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MIDWEST REGION BREAKDOWN
Before diving into this region, look at this number: Six of these teams were in the same region last year (West). How often does that happen? Saint Louis beat Memphis, who then lost to Michigan State in the Round of 32, who then lost to Louisville in the Sweet 16. A possible Elite 8 rematch between the Spartans and Cardinals is very possible.
Final Four Team
No. 1 Louisville
They have the experience of last year’s Final 4. They are a five-overtime loss from a 14-game winning streak in the Big East. They lost by only five points earlier in the season against Duke without Gorgui Dieng. The Cardinals are on a roll and are the No. 1 overall seed for a reason.
We saw exactly what they could do in the second half against Syracuse in the Big East Championship game by outscoring the Orange 56 to 26. No one wants to play this team. Everyone knows about Dieng, Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, but what about the role players? Montrezl Harrell had his game of the year in the win over Cuse with 20 points and seven boards. Luke Hancock is becoming more of a threat and has hit double-digits in four straight games. Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear can’t be forgotten either. This team struggles at times in their half-court offense, but that shouldn’t be a problem in this region.
With defense, leadership and depth, Louisville should make it to the Final 4.
No. 4 Saint Louis
They are getting so hyped right now that it’s hard to consider them a sleeper, but they have a team that can give Louisville trouble which deserves some sleeper attention. I’m choosing to ignore the Billikens’ early losses mainly because Kwamain Mitchell didn’t play until the end of December. He’s one of their best scorers, and in his second game back, they beat New Mexico.
That 14-point win over the Lobos is important to look at because New Mexico is a very similar team to Louisville. In that game, Saint Louis held UNM to 13 points in the first half. That’s the kind of defense they can play. SLU has the muscle to defend the big guys, and they also have quickness at the small forward and guard positions to stop anything Siva and Smith throw at them.
On the other end, the Billikens are as balanced as teams get scoring the rock. They have five players that average at least 9.3 points per game. In fact, their seventh leading scorer led them in scoring against UNM. Dwayne Evans (13.7 PPG) has picked up his game by large margins since last year and he’s complemented by Mitchell.
Dark Horse Team
No. 7 Creighton
This isn’t a true dark horse pick, but who cares? Everyone is calling the Midwest region the best which means there aren’t going to be a ton of early round upsets. Middle Tennessee will cause Memphis problems, but they won’t get by Michigan State to the Sweet 16.
The Bluejays are another story. Creighton is led by sharpshooting Doug McDermott who can fill it up whenever he wants. Cincinnati has lost seven of their last 11 games. Sure, they play in the Big East, but that is not what you want to see. The Bearcats have been struggling from the field during that stretch which isn’t going to help in this matchup.
If Creighton can win that one, they’ll likely face Duke who was ousted in the first round last season to the hands of a shooter named C.J. McCollum. Can McDermott do the same? He’s flanked by Grant Gibbs and Austin Chatman who can help out when needed. Their second best player, Gregory Echenique, will go toe-to-toe with Mason Plumlee in the post. Let’s not forget Creighton made it to the Round of 32 last year with almost the same squad.
Best Opening-Round Game
Thursday, in San Jose: No. 5 Oklahoma State vs. No. 12 Oregon
It’s the classic 5-12 matchup and everyone in the World thinks Oregon was under seeded. While the BracketMatrix was 100 percent with every predicted team making the tournament, the Ducks were projected to be an eight seed after winning the Pac-12 tourney.
Even if Oregon isn’t really a 12-seed, the Cowboys aren’t going to be a walkover. Everyone is talking about Oregon’s speed and their ability to get up and down the court at all positions, but will that be the case against Oklahoma State? Led by Big 12 Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, OK State has one of the best backcourts in the country. Smart can be dominant no matter who guards him. He’s flanked by Markel Brown and combo man Le’Bryan Nash. They also have a three-point marksman in Phil Forte.
The Ducks aren’t lacking in size which is a bonus for them. They’ve already beaten the likes of UNLV and UCLA on the road this season, so they aren’t a weak team by any means. Will Carlos Emory and Damyean Dotson be able to handle Smart and company or will another player have to step up? Backup point guard Johnathan Loyd came through with 19 points in their Championship game win, but that was his best game of the season by far.
If the Cowboys don’t fall to lackadaisical play which has cost them multiple times this season, they should be able to win. On the other end of that, the Ducks have preyed on lazy teams throughout the year.
The Crystal Ball
Sweet 16 in Indianapolis: No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Duke
Tom Izzo vs. Mike Krzyzewski. What other reason do you need to watch this game? The last time these teams played was last season when the Blue Devils won by five on a neutral court. The last time they saw each other in the Tourney, MSU won back in 2005 in the Sweet 16. This matchup is going to be in many brackets because it will be hard for anyone to pick against either team in the first two rounds.
Duke probably (never say never) won’t get upset early again like they were last year. And under Izzo, Michigan State has never been knocked out earlier than the Sweet 16 when they’ve been a five-seed or better.
This game will pit two legendary coaches against each other, with two very similar squads. Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne can go head-to-head with Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. The backcourts are very similar as well with Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Branden Dawson compared to Quinn Cook, Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon.
If this matchup does happen, it will be a must-watch game in the Sweet 16.
Players on the Radar
There are a lot of studs in this conference, but these are the biggest game-changers.
G Peyton Siva (Louisville)
He was the main reason they made it to the Final 4 last year and if they can do it again, he will be the reason, again. Along with great defense, Siva sets this team up on the offensive end. Smith and Dieng are great, but Siva is the most important piece to the puzzle. He has scored in double-digits in five straight games after getting a goose egg at Syracuse. He’ll need to continue that run for Louisville to be successful.
F Adreian Payne (Michigan State)
Payne has been Michigan State’s best player in the past month. Whether it’s rebounding or putting in massive put-back dunks, he has been all over the court. He’s a player that changes the way defenses play as he can also hit the three-ball. If Payne continues his dominance, the Spartans are almost a lock for a couple wins.
F Ryan Kelly (Duke)
The Blue Devils finally lost their first game with Kelly in the lineup when they lost to Maryland in the ACC tourney. Kelly’s ability to shoot the three opens up the floor for Plumlee to control the paint. However, after hitting nine threes in his first two games back from injury, he has zero in his last two.
F Doug McDermott (Creighton)
McDermott is probably the best scorer in the nation. He doesn’t look like that much of a threat, but give him the ball and he can fill it up. There’s a reason he shoots 56 percent from the field and almost 50 percent from the three-point line. Not many can defend him with his 6-8 frame, and he can put in 30 on any given night. People say the MVC isn’t a great conference, but McDermott dropped 30 points on the superior Wisconsin defense earlier in the season.
F Dwayne Evans (Saint Louis)
He might be the lesser known of this group, but he deserves mention. Evans has been the epitome of the Billikens this year. Without Mitchell early on, he stepped up his game to fill in a role. He’s a rough player that gets in your face and likes to drive in the lane. Evans has made at least eight free throws in three straight games which goes hand-in-hand with his 21.7 points per game during that stretch (only 13.7 for the season).
Photo via Getty