Selection Sunday has finally come, and the field is set. The Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament, with regional games being played in Indianapolis, appears to be one of the more top-heavy regions. The region is headlined by Louisville, the top overall seed, but Duke and Michigan State are no strangers to the Final Four. There is a significant drop off in the bottom half of the region, but the top seven seeds should all be considered threats to reach the Final Four.
Top seed: Louisville
The Cardinals are the top-overall seed in the tournament, and deservedly so. Since a two-point road loss to Georgetown on January 26, Louisville’s only loss is a five-overtime road loss to Notre Dame. They return a lot of experience from the group that made it to the Final Four a year ago. The Cardinals are an elite defensive team that presses as well as any team in the country, and also drops back into a 2-3 zone, a style of defense most teams are unfamiliar with. Louisville has the whole package: great coaching, great point guard play from Peyton Siva, a quality big man in Gorgui Dieng, and plenty of capable scorers, led by Russ Smith’s 18 points per game. They have few weaknesses and are great at exposing their opponent’s weaknesses, and should be considered the favorite to win it all.
Main competition: Duke & Michigan State
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Both the Blue Devils and Spartans could make the case to be one seed higher than they are. Duke’s loss to Maryland in the ACC tournament is their only loss of the season with Ryan Kelly in the lineup, and in most other regions they would be the favorite to get to Atlanta, regardless of seed. The Blue Devils have been a different team since Kelly returned from injury, and boasts a roster with plenty of experience and plenty of scorers. As for Michigan State, they always seem to excel this time of year, as Tom Izzo is a masterful coach in tournament situations. If the Spartan’s talent can get them to the second weekend, Izzo’s coaching can usually get them to the Final Four. Even with Louisville as the top seed, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if either Duke or Michigan State ended up winning this region.
Sleeper: St. Louis
The Billikens are probably the best team in the country no one talks about. They were the regular season and tournament champions of the Atlantic 10 conference, which is no small feat. They won’t be given much of a chance in a region with Louisville, Duke, and Michigan State, but St. Louis deserves to be on the same floor with all of those teams. They are as hot as any team in the country, winning 15 of their last 16 games. There are no big name stars on St. Louis because they spread the ball around and have four players that average 10 or more points. They play as a team and don’t hurt themselves, which makes them the perfect sleeper.
Tough out: Oregon
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The Ducks should feel a little disrespected about being a 12 seed after racking up 26 wins and winning the Pac 12 tournament. Oregon had some head-scratching losses, but they were a combined 3-0 against UCLA and Arizona, and they also beat UNLV. The Ducks are a team that gets up for big games, so they should be ready to go in the tournament. They’ll put up a fight, although Oklahoma State will be a tough matchup for them.
Possible Cinderella: Middle Tennessee
Middle Tennessee’s situation is quite reminiscent to when VCU made their run a couple years ago. Much like VCU, there was controversy about the Blue Raiders getting into the tournament and they’ll be forced to play a play-in game before joining the field of 64. Also like VCU, Middle Tennessee is a good defensive team, which will give them a chance to win games in the tournament. All these similarities make the Blue Raiders a team to watch as a potential Cinderella. It also helps that they were 28-5 and have six seniors that play significant minutes. Beating Saint Mary’s and Memphis to set up a matchup with Michigan State isn’t unreasonable, and if they can get to that point, it’s all house money and anything can happen.
Upset alert: Creighton over Duke
This region may not see a lot of first round upsets, but something to watch out for on Sunday is Creighton toppling Duke. The Bluejays are no stranger to the tournament and they’ve been building toward a trip to the Sweet 16, and this could be the year they get there. As tough as Duke is, Creighton is one of the most offensively efficient teams in the country, as they lead the nation in field goal percentage and are 5th nationally in assists per game. A possible one-on-one matchup between Duke’s Ryan Kelly and Creighton’s Doug McDermott could be one of the more provocative matchups of the first weekend. Creighton is probably the last team Duke wanted to see in the second round, as the Bluejays can play much better than the ordinary 7 seed, and are capable of pulling off this upset.
Player to watch: Doug McDermott, Creighton
McDermott might be the toughest player to matchup with in the country. He scores 23 points and grabs over 7 rebounds per game. He scores in the post, makes on average two three-pointers a game, and shoots 86% from the free throw line. He can also pass the ball well for a big man. McDermott plays hard, does the little things well, and is the kind of player that can carry his team on his back throughout the tournament.
What to watch for:
Expect plenty of chalk in this region, with the possible exception of Creighton over Duke in the second round. Things could get tricky for Michigan State, but they should get to the second weekend. Meanwhile, barring something crazy, Louisville should reach Indianapolis without any trouble. Once in Indy, Louisville should have a nice home court advantage, but they could also get a stern test from St. Louis, who has as good a chance as anyone of toppling the tournament’s top seed, assuming they can survive the opening weekend. In the end, look for a Louisville vs. Michigan State matchup to decide this region, which would be a great coaching battle between Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo.