Smith: Midwest not an easy road to Final 4
Plenty of obstacled for Jayhawks
By Thursday afternoon, March Madness will officially be here.
But Kansas University men’s basketball fans probably started feeling early onset madness Sunday night, when the brackets were announced.
Not long after the Jayhawks were introduced as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, presumably earning them the most manageable path to a national title, the rest of the Midwest Regional was unveiled and it certainly didn’t look like a harmless stroll to Indianapolis and the Final Four for KU.
Potential hazards abound in the region, from No. 2 Ohio State on down. The bracket’s No. 5, Michigan State, knocked Kansas out of the tourney last year, and the Midwest features the two teams that beat Kansas this season, No. 6 Tennessee and No. 7 Oklahoma State.
Let’s begin with the Buckeyes. They wouldn’t meet Kansas until the Midwest final, but they could pose the biggest threat to the Jayhawks’ title hopes.
On the surface, Ohio State is the Big 10 Tournament champs and the conference’s regular-season co-champs with a record of 27-7. Dig deeper and a scary team reveals itself.
The Buckeyes are led by 6-foot-7 swingman Evan Turner, an all-world talent who averages 20.3 points, 9.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists. What’s more, the surefire NBA lottery pick missed six games with an injury, a span during which OSU went 3-3. So with Turner in the lineup, the No. 2 seed is 24-3.
The No. 3 seed is Georgetown. The Hoyas’ 23-10 record isn’t overwhelming but they played in the Big East, arguably the deepest conference in the nation, and boast victories against Butler, Duke, Villanova and Syracuse.
Although Georgetown’s biggest problem was consistency, GU played much better in the Big East Tournament, reaching the final before falling to West Virginia by two, and has the most versatile big man in the country, Greg Monroe.
The 6-foot-11 center puts up 16.1 points, 9.5 boards, 3.7 assists and 1.5 blocks a night.
No. 4 seed Maryland shared the ACC regular-season crown with Duke and is led by gritty point guard Greivis Vasquez. The 6-foot-6 senior floor general averages 19.5 points, 6.3 assists and 4.6 rebounds.
The Terrapins might not strike much fear in the hearts of Kansas fans but it’s hard to forget how the Jayhawks performed last season in their two matchups with the Midwest’s fifth seed, Michigan State.
The Spartans lost some size from last year’s team, which defeated KU by 13 at MSU and later ended Kansas’ season in the Sweet 16 with a 67-62 victory in Indianapolis.
If the Jayhawks and MSU win their first two games, a Sweet 16 rematch would come in St. Louis. Kalin Lucas, Raymar Morgan, Durrell Summers and Draymond Green all score double figures for Sparty and all four return from last year’s squad confident they can handle the Jayhawks.
Speaking of teams that know they have KU’s number, there are those pesky Vols and Cowboys at Nos. 6 and 7, respectively.
Scotty Hopson, Bobby Maze and Renaldo Woolridge helped Tennessee hand the Jayhawks their first loss of the season in a 76-68 victory back on Jan. 10 in Knoxville.
James Anderson, Keiton Page, Obi Muonelo and Matt Pilgrim torched Kansas on Feb. 27 as Oklahoma State prevailed, 85-77.
Meanwhile, UNLV, the No. 8 seed, looks similar to Tennessee and Oklahoma State in its ability to throw a slew of versatile athletes on the floor, most of whom can hit from long range.
The Rebels’ top five scorers have all made at least 25 threes this season, plus they take great care of the basketball — UNLV averages 16.3 assists against just 11.7 turnovers.
The only good news about the Midwest region is that the bottom eight teams don’t look nearly as scary as the rest of the bracket.
Look for Kansas to handle any seed lower than eight, including No. 9 Northern Iowa. Although the Panthers have an impressive 28-4 record, they have faced just two NCAA tournament teams all year and aren’t really battle-tested.