This is the region that casual followers of March Madness love. The region where the Davids beat the Goliaths and upsets reign supreme.
While top-seeded Virginia made it through, as did #4 Iowa State, the Midwest Region saw five lower-seeded teams knock out a higher seed. The most shocking of these upsets was the fall of popular championship pick Michigan State to the fifteenth-seeded Middle Tennessee. After the dust of the opening weekend settled, the Midwest Region saw two double-digit seeded teams still standing. After topping #6 Seton Hall and walloping #3 Utah, #11 Gonzaga remains in the tournament. Thanks to wins over Dayton and Middle Tennessee, #10 Syracuse advanced as well.
With most of the country cheering on these Cinderella squads, the Midwest Region will whittle its contenders from four teams to two on Friday evening.
1. Virginia vs 4. Iowa State
This is a classic good offense vs. great defense game. Virginia enters the game with the second-best defense in the country, allowing just 59 points per game. Thus far, they’ve allowed 45 and 59 points, respectively. They’ll be tested against one of the best offenses in the country in the Iowa State Cyclones. Will offense or defense prevail in this Sweet 16 matchup?
Virginia Will Rely On Quick Start, Great Defense To Top Cyclones
To defeat the Cylcones, the Cavaliers will need a quick start. The main reason for this is because Virginia lacks depth. They had just three players average at least nine points per game. They have stars in Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill but not much else in the way of offense. If they can get a quick start, their defense should be able to overcome their lack of depth and stave off the Cyclones. If not, the depth issues suffered by the Cavaliers could be a problem.
Iowa State’s Powerful Offense And Impressive Depth Could Give Virginia Fits
Iowa State has the 11th best offense in the country in terms of points per game. A huge reason for this is their spectacular depth. While Virginia has three players averaging above nine points per game, the Cyclones have eight. Iowa State has the rare ability to not only score, but to score with almost any player on their roster. They’ll look to get the ball to their star, George Niang, who averaged over 20 points per game. Yet their deep supporting cast is more than capable of stepping up if Niang is bottled up by the stiff Virginia defense. Iowa State's defense will be the only problem as they ranked 111th in points allowed this year. Virginia doesn’t bring a powerful offense to the table, but Iowa State can’t let them get any momentum.
Prediction: Iowa State 73-71
10. Syracuse vs 11. Gonzaga
If you predicted this matchup at the beginning of the tournament, kudos to you. You would have had to foresee Gonzaga upsetting Big East Champion Seton Hall as well as Utah, and Syracuse’s upset of Dayton as well as a win over Michigan State/Middle Tennessee. Hardly two powerhouses in the regular season, the Orange and the Bulldogs will compete for the right to be the only double-digit seeded team to earn an Elite Eight berth.
Syracuse Looks To Ride Defense To Elite Eight
Syracuse was certainly not expected to make it this far. Most brackets predicted the Orange to fall to Dayton in the first round. However, the Orange were able to top Dayton in the first round and were aided by the stunning upset of Michigan State. Syracuse got to face a weaker Middle Tennessee squad whom they easily dismantled, 75-50.
In both their victories - including their 70-51 victory over Dayton - the Orange have displayed their gritty, tough defense that is one of the best remaining units in the country. Syracuse isn’t known for their offense, led by Michael Gbinije, but their defense makes it easy to get the job done on the other side of the court. Allowing under 65 points per game, Syracuse makes things miserable for their opponent as demonstrated by the 101 combined points scored against them in the tournament.
Their offense has been performing steadily, producing about 70 points per game as they did in the season. If they can continue the recipe for success they’ve built thus far in the tournament, the Orange could be seen in the Elite Eight.
All-Around Talented Gonzaga Has The Tools To Unseat Syracuse
Gonzaga may not have as good as a defense as the Orange, but their above-average defense, ranked 26th in the country, combined with their above-average offense, 27th in the country, has made a dangerous combination. Just ask Seton Hall and Utah, Gonzaga’s first two opponents of the tournament.
The Bulldogs allowed just 52 points in handling the Pirates, 68-52. They then turned around and scored 82 points in their 82-59 bashing of the Utes. In both games, the Bulldogs featured both an offense and defense that is much better than the numbers suggest. They have the talent to be one of the last teams standing this year if they can get past Syracuse. Their offense will be led by the duo of Kyle Wiltjer (20.4 points per game) and Domantas Sabonis (17.5 PPG). Sabonis will also serve as the Bulldog’s big man after averaging almost 12 rebounds per game. Gonzaga has proved that stats can be meaningless. Don’t be fooled by the numbers. Gonzaga is in the Sweet 16 because they are one of the best, most balanced teams in the country.
Prediction: Gonzaga 75-70
Check back later for the last of VAVEL's Sweet 16 previews as we preview the East Region!