Sweet 16 Preview: Midwest Region

Will the infamous SI cover jinx bring Northern Iowa's tourney run to a halt? (Pic via GazetteOnline)

The Midwest Region has certainly lived up to its billing as one of the toughest regions in the recent history of the NCAA Tournament. It’s no surprise that three of the four top seeds failed to make the Sweet 16. Northern Iowa stole the show with a impressive win over Kansas, becoming the first Missouri Valley team to make it this far since Larry Bird’s Indiana State team did it in 1979. As usual, Michigan State looked bad down the stretch in the regular season but knocked-off two very good teams to earn another Sweet 16 appearance. Ohio State has been steady while advancing to meet a Tennessee team that barely survived against San Diego State in the First-Round. The Vols handled Ohio with relative ease in Second-Round play, while Ohio State took advantage of Georgia Tech’s incredible stupidity to advance.

Here’s a closer look at the upcoming matchups in the Midwest Region.

No. 9 Northern Iowa vs. No. 5 Michigan State

Northern Iowa’s win over Kansas may have shocked most of the nation, but to those familiar with the Panthers program, it wasn’t a complete surprise. Northern Iowa has the talent, size, and depth of a team seeded fifth or sixth in the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers are well-coached, athletic enough, and always manage to dictate the tempo to their opponents. Michigan State will try to push the ball against Northern Iowa, but the loss of Kalin Lucas really hurts in this particular game. Korie Lucious can score, but isn’t really a true point. Chris Allen’s injury leaves Draymond Green as the Spartans second-best passer and ball-handler. That worked in the closing second against Maryland, but won’t be successful for extended stretches.

Keys: I’ve always felt like Lucas was a bit overrated, but he could have been the difference against Northern Iowa. The Panthers have the ability to play smothering defense in the half-court, and without Lucas in the lineup, the Spartans don’t have a consistent threat to get to the basket off the dribble. Lucious has ability but also the tendency to throw the ball away. The matchup between the frontlines will be fun to watch in this game. Adam Koch’s numbers don’t reflect how talented he really is. Green and Raymond Morgan have played very well in the tournament and can match Koch’s versatility. A big game from Jordan Egelseder would push Michigan State to the limit.

Prediction: This is a really tough call. After over-analyzing matchups for much of the tournament–including the above paragraphs–I’m going to take Northern Iowa simply because it beat Kansas, a healthier, more talented team than the Spartans. Michigan State is better coached and smarter than the Jayhawks, but the Spartans have not played well without Lucas and could really struggle offensively against the Panthers. The magic carpet ride continues for UNI…

No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 2 Ohio State

Evan Turner dominated the Big Ten this season and has emerged as the best player in the country–at least in terms of numbers and impact on the game. He might not have John Wall’s dynamic athleticism, but he has carried the six man Buckeyes to the Sweet 16. Tennessee’s J.P. Prince, Scotty Hopson, and Cameron Tatum have size and athleticism Turner never faced in the Big Ten this year. The Vols don’t do anything particularly well, but have tremendous depth and play hard. Bruce Pearl’s goofy antics overshadow the fact that he can really coach.

Keys: Jon Diebler is averaging 21 points in his first two NCAA tournament games while shooting over 50 percent from 3-point range. If he shoots well, Ohio State has the edge. Tennessee will most likely pack the lane against Turner, who much like John Wall, loves to drive to the basket. Diebler and William Buford are streaky shooters and will need to knock-down open looks. Turner’s jumper is by far the weakest part of his game, but few teams have managed to keep him out of the lane. The Vols have the size and length to make things tough for Turner, with J.P. Prince likely to draw the bulk of the defensive duties against him.

Prediction: I like Tennessee in what will be a very exciting game. The Vols are deep and can thrown a bevy of defenders at Turner, while the Buckeyes are an injury or foul-trouble away from being exposed as one of the thinnest teams in the NCAA Tournament. The Bucks need all five starters to play well to keep advancing, and I don’t see that happening against Tennessee.

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