Breaking down the Midwest Region
Louisville was tabbed the overall No. 1 seed, which to the NCAA tournament selection committee apparently meant the Cardinals could handle the toughest region.
Because make no mistake, this is it.
Ten first impressions
1. Can you say brutal? Between them, the coaches of the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds have 22 Final Four berths and six national championships. One (Mike Krzyzewski) already is in the Hall of Fame; another (Rick Pitino) could become one of the newest members at this Final Four; and for the third (Tom Izzo), it's just a matter of time. Mix in a national player of the year candidate (Doug McDermott), a freshman of the year candidate (Marcus Smart) and a favorite sleeper pick (Saint Louis), and you've got some serious basketball chops trying to get to Indianapolis.
2. If you like defense, you've come to the right region. Save Creighton and Memphis, this is the white-knuckle brawl part of your bracket, where everyone from a No. 16 seed (North Carolina A&T) to No. 1 (Louisville) builds its game on defense. Six of the 16 teams in the Midwest rank in the top 50 nationally in scoring defense. Pity the basketballs here -- they will have the life squeezed out of them.
3. Plenty thought Duke deserved to be on the No. 1 seed line, with its powerful strength of schedule and gaudy record with Ryan Kelly in the lineup. Instead, the Blue Devils fell to a No. 2, and while many will argue what's the big deal, Duke fans might know the difference. This will be the fifth time the Devils earned a 2-seed. In the previous four, they made it out of the first weekend only once and never beyond the Sweet 16.
4. So the big question is, how will Oregon (No. 12) handle its snub of a seed? Will the Ducks fizzle and prove the committee right? Or will they channel their inner VCU, which used the sneers from analysts who said they didn't belong in the field in 2011, and make a serious push?
5. This is the country for old men. The youth movement and the culture of the one-and-done was the storyline for last season's NCAA tournament, especially after Kentucky's band of merry freshmen won the title. Here's the exception to the rule, where aged, wise men rule the better teams. By today's standards, Saint Louis is practically decrepit, with eight juniors and seniors, and Duke, starting three seniors, ought to be collecting AARP. Louisville is led by one senior (Peyton Siva) and three juniors (Russ Smith, Gorgui Dieng and Luke Hancock), and while Alex Oriakhi isn't all that much older than anyone else (he's 22), he looks it.
6. Two of the more puzzling teams in the country call the Midwest Region home -- Memphis and Missouri. The two sets of Tigers have tantalized and frustrated their fan bases, failing to live up to the meat on their rosters. Both will have plenty of motivation in this tourney. Mizzou, of course, was a stunning upset victim at the hands of Norfolk State in 2012, while Josh Pastner, who is constantly ducking the critics in town, has yet to win an NCAA game in his coaching career.
7. Pity the backboards when Missouri and Colorado State play in Lexington. The Tigers and the Rams are first and third, respectively, in the nation in rebounding margin -- Mizzou is plus-12.1, CSU is plus-9.5. Each also averages more than 40 per game.
8. From the "something's gotta give" department, we have Creighton versus Cincinnati. The Bluejays love to score and play up-tempo. The Bearcats would just love to score occasionally. McDermott averages 23 points per game, which is almost a third of Cincinnati's entire offense.
9. It occurred to me as I was looking at poor little Liberty and its 15-20 record that Seth Curry, who is on the opposite end of the Midwest Region as a No. 2 seed at Duke, played for the Flames for one season. Ponder that.
10. Kudos to the selection committee for awarding Middle Tennessee State for a season well played instead of punishing them for a bad 40 minutes.
Five players to watch
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: The stat stuffer extraordinaire averages 15.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.9 steals per game. He was recently named freshman of the year by the USBWA and is an absolute joy to watch, a throwback player who does everything well.
Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis: The Billikens' forward doesn't look like much -- he's 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds -- but he plays like an absolute beast. Butler's Roosevelt Jones, not one to shy away from rough play, called Evans the "most physical player he's ever played against." The Billikens are a true team, devoid of stars, but if there is one difference-maker for SLU, it's Evans.
Doug McDermott, Creighton: Steph Curry, that's who McDermott is. He's the nation's second-leading scorer, a guy who makes you inhale and wait breathlessly every time he touches the ball. McDermott also is talented enough to carry the Bluejays on a deep run, a la Curry and Davidson.
Seth Curry, Duke: Speaking of the Curry family, little brother isn't too shabby, either. The Duke early talk was all about Mason Plumlee playing like a player of the year candidate. Fair enough. The late talk was all about the return of Ryan Kelly. Fair enough. In between, it's been Curry who has held the Blue Devils together. Despite a gimpy leg that won't be right until the season is over, Curry is averaging 17 points per game.
Peyton Siva, Louisville: The sheer audacity of Siva's backcourt mate has made Russ Smith must-watch theater, but it is Siva who is Louisville's glue. He can have a little Russdiculous in him at inopportune times, but Siva is the Cardinals' engine on offense and defense.
Three Round of 64 games to watch
1. Colorado State vs. Missouri: The stigma of last season's upset loss is still attached to the Tigers like an unrelenting leech. This game might not help. Colorado State is a beast of a matchup for the Tigers. CSU can defend and rebound with the best of them. Laurence Bowers and Oriakhi had better bring their "A" games to contain Colton Iverson.
2. Oklahoma State vs. Oregon: This seed fiasco is almost as unfair to the Cowboys as it is to the Ducks. Oregon is a No. 12 seed and now will be an angry 12-seed. Point guard Dominic Artis makes Oregon a completely different team -- hence that Pac-12 tournament title -- and will be a tough draw for Travis Ford's team.
3. Middle Tennessee vs. Saint Mary's: Yes, it's a First Four game, but it's still a pretty interesting one. The committee did the Blue Raiders a solid, giving them an at-large bid despite the hiccup in the Sun Belt tournament. Ditto Saint Mary's. Neither team is very big, but both are experienced and desperate to advance.
Three possible future matchups
1. Saint Louis vs. Louisville: There is more than one way to skin a cat and more than one way to play defense. Both teams are terrific at it, albeit coming to their success in different ways. The Billikens are fierce, physical and deliberate; the Cardinals are frenetic and borderline chaotic.
2. Michigan State vs. Memphis: So let's be blunt, and this is no disrespect to Pastner (though it will sound like one): This is a coaching mismatch. Izzo is looking for his seventh Final Four, all with the Spartans; Pastner for his first NCAA win. Beyond that, though, you've got a gimpy Gary Harris, who may have reinjured his shoulder, trying to contend with an enigmatic Joe Jackson at the point. You've got the brawn of the Spartans and the athleticism of the Tigers.
3. Duke vs. Louisville: The two teams already tangoed once this season, at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, a taut fight where neither team led by more than four points in the final 10 minutes. The caveat: The Cardinals were without Dieng, who sat out with an injured wrist. Without Dieng to get in his way, Plumlee had 16 points and seven rebounds. This could be fun with both teams at full strength.
Possible Cinderella: We're discarding Saint Louis because it's a No. 4 seed, and we should discard Oregon because the Ducks are on the wrong side. But because the committee put them in glass-slipper-wearing territory, we're going with Dana Altman's crew. The Ducks have a chip on their shoulder and a healthy point guard. That could be a recipe for a date with next weekend.
IT'S TIME TO DANCE
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