After a come-from-behind win over Syracuse in Saturday night's Big East Championship, the Louisville Cardinals have extended their current win streak to 10 games, following three straight double-digit victories at Madison Square Garden in the final modern day Big East Tournament.
Louisville's last defeat came at Notre Dame in that epic five-overtime contest, where the Cardinals had plenty of opportunities to leave South Bend victorious. Nonetheless, Louisville's current 29-5 record was enough to get them the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Rick Pitino's squad opens their March Madness on Thursday in Lexington, a familiar place for Pitino who formerly coached at Kentucky. Louisville is part of the Midwest region, where the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight matchups would take place in Indianapolis. Louisville appears to be the early favorite to win the 2013 NCAA Tournament, but the following teams could end that dream if given the opportunity.
On November 23, Missouri and Louisville matched up in a semifinal matchup at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau, Bahamas where the Cardinals won 84-61. Despite a blowout win in the first matchup, I'd be confident that Mizzou would hang around longer in the second battle between these squads.
Frank Haith and the Tigers were one-and-done in last year's NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed, so there's no doubt they want to stick around longer in 2013. The return of Laurence Bowers and addition of Alex Oriakhi—who won a national title at UConn—are just a few reasons to not look past the Tigers.
Phil "Flip" Pressey is a better point guard than Peyton Siva, as Pressey averages 7.1 assists. Mizzou is the nation's second leading rebounding team and has six players who average double-figure scoring. The Tigers have yet to live up to their potential all season, but that could change this Saturday with an upset win over these Cardinals.
Betting against Tom Izzo in March is never a good idea, considering Michigan State has qualified for six Final Fours during his tenure including a national championship win in 2000 over Florida and loss in 2009 against North Carolina.
What's even more impressive is that Izzo has never gone four straight seasons without a Final Four appearance. Fortunately for Louisville, if Michigan State misses Final Four weekend this year it would only be the third straight season they'd miss it. Only one of these two teams can advance to Atlanta though.
Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne present size that can negate Gorgui Dieng's defensive presence, while Branden Dawson is an offensive rebounding machine from the small forward slot. If Siva can frustrate Keith Appling and Russ Smith cancel out stud freshman Gary Harris, this could be a great showdown between two future Hall of Fame coaches.
Had Duke not lost to Maryland in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament, there's a good chance the Blue Devils would be on the No. 1 line instead of receiving the second seed in the same bracket as both Louisville and Michigan State.
Like Missouri, Duke was second seeded a season ago before losing their opening-round game to Lehigh. Seniors Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly won't go out that easy this March though and could present another challenge in this deep and talented bracket.
For much of the season, Plumlee was thought to be the nation's top player. When Duke and Louisville played each other in Atlantis over Thanksgiving, all five Duke scorers dropped between 14 and 16 points, showing their well-roundedness. Duke attempted 27 free throws and won the championship 76-71 over this Cardinal squad. It should be noted however, that Dieng did not play in this contest as he had previously injured his wrist in the tournament.
Whether you believe Gonzaga deserves to have the honor of receiving a No. 1 seed or not, there's no denying that the 'Zags could be a threat this March, as head coach Mark Few has his most talented squad since becoming the Bulldogs coach.
In my opinion, Dieng is the most important player on Louisville. While I did not say he is the best player, I strongly believe he is the most important as he's a threat on both ends of the court. So how can you beat Louisville? Take Dieng out of the game.
Gonzaga is loaded with big men. Przemek Karnowski and Sam Dower are the two bigs of Few's bench, while senior Elias Harris and redshirt junior Kelly Olynyk get the nod to start.
An Olynyk-Dieng matchup would be a sight to see, as Olynyk has come out of nowhere following a redshirt season and has become possibly the nation's best player, averaging 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds. Should Gonzaga get to its first ever Final Four, this would be a fun matchup to observe once they get there.
Though there were changes among the top of the rankings all season, Indiana held the nation's top spot longer than anyone else and were believed to receive the top overall seed and first seed in the Midwest region which will take place in their backyard: Indianapolis.
After a late push by Louisville and a semifinal loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament, the Hoosiers dropped to the third No. 1 seed and will have to play in Washington D.C. on their Final Four journey.
Cody Zeller is all fundamental at center for IU, while wing Victor Oladipo is a defensive juggernaut and all-around athlete. Having lost on a chance to play close to home, Indiana will have a tougher road this March to get to a National Championship game appearance against Louisville. Then the two teams would be able to determine who truly is the number one overall team.