament. Still, there is vulnerability to a well-rounded team that succeeds speeding up a team best suited for a halfcourt game.

For a program getting a reputation for laying an egg in this event, Tennessee could be a scary matchup for the Boilermakers in a Detroit regional final scheduled for Easter Sunday.