The midwest region in the 2019 NCAA Tournament features two Blue Bloods with several first-round NBA Draft prospects each.
Get excited for March Madness. Not only will we see great basketball for about a month straight, we also get to see big-time NBA Draft prospects compete against a higher level of competition.
In particular, the midwest region features two schools in North Carolina and Kentucky that could each boast multiple first-round picks in their rotation. Put your bib on and get ready to dig in for some amateur couch scouting.
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 16 Iona
Prospects to watch: G Coby White, F Cam Johnson and F Nassir Little, all UNC
White is skyrocketing up draft boards over the past couple weeks as he takes on more responsibility in the halfcourt for North Carolina’s offense. While he averages 3.9 turnovers per 40 minutes and often forces plays that aren’t there, White clearly has the passing vision to be a primary NBA playmaker, particularly in transition. This has benefited him for the Tar Heels but could face an immovable force in Washington’s zone defense in the second round.
Little was a preseason top-five favorite — a five-star recruit with tons of skill and athleticism. He has fallen gradually over the course of the year and some have him outside the lottery now. Making big plays on the defensive end will be Little’s key to getting back into the top half of the draft.
Johnson is the best shooting forward in the 2019 class, nailing 47 percent from 3. The senior is a transfer from Pitt but any team looking for stretch big men at the end of the first round will give Johnson a look. He can get an open 3 off from just about any angle and is great running through screens off ball despite his size. The defense is passable.
No. 8 Utah State vs. No. 9 Washington
Prospect to watch: F Matisse Thybulle, Washington
There is no one in the country who can match Thybulle’s defensive production. His 6.6 steal percentage and 8.4 block percentage are frankly insane. Utah State’s egalitarian offense will provide an interesting test, but the true fun will come if Washington meets North Carolina in the second round.
Thybulle in space against the Tar Heels’ playmakers in an up-tempo setting will be a new, interesting context to see Thybulle. Fingers crossed we get it.
No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 13 Northeastern
Prospects to watch: F Dedric Lawson and G Quentin Grimes, Kansas
Grimes came to Lawrence as the No. 1 recruit from Texas, a no-doubt five-star player who was supposed to fit beautifully as a secondary scorer and playmaker in Bill Self’s system. That didn’t happen. Instead, Grimes scored in single digits 22 times this year as Kansas disappointed throughout the year. A big March, as we saw with Devonte Graham last year, could put Grimes back into the second-round conversation.
On the other hand, the skilled big man Lawson is a lock to be in the NBA next year. The junior transfer from Memphis is an active player who puts up stats in every category. Most impressively, he increased his rebounding and rim protection numbers this year and improved his open catch-and-shoot 3-point shooting as well. He will fit well as a modern NBA 4-man.
No. 6 Iowa State vs. No. 11 Ohio State
Prospects to watch: F Talen Horton-Tucker and G Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State
The ceaseless internet scout Jackson Hoy, who drove the bandwagons for Zhaire Smith and Ja Morant earlier than anyone, has Horton-Tucker in his top five this year.
His body is far from NBA shape and he doesn’t quite have the size you’d want from a small-ball forward, but Horton-Tucker is crafty with the ball in his hands and his shooting is way better than a 31.4 percent efficiency would suggest. He’s a first-round lock.
If Haliburton helps the Cyclones win some games in March, he could be on the shortlist for first-round consideration as well. Like Horton-Tucker, he is one of the youngest players in the 2019 class. Haliburton’s incredible length and feel make him the type of player worth taking a risk on should he declare after one season.
No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 15 Abilene Christian
Prospects to watch: F P.J. Washington, G Keldon Johnson, G Tyler Herro and G Ashton Hagans, Kentucky
Washington’s decision to return to school worked out perfectly for the sophomore forward. While many at Kentucky are enticed to leave after one year even if it doesn’t quite make sense (Jarred Vanderbilt is a good example from 2018), Washington stayed and improved. He turned into a solid corner 3-point shooter and post scorer and also improved as a rim protector. Washington is an energy player with a vaulted ceiling.
Johnson, on the other hand, has looked worse as the season has gone along. He is an incredibly streaky shooter who rarely impacts the game on defense and has tunnel vision with the ball in his hands. He should go to the NBA immediately to work with better trainers who will develop a 3-and-D game from his skill set, but Johnson went from a lottery lock to a potential late-first-round pick in one year.
The wing who surpassed Johnson over the course of the season also plays for Kentucky and is one of the best shooters in college basketball. Herro’s flashy 59.4 true shooting percentage will turn heads come Combine time in May and his rise could be similar to that of Kevin Huerter, even more of an unknown who ended up taken 17th by June. Herro gives better effort on defense than Huerter or another similar prospect, Devin Booker, despite being smaller than both of those standouts.
Watch for Hagans to wreak havoc in March a la Aaron Craft if Kentucky makes a run.