With the first round of the NCAA tournament set to tip off Thursday, the Blue Zone breaks down each of the four regions, catching you up on all of the contenders and sleepers ready to make a run to the Final Four in New Orleans. Our other regional previews include the South, East and West.
The No. 1 seed: Kansas
The Jayhawks have been ready to roll for the NCAA tournament all season long. Kansas has remained in the top 10 of the AP Poll since Week One and has only tallied six losses, four of which came against teams it also beat in other meetings. With an offense revolving around senior guard Ochai Agbaji, who averages 19.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, the group will be no easy feat to take on. The rest of the starters are reliable, especially on the defensive end, with forwards David McCormack and Jalen Wilson each averaging around seven rebounds and guard Christian Braun a threat on both sides of the ball.
Despite their strengths, the Jayhawks are not always on their game coming back from the locker room, as just a few weeks ago, they were defeated by Baylor and TCU after leading at the break. With their weaknesses in mind, it’s not a lock that this group will end up closing out the bracket despite their seeding. The Jayhawks have what it takes to reach the Final Four, but that all depends on whether they play the best basketball they have played all season. A tournament sweep is unlikely for this squad, but unlikely never means impossible in this league.
The other contenders: Eyeing the upset
With potential opponents such as Iowa, Providence, Wisconsin, USC, Auburn, Miami and LSU, this bracket is almost as stacked as they come. The Hawkeyes, the Big Ten tournament No. 5 seed, took home the conference championship, tallying four vital wins in four days, then finishing with a substantial upset over Purdue, a top 10 program in the AP Poll. Providence has had its fair share of victories, including crucial wins against Texas Tech, Seton Hall, Wisconsin, Marquette, Creighton and Connecticut. The Badgers themselves have won against several tournament representatives from the Big Ten, and the Trojans, Miami and LSU have also proven that they won’t go down without a fight. Second-seeded Auburn is arguably the most fearsome of them all and will make sure Kansas has no easy path to victory. This bracket will be as cutthroat as they come, so don’t let the seedings fool you.
The potential Cinderella: Creighton
Don’t write off the ninth-seeded Blue Jays, who kick off the tournament Thursday against eighth-seeded San Diego State. Although Creighton hasn’t had the strongest season, having amassed 11 losses, it has had some pretty remarkable wins. The Blue Jays recently defeated a ranked Connecticut team, Marquette twice and Providence in the Big East tournament, and they only lost to Villanova by six in the conference championship. Additionally, Creighton has a consistently strong starting five, any of whom can break out, and it almost always has at least three players scoring in mid to high double digits.
The regional narrative: Jayhawks vs. Tigers
There is no clear favorite in the Midwest region, with the top two seeds equally capable of taking the cake in the end. Landing No. 3 and No. 8 in the final AP Poll, respectively, Kansas and Auburn both have proven throughout the season that they have what it takes to last long in the tournament. Though the Tigers fell to Texas A&M in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament and the Jayhawks finished with the Big 12 title, Auburn has NBA top-prospect Jabari Smith Jr. and 7-foot-1 center Walker Kessler on its side. Meanwhile, like any other team this season, Kansas has also fallen victim to several upset losses. If both teams make it to the Elite Eight, the contest will be one to watch out for.
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