Duke forward Marvin Bagley
Photo: 1
Photo: 1

Breaking down the Midwest region

Hot team

Since mid-November, No. 3 seed Michigan State has lost just three games. Once at Ohio State (a No. 5 seed) in which the Spartans were 7-for-25 from 3-point range and twice to Michigan (a No. 3 seed), when they were a combined 10-for-38 from 3-point range. Otherwise, Michigan State has been tough on the glass, prosperous at the free-throw line and deadline from 3-point range. Even better for the Spartans, they’ll be in Detroit for the first weekend.

Top 5 players

Duke freshman forward Marvin Bagley did this season what only one other player in the ACC’s illustrious history of standout freshmen had previously accomplished – win both ACC rookie of the year and player of the year in the same season. Bagley (6-foot-11) handles himself quite well in the post, can score on the dribble and runs quite well for his size. He figures to be a top-three pick in the upcoming draft.

Michigan State forward Miles Bridges is a 6-foot-7 forward who can bang on the inside (6.9 rebounds per game) but also burn teams from beyond the 3-point arc, shooting 36.9 percent on 3-point attempts. The No. 3 seed Spartans’ effort to win a national title centers around him. A likely lottery pick, Miles has a scoring touch that could well be imperative in a potential second-round shootout with No. 6 seed TCU, one of the most efficient scoring teams in the tournament.

From Pace Academy, Duke freshman forward Wendell Carter is similar in size to Bagley (6-foot-10), but not as athletic, but is a skilled shooter, passer, rebounder and defender for the No. 2 seed Blue Devils. He’s expected to be a one-and-done and get taken in the top 10 of the draft. Carter is averaging 13.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. A potential Sweet 16 matchup with No. 3 seed Michigan State would ooze with future NBA talent.

Michigan State forward Jaren Jackson’s stats (11.3 points per game, 5.8 rebounds per game) don’t grab attention, but the freshman is top-five draft material. Jackson, 6-foot-11 and the son of the former NBA player of the same name, was named the Big Ten freshman of the year and its defensive player of the year. He can shoot with either hand and averages 3.15 blocks per game, fifth in Division I.

It’s a pretty good sign when you get compared to Steph Curry as a freshman, and that is the mantle that Oklahoma guard Trae Young will bring into the NCAA Tournament with the No. 10 seed Sooners, whose matchup with No. 7 seed Rhode Island will open up the weekend (Thursday, 12:15 p.m. on CBS). Young leads Division I in scoring (27.4 points per game), assists (8.8). Enough said.

Biggest surprise

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had Syracuse on his “next four out” list prior to the selection show, meaning he thought there were at least four teams more worthy than the Orange that would be left out. Syracuse did have a strong non-conference strength of schedule, but was 8-10 in the ACC regular season and had the least efficient offense (KenPom) of any at-large team in the field. They’ll play Arizona State in a First Four matchup in Dayton to be the No. 11 seed against TCU.

Best shooter 

Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston isn’t just the best shooter in the Midwest region; he’s one of the best in all of Division I. Winston has made 52.6 percent of his 3-point tries, 71 for 135. He also has made 89 percent of his free throws. Winston, a sophomore, is easy to support. He reportedly turned down Harvard to play for the Spartans and spent last summer interning for an East Lansing, Mich., law firm.

Best rebounder

New Mexico State guard Jemerrio Jones doesn’t look the part, but the 6-foot-5, 200-pound forward averages 13.2 rebounds for the Aggies, second most in Division I. He has had 12 games with 15 or more rebounds. He’s the shortest player in the top 25 in rebounds per game in the country. He’ll get to show his stuff for the No. 12 seed Aggies against No. 5 seed Clemson on Friday.

Best defender 

One significant reason why Clemson is top 10 nationally in defensive field-goal percentage inside the 3-point arc (KenPom) is forward Elijah Thomas, a junior with a knack for challenging shots. Thomas blocks 2.2 shots per game, ranking in the top 30 nationally. He also secures 5.7 defensive rebounds per game and was named to the ACC’s all-defensive team.

Upset special

Clemson merited the No. 5 seed with a 23-9 record and wins over seven tournament teams. However, the Tigers have not been the same team since forward Donte Grantham, arguably the team’s best player, was lost for the season in January with an ACL tear. The Tigers’ first-round matchup, No. 12 seed New Mexico State, is no joke. The Aggies beat Miami in December and defend well. It won’t be an easy matchup for the Tigers.