The Tar Heels look like Midwest's best
Best team: North Carolina
Yes, the Tar Heels already lost to Kentucky, this region’s No. 2 seed. Yes, Kentucky’s freshmen have undoubtedly improved since then and make the Wildcats significantly better than they were on Dec. 22. But the Tar Heels have a more balanced blend of veterans and young talent. Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson have each had stellar senior seasons, and freshman point guard Coby White is the perfect player to push the pace as Roy Williams’ teams tend to do. The Tar Heels rank 7th in Kenpom’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings and 10th in his adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. Virginia, Michigan State and Duke are the only other teams in the country ranking inside the top 10 of both categories.
Best go-to guy: Myles Powell, Seton Hall
Powell has buried several clutch shots this season — none bigger than the two three-pointers he hit in the final minute of regulation of the Pirates’ overtime win against Kentucky. Without that victory, Seton Hall could very easily have found itself on the wrong side of the bubble. Powell is averaging 22.9 points per game and shooting 44.9 percent from the field, 36.3 percent from three and 84.6 percent from the line.
The dark horse: Iowa State
Iowa State is one of those teams that could lose its first round game or reach the Final Four. The former is certainly more likely, but the Cyclones have shown flashes of their potential throughout the season. They most recently won three straight games to capture the Big 12 tournament title. They also won at Texas Tech and began Big 12 play 7-3 before stumbling in the second half to finish 9-9. The Cyclones take care of the ball and can score with just about anyone, making them a threat to advance deep in the tournament.
Best guard/playmaker: Coby White, North Carolina
This region is loaded with talented guards, and Auburn’s Bryce Brown, Seton Hall’s Myles Powell and Utah State’s Sam Merrill all were considered here. White gets the nod for the poise and skill he has displayed running point for one of the country’s elite offenses. Nassir Little was supposed to be the gem of Roy Williams’ 2018 recruiting class, and despite a freshman season that failed to meet expectations, remains a projected Top-10 pick in June’s draft. However, White has made a far bigger impact. He is averaging 16.3 points and 4.2 assists per game and shooting 43 percent from the field and 36 percent from deep.
Best player you’ve never heard of: Fletcher Magee, Wofford
Aside from having one of the best names in the tournament, Magee is an all-time elite shooter. He has never shot below 42.3 percent from deep, the mark he posted as a sophomore, and is two three-pointers shy of Travis Bader’s 504 career threes for the NCAA Division I record. Magee is averaging 20.5 points per game and shooting 42.8 percent from long range and 90.7 percent from the line.
Best potential matchup: No 2 Kentucky vs. No 7 Wofford
You will probably hear comparisons between this year’s Terriers and Steph Curry’s 2008 Davidson team this week, as both squads ran the table in the Southern Conference behind an elite offense. Like Davidson, Wofford also played and lost to a handful of power-conference opponents but proved itself a threat in defeat. Kentucky has the illustrious tournament history and a few potential first-round draft picks. Wofford is the small school without an NCAA Tournament win. This would have a David vs. Goliath feel from a historical standpoint, but the advanced metrics love Wofford. If we’re lucky enough to get this matchup, buckle up for what could be the first weekend’s most entertaining game.
Best bet to spring an upset: No 12 New Mexico State over No 5 Auburn
Like Iowa State, Auburn is a team that could make the Final Four, but could also lose its first round game. The Tigers, who have had their bouts with inconsistency this season, will have their hands full against a New Mexico State team that ranks in the Top 10 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage and has several players capable of getting hot from deep.
Best big man: Dedric Lawson, Kansas
This may have been a disappointing season for the Jayhawks, whose streak of 14 consecutive Big 12 titles ended with a third-place finish, but Lawson certainly has met expectations. The 6-9 Memphis transfer is averaging 19.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.3 steals per game. He is shooting 37 percent from deep, hitting about one three-pointer per game.
Most interesting story line: Kansas
So the Jayhawks finally do not win the Big 12 after 14 consecutive league titles, get their worst seed since they were also a No 4 in 2006 and somehow wind up in the Midwest with the regional rounds in … yep, 40 miles away from Lawrence, Kansas in Kansas City, Missouri. By all metrics, this has been Kansas’ worst season in a long time — maybe even the worst under Bill Self. But if the Jayhawks survive the first weekend, could they wind up in the Final Four thanks at least in part to their proximity to the regional site?