A lot of experts have looked at the Midwest Region as the easiest path for a #1 seed to make the Final Four but the Houston Cougars may run into trouble with some very talented higher seeds and sneaky good lower seeds from major conferences and very few mid-major programs. Texas, Xavier, and Indiana have proven to be very talented teams but the region features Kent State, Penn State, Iowa, and Texas A&M have proven capable of hanging with or beating some of the best teams in the country.
#1 Seed | Houston Cougars | AAC | 31-3 | NET: 1st | Kenpom: 1st
Led by All American Marcus Sasser, the Cougars ran through the American Athletic Conference with relative ease until getting beaten by the Memphis Tigers in the AAC Conference Championship Game due to Sasser sitting out due to injury (groin). Memphis lost only 3 games all season and defeated 5 NCAA Tourney teams in the non-conference season (St. Mary’s, Texas Southern, Oral Roberts, Kent St., Virginia) but lost to overall #1 seed Alabama by 6 (71-65). Sasser averaged 17.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists on the season but was supported by three others who averaged double figures.
Houston does struggle from the free throw line as they shoot just 71.9% as a team. Sasser and Emmanuel Smart both shoot above 80% from the line but Houston has a number of players who are in the middle to low 60% range as well. What Houston does well is play a number of different players to speed the tempo of the game up by giving ten players at least 10 minutes per game throughout the season. Only Sasser and Jamal Shead play more than 30 minutes but head coach Kelvin Sampson appears to rotate bodies around those two all game long. They also rank just 170th overall shooting the ball from behind the arc at 34.5% as a team and if Sasser can’t play or that injury really hampers him, Houston could be looking at an early exit.
#2 Seed | Texas Longhorns | Big 12 | 26-8 | NET: 7th | Kenpom: 6th
The Longhorns had to endure the release of well known coach Chris Beard due to behavior off the court that ended in his arrest after starting the season 7-1. Since that time, interim head coach Rodney Terry coached them to a 19-7 record. Texas is led by former Minnesota Golden Gopher Marcus Carr, who is now in his 6th season overall after starting at fellow NCAA tourney program Pittsburgh. Carr is averaging 15.9 points, 3 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game for a Longhorn team that averages 77.9 points per game but allows just 67.4. Texas is a well balanced team overall and defeated Kansas in the Big 12 Tourney Championship to seal their #2 seed.
Texas is susceptible to a good rebounding team as the Longhorns rank just 215th in the country in total rebounds but take care of the basketball with just 11.7 turnovers per game while generating 8.1 steals per game. Texas is also one of the quickest teams on offense only averaging 16.5 seconds per possession on the offensive end ranking 16th for tempo and efficiency for NCAA Tourney teams in 2023.
#3 Seed | Xavier Musketeers | Big East | 25-9 | NET: 22nd | Kenpom: 16th
Xavier may very well be one of the very few teams in major college basketball that has five players that average double figures in scoring. The Musketeers are led by Souley Boum’s 16.5 but Colby Jones’ 15.2 and Jack Nunge’s 14.1 make Xavier a really difficult team to play against. Xavier lost to Marquette in the Big East Title Game but during the season beat UCONN twice, Marquette once, Creighton once, and Providence twice. They also played a good non-conference schedule that featured a win against West Virginia but lost to Indiana, Gonzaga, and Duke.
Xavier’s main problem in the tourney may be their lack of depth and scoring off the bench, especially if they get into foul trouble or have an injury. Yes, those starters are high caliber players but a solid bench scoring option is incredibly important in March Madness and the Musketeers just don’t have one as the main bench contributors in Jerome Hunter and Desmond Claude average only 11 points combined. After those two, there isn’t a bench player getting more than 10 minutes per game and that player, Kyky Tandy, only averages 2 points per game.
#4 Seed | Indiana Hoosiers | B1G | 22-11 | NET: 30th | Kenpom: 30th
The Hoosiers are led by the player that, had it not been for Zach Edey’s incredible season, would have been the B1G Player of the Year and a likely candidate for National Player of the Year for many outlets. The senior big man from Greenwood, Indiana averaged 20.8 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game for Head Coach Mike Woodson in his second year. The Hoosiers, though, take a step up in ability when likely freshman All American Jalen Hood-Schifino is using his bigger body and future NBA potential to get into the lane and attack a defense to generate open shots for IU’s two really good set shooters in Trey Galloway (45.2%) and Miller Kopp (44.3%). Hood-Schifino, averaging 13.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 3.7 assists, takes the scoring burden off Jackson-Davis, they become one of the better 1-2 scoring punches in the tourney.
The issue for the Hoosiers has been really inconsistent play throughout the season. After an impressive road victory against rival Purdue, Indiana dropped a surprising game to Iowa at home 90-68. They also looked a bit slow in the B1G Tourney and allowed Penn State to race out to a huge lead before erasing it in the final 2 minutes of the game. Indiana’s inability to string possessions together offensively while also being a relatively poor free throw shooting team (71.2%) and poor offensive rebounding team (256th). This has tended to outshine the fact that IU takes care of the ball (11.2 turnovers per game) while playing relatively quickly (16.4 seconds per offensive possesion-47th). IU, though, is a bit of a feast or famine team, as they have shot below 32% from behind the arc ten times and lost seven of those games.
Look Out For | #10 Penn State Nittany Lions | B1G | 22-13 | NET: 48th Kenpom: 39th
This is an easy one to pick in this bracket as the Nittany Lions could easily come into the tourney with a ton of confidence coming off a runner-up finish in the B1G Tourney and nearly overcoming a 17 point deficit against the Purdue Boilermakers to take the title. If Jalen Pickett and his supporting cast can get hot from behind the arc, this is a team that would have no problem making a run to a Sweet 16 or even an Elite 8.
As they say, guards win you games in March and Jalen Pickett is one of the best in the country averaging 17.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game. Penn State’s success will come down to Seth Lundy and Andrew Funk providing that secondary scoring option to Pickett and hitting tough shots when needed to. Penn State doesn’t play great defense but if they get ‘good enough’ defense, they can beat Texas A&M and then stun Texas in the second round.