Previewing the Midwest Regional: Is it 2009 all over again?

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Favorite: Louisville

The Cardinals have been the most impressive team in the NCAA tournament to date, and it’s all thanks to their defense. It’s simply been overwhelming, and it’s not like they are changing anything. Louisville is just doing what they do on a nightly basis. Russ Smith, Peyton Siva and Kevin Ware pressure their opponent’s back court. Luke Hancock and Chane Behanan pick off the errant passes that float out of the back court. Gorgui Dieng and Montrezl Harrell swat away anything that happens to make its way to the rim.

Louisville’s defense is streaky. Once they get one steal and a layup off of it, their confidence grows. It builds on itself and snowballs until opponents are seeing flashes of Smith and Siva when they close their eyes at night. You see, Louisville is not a great half court team. They are much better when they can score in transition. And when they do score, they are able to get right back into that press. It’s not fun to play against.

But they could also win: Michigan State

The Spartans actually matchup well with Duke on the interior. Derrick Nix is big enough that he won’t be overpowered by Mason Plumlee, which means that he’ll be able to guard Duke’s all-american center one-on-one in the post. That will make things difficult for the Blue Devils on the perimeter, as the Spartans will be able to matchup with them. The key to Michigan State making it out of the weekend, however, is going to be the health of Keith Appling’s shoulder. When he’s playing well, Michigan State is a much better team.

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Most Important Player: Point guards playing Louisville

It will be Dominic Artis and Jonathan Loyd on Friday night. On Sunday, it will either be Appling or Duke’s Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton. You know what you’re getting when you do up against this Louisville team, but that doesn’t mean that it’s possible to prepare for. You just simply cannot replicate that kind of speed, quickness or defensive tenacity. Protect the ball and have a chance. Turn it over, and go the way of Colorado State.

Story line to watch: Rewind to the 2009 tournament. No. 1 overall seed and title favorite Louisville played No. 12 seed Arizona in the Sweet 16 and blew them out, advancing to take on Michigan State in the Elite 8. In Indianapolis. In the Midwest Region. Sound familiar? Well, Michigan State won that game. Can the Cardinals reverse their fortunes this time around?

Rank ‘em:

1. Louisville
2. Michigan State
3. Duke
4. Oregon

And the winner is?: Louisville

Louisville is rolling right now, and unfortunately I just don’t see anyone in this region that has the back court play to handle the press. Oregon has turnover issues. Michigan State has turnover issues. In fact, I think that if Duke can get by the Spartans in the Sweet 16, they may actually have the best chance to take down Louisville; they’ve done it once already this season. But at the end of the day, Louisville is streaky, so you might as well ride the hot hand while it lasts.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Cameron Johnson ending his slump is big for No. 15 North Carolina

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When it comes to the long-term hopes of No. 15 North Carolina, not only to win the ACC but to also be a national title contender, the play of veterans Joel Berry II and Luke Maye will be critical.

Rated among the best in the country at their respective positions, Berry and Maye entered Tuesday’s game against No. 20 Clemson averaging a combined 35.6 points per game.

Yet it would be two other Tar Heels, Kenny Williams III and Cameron Johnson, who combined to do the damage that dropped the visiting Tigers to 0-59 all-time in Chapel Hill. North Carolina won 87-79, holding off a Clemson squad that shot 61.3 percent from the field in the second half due in large part to the work done in the first half.

While both Maye and Berry II were kept quiet in the first half, Williams (12 points) and Johnson (eight) combined to score 20 points in the stanza. Johnson would finish the game with 21 points, the most that the Pitt transfer has scored in a North Carolina uniform, and Williams would add 15 as Roy Williams’ team moved to 4-2 in ACC play.

Berry (17 points, four assists), Theo Pinson (12 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and Maye (11 points, four rebounds, five assists) all performed better in the second half, making it possible for the Tar Heels to hang on despite being challenged by a team that made ten of its first 11 second-half shots.

Williams and Johnson have proven themselves to be capable supplementary scorers this season, with the former averaging just over 12 points per game on the season and the latter at 9.7. But in the case of Johnson, following up his 2-for-10 effort in Saturday’s win over Notre Dame by shooting 7-for-10 from the field (6-for-9 3PT) is a needed bounce-back effort.

Prior to Tuesday night, Johnson reached double figures just once in the four games prior (14 vs. Boston College) and shot a combined 3-for-16 from three. Getting Johnson back on track is a big deal for North Carolina, and if his performance against Clemson can serve as a spark that would certainly bode well for the Tar Heels moving forward.

A productive Johnson affords Roy Williams the luxury of playing a “small” lineup in which Johnson mans the four and Maye the five. This North Carolina team isn’t like past editions in the Williams era, as many of those squads possessed the ability to have two “true” big men on the court at all times. With the big men lost from last year’s national title team, it’s been Maye carrying much of the load with freshmen Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley both looking to work their way into the fold.

A consistent Johnson not only makes North Carolina better, but it’s also a necessity given the team’s available options.

As for Clemson, this game felt like one of the program’s best chances to finally pick up that elusive win in Chapel Hill. Brad Brownell’s group entered the game with a 15-2 record, and with the improvements both in the post (Elijah Thomas) and on the perimeter (Marquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell) this is a group that has some staying power.

But Reed, Mitchell and forward Donte Grantham got off to frigid starts, combining to score two points on 0-for-13 shooting from the field in the first half. Despite the first-half efforts of Thomas the hole was too deep to climb out of, with Clemson pulling to within two on multiple occasions in the second half. Reed got hot in the second stanza, finishing the game with 21 points, and Mitchell would add 18 points to the effort.

Now 1-1 halfway through an important four-game stretch — Notre Dame next, followed by a trip to Charlottesville to take on No. 2 Virginia — when it comes to their NCAA tournament seeding prospects, Clemson paid the price for its inability to knock down shots in the early going. But in their comeback, the Tigers put forth a performance along the lines of what they’ve managed to do for much of this season to date.

Unfortunately for Clemson, its supplementary scorers were unable to match the production of Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams III.

VIDEO: Kentucky coach John Calipari shows long-range skills during shootaround

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Kentucky coach John Calipari’s shooting touch is still there, even from long range.

The Hall of Famer proved that during Tuesday’s shootaround before the No. 18 Wildcats faced South Carolina in a late-evening Southeastern Conference contest. In a video posted on his official Twitter account, Calipari stepped up and drained a basket from center court to his players’ surprise.

The coach smiled as he walked off the court, showing the swagger and confidence he seeks from another young roster of freshmen and sophomores.

Then again, one key to a coach getting what he wants from players is showing them how it’s done.

No. 3 Boilermakers keep rolling by blowing out Badgers 78-50

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Vincent Edwards scored 21 points and Carsen Edwards added 20, leading No. 3 Purdue to a 78-50 blowout over Wisconsin on Tuesday night.

The Boilermakers (18-2, 7-0 Big Ten) have won 14 straight overall, 19 in a row at home and have matched the best 20-game record in school history. The only other time Purdue did that was 1987-88 when it also won its first seven conference games.

Ethan Happ had 15 points, seven assists and six rebounds to lead the Badgers (9-10, 2-4). Wisconsin has lost three straight — all on the road.

But they were never in it Tuesday.

Purdue made its first four 3-point attempts to jump out to a 12-0 lead, and then things got even worse for the Badgers.

Wisconsin needed more than 7 1/2 minutes to make a basket, and then the Boilermakers continued to pour it on.

Purdue extended the lead to 36-16 before the Badgers finally fought back to get within 39-22 at the half.

The second half was a virtual replay when Purdue’s first three baskets were again all 3s. And when Vincent Edwards drove in for a layup with 16:59 to go, the Boilermakers led 50-29.

Wisconsin cut the deficit to 16 with 14:50 to go, then allowed a 10-2 run to make it 62-38.

BIG PICTURE

Wisconsin: Tuesday night’s performance looked very non-Badger like. They struggled to score, struggled on defense, got into foul trouble, couldn’t get to loose balls and had 15 first-half turnovers. They’re young, and, yes, they were playing their third straight road game. But they need to improve greatly.

Purdue: The Boilermakers just keep rolling along. They’ve held 11 straight opponents under 70 points, have made at least 10 3s in six of their last seven games and have won their last two by a combined 62 points. It’s hard to imagine Purdue playing much better.

KEY STATS

Wisconsin: Finished with a season high 20 turnovers. The Badgers’ previous high was 15. … Nobody other than Happ scored more than eight points or made more than two baskets. … The Badgers are 0-5 against ranked teams this season, each coming from a different conference: Xavier (Big East), Baylor (Big 12), UCLA (Pac-12), Virginia (ACC) and Purdue.

Purdue: P.J. Thompson scored 14 points and Carsen Edwards had five rebounds and four assists. … Purdue was 14 of 22 on 3s, giving them 10 or more in six of its last seven games. … The Boilermakers have held 11 straight opponents to fewer than 70 points. … Purdue is 17-0 on American soil.

No. 12 Cincinnati beats UCF 49-38

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Gary Clark scored 17 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to help No. 12 Cincinnati to a 49-38 victory over Central Florida.

Jacob Evans added 10 points for the Bearcats (16-2, 5-0 American Athletic Conference), who won their ninth straight game.

UCF (12-6, 3-3) got seven points apiece from Tacko Fall, Terrell Allen and Dayon Griffin, but struggled the entire game to get inside the Bearcats defense. UCF shot just 30 percent for the game and committed 14 turnovers.

It was expected to be a defensive game and both teams played up to that for the entire 40 minutes.

Cincinnati, which has suffered slow starts in its last three games, overcame this one by using speed in transition to beat the Knights down the court. That was especially effective when Fall, UCF’s 7-foot-6 center, was on the bench, which he was when Clark made a layup to put the Bearcats ahead for good at the 13:40 mark of the second half.

Clark’s basket was the start of a 10-2 run that gave Cincinnati a 38-30 lead.

UCF made a brief run when Fall got six straight points on two dunks and a layup to cut the deficit to 39-36, but the rally died when the Knights center missed two free throws on the next possession.

Clark took an alley-oop pass and slammed it home at the other end to push Cincinnati’s lead to 45-36 with 3:52 left in the game and UCF never got closer.

VIDEO: Chris Silva posterizes Kentucky’s Wenyen Gabrial

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Chris Silva is quietly having an excellent season for South Carolina, and while the struggles of the Gamecocks have left that somewhat under the radar, this dunk on Kentucky was anything but.