NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional preview: Can Houston overcome adversity?


The Midwest Regional of the NCAA men’s tournament comes with plenty of Texas flavor as the Nos. 1, 2 and 7 seeds all hail from the Lone Star State — Houston, Texas and Texas A&M, respectively — any of whom would sign up for a homecoming during this year’s Final Four at NRG Stadium in Houston.

From head coach Kelvin Sampson and the Cougars at the top of the bracket to sharpshooting, upset-minded Colgate the bottom, there is plenty to like about a regional that feels relatively wide-open.

Here’s a guide to life in the Midwest.

View the full bracket here.


[March Madness 2023: Schedule dates, locations, how to watch]

How would you assess the No. 1 seed’s path?

The selection committee’s decision to rank Houston as the second No. 1 seed ahead of Kansas, which was the third No. 1 seed, drew the ire of media members from a variety of outlets and networks. Even though the Cougars finished atop the NCAA NET rankings with 15-2 mark against Quad 1 and Quad 2 opponents combined, their seven Quad 1 wins were nowhere near the 17 accumulated by the Jayhawks. Being placed ahead of Kansas also affords Houston the chance to play its potential Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Kansas City, an 11-hour drive from campus, rather than Las Vegas or New York.

A groin injury suffered by star guard Marcus Sasser in the semifinals of this year’s American Athletic Conference tournament casts a shadow of uncertainty over Houston’s potential to reach its second final four in the last three years. Sasser was named the AAC’s Player of the Year last week after averaging 17.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.7 steals per game, but he slipped and fell in the semifinal win over Houston and did not return. The school described Sasser’s injury as a groin strain and held him out of the team’s loss to Memphis in the AAC title game on Sunday afternoon.

If Sasser is healthy, the top half of the Midwest region feels manageable for Houston. An 8-9 battle between Iowa (four losses in its last six games) and Auburn (nine losses in its last 13 games) seems unlikely to produce a challenger capable of toppling the Cougars, who rank 11th in offensive efficiency and fourth in defensive efficiency, in the second round. The No. 4 seed, Indiana, was exposed in the Big Ten Tournament because of its infrequent 3-point shooting (the Hoosiers rank 343rd in percentage of points scored beyond the arc), and fifth-seeded Miami, while talented, only faced three conference foes ranked among the top 50 nationally in defensive efficiency.

It’s the bottom half where things could get dicey — regardless of whether Sasser is at full strength. Second-seeded Texas will enter the NCAA Tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country. The Longhorns ended the regular season with a resounding 75-59 win over then-No. 3 Kansas and then rolled through the Big 12 Tournament by winning three games in three days. Another thrashing of Kansas in the title game — this time by a score of 76-56 — had some people campaigning for Texas to be a No. 1 seed.

Of the top four seeds, who has the best draw?

Certainly not Texas. Despite having one of the strongest resumes in the country, the Longhorns’ half of the Midwest region is loaded. Under the direction of former Arizona coach Sean Miller, third-seeded Xavier has developed into the No. 9 offensive team in the country and boasts a roster loaded with veterans. The Musketeers‘ most popular lineup from the last five games features four seniors and one junior, and Miller’s team ranks 16th nationally in Division I experience with an average of three seasons per player.

Beyond Xavier, which reached the title game in this year’s Big East Tournament, the Longhorns will be challenged by either No. 7 Texas A&M or No. 10 Penn State. The Aggies finished second in the SEC regular season race with a 15-3 conference record and knocked off then-No. 2 Alabama in early March. The Nittany Lions raced all the way to the Big Ten title game and were a turnover away from having a potential game-winning shot in the final seconds. Head coach Micah Shrewsberry has his 3-point shooting bunch playing as well as anyone in the field.

All of that counts as a preamble for the real answer to this question, which is No. 5 Miami. The Hurricanes were the best team in the Atlantic Coast Conference for most of the season and would have been seeded higher if the bottom of the league wasn’t so horrid. Head coach Jim Larranaga’s crew drew a friendly No. 4 seed in Indiana, which has glaring offensive limitations, and could face the region’s top seed, Houston, with the Cougars’ best player at less than 100% health. A murderer’s row in the bottom half of the bracket could even clean out Texas well ahead of the Elite Eight.

Which team in the Nos. 5-9 range could be a dark horse?

Texas A&M has all the tools to pose serious problems as an undervalued No. 7 seed. The Aggies enter the tournament ranked 30th in offensive efficiency and 37th in defensive efficiency, which makes them one of only 10 teams to finish among the top 40 in both categories. Their best player, Wade Taylor IV, averages nearly 17 points per game with a combination of long-range shooting (78 made 3-pointers) and hard slashes into the lane (5.9 fouls drawn per 40 minutes). They have wins over fellow NCAA Tournament entrants Missouri (twice), Auburn (twice), Arkansas (twice), Tennessee and Alabama that fueled a 12-7 record against Quad 1 and Quad 2 opponents combined. And their head coach, Buzz Williams, has advanced to the Sweet 16 or beyond in four of his eight trips to the Big Dance — three with Virginia Tech and five with Marquette. The Aggies are more than capable of winning the Midwest regional.

Who is a potential Cinderella in the Midwest region?

At the risk of being swayed by recency bias, 10th-seeded Penn State seems to have all the ingredients necessary to make some noise in its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011. The Nittany Lions roll into March Madness having won eight of their last 10 games after storming through the Big Ten Tournament with three wins in three days to reach the title game. Led by head coach Micah Shrewsberry, whose cell phone will be ringing as the coaching carousel heats up in the next few weeks, Penn State has the oldest roster in college basketball with an average of 4.07 seasons per player. Shrewsberry’s deft use of the transfer portal the last two seasons — his only two years in State College — allowed him to assemble a squad that is poised, tough and more physically mature than nearly every team on the schedule. Leading scorer Jalen Pickett (18.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists per game) was a first-team All-Big Ten performer and torments opposing guards with his old-school, throwback style of low-post basketball. Shrewsberry surrounded Pickett with three knockdown shooters in Andrew Funk (41.3% from 3-point range on 247 attempts), Seth Lundy (40.1% from 3-point range on 212 attempts) and Myles Dread (35.6% from 3-point range on 146 attempts). More than 43% of Penn State’s total points originated beyond the arc this season.

Who are five must-see players in the Midwest region?

Murray is the twin brother of Keegan Murray, the No. 4 overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft. The 6-foot-8, 220-pound wing increased his scoring from 9.7 points in 17.9 minutes per game a season ago to 20.5 points in 34.8 minutes per game in 2022-23, ranking third in the Big Ten in scoring behind Zach Edey of Purdue and Trayce Jackson-Davis of Indiana. He is a capable 3-point shooter at 33.9% and led the Hawkeyes in rebounding at 7.9 per game.

The graduate transfer by way of UTEP and San Francisco blossomed into one of the best point guards in the country under Miller’s guidance this season. He was named first-team All-Big East after averaging 16.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game as the Musketeers racked up 25 wins and a No. 16 ranking in KenPom. Particularly dangerous from beyond the arc, Boum shot 42.5% from 3-point range on more than five attempts per game.

Xavier’s Souley Boum dominates, dropping 23 points in Big East tourney win over Creighton

Xavier Musketeers’ Souley Boum brought the heat against the Creighton Blue Jays, dropping 23 points in X’s 82-60 finish.

Carry was named Player of the Year in the Mid-American Conference last year, in 2021-22, when he averaged 17.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game after transferring from Duquesne. He followed up with nearly identical numbers as a fifth-year senior and guided the Golden Flashes to a 28-6 record that included a 49-44 loss to then-No. 2 Houston and a 73-66 loss to then-No. 18 Gonzaga. Carry closed the year on a high note by averaging 22.4 points per game since Feb. 21 and poured in 26 points in the MAC title game against Toledo.

  • Marcus Sasser, guard, Houston

If the groin strain he suffered in the AAC Tournament proves serious, the Cougars will be hard-pressed to advance beyond the first two rounds. Sasser was the only player on the roster to average more than 11 points per game this season, and he was playing his best basketball down the stretch: six consecutive 20-point games from Feb. 8 through March 2 and 30 of his team’s 60 points in the AAC quarterfinals against East Carolina. He finished the season ranked ninth in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings.

Jackson-Davis was the only unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection outside Edey, who was named Big Ten Player of the Year. The senior averaged 20.8 points (16th nationally), 10.9 rebounds (seventh nationally) and 4.1 assists per game in leading the Hoosiers to their second consecutive NCAA Tournament under head coach Mike Woodson. He also ranks sixth in the country and third among players from power conferences in blocked shots with 2.75 per game. Earlier this season, Jackson-Davis became the leading rebounder in school history with more than 1,100 for his career.

Trayce Jackson-Davis turns into a superhero and scores 24 points to lead Indiana to victory

Indiana Hoosiers’ Trayce Jackson-Davis had a stellar performance and scored 24 points against the Maryland Terrapins for a huge 70-60 victory in the Big Ten Tournament.

What is the most interesting first-round matchup?

All eyes should be focused on the showdown between No. 7 Texas A&M and No. 10 Penn State.

The former will feel disrespected by the NCAA selection committee for the second consecutive year after being left out of the field in 2021-22 and then getting undervalued this season despite having the same number of Quad 1 wins as Houston. The latter enters March Madness playing its best basketball of the season after advancing to the Big Ten title game under the tutelage of arguably the most coveted candidate in the coaching carousel.

Whoever advances to the second round will be confident it can take down second-seeded Texas — assuming the Longhorns aren’t upended by Colgate. Both teams enter the NCAA Tournament with at least three wins over ranked opponents, headlined by the Aggies’ upset of then-No. 2 Alabama in early March.

Which team should be on upset alert in the first round?

The more Indiana fans learn about their first-round opponent — No. 13 Kent State — the more nervous they should become. Led by former Indiana assistant Rob Senderoff, the Golden Flashes ride into March Madness having lost just once since Feb. 3. They breezed through the MAC Tournament by an average of 13 points per game and haven’t scored fewer than 70 points in the last six weeks. Neither Kent State nor the Hoosiers rely on 3-pointers as a primary offensive weapon, and Carry gives the underdogs a player who can keep pace with Jackson-Davis in the scoring column. Narrow losses to fellow NCAA Tournament teams Houston (five points), Gonzaga (seven points) and College of Charleston (two points) showed how well the Golden Flashes can play at their best. Indiana will have its hands full.

Who will be in the regional final, and who wins it?

The process of selecting a winner is complicated by the injury to Sasser, whose potential absence would overhaul Houston’s outlook as the No. 1 seed. If Sasser is healthy enough to resemble the high-level player he proved to be all season, then the Cougars should advance to the regional final. If Sasser is severely compromised or unable to play, then fifth-seeded Miami is the team to beat in the top half of the bracket.

At the other end of the Midwest regional is Texas, the odds-on favorite to reach the Elite Eight. The Longhorns have as much talent and experience as anyone in the country, and they’re the pick to advance to the Final Four regardless of whether Sasser is involved. Interim coach Rodney Terry, who replaced the fired Chris Beard earlier this season, will put himself in a strong position to be awarded the full-time job.

No. 1 Houston

No. 16 Northern Kentucky

No. 8 Iowa

No. 9 Auburn

No. 5 Miami (FL)

No. 12 Drake

No. 4 Indiana

No. 13 Kent State

No. 6 Iowa State

No. 11 Mississippi State/Pittsburgh

No. 3 Xavier

No. 14 Kennesaw State

No. 7 Texas A&M

No. 10 Penn State

No. 2 Texas

No. 15 Colgate

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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