At first glance
This is a very difficult region for No. 1 overall seed Louisville. No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Michigan State are capable of winning the entire tournament, and No. 4 Saint Louis is playing great basketball and has become a popular pick to advance far in this tournament.
The Cardinals should have a relatively easy time advancing to the Sweet 16, but that’s when it gets interesting, especially if Saint Louis and the winner of the potential Duke/Michigan State game are waiting on them in Indianapolis.
This region is blessed with great point guards, and the teams have vastly different playing styles. It should make for some incredible matchups.
By the numbers …
6 – Number of Final Four appearances by Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
6 – Number of head-coaching jobs Pitino has had (Boston University, Providence, New York Knicks, Kentucky, Boston Celtics, Louisville) in his career.
3 – Number of teams Pitino has taken to the Final Four (Louisville, Kentucky, Providence).
LOUISVILLE: The Cardinals are the best and most disruptive defensive team in the country, and though they struggle to score at times on offense, they still have some potent weapons, including guard Russ Smith, forward Chane Behanan. If point guard Peyton Siva, a Franklin High School graduate, is playing his best, the Cardinals will seem unbeatable.
DUKE: The Blue Devils are 18-1 this season with sharp-shooting forward Ryan Kelly in the lineup. After losing to Lehigh in the first round (I’m not calling it the second round because the First Four are play-in games!) a year ago, they will be hungry to make a run this season.
MICHIGAN STATE: The balanced Spartans will go as far as point guard Keith Appling takes them. He has his erratic moments, but he’s capable of leading his team to the Final Four.
CREIGHTON: Forward Doug McDermott is the best player in this region. He averages 23.1 points per game, and he’s the most efficient perimeter scorer in the game. He is capable of keeping the Bluejays in games and hitting the winning shot at the end.
OREGON: The Ducks have a brutal first game against Oklahoma State, but they only have to travel to San Jose to play the Cowboys. This is an underrated team that won the Pac-12 tourney title and barely missed out on the regular-season crown.
Headed for a fall?
OKLAHOMA STATE: The Cowboys are so gifted, with Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash. But they’re pretty suspect outside of those three, and the entire team has its undisciplined moments. On upper-tier talent, the Cowboys can play with any team in this region, but they’re also susceptible to going down the first weekend.
McDermott and Smart are the best two players in this region. Duke’s Mason Plumlee isn’t far behind, and though he has his Russdiculous moments, Russ Smith can score points in a hurry. In a region blessed with top-shelf point guards, don’t forget Missouri’s Phil Pressey and Memphis’ Joe Jackson.
Tom Izzo has won a national championship and made six Final Four appearances during his run at Michigan State. His teams always peak in March, and if you’re Louisville or Duke, that’s danger as the tournament advances.
Best players you might not have heard of
Luke Hancock, Louisville: Not only is he Louisville’s best perimeter shooter, but he’s tough, too, physically and mentally.
Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis: The Billikens are a trendy pick, and Evans is a big reason for that. He averages 13.7 points and 7.7 rebounds.
Ryan Broekhoff, Valparaiso: The 6-7 Australian forward averages 15.9 points and 7.3 rebounds.
And the winner is …
Louisville. Center Gorgui Dieng is the best defensive player in the tournament, and considering the low scores and poor offenses that have plagued college basketball this season, it figures that great defense will decide the champion. If so, it’s impossible to bet against Louisville, which has won 10 games in a row and 13 of its past 14. With Dieng in the middle, the Cardinals will be able to apply tremendous pressure on the perimeter and get stops whenever they need them. That’s a valuable weapon to wield.