The release of the 2013 NCAA Tournament field created plenty of fodder for debate, but there was one point that was nearly universally agreed upon: the Midwest was by far the toughest region in the bracket.
Across the first two days of the competition, the teams in the Midwest have done everything to prove this to be true, and whoever survives this gauntlet will be in the best position to win a national title in Atlanta.
It all starts at the top in this corner of the bracket with No. 1 overall seed Louisville. For No. 1 seeds in their opening game, winning isn’t enough; they have to make a statement.
The Cardinals have rode their defense to the top of the college basketball world, and Rick Pitino’s team needed to prove exactly why they are ranked No. 1 in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency ratings.
This is what they did in their 79-48 blowout over North Carolina A&T. As Tim Sullivan of the Courier-Journal notes, the Cardinals set a tournament record with 20 steals, and likely would have had more if Pitino gave his starters more time on the court:
Tim Sullivan @TimSullivan714
#Louisville's 20 steals were an #NCAA Tournament record. And it would have been more had Russ Smith logged more minutes.3/22/2013, 3:00:10 AM
There is no doubt that Louisville is ready for March Madness, but No. 2 Duke faced questions heading into the tournament after losing to No. 15 Lehigh in their opening game last year.
Any thoughts of another shocking Blue Devils loss quickly disappeared though, as the team was insanely efficient against Albany. Duke shot 58.7 percent from the floor during the game, and the seniors led the scoring effort.
Mason Plumlee was 9-of-11 for 23 points, while Seth Curry was 10-of-14 with 26 points. Ryan Kelly did not have his best game, but sophomore point guard Quinn Cook showed he was ready for a deep run by contributing 11 assists.
With strong point guard play, senior leadership and a living legend on the sidelines, Mike Krzyzewski’s team has to be considered a legitimate threat to win this competition.
While the two heavyweights will steal a lot of the headlines, the rest of the field in the Midwest is extremely talented.
Michigan State and Saint Louis are the dark horses in the region. Tom Izzo’s Spartans can never be counted out, while the Billikens are on an incredible run.
Both teams rank in the top 10 in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency ratings. Each will welcome a defensive battle in a potential matchup with Louisville, while both will also feel confident about their chances to slow down Duke’s offense.
But first, Michigan State will have to take on Memphis, and Saint Louis will face Oregon. Both the Tigers and the Ducks are extremely stout on the defensive end of the floor as well, and these games will be low-scoring slugfests.
Then comes the Cinderellas. No. 8 Colorado State was the lone Mountain West team to survive Thursday’s action, and the Rams may have made a louder statement than any team but Louisville, who will be their next opponent.
Larry Eustachy’s team has five senior starters, and is known for their ability to dominate the glass. In a comfortable win over Missouri, who ranks second in the nation in boards per game, the Rams won the rebounding battle 42-19.
No team in the tournament rebounds as well as Colorado State, and this will allow the team to be competitive against any opponent, including the mighty Cardinals.
Lastly, there’s Creighton. The Bluejays squeaked by a tough Cincinnati team behind a typically efficient offensive performance from Doug McDermott.
With a star like McDermott to lead the way, Creighton can never be counted out of a game, and Duke will have its hands full defensively in its round of 32 matchup.
From top to bottom, the eight teams remaining in the Midwest are strong squads. Each has at least one attribute that could allow it to make a deep run in this tournament.
It is a cliché to say there are no more easy games for these teams, but in this case, the overused saying is completely true.
The team that survives three more games will be sharp, battle-tested and extremely confident in its ability to beat quality teams. This will be enough of an edge for the team that wins the Midwest to earn two more victories en route to a national title.
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