Favorite: #1 Louisville (29-5, 17-4 Big East). It stands to reason that the top overall seed in the field is also the favorite to emerge from the Midwest Region. No team enters the NCAA Tournament hotter than Louisville, winners of 10 straight games and 13 of 14. Consider the Cards’ dominant second half of the Big East Tournament championship game a final warning for this field of 68 – there is no scarier team in this tournament.
Should They Falter: #2 Duke (27-5, 14-5 ACC). It’s been a quiet few days for the Blue Devils, as the weekend’s ACC discussion largely revolved around Miami. But there they lurk at the bottom of the Midwest Region, poised as ever for a March sprint. Let’s not forget that the Devils’ ACC Tournament loss to Maryland was the first time Duke had lost with a healthy Ryan Kelly, and the senior’s clean bill of health is a far greater blessing for the Blue Devils than a #1 seed ever could have been. Duke also owns a victory over Louisville from back in November, albeit one with an asterisk attached – Cardinal big man Gorgui Dieng missed the Battle 4 Atlantis title game. For now though, Coach K and company are happy to let Louisville absorb all the buzz as the region’s favorite, while the dangerous Blue Devils attempt to navigate a manageable road to Indianapolis.
Grossly Overseeded: #6 Memphis (30-4, 19-0 Conference USA). Bracket projections had the Tigers anywhere between a #6 and a #9 seed. Josh Pastner’s team maxed out its seed line by receiving the #6, but now comes the hard part – beating an NCAA Tournament team. Memphis did that just once in the regular season (a win over #14 seed Harvard), a rare gap in the resume for any team in the field, much less a team so highly seeded. Let’s put it this way — Middle Tennessee, the most controversial at-large selection in this field and a potential Third Round opponent of the Tigers, had two more victories over NCAA teams, and just one more loss than Memphis. That’s not to say that the Blue Raiders are a better team than Memphis (although perhaps we will get to find that out), but you get the point.
Grossly Underseeded: #12 Oregon (26-8, 15-6 Pac-12). Likely the most underseeded team in the entire field. Sure, the Ducks slogged their way to the finish line of the regular season, but the return of Dominic Artis and an impressive three-game run to win the Pac-12 Tournament had most bracketologists predicting a spot in an #8/#9 game for Oregon. Committee chair Mike Bobinski admitted that the Ducks were actually on the #11 seed line and had to be moved down as a result of logistical issues elsewhere in the bracket, but either way, this team is better than their double-digit seed would indicate.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 seed or lower): #12 Oregon. Underseeded, definitely, but unlucky? Not at all. The committee’s decision to give Oregon a #12 seed is a great break for Dana Altman’s club. Sure, Oklahoma State will be a marginally more difficult task than drawing a #8/#9 seed in the next round, but instead of a potential subsequent match-up with a #1 or #2 seed, Oregon could win its way into another winnable game versus Saint Louis (or New Mexico State). If the Ducks can bring the swagger they found in Vegas with them to San Jose, the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend is imminently possible. Valparaiso deserves mention here as well; the Crusaders were also underseeded a bit as a #14 seed and don’t have an ideal match-up with Michigan State, but the Horizon League champions are a dangerous team. The good news for Bryce Drew? It only gets easier if they can find a way to knock off the Spartans.
Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #4 Saint Louis (27-6, 16-3 Atlantic 10). Saint Louis has to be happy with its draw. The Billikens were given their due respect with a #4 seed, have no immediate land mines waiting in their pod, and may have the secret recipe for beating Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen should they both get there. SLU prides itself on tough, heady basketball. If anyone can limit turnovers against that Louisville defense, it could be Saint Louis, who also plays some pretty good defense themselves (seventh nationally in defensive efficiency). Throw in the fact that the Billikens had a solid showing in last year’s event and that they will be playing for the memory of Rick Majerus, and suddenly a solid team becomes a very dangerous one. They are gritty and disciplined, and make no mistake about it — the Billikens are a serious contender to reach Atlanta.
Carmelo Anthony Award: Doug McDermott, Creighton (23.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 49.7% 3FG). There’s not a whole lot more to say about McDermott that hasn’t been said already. He will again have the opportunity to test his wares on the NCAA Tournament stage, and Creighton will need him at his best. Beating Cincinnati in the opening game shouldn’t be too iffy a proposition, but the Jays will need McDermott to shine if they hope to extend their stay beyond there.
Stephen Curry Award: Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary’s (15.8 PPG, 6.4 APG, 3.3 RPG, 37.4% 3FG). Dellavedova has carved out a nice little legacy for himself out in Moraga, California. No player in college basketball works the pick and roll as well as the Gaels’ point guard, whose performance over the past four seasons may redefine individual consistency (I’m serious, look at his page on KenPom). His leadership is unquestioned and by his side are teammates talented enough to not only beat Middle Tennessee in the First Four, but also take down Memphis in the next round. Anything more would be asking a lot, but catch a final glimpse of Dellavedova playing college basketball while you can.
Home Cooking: #3 Michigan State, 80 miles to Auburn Hills. Louisville also has but an 80-mile ride to its first pod in Lexington and will also have a short bus ride (115 miles) should the Cardinals advance to the regional in Indianapolis. But the Cardinals would be favored to advance to the Sweet Sixteen if they were playing Missouri in Columbia, so Michigan State’s short jaunt east to Auburn Hills is the more important development. Valpo should give the Spartans all they can handle in the opener and Memphis’ athleticism could pose a problem two days later, but with a Palace filled to the brim with green and white in full support, Sparty will be heavy favorites to advance to Indianapolis as well.
Can’t Miss Second Round Game: Colorado State vs. Missouri, 3/21, 9:20 PM on TBS. It’s unlikely that either team will pose too much of a problem for Louisville in the Third Round, but this opening match-up will be entertaining to say the least. Keep an eye on the backboards, because the battle on the glass will be ferocious. Colorado State, led by all-MW big man Colton Iverson, is the single best rebounding team in the country, while Missouri ranks seventh nationally in offensive rebounding (and still 5oth on the defensive side), so something will have to give here. Missouri does not get up and down the court like it did a year ago, but there will still be a tempo disparity at play as well. The Rams would prefer to play in the half-court, while the must-watch (at least for the first 38 minutes) Phil Pressey and the Tigers would not mind finding a few easy buckets in transition. These are two truly elite offensive units that go about their work in very different ways – it will be fun to watch the Rams and Tigers go at it.
Don’t Miss This One Either: Saint Mary’s vs. Middle Tennessee State, 3/19, 9:10 PM on truTV. Not sure how we all feel about the First Four, but I’m looking forward to this Sun Belt vs. WCC matchup in Dayton. As the most controversial inclusion to this field of 68, the Blue Raiders will be thoroughly analyzed right through Tuesday evening, so look to see what their response on the floor looks like. On the other side is a team we are a bit more familiar with, but the sand in the hourglass is running thin for Matthew Dellavedova and his St. Mary’s career so expect the Gaels to come out hungry. For you First Four haters, remember that VCU turned the assignment to Dayton into a Final Four run for the ages in 2011, so don’t overlook the potential impact this game could have on the 64-team version of the bracket.
Lock of the Year: A Duke/Michigan State Sweet Sixteen Match-Up. Sure, a bigger lock might be Louisville making the Third Round, but I’ll step out on a limb a bit here in expecting this regional semifinal game. Assuming both teams safely advance to the weekend (Duke is a #2 seed again, so the Blue Devils are safe, right?), the match-ups there set up well for both favorites. Duke should be able to handle either a similarly constructed Creighton team (see below) or a less talented Cincinnati squad, while Michigan State’s disciplined approach should carry the day against likely Third Round foe Memphis.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – Purists: Saint Louis vs. Louisville, Regional Semifinal. Intriguing for the chess match poised to break out between two savvy and veteran outfits, but also for the Rick Majerus/Rick Pitino history that would lurk in the background of this one. The late Saint Louis coach squared off against Pitino in a 1997 Utah-Kentucky Regional Final, then ran into the Cats (with Pitino then departed for the NBA) in the National Championship game a year later. With the Billikens using Majerus’ memory as a major motivator all season long, facing Pitino and Louisville could drizzle even more sentiment on an already emotional SLU Tournament run.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – Media: Duke vs. Louisville, Regional Final. This potential regional final could not look better on paper. You’d have two storied programs, both with National Championship aspirations, playing a rematch from earlier in the season. Mason Plumlee and Gorgui Dieng battling on the inside, Russ Smith and Peyton Siva matching up with Quinn Cook and Seth Curry on the perimeter, and two of the greatest coaches in college basketball history roaming the sidelines. The winner of this game would more than earn its ticket to the Final Four in Atlanta.
We Got Screwed: #7 Creighton (27-7, 16-5 MVC). While Creighton didn’t necessarily deserve a better seed, the way this pod shakes out for the Bluejays is less than ideal. First up is a tempo clash with Cincinnati, a gritty power conference team that will test the Jays’ overall toughness and athleticism. If they can get by the Bearcats, a likely game with Duke looms next. And while I doubt any team would like to see the Blue Devils that early in the NCAA Tournament, it’s a particularly bad match-up for Creighton. They are very similar teams — ultra-efficient offenses that shoot the ball well from everywhere, especially from deep. So yes, similar teams, but with Duke looking a bit like Creighton 2.0 — and with a dominating big man thrown in for good measure. The potential saving grace for the Jays is that Duke lacks a natural defender for McDermott, but you’d also doubt that a team as well-coached as Coach K’s group would allow Dougie to drop 40 on them – something he might need to with a match-up as bad as this one.
Strongest Pod: Oklahoma State/Oregon, Saint Louis/New Mexico State. This pod features four teams capable of winning multiple games next week. I’m not sure if Saint Louis is the best match-up for New Mexico State, but the WAC Tournament champions are a big, physical team with NCAA experience. Saint Louis rarely blows teams out and the Aggies don’t often get blown out, so this opening game has all the makings of a close one. Oregon is going to be trendy upset pick in that classic #5/#12 special, but let’s not forget that this is a pretty good Oklahoma State team too. Marcus Smart could easily be the best player in the entire region (and a possible top pick in this June’s NBA draft), and the Pokes pack plenty of punch on the wing, where Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash can really fill it up. They are the second youngest team in the field (after Michigan) according to KenPom — another reason why Oregon might be in decent shape here — but there is no doubting the talent Travis Ford has at his disposal. I like Saint Louis to escape this pod to Indianapolis, but it isn’t often you see a pod with all four teams with a legitimate shot at the Sweet Sixteen.
Midwest Strength: In Statistical Form. Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency numbers don’t do any damage to the claim that this is the single toughest region in the NCAA Tournament. Not only does the Midwest Region feature six of the 15 most efficient offenses in the field (Duke, Creighton, Colorado State, St. Mary’s, Missouri and Louisville), it also has seven of the 20 most efficient defensive units in Louisville, Saint Louis, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Cincinnati, Oregon and Middle Tennessee. The road through the Midwest to Atlanta will not be an easy one, that’s for certain.