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Midwest Regional Preview: Who makes it out of the ‘Region of Doom’?

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The Midwest is loaded.

Let’s just start with the fact that Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed and seemingly everyone’s gut pick for the national title at this point, resides here. Duke does at well as a No. 2 seed. That’s the same Duke team that was the best team in the country before Ryan Kelly went down with a foot injury and who enter the tournament with just a single loss on their resume when at full strength.

Can’t forget about Michigan State at the No. 3 seed, as they’re forever going to be considered a Final Four threat as long as they’re being coached by tourney guru Tim Izzo. And then there is St. Louis sitting as a No. 4 seed. The Billikens not only won the outright Atlantic 10 title this season, they also won the Atlantic 10 tournament, completing a season sweep (5-0) against Butler and VCU. They were a trendy Final Four pick before we found out they would be getting Louisville in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis.

And then there’s Creighton as a No. 7 seed and Colorado State as a No. 8 seed and Oregon as a No. 12 seed.

That’s tough.

Here’s our Midwest Region breakdown:

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Three story lines to watch

  • St. Louis has had an unbelievable season considering everything this team has been through with the death of Rick Majerus, the coach that brought all of these kids together. They won dual-Atlantic 10 titles and have, at times, looked like one of the ten best teams in the country. Will this story have a movie-script ending?
  • How in the world did Oregon end up getting a No. 12 seed? Does the committee realize that four of their losses came when Dominic Artis was on the shelf with a foot injury? Or are they assuming that the injury that Artis suffered is still bothering him? (To be fair, he’s 7-26 from the floor with 20 points in six games since he returned while Jonathan Loyd has been the workhorse at the point.) More importantly, was this actually beneficial for the Ducks? Sure, they end up getting a team like Oklahoma State in the opening round, but instead of getting a top two seed in the round of 32, Oregon will avoid a Final Four favorite until the Sweet 16.
  • Josh Pastner still has never beaten a top 25 team as the head coach of Memphis, and he’s still never won an NCAA tournament game. Does that change this season, and can he get that win against in-state foe Middle Tennessee State? And if he doesn’t win a game, will March 21st be the final game we see Pastner on the Memphis sidelines?

The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 2 Duke

I know, I know, I know. That’s kind of a copout. But the bottom-line is that Louisville, as of right now, is the best team in the country. Their defense is simply overwhelming, especially now that Kevin Ware is playing like the top 50 recruit that he was coming out of high school. And with Peyton Siva doing his now-normal March takeover while Russ Smith has continued his evolution into (gasp!) an efficient scorer, the Cardinals are dangerous.

But the Blue Devils also happen to be the same Blue Devils that beat Louisville out in the Bahamas back in November when everyone thought Duke was the best team in the country. Ryan Kelly is back in the lineup, which has helped turn Mason Plumlee back into a force in the paint, while Seth Curry’s leg should be feeling pretty good as the loss to Maryland in the ACC tournament saved him from a rough, three-games-in-three-days stretch.

The difference here? That dude Gorgui Dieng (maybe you’ve heard of him) is healthy now.

Final Four sleeper: St. Louis

I don’t usually fill out my bracket until late Tuesday or early Wednesday, and even then, I never submit my bracket until Thursday morning. That gives me a full three days to completely think through each and every potential matchup, and there’s no matchup that I’m going to chew on more than St. Louis-Louisville in the Sweet 16. Because I think St. Louis can win that game. They have a veteran back court that hasn’t been flustered by VCU’s press in their two games this season, they execute offensively in the half court, and they play a stout defense that will make it difficult for Louisville to operate.

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 11 Middle Tennessee State vs. No. 11 St. Mary’s: The play-in. It’s going to be fun. The Gaels have the nation’s best pick-and-roll point guard in Matthew Dellavedova, but MTSU is essentially a poor-man’s St. Louis.
  • No. 5 Oklahoma State vs. No. 12 Oregon: There are going to be about 25 big, athletic wings on the floor during this game. Markel Brown and Carlos Emory can win a dunk contest. Arsalan Kazemi plays as hard as anyone in the country. And Marcus Smart may be the most refreshing player to grace the collegiate ranks in a decade.

Matchups to root for

  • No. 2 Duke vs. No. 7 Creighton: This would be fun, wouldn’t it? Lots of shooters, fast-tempo, Doug McDermott vs. Ryan Kelly. 
  • Top four seeds advancing: Honestly, the Sweet 16 matchups — and potential Elite 8 matchups — if chalk holds through the first weekend are just terrific. When there are four top ten teams in one region, you want to see them beat each other up.

The studs you know about

  • Doug McDermott, Creighton: There’s a reason he’s an all-american. The 6-foot-7 McDermott is brutally efficient, capable of curling off of screens and drilling threes or executing a deft up-and-under in the post.
  • Russ Smith, Louisville: The diminutive Smith was a thrill-ride last season thanks to the way he terrorizes both opposing guards and his head coach, but as Smith’s decision-making has improved, he’s become an all-american.
  • Mason Plumlee, Duke: Plumlee is a double-double force on the block that’s a nightmare to try and stop when there are four three-point shooters on the floor around him.
  • Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: A terrific all-around player, Smart has transitioned seamlessly into the point guard role for the Pokes, making as many game-winning plays this season as anyone in the country.

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Colton Iverson, Colorado State: If it wasn’t for Plumlee, I would say that Iverson is the best low-post player in the region.
  • Matthew Dellavedova, St. Mary’s: You really should know about Delly by now, but if you don’t, set the DVR: he’ll put on a pick-and-roll clinic.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 11 Middle Tennessee State or No. 11 St. Mary’s over No. 6 Memphis: This has less to do with how I feel about Memphis than it does how I feel about MTSU and SMC; I think both are really good basketball teams. I also think they both matchup will with Memphis. And, frankly, I’m not sure I trust Memphis to win this game.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • Anyone over Michigan State: The Spartans got a tough draw in that their path through the first weekend — which they will play in Michigan — is easy, yet drawing, potentially, Duke and then Louisville or St. Louis is a nightmare. Do you believe in Keith Appling?

CBT Predictions: I think St. Louis does it. I think they beat the Cardinals in the Sweet 16 and pick off either Duke or Michigan State to get to the Final Four.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Arizona lands first commitment in 2017 class

Alex Barcello (Jon Lopez/Nike)
(Jon Lopez/Nike)
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Arizona landed their first commitment in the Class of 2017 on Friday night as point guard Alex Barcello pledged to Sean Miller and the Wildcats.

Barcello is a 6-foot-2 point guard from Tempe who plays his high school ball for Corona del Sol. He committed to the Wildcats on an official visit to the Tucson campus.

Barcello is a borderline top 100 prospect who sits at No. 123 in the Rivals top 150. He’s known for his ability to shoot, and he’s more of a combo-guard — i.e. shoot-first — than a point guard at times, but he’s a nice pickup and projects as a solid four-year player for the Wildcats.

Virginia, Indiana, Stanford and Butler were the other four schools on Barcello’s list.

Duke lands first commitment in 2017 class

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Alex O’Connell knew exactly where he wanted to play his college ball, which is why, just two days after picking up an offer from Coach K and the Blue Devils, he became Duke’s first recruit in the Class of 2017.

O’Connell announced the on twitter on Friday afternoon:

O’Connell is a four-star prospect from Georgia that had a terrific summer, going from being a borderline top 75 prospect to a player that caught the interest of Duke, who, along with Kentucky, sit atop the college recruiting hierarchy. He’s an explosively athletic and lanky 6-foot-6 wing with three-point range on his jumper. He needs to add some weight and some strength — he’s listed as a crisp 175 pounds — but he has the tools, and the swagger, to develop into a very effective player in the ACC.

Is he a one-and-done prospect?

Probably not. In fact, since 2010, Duke has landed just two players that were rated lower than O’Connell: Antonio Vrankovic and Jack White. If you know who both of them are, you’re probably either Jon Scheyer or lying.

But what O’Connell is is a kid who put in the work to get better this past year and who has the skill set, the physical tools and work ethic to continue to improve. He may not be on Grayson Allen’s trajectory, but O’Connell has the makings of being an impact player for the Blue Devils for three or four years.

Alex O'Connell (Jon Lopez/Nike)
Alex O’Connell (Jon Lopez/Nike)

Shaka Smart lands contract extension at Texas

Texas head coach Shaka Smart instructs his team in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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Shaka Smart has already landed himself a contract extension at Texas.

The school, according to the Austin American-Statesman, has given Shaka a one-year extension — through the 2022-23 season — and bumped his salary up to a cool $3 million, a raise of $100,000 annually.

Smart’s Longhorns went 20-13 last season and lost on a half court buzzer beater from Northern Iowa’s Paul Jespersen. It will be tough for Smart to match the success that he had last season, specifically because he lost senior point guard Isaiah Taylor to the professional ranks.

That said, the former VCU head man has been reeling in quite a bit of talent from the state of Texas — namely, Andrew Jones and Jarrett Allen — and is not all that far from turning the Longhorns back into a relevant member of the Big 12 title race.

Arizona and Texas headline Lone Star Shootout

PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 17:  Head coach Sean Miller of the Arizona Wildcats reacts in the first half against the Wichita State Shockers during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 17, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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Another marquee, early season event is on the books for the college basketball season as four potential tournament teams will be squaring off at the Toyota Center in Houston on Dec. 17th.

The highlight of the double-header, which has been dubbed the Lone Star Shootout, will probably end up being Arizona vs. Texas A&M. The Wildcats are a Pac-12 contender and a borderline top 10 team as we enter the season, and while the Aggies will have work to do replacing the seniors they lost off of last season’s roster, they’re a borderline top 25 team.

The other matchup will feature a pair of former Southwest Conference rivals facing off in Texas and Arkansas. Texas will be talented but young while Arkansas may actually have the best player on the floor in Moses Kingsley. What will make this matchup interesting is that both Mike Anderson and Shaka Smart are known for being coaches that prefer a full court pressing system.

“We are extremely excited about the opportunity to play in front of our fans at the Toyota Center in Houston,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said in a statement. “It is one of the most important areas in this state as it relates to our recruiting and fan base.

Five-star 2017 guard Lonnie Walker cuts list to five schools

Men's U18 trials head shots and team photo on 6.15.16
Bart Young/USA Basketball
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Five-star shooting guard Lonnie Walker is coming off of a very good summer as he trimmed his list to five schools on Thursday night.

The 6-foot-4 native of Reading, Pennsylvania is still considering Arizona, Kentucky, Miami, Syracuse and Villanova, he announced on Twitter.

Regarded as the No. 26 overall prospect in the Class of 2017, Walker played with Team Final in the Nike EYBL this spring and summer as he averaged 16.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Walker shot 45 percent from the field, 39 percent from three-point range and 72 percent from the free-throw line.

An efficient scorer who is learning to drive with both hands, Walker is very talented and the type of guard who might also be able to handle a bit as well.