The NCAA Tournament “officially” kicks off Thursday as the round of 64 begins bringing any basketball fans productivity to a screeching halt once the first game tips off at noon.
There is some serious firepower coming out of this region and it starts at the top with, many an experts favorite, the Big East champions in the Louisville Cardinals. However, the Cardinals aren’t the only contender in this region as the top four seeds are all quite dangerous and capable of making a run in this tournament. The Duke Blue Devils, who have already beaten Louisville on a neutral floor at the Battle for Atlantis, the Michigan State Spartans and the Saint Louis Billikens will all be tough outs in this region. There are also some intriguing mid-majors in the Midwest that can surprise some people like Creighton or St. Marys as both programs have players who have been to the NCAA Tournament before and know what it takes to win on this stage.
Louisville: The Cardinals make their name on the defensive end of the floor as they have held opponents under 60 points in 21 of the 34 games they played to this point in the season. With Peyton Siva handling the ball, Russ Smith averaging over 18 PPG and Dieng manning the middle for Louisville the Cardinals they will be a tough out for any team in the Midwest region. Louisville is going to go as far as their high pressure defense will take them.
Duke: Even though the Terrapins bested Duke twice this season the Blue Devils, with Ryan Kelly in the lineup, are still good enough to beat any team in this tournament. With Kelly, Plumlee and Seth Curry the Blue Devils have more than enough ability on offense to get to Atlanta. As long as the Blue Devils don’t shoot themselves in the foot, or go absolutely frigid from the outside like they did in Greensboro against Maryland, they should be right in the thick of it. However, a second round match up against Creighton could loom large for Duke.
Best Opening Round Match Ups:
6) Memphis vs 11) St. Mary’s:
The Memphis Tigers have lost just once since Christmas day, a two point loss at Xavier in late February, and went through the Conference-USA regular season and tournament without suffering a defeat. Unfortunately for Memphis, however, C-USA was down this year and their undefeated run was only good enough to earn them a 6 seed and a date with the Gaels of St. Mary’s and senior guard Matthew Dellavedova. St. Mary’s certainly won’t make it easy on the Memphis Tigers as the Gaels are not the type of team to beat themselves.
7) Creighton vs 10) Cincinnati
If you haven’t had the chance to Watch Creighton’s Doug McDermott play basketball this season do yourself a favor and tune in to CBS at 2:45 PM on Friday for a show. The 6’8″ junior, who is also the coach’s son, leads the Blue Jays in scoring and rebounding with averages of 23.1 PPG and 7.5 RPG and should be a sure fire first round pick whenever he decides to go pro. The Bearcats are no slouch either as they are led by upperclassmen in Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright who have been through the battles of the Big East regular season. This will be one that I will make sure I am planted in front of a TV for Friday afternoon.
Best Potential Match Up:
2) Duke vs 3) Michigan State
The Spartans and Blue Devils appear to be on a crash course to meet in the Sweet 16 giving us what would be one great game next weekend in this region. Led by Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski respectively the Spartans and Blue Devils have been a mainstay in this tournament during the 21st century. Michigan State’s guard play, led by Keith Appling and Gary Harris, should match up well with the Blue Devils backcourt rotation of Quinn Cook/Tyler Thornton and Seth Curry. If State can handle Plumlee in the paint they should stand a good chance at beating the Blue Devils and moving on to the Elite 8. Either way, with a potential Izzo vs Krzyzewski match up looming the bottom half of this bracket will be one to watch early on.
Players To Watch:
Russ Smith: The leading scorer for the Louisville Cardinals can fill it up in a variety of ways. He doesn’t shoot a very high percentage, 41% from the field and 33% from three point range, but Smith is by far the most effective scoring option for the Cardinals offensive attack. Look for some of Smith’s scoring to come as a direct result of the Cardinals defense as Smith is second on the team averaging 2 steals per contest.
Marcus Smart: Oklahoma State’s upstart freshman guard is slotted by many to be a potential top three selection in the upcoming NBA Draft in June. Averaging 15 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists for the Cowboys this year Smart has been a big reason as to why Oklahoma State finds themselves as a #5 seed in the Midwest region. At this point the only thing Smart really doesn’t do well is shoot the three but everything else he is capable of on the basketball court is more than worth the price of admission.
Doug McDermott: I honestly positioned myself to write this preview just so I could talk about how good a player Doug McDermott is. I have followed him since he arrived at Creighton as a freshman and the guy has just continued to get better. I know that I have already essentially put Duke into the Sweet 16 but were they to advance and have to go through McDermott and the Blue Jays it is very possible that Creighton would have the best player on the floor in that scenario. Do yourself a favor and watch this guy play basketball if you have the chance.
Seth Curry: Curry is one of the top shooters in the tournament and has shown the ability to take over a game if he gets hot. In a tournament setting all it takes is one player to potentially push your program over the top and Curry certainly has the ability to do just that in his last run at a national championship as a member of the Duke Blue Devils. Should he try and one up his older brother, who had a memorable run through the tournament while starring at Davidson, the Blue Devils could be a serious contender.
Pick To Win The Midwest:
Louisville Cardinals: The Cardinals are the favorite to win this region and, some analysts, consider them to be the odds on favorite to win the entire tournament. The Cardinals have everything you would want in a basketball team heading into a gauntlet like the NCAA Tournament. They have veteran leadership, a hall of fame caliber coach, a savvy point guard, a lethal scorer and a big man to clog up the lane on defense in Dieng. Louisville came up just short of their goal in last years NCAA Tournament and I would have to think they are out to take what they feel belongs to them; a national championship.