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Region Preview: Midwest

The selection committee might have wrestled with an expected dilemma as it deliberated Wichita State’s final position in the bracket. The undefeated Shockers beat every team they faced this season, but their weak schedule didn’t match the gauntlets that other 1-seed contenders had endured. The solution, it seems, was a decision to test the Shockers by placing them in the toughest region -- by far.

The Midwest Region is no joke. To reach the Sweet 16, Wichita State might have to go through a Kentucky team that hasn’t defeated any elite squads in months but still boasts a roster of future NBA millionaires or a Kansas State team that’s led by the nation’s most underrated freshman, Marcus Foster.

Defending national champ Louisville has looked like a 1-seed for weeks, even though it ended up with a 4-seed. The Cardinals, assuming they defeat Manhattan and possibly Saint Louis, could meet Wichita State in the Sweet 16 in a rematch of last season’s Final Four.

And it gets worse for the Shockers and everyone else in the Midwest Region. Duke is a 3-seed at the bottom of the bracket and Michigan is a 2-seed. The Blue Devils and the Wolverines could both make a Final Four run. Texas and UMass are bunched with them, too.

Only a focused, high-level program will emerge from this madness.

Five Players to Watch

Fred VanVleet (Wichita State): The sophomore point guard is ranked fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio nationally (3.89). He’s the steady presence for a team that hasn’t lost a game since last season’s Final Four. VanVleet’s most significant quality, however, is his balance. If he has to be a distributor, he can be that. But he’s also willing to create offense. Plus, he’s a solid defender.

Nik Stauskas (Michigan): Stauskas, the Big Ten player of the year, led Michigan to a conference championship. He’s averaging 17.5 PPG and connecting on 45 percent of his 3-pointers. The Wolverines reached the national championship game last season with the help of Trey Burke. Stauskas could be the program’s next postseason star.

Julius Randle (Kentucky): He certainly has his flaws (2.7 turnovers per game). But Randle is a problem for most opponents. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound power forward is averaging 15.3 PPG and 10.6 RPG for the Wildcats. He can be a dominant talent and have his way in the paint. If Kentucky is going to find a way to validate the preseason hype that surrounded John Calipari’s program, it will need Randle to elevate his game for the remainder of the season. And he’s capable of that.

Jabari Parker (Duke): The freshman was a contender for national player of the year until Doug McDermott ran away with the crown. Parker is the most recent Duke star who could lead his program to the Final Four. He’s arguably the most effective scorer in the country who is not named Doug McDermott. He can hurt teams from the field or inside. He’ll be in the NBA soon. But first, Parker (19.2 PPG, 8.8 RPG and 1.3 BPG) might try to carry the Blue Devils to Dallas.

Russ Smith (Louisville): Smith is still the best two-way player in America. He’s ranked 10th in offensive efficiency (among players with a usage rate of 28 percent or higher) and 26th in steals percentage (4.20), per Ken Pomeroy data. That’s a fancy way of saying that the All-American is a true playmaker for Rick Pitino on both ends of the floor. Last season, Smith helped Louisville win the national title. He could do it again this season.

Dark Horse (Kentucky): Yeah, this sounds crazy. But Kentucky showed some signs of life in the SEC tournament. And the Wildcats had a chance to knock off Florida in the final seconds of the championship game. They didn’t win. But they’re more focused than they were in their 84-65 loss at Florida March 8. Most of the teams that beat Kentucky this season were nationally ranked programs. And Florida is the only team that really crushed them. They’re big and athletic at every position. They’re certainly flawed and might not get beyond Kansas State in the second round. But what if Kentucky finally puts it all together in the next few weeks after securing a shot at someone other than Florida? Could it make a run? Maybe.

Upset Alert (UMass over Duke in the third round): Derek Kellogg’s squad has been all over the place this season. Although UMass averages 76.1 PPG, its offense is barely ranked in the top-100 of Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. But Kellogg has a bunch of 6-9ish big men such as Raphiael Putney and Cady Lalanne, who could give an undersized Duke team trouble. Chaz Williams (15.8 PPG) is only 5-9 but few players have more heart. He’s a senior who hopes to end his career with an NCAA tourney run. If the best UMass team shows up, and that’s definitely not a guarantee, the Minutemen could reach the Sweet 16.

Team/coach/player with most to prove (Wichita State and John Calipari): This one is a tie. Wichita State, whether it’s fair or not, has to justify its top seed after securing its undefeated record against a lukewarm schedule. Anything short of a Sweet 16 appearance for the Shockers -- and maybe that won’t even be enough -- will fail to do that. But they’re not alone. Calipari kicked off the season by declaring that “we are college basketball.” Kentucky, right now, is the most disappointing team in college basketball. Calipari has already failed with this group. And a brief stay in the Big Dance with a team that featured the strongest recruiting class, perhaps, in recent college basketball history would only solidify that.

Matchup we’d most like to see (Louisville-Wichita State in the Sweet 16): Last season, Wichita State and Louisville played one of the best games in the entire tournament when they met in the Final Four. The Shockers had the Cardinals on the ropes with a double-digit lead but Louisville finished strong. It was scrappy until the end. We could see the rematch in the Sweet 16.

Most likely to make it to Indianapolis: Kentucky and Kansas State are both intriguing picks but Wichita State is too disciplined to lose to either in the third round. So the Shockers will be in Indianapolis. They’ll be joined by Louisville, a team that seems capable of defending its national title. Duke and Michigan will be in Indy, too.