Graphic by Kim O'Reilly

Selection Sunday is officially in the rearview and the glorious, 68-team bracket is set, which means you've probably stumbled across this page to gather intel as you make your picks. The good news is that you've landed in the right place. The bad news is that you've now all but officially guaranteed yourself a perfect bracket in the Midwest Region thanks to my expertise, thus an internal audit of your selections may be requested after you help use my advice to bury your friends in this year's bracket pool. You're welcome, and I'm sorry in advance. 

Last year, I put my big brain to good use and went out on a limb calling for No. 1 seed Kansas to survive the loaded Midwest Region. As usual, I was correct: Kansas did exactly that and then some, advancing to the Final Four and then launching headfirst into the title game where it defeated North Carolina

This year, I've got an equally bold claim: The No. 1 seed in this region will again advance to the Final Four. No. 1 seed Houston has a tough path to get there, much like Kansas did last year, but the Cougars are the most physical and well-coached team in this region by a mile with their stylistic uniqueness likely presenting enough challenges for it to get to the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

There are lots of quality teams in this pod that could make their way out of this region elsewhere; No. 2 seed Texas had a borderline 1 seed resume, No. 4 seed Indiana proved it can go toe-to-toe with anyone and same for No. 8 seed Iowa as well as No. 3 seed Xavier. I won't hedge my Houston crystal ball pick, but the talent and coaching within this region is among the best in the field, which should make for a delightful viewing experience as we sort out the upper-right quadrant of this year's bracket.

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Let's break down the Midwest Region further as the opening games of the 2023 NCAA Tournament approach.

Best first-round game

(7) Texas A&M vs. (10) Penn StateEasily the best first-round matchup on paper in this region. Texas A&M is woefully underseeded -- Jerry Palm had them as a 4-seed after finishing second in the SEC regular season and SEC Tournament -- and Penn State is coming off a magical Big Ten Tournament run that came just shy of a title. The Aggies are 4-seed good and the Nittany Lions are playing like a low single-digit seed at this moment behind the star turn of Jalen Pickett. This should be a high-level game. 

Top potential matchup

(1) Houston vs. (4) Indiana: There's a world in which Indiana and Houston meet in the Sweet 16, a legitimate probability, which would be far and away the best potential matchup in this region if it breaks right. Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis is the most dominant big in this pod, and drawing a matchup against physically-imposing Houston would be appointment television. (There's also the guard matchup of Marcus Sasser vs. Jalen Hood-Schifino, of course.) And oh, massive stakes on tap if it happens as the winner earns an Elite Eight berth. Yes, please. 

Upset lock of the regional

(13) Kent State over (4) Indiana: Here I am waxing poetic on the Hoosiers, but I'm a pragmatist and know one thing is certain about this matchup: Indiana is either going to stomp Kent State by 15 or get blown out by double digits. There's about a 40% chance of the latter happening. This Kent State team is going to have a problem defending Jackson-Davis in the post and Hood-Schifino's explosiveness in the backcourt, but the Golden Flashes won 28 games this season and have a cohesive, upperclassmen-heavy roster that could give this IU team trouble. I wouldn't call this a lock -- I'm picking IU -- but if Kent State wins, it would be the least surprising upset of the regional that we call an "upset."

Cinderella team that will surprise

(10) Penn State: With its backs against the wall and NCAA Tournament hopes on life support, Penn State reeled off eight wins in its last 10 games, including a 3-1 run in the Big Ten Tournament that came up just shy in a 67-65 loss to No. 1 seed Purdue, to validate its standing as a tourney team. Coach Micah Shrewsberry's stock is red-hot right now, and with good reason. He runs an offense that is among the most efficient in the country -- it ranks top-15 in 3-point percentage and effective field goal percentage as a team -- which feels like the perfect recipe for a team to outperform its seeding. 

Team that will make a far-too-early exit

(5) Miami: Count coach Jim Larrañaga out at your own risk, of course. This Miami team made the Elite Eight last year as a No. 10 seed, but I'm skeptical it can replicate the success. With big man Norchad Omier nursing an ankle injury and the Hurricanes having lost two of their last four (and narrowly winning the two vs. Wake and Pitt), an early exit wouldn't be terribly surprising. No. 12 seed Drake presents a real test in Round 1, then No. 4 seed Indiana likely awaits. 

Six players to watch

  • Marcus Sasser, Houston: After leaving Houston's AAC Tournament game this week with a groin injury and not returning in the title game a day later, Sasser's health is the biggest question mark hovering over this region. If healthy, though, he's arguably the most electric scorer in the tournament with the capability to catch fire and carry Houston to the Final Four.
  • Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana: The clear No. 2 in the Big Ten Player of the Year race behind only Zach Edey, Jackson-Davis averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds this season for Indiana as it earned a 4-seed -- the highest NCAA Tournament position for the program in a decade. He's a crafty lefty who can kill you with his smooth footwork and can take over any game.
  • Kris Murray, Iowa: Murray was the second-leading scorer in the Big Ten this season for an Iowa team that looked dangerous at times with statement wins over the likes of Indiana, Iowa State and Illinois, among others. If the Hawkeyes are to be a threat to advance deep in this region, Murray will be the reason. He comes in to the Big Dance averaging 22.8 points per game over his last four outings. 
  • Isaiah Wong, Miami: The combustible combo guard is liable to catch fire at any point and take over a game. Wong scored 43 points in Miami's first two tourney wins last season and is coming off a 22-point outing vs. Duke and its talent-laden defense in the ACC Tournament. 
  • Jalen Pickett, Penn State: Penn State figures in as a legitimate sleeper in this pod thanks to the do-it-all production of Jalen Pickett, who averaged 16.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in the Big Ten Tournament while leading the Nittany Lions to the title game. Pickett's got a buttery smooth, old-man game with craft and finesse and the experience to get Penn State to the second weekend for the first time since 2001.
  • Jalen Hood-Schifino, Indiana: Indiana's true freshman guard has been hot and cold throughout the season, but when he's got his A game going, Indiana's darn near unstoppable. He poured in 35 points several weeks ago while helping IU down Purdue inside Mackey Arena, displaying the shot-making of a lottery pick who, next to Jackson-Davis, could take this Indiana team from second weekend contender to title threat. 

Midwest Region winner

(1) Houston: The health of star guard and leading scorer Marcus Sasser may cause doubt to creep into your mind about the Cougars' chances here, but should he return at full strength, Houston should be regarded as the front-runner in this region -- and maybe the entire tournament -- until further notice. This Kelvin Sampson-led club is the toughest, most well-rounded team in the sport and the most grueling matchup for opposing teams to boot. They routinely rake on the offensive glass, thrive on second-chance opportunities and grind teams down with their methodical pace. With 31 wins to just three losses entering March Madness, this Houston team rates No. 1 across multiple analytics sites and has the requisite offensive/defensive balance you want from a contender as the only team in the sport with a top-11 offense and defense in adjusted efficiency ratings.