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.
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.