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.

New-look Virginia back to work after winning NCAA title

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Tony Bennett’s first offseason as a national champion coach has come with benefits on the recruiting trail. His first season at Virginia after winning the title, however, will bring challenges.

Five players who helped Virginia beat Texas Tech to capture the first basketball title in school history are gone, and that’s four more than expected. Center Jack Salt graduated, and guards De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy declared for the NBA draft. Seldom-used Marco Anthony transferred.

Recruiting was already well underway before the Cavaliers won it all, but Bennett said Wednesday the result “certainly can’t hurt and I think it has helped. It validates a lot of good stuff that’s happened in the past.”

Virginia hopes the spoils of those improvements are evident quickly in incoming freshmen guard Casey Morsell, big men Justin McKoy and Kadin Shedrick and junior college shooting guard Tomas Woldetensae.

Virginia opened its summer practice period on Tuesday, and Bennett said he’s not sure just yet who will be ready to contribute.

“Everyone will have ample opportunity, the newcomers, so to speak,” he said. “To say who, you just don’t know. … There are some opportunities out there. So it’s the returners and we can go down the list of the guys we brought in, but I think they’re excited about the opportunity.

“There’s always a learning curve any time you go from whether it’s high school to college or junior college to college or coming from a redshirt to being eligible. … Going up a level and playing in the ACC, for any of these guys, there’s the challenge of the physicality and the level of talent and the speed.”

Woldetensae, a left-handed shooter, averaged 17.3 points per game and shot 47.6 percent from 3-point range last season at Indian Hills Community College.

“We thought we needed to add some experience and a quality player on the perimeter and when he was mentioned and we did our homework and watched film and all those kinds of things,” he said. “His personality came out as a young man of character and we always start there. He seemed wanting to challenge himself at a very high level.”

The Cavaliers were delighted that Mamadi Diakite decided to come back for his senior year after testing the professional waters. And they added senior transfer Sam Hauser, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds last season at Marquette. Hauser will be eligible to practice with the team, but won’t be able to play until 2020-21.

Bennett’s offseason included numerous speaking engagements, recruiting, talking to NBA scouts about his players and some time to decompress.

He also checked an item off his bucket list when, with his father, longtime college coach Dick Bennett, he played Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters. That, he said, “was amazing.”

Now, it’s back to work.

“I’m grateful for the busy-ness of it,” he said of the offseason. “It means something good happened.”

Four-star forward commits to West Virginia

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West Virginia landed a top-75 recruit Thursday night.

Isaiah Cottrell, a 6-foot-9 forward from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, committed to West Virginia’s 2020 recruiting class.

Cottrell picked the Mountaineers overs offers from the likes of Kansas, Washington and Arizona, among others. His father, Brian Lewin, played for West Virginia in the 1990s. The four-star prospect continues a promising recruiting trend for Bob Huggins, who landed a top-40 commit in center Oscar Tshiebwe in the 2019 class.

The Mountaineers missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in four years as they slid to 15-21 overall and last in the Big 12 with a 4-14 mark.

John Calipari’s new deal at Kentucky worth $86 million over 10 years

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John Calipari and Kentucky agreed in April to what was described as a “lifetime contract.” Thursday, the exact terms of that deal were disclosed.

The Wildcats coach’s new contract worth $86 million over 10 years.

“I’ve said from day one that this would be the gold standard and it has been for student-athletes and coaches,” Calipari said in a statement released by the school. “As I enter my 11th year, I’m reminded it took me 20 years to get an opportunity to like this. There is no other place I want to be. As I look forward, my mindset is what’s next and how can we be first at it for the young people that we coach.”

Calipari, 60, will likely continue to be a source of speculation for other jobs presuming he keeps things rolling in Lexington as he has for the last 10 years, but what Kentucky is paying him will almost certainly be more than any other program – and potentially NBA franchises – are going to be willing to. Calipari’s success, NBA history and ability to always be central to the broader college basketball conversation means he’ll always be in demand, but it’s hard to picture a situation that could intrigue Calipari enough to leave one of – if not the – best jobs in basketball.

“(Calipari) has added a special chapter to the greatest tradition in college basketball and it’s a chapter we want him to continue writing until the end of his coaching career,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “We are pleased to announce a new contract that will enable him to do exactly that.”

Calipari 305-71 with one national championship, four Final Fours and 26 first-round draft picks in 10 years with the Wildcats. He and Kentucky will likely open the 2019-20 season as one of the frontrunners for the national championship.

Michigan State reports violation for Tom Izzo hosting visit for former high school

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Michigan State self-reported an NCAA rules violation for Tom Izzo hosting Iron Mountain High School for a tour while the team was in town to compete for its first ever state title that weekend.

Izzo unknowingly committed the violation — which only occurred because Iron Mountain was competing in the Breslin Center that weekend — and the Spartans immediately gave notice once they became aware of it. Proud of his alma mater for advancing to Michigan’s final weekend, Izzo was merely taking interest in players and a team connected to his youth. The Iron Mountain program toured the Breslin Center with Izzo and toured Michigan State’s locked room while also watching the Spartans practice before their state semifinal game.

Since it was a special privilege for Iron Mountain, playing in an event there, the Spartans were technically at fault for a violation. The fact that Izzo and Michigan State have to report a violation for this sort of thing is kind of ridiculous since Izzo has a natural connection to the team in question. Although Michigan State likely isn’t going to get hit with any NCAA issues from this, it’s the kind of thing that critics come to question about the NCAA’s rulebook.

Former lacrosse star Pat Spencer commits to Northwestern for basketball

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Northwestern landed a unique graduate transfer on Thursday as Loyola lacrosse star Pat Spencer will spend his final year of college eligibility hooping for the Wildcats, according to Stadium’s Jeff Goodman.

A former high school basketball standout at Boys’ Latin (MD), Spencer was one of the best lacrosse players in the country for the Greyhounds the past four years in college. He was selected in two drafts during the Spring. Spencer was taken first overall in the inaugural PLL College Draft while getting taken seventh overall in the MLL’s Collegiate Draft. Loyola remains in the NCAA tournament as Spencer is playing out his senior season of college.

Spencer is passing up multiple professional lacrosse opportunities to play Big Ten basketball for Northwestern. For a stud athlete in a sport to pass up money to pursue another athletic dream is one of the college basketball’s best things to follow next season.

As if Spencer’s background wasn’t unique enough, he’ll be at a Northwestern team starving for an identity since making the NCAA tournament a few seasons ago. By playing in the Big Ten, Spencer will be thrown against Final Four contenders and potential draft picks, which makes this transition particularly intriguing. It’s a cool story to follow this season as college hoops doesn’t often get athletes from other sports playing in such prominent conferences.

Greg Paulus famously went from Duke point guard to Syracuse quarterback as a graduate transfer, but he was leaving the sport to pursue an opportunity to play football. Spencer choosing basketball over a sure pro shot in lacrosse is an interesting opportunity for him this season. It’ll be interesting to see if he can still contribute anything on the hardwood.

(Ht: Jeff Goodman, Stadium)