by Chris Molicki
The Louisville Cardinals win the Big East tournament and get the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament. But they get the toughest region…that’s not right? The Cards definitely have to run the gauntlet if they want to get to Atlanta, but with the way they’re playing, it might not matter. Here’s the full breakdown of the Midwest Region.
The Favorite: It may be cliche to say, but Louisville is no doubt the favorite to come out of this region, as well as the favorite to win of the whole thing. The Cardinals are led by floor general Peyton Siva, who is finally starting to provide some offense. Russ Smith rounds out the backcourt, and he’s finally starting to make good decisions, as well as hit the three ball consistently. However, Gorgui Dieng is the team’s best player. Dieng is the best rebounder, shot blocker, defender, and one of the best passing big men in the country. Not to mention he’s starting to develop a mid range jumper. Throw in the three-point shooting of Luke Hancock, the athleticism of Chane Behanan, the emergence of Montrezl Harrell, and the depth that Wayne Blackshear, Kevin Ware, and Stephen Van Treese add, and you have all the pieces for a national champion. Oh, and they lead the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. This Cardinals will smother the opposition.
The Contenders: Everyone is down on Duke after their loss to Maryland. But let’s not forget that this is a team that has beaten Louisville, Ohio St., Miami, and just finished trampling the emerging Tar Heels on their home floor. In fact, I think before the defeat to the Terps, many considered Duke as the best team in the nation. The truth is, they’re very, very good. Seth Curry has had a spectacular year, and the shooting of him and Ryan Kelly is so invaluable to this team. And let’s not forget about Mason Plumlee, who is a double double explosive machine. Throw in Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook on the wings and Coach K’s Final Four chances are as good as ever. However, the Blue Devils don’t play very good perimeter defense, rely on the three-point shot too much, and have been prone to upset in recent year. Michigan St. is a team that is always ready for March, thanks to the coaching of Tom Izzo. Adreian Payne has become arguably the most versatile big man in the country, and him and Derrick Nix can bruise down low. Brendan Dawson has been solid and Gary Harris can light it up, but the key is for Keith Appling to play well and make smart decisions for the Spartans, who are based off of defense and rebounding. Saint Louis is one of the hottest teams in the country, and yes they are a Final Four contender. Winners of 15 of their last 16, they haven’t lost a game in regulation since January 12th. Jim Crews has this squad playing inspired basketball for late head coach Rick Marjerus. The depth of this team is as good as any team in the country, with Dwayne Evans leading the charge. Mike McCall Jr., Cody Ellis, and Kwamain Mitchell all have experience, and the Billikens play the kind of hard-nosed basketball that enables them to compete with the big boys.
The Dark Horses: Oklahoma St. has so much star power with Marcus Smart and LeBryan Nash. Throw in Markel Brown, and this defensive-minded team who can fill it up has a very high ceiling. They beat Kansas at Kansas and only lost to Gonzaga by a point. Creighton’s high-powered offense will keep them in any game. If you can imagine, Doug McDermott has gotten better, and he’s the kind of player who could drop 40 on any given night and push the mid-major Blue Jays farther than anyone ever thought. Both Colorado St. and Missouri are very good rebounding teams. They will control the glass and play very physical. The second round matchup with Louisville is daunting, but if they somehow overthrow the Cards, the sky is the limit.
Upset Special: #12 Oregon over #5 Oklahoma St.: This one really isn’t an upset for the underseeded Ducks, who are now healthy with the return of Dominic Arits. When he was at full strength, Oregon was playing some of the best ball in the country. They have depth, with six players averaging eight or more points a game. They have three-point shooters (along with Artis, E. J. Singler, Damyean Dotson, Carlos Emory, and Jonathan Loyd can all deploy the long ball). And they have momentum, winning the Pac-12 title. The Big 12 is a little overrated, and the Cowboys could be the #5 seed that loses to the #12 seed.
Other Things to Watch For: Make sure you take a gander at the play-in game between Middle Tennessee and St. Mary’s. The Blue Raiders are a very deep team that plays stingy defense. And they dominated a weak conference, which is exactly what Memphis did, their potential opponent. The Tigers are more talented, but struggle shooting free throws and don’t always make the best decisions. New Mexico St. has Sim Bhullar, who is 7′ 5″ and 355 pounds. You can’t miss that. Valparaiso will be fun to watch on offense, even though they don’t stand much of a chance against Michigan St. Duke lost to a #15 seed last year, and Albany with Jacob Iati are on a roll after beating Stony Brook and Vermont. Just saying…
The Pick: Saint Louis. Yes, you heard me right. Call me crazy, but the Billikens are one of the few teams who could actually knock off Louisville. And if they do, they’re well on their way to being the new Butler or VCU of the Big Dance.