The Midwest region is absolutely loaded with talented teams, star players, and top-notch coaches. Louisville, Duke, and Michigan State headline the toughest bracket in this year’s field.
Sleeper: Saint Louis
The Billikens grabbed a No. 4 seed after winning the A-10 Championship in Brooklyn last weekend. Saint Louis plays tough defense, takes care of the ball, and has great senior leadership, all of the pieces to make a run at the Final Four. Since January 19, Saint Louis has lost once in an overtime loss to Xavier. They have however, beaten Butler three times and Virginia Commonwealth twice. Dwayne Evans has been the Billikens “star” but Saint Louis is much more than one player, as they go seven deep.
Don’t Sleep On- Colorado State
The Rams should not be overlooked. As the eight seed, Colorado State could face Louisville in the third round. I’m not predicting any kind of upset because Colorado State could very well lose to whatever Missouri team shows up, but the Rams have five senior starters, and it is hard to look past the experience and talent that Colorado State has showed this season.
Best Second Round match-ups: (5) Oklahoma State v. (12) Oregon
Whenever the best freshman in America plays, it is usually going to be a fun game to watch. The Cowboys, led by Marcus Smart and his stat-stuffing numbers, look to withhold the Oregon Ducks’ plea at the classic 5-12 upset. Smart is a joy to watch, as he can score, rebound, facilitate and play defense. He is the type of player who can carry his team for several games, and leads this intriguing Cowboy squad who has the talent and offensive firepower to make a deep run. Oregon has to be feeling snubbed after winning the Pac 12 Tournament only to be rewarded a 12-seed and dreadful second round match-up. The committee showed its displeasure with the Pac-12’s performance, but now it is the Ducks turn to show that they can compete with a Big 12 squad. Oregon’s scoring is as balanced as any other team in the country. Five players average more than nine points a game, but no one averages more than 11.6. The Ducks have been up and down all season, but they have shown the ability to beat quality opponents, including UNLV, UCLA (twice), and Arizona.
(7) Creighton vs. (10) Cincinnati
An All-American offensive player against a gritty Big East defensive team. The Bearcats allow 58.8 points a game, but Cincinnati will have a difficult task shutting down Doug McDermott. They will have to control the clock, limit their turnovers, and force McDermott into terrible shots, taking him completely out of the game. Easier said then done. Cincinnati has a scorer itself in Sean Kilpatrick, though he’s been terribly inconsistent. This is a kid who shot 3/12 for 10 points against Rutgers and two games later dominated a very good Marquette team for 36 points. His offensive production is the key to them beating a balanced and disciplined Creighton squad.
Most important coach: Tom Izzo (Michigan State)
Not sure if there is a better tournament coach in America. Izzo always has his players rise above their expectations and make a deeper run than expected. Michigan State has a tough second round game versus Horizon League Champion Valparaiso, and then the Spartans will take on the winner of Memphis-St. Mary’s. Michigan State could then potentially meet the Duke Blue Devils in the Sweet 16. Izzo is a player’s coach, and Michigan State has a very good chance to advance to Atlanta because of him.
Five players to watch
The Midwest has some of the best players in the country. From McDermott to Smart, and Mason Plumlee to Russ Smith, it is filled with bonafide stars. But here are some somewhat under the radar players to watch as the tournament continues.
Quinn Cook (Duke) – Cook received much buzz back in November after Duke’s terrific start. In the Battle 4 Atlantic, Cook won most outstanding player after his 15-point, six-assist performance in the title game against Louisville. Duke needs Cook to play at an elite level if they want to end its curse as a two seed. The last four times Duke has been a two seed they have made it past the first weekend once.
Grant Gibbs (Creighton) – McDermott gets all of the glory for Creighton’s success, and he should get much of it because of how great of a player he is, but Gibbs is an X-Factor for the Bluejays. The Gonzaga transfer is a 23-year old senior who averages 8.6 PPG, 4.1 RPG and 5.9 APG. Gibbs is a 40% 3-point shooter, but he doesn’t usually take many (1.5 a game).
D.J. Stephens (Memphis) – For a 30-4 squad, the Tigers aren’t getting much love. Although Memphis plays in the very suspect Conference USA, the Tigers should get some credit. Stephens, a senior from Texas, could very well play a significant role if Memphis were to upset Michigan State in the third round. Stephens has scored eight or more points in eight of Memphis’s last nine games. At 6’5’’, Stephens plays the wing as a guard/forward combination. In 23.3 minutes a game, he averages 6.7 RPG and 2.4 BLKPG.
Luke Hancock (Louisville) – Hancock was irreplaceable during the Cardinals’ Big East Championship run last week. He scored in double figures in each game, providing Rick Pitino with a great lift off of the bench. If Hancock can have success, Louisville will be a very difficult team to beat. In two of Louisville’s five losses this year, Hancock scored zero points.
Mike McCall Jr. (Saint Louis) – The junior averages 9.7 PPG, 2.8 APG and 1.3 STLPG. McCall is an excellent defender. He helps lead a defense that gave up 58.1 points a game during the season. In back-to-backs games against VCU and Butler, McCall scored 15 and 18 points respectively.
Duke is 41-1 when Ryan Kelly scores 10 or more points in his career. When he scores 11 or more points, they have not lost.
Louisville has to be the favorite because of there no. 1 overall ranking. But this thing is wide open.
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