When CBS was running its selection special, it wasted little time getting to the dreaded “Region of Death.” Introduced first as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, the Louisville Cardinals were gifted with a spot close to home in the Midwest—and with that distinction seemingly came a major catch.
Looking at the bracket overall, it has become readily apparent that the Midwest is “toughest” on paper. The Duke Blue Devils, themselves a virtual lock for a No. 1 seed before conference tournament play, come in as the No. 2 seed. Michigan State was given the third seed.
And that’s before mentioning Colorado State, Saint Louis and Middle Tennessee—three squads that have been adored under the radar all season. This bracket is a top-to-bottom juggernaut, which is as good of news for fans as it is bad news for Louisville. With a cabal of talented players and teams, you won’t want to miss a minute of these contests.
For that reason, here is a complete breakdown of everything you need to know about how the Midwest shakes out.
Opening Round Schedule
Tuesday, March 19
No. 16 North Carolina A&T vs. No. 16 Liberty
No. 11 Middle Tennessee vs. No. 11 St. Mary's
Thursday, March 21
No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 16 Liberty/North Carolina A&T
No. 8 Colorado State vs. No. 9 Missouri
No. 5 Oklahoma State vs. No. 12 Oregon
No. 4 Saint Louis vs. No. 13 New Mexico State
No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 14 Valparaiso
No. 6 Memphis vs. No. 11 Middle Tennessee/St. Mary's
Friday, March 22
No. 7 Creighton vs. No. 10 Cincinnati
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 15 Albany
Best Round of 64 Matchup: No. 5 Oklahoma State vs. No. 12 Oregon
The answer to this question remains very much up in the air. If Middle Tennessee is able to come away with a victory over St. Mary’s, then the Blue Raiders taking on Memphis would instantly top anything going on Thursday. Middle Tennessee—thanks to its tenacious, full-court defense and depth—is one of the more difficult teams to prepare for in the entire tournament and could give the Tigers trouble.
As for games that are set in stone, though, it’s hard to go against No. 12 Oregon taking on No. 5 Oklahoma State. The Ducks, who won the Pac-12 tournament championship, were one of the more strangely seeded teams in the entire Dance. They were expected to be a No. 8 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, thanks to four wins over RPI Top 50 schools and a run through UCLA to take home the conference crown.
However, it seems the committee was unimpressed—likely to the dismay of Oklahoma State. The Cowboys drew inarguably the best No. 12 seed in the entire bracket, a team that plays top-20 defense in terms of efficiency, will be red-in-the-face angry about its seed and playing well after the Pac-12 tournament.
Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and LeBryan Nash are still a fearsome trio, and Oregon is not without its flaws (especially offensively). But of the opening-day matchups, this is one to keep an eye out for upset-wise.
Four Stars to Watch
Doug McDermott, Creighton
Though Creighton remains a mostly under-the-radar team, McDermott is a bona fide superstar in college basketball. He is averaging 23.1 points per game, second in the nation behind only Virginia Tech’s Erick Williams, and grabbing 7.5 rebounds for his second consecutive season
What’s most impressive about McDermott is the way he stays efficient despite defenses keying on him every night. He shoots a relatively minuscule 14.3 times per game and almost always takes smart attempts. Heading into the tournament, McDermott is making 56.1 percent of his shots and just a shade under half of his three-point attempts.
He is arguably the best shooting forward in all of college basketball, ranking fourth in the nation with a true shot percentage of 63.7, per Ken Pomeroy. There are plenty of great players in this bracket—some of which we’ll get to—but there is no individual star who can shift the paradigm of the entire region more than McDermott.
To put it another way: Coach K and his Blue Devils probably weren’t happy with their No. 2 seed, but had to be dejected seeing McDermott as a possible second-game opponent.
Mason Plumlee, Duke
While Duke certainly wasn’t happy to see Creighton on its side of the bracket, the Blue Devils are arguably the most star-laden team in the nation. Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly and Quinn Cook have all had their moments in the sun this season and will play an integral part of Coach K’s journey for a national title.
That said, Plumlee remains Duke’s best and most important player. A rare combination of size and jaw-dropping athleticism, Plumlee is a strong scorer who grabs rebounds over bulkier bigs like it’s his day job. He’s a nightly double-double machine, averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, and helps give this offense-first Blue Devils team a defensive identity.
There is no team in the Midwest region who can match up with Plumlee when he’s having a good game; the key will just be keeping him involved offensively. He has taken only two more shots all season than Cook, and attempts right around one per game more than Rasheed Sulaimon.
Part of that is certainly because teams have a propensity for fouling Plumlee. But it will be important that the senior star stays aggressive, even if it means sacrificing a bit of the team-first mentality.
Russ Smith, Louisville
Like Plumlee and McDermott, Smith is his team’s most important and leading scorer. The junior guard has taken over 150 shots more than any other Cardinals player and finished second in the Big East in scoring at 18.1 points per game. Though his efficiency could use some work—his insistence on over four three-pointers per game is a little much—the weaknesses of his teammates necessitate his volume-shooter tendencies.
Nevertheless, Smith’s true calling card as a player is his defensive prowess. Like many of his Cardinals teammates, Smith is an expert on-ball defender and fantastic with his hands. He averages two steals per game heading into the tournament, and his ability to swipe the ball and stay active defensively allow Rick Pitino’s full-court press to thrive.
Louisville cannot subsist on either end of the floor without Smith. Anything less than excellence could spell earlier-than-expected doom from the top-seeded Cardinals.
Keith Appling, Michigan State
The Spartans’ offense walks on a razor-thin tight rope every time it sets foot on the floor—especially of late. They have scored over 70 points just once in their last seven games, a rate sustainable in the snail-tempo Big Ten but not as much in the NCAA tournament. Tom Izzo will need his team to make some noise offensively at some juncture; most notably if the Spartans take on a team like Duke in the Sweet 16.
And that, my friends, is where Appling’s importance comes in. He’s Michigan State’s leading scorer at 13.6 points per game, but more importantly—he’s the team’s offensive barometer. The Spartans’ three-game losing streak toward the end of the regular season coincided with an epic shooting slump from Appling. The junior guard made just five of 23 shots during that period and has been prone to long shooting droughts in the past.
Appling has righted the ship of late, but he has the ability to fall off the rails quickly.
Cinderella Story Waiting to Happen: Middle Tennessee
Ever since the NCAA implemented the new field of 68 format, there has been just one “first round” team to defeat their round of 64 opponent: Virginia Commonwealth in 2011. As one may remember, the Rams made a torrid run to the Final Four that season in one of the most topsy-turvy Big Dances in NCAA history.
How did VCU pull off that feat? Relentless defense. Running coach Shaka Smart’s “havoc” full-court pressure scheme, the Rams flustered opposing squads into consistent turnovers—a feat the school has only continued in the years since.
We bring up VCU to note the many similarities between that squad and Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders run a constantly pestering defensive attack at opposing teams and emphasize team-wide intensity over the star system. They play quickly and relentlessly with nine players averaging double-figure minutes per game. And they also spread the ball around scoring-wise, with Marcos Knight’s 12.5 points per game being the only thing resembling “star power.”
No one is going to go out on a limb far enough to say Middle Tennessee will make the Final Four. But the Blue Raiders do have ample opportunity to—at the very least—become the second “first four” team to see the weekend.
Dark-Horse Teams Ready to Make a Run
Schadenfreudian folks love seeing Duke lose in the early rounds, and it’s very possible that they get a chance again in 2013. We mentioned the prowess of McDermott at length earlier and he will give the Blue Devils—and every other team in the Midwest—fits for as long as Creighton survives.
But the Bluejays aren’t just a one-man team. Gregory Echenique is a solid center underneath who has the strength to at least put a body on Plumlee in the paint. Ethan Wragge is also a player who can come in and knock down threes without any pre-required warm up shots.
With Duke looking vulnerable in the ACC tournament and from an overall depth sense, the Jays might put a scare into the devils in the battle of the blues.
Saint Louis Billikens
Jim Crews, who took over for the late Rick Majerus prior to the season, has to be wondering what his team needs to do for some mainstream respect. The Billikens won the Atlantic 10 conference tournament and regular season championship—and yet Butler and VCU continue to get all of the “underdog” adoration.
As for Saint Louis, it will just have to settle for languishing under the radar—for now. The Billikens are a hallmark of the Atlantic 10 style of play, boasting tenacious on-ball defense and a team-wide effort on the offensive end. They have five players averaging nine points or more per game heading into the tournament, all of whom also average over a steal per game.
That could be a bit dangerous in “alpha dog” situations. Still, their side of the bracket sets up quite nicely—especially if Oregon pulls off an upset over Oklahoma State.
Imagine this for a second: A matchup between Saint Louis and Louisville in the Sweet 16. The pace of that contest would make Secretariat jealous.
Others already mentioned that fit the bill: Middle Tennessee, Oregon.
Teams That Will Crack Sweet 16
No. 1 Louisville Cardinals
Neither Colorado State nor Missouri is to be ignored in the second round and could pose a bit of a scare to the Cardinals early. The Rams are massively underrated, and I may well have picked them had they been put in Gonzaga’s bracket. The selection committee did Louisville no favors here—and that’s putting it as nicely as possible.
But talent almost always wins out in the early rounds. Picking huge upsets is fun and games, but the point of filling out a bracket is getting it right. The Cardinals make it through here simply because they are better.
No. 5 Oklahoma State Cowboys
Though the selection committee did the Cowboys no favors by pairing them with Oregon in the round of 64, I still like them to advance. They have the athletes to deal with the Ducks’ tenacious defense, and any three of their stars can go off for 20-plus points on a given night. And while Saint Louis is a good team and even better story, the story remains the same.
No. 11 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Though this pick has a very high possibility of biting me in the face before the round of 64 even begins, I’ve been touting Middle Tennessee since midseason and won’t stop now. The Blue Raiders should get through St. Mary’s with relative ease in the opening round, and Memphis is a solid team overall but prone to turning the ball over—a massive no-no versus Middle Tennessee.
The shakiest branch is Middle Tennessee beating Michigan State. Tom Izzo has a sterling reputation as a tournament head coach and faced a gauntlet schedule in the Big Ten.
I guess, in this case, call it a gut feeling. Michigan State doesn’t shoot the ball well and will be facing off against a team that forces turnovers and missed shots better than just about any team in the nation. It will be close, but look for the slipper to remain on Middle Tennessee’s foot.
No. 2 Duke Blue Devils
Assuming Creighton and Duke play in their second game, the Blue Devils’ situation very closely resembles Louisville’s. They will be taking on a team that plays a somewhat similar style, whose success is mostly predicated on one dominant player. There aren’t many scenarios in which Duke will be able to stop McDermott—he is "should-be-playing-at-a-major-conference" great—but the Bluejays' forward needs to have the game of his life.
Coach K is no dummy, folks. He’ll devise a plan, likely mixing a bit of zone, to mitigate McDermott’s effect and he’ll “fall short” with 20 or so points.
Again, it’s not the sexy answer, but talent wins—and as a result, so does Duke.
Who Will Make Final Four?
As boring and chalky as it sounds, we’re probably looking at a Louisville-Duke matchup in the Elite Eight—especially in the scenario previously presented. The Blue Devils have exactly one loss with Ryan Kelly in the lineup and were banished to a No. 2 seed. That screams “value pick” whenever making selections, so even if it’s Michigan State that advances, Duke is still the correct call.
However, Duke’s run will end before the Final Four. The Cardinals have been considered one of the nation’s deepest teams since the preseason, and they finally seem to be hitting their stride at the perfect time.
You may be tempted to go haywire and take Liberty all the way to the Final Four—believe me, we’ve all been there—but this regional final will be covered in more chalk than a fifth-grade teacher.
Final Four Selection: Louisville
Make your picks for the 2013 NCAA Tournament here with the Bracket Challenge Game.