Midwest Bracket Breakdown

Tip-off for the Notre Dame-Winthrop contest creeps closer as the week goes by. The sixth-seeded Irish have heard for a few days now how the Eagles are this year's version of George Mason. They were an eleven seed last year in their run to the Final Four, just like Winthrop is this year. Notre Dame can stifle the comparison quickly with a victory on Friday afternoon in Spokane, Washington.

That's just one game in the Midwest bracket. There are two contests on Thursday and the remaining six will be held on Friday. Here's a breakdown of Notre Dame's region.

***Best team: Florida. This is an obvious choice. The Gators rolled to the national championship last season and the No. 1 overall seed in this year's draw. There hasn't been a repeat champion since Duke in 1991-92. It didn't look too rosy for Florida a few weeks back. They lost three of four games, all on the road, and some were questioning if the players had the fire to rev it up for one more run. That question was answered at the SEC Tournament, where the Gators won all three contests by 17 points or more. The champs appear to be flipping the light switch.

Florida has size. 6-10 Al Horford and 6-11 Joakim Noah combine for 25 PPG and 17 rebounds a contest. They have a solid three-point shooter in Lee Humphrey. The Gators are led by at the point guard position by junior Taurean Green's 13 PPG average. Corey Brewer is one of the best defenders in the nation and adds 12 PPG. The bench doesn't contribute a lot and a team with depth could give the defending champions some problems. Roadblocks to the Final Four could be waiting in the Sweet 16 contest with an athletic Maryland team and the regional final against a high scoring team like Oregon or Notre Dame or a great defensive squad in Wisconsin.

***Best player: Alando Tucker of Wisconsin. The 6-6 senior will probably finish runner-up to Texas's Kevin Durant for National Player of the Year. Tucker averages 20 PPG and pulls down five rebounds a contest to spearhead head coach Bo Ryan's swing offense. He can get it done driving to the basket, posting up defenders or from the perimeter. Tucker can carry a team on the offensive end.

He might have to do that for the Badgers. They lost third-leading scorer Brian Butch to an elbow injury and he'll only be available if Wisconsin can get to the Final Four. Until then, the Badgers will rely heavily on Tucker. And why not? He's scored 20-plus points 19 times this season. Wisconsin has the defense to win the Midwest region. But do they have enough offense? They'll be tested in the second-round by either UNLV or a young, talented Georgia Tech team. If the Badgers escape, high-scoring Oregon (76 PPG) or Notre Dame (81 PPG) should await. The reward for a trip to the Elite Eight is most likely Florida. Wisconsin will need every point they can get from Tucker but he has shown the ability to take games over.

***Best First Round match-up: No. 6 Notre Dame vs. No. 11 Winthrop. This isn't a homer pick. The Irish are hot, winners of six of their last seven. Only Jeff Green's monster performance saved Georgetown in the Big East semifinals from Notre Dame appearing in their first conference championship game. Winthrop hasn't lost in forever, winners of 18 in a row. The Eagles last were defeated on January 2nd to Texas A&M. As a 15-seed last year in the NCAA Tournament, Winthrop almost beat No. 2 seed Tennessee.

Can Notre Dame continue the hot shooting? The Irish have been on fire lately, no more than senior guard Colin Falls and freshman point guard Tory Jackson. Falls has scored 14 points or more in 13 straight games while Jackson is playing well beyond his age. His performance in the closing minutes of the Georgetown loss was nothing less than spectacular. As for Winthrop, 6-3 junior guard Michael Jenkins can fill it up from the perimeter while 6-10 Craig Bradshaw averages 13 PPG and six rebounds a contest. The fans in Spokane should be in store for a treat on Friday afternoon.

***Another storyline to follow: Will Butler fall victim to the 5-12 upset? The Bulldogs had a good as start as anyone in the nation. In winning the Preseason NIT Tournament, Butler beat Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga. A victory over Illinois was sandwiched between the wins over the Hoosiers and Volunteers. The Bulldogs started out 23-2 and were threatening to become a top-four seed in the Big Dance.

But Butler has hit some speed bumps as of late. They ended the season 4-4, which included losses to Wright State (twice), Southern Illinois and Loyola-Chicago. The second defeat to Wright State was in the Horizon League Championship on the road. The Bulldogs rely heavily their two-guard stud tandem. A.J. Graves averages 17 PPG and can shoot it from anywhere on the court. Point guard Mike Green is second in scoring at 14 PPG and can penetrate into the lane to set up scoring opportunities. Another advantage is that Butler has nine guys who play 12 minutes a game or more.

The 12 seed trying to pull the upset is Old Dominion. The Monarchs were an at-large team after losing in the CAA semifinals to George Mason. Before that loss, ODU had won 12 in a row. The Monarchs did beat Georgetown on the road earlier in the season. ODU is also deep. They have ten players who average seven minutes a game or more with the top six either juniors or seniors. The Monarchs outrebound their opponents by an average of four a game, led by Valdas Vasylius. The 6-7 senior forward leads the team in scoring at 15.8 PPG and pulls down six rebounds a contest. Point guard Drew Williamson dishes out four assists a contest. ODU has the personnel to pull the upset and if Butler plays like they did down the stretch, the 5-12 upset might become a reality in the Midwest bracket.

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