If you look at a regional just from the standpoint of how fun it would be to attend in person and how loud the crowd is going be, it’s tough to get much better than what the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional offers, starting Friday and concluding Sunday. Indianapolis is the site, and all four schools—Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan and Tennessee are from nearby. You have the last two national champions—blood rivals going head-to-head—and the NCAA finalist from 2013. The roof may blow off the RCA Dome before the weekend is finished.
Friday’s games are Michigan-Tennessee at 7:15 PM ET and Louisville-Kentucky going about 9:45 PM ET. Both games will be carried by CBS, which has sent its #1 broadcast team of Jim Nantz and Greg Anthony. Or at least I assume they have, because Nantz/Anthony didn’t work Thursday and Friday’s other bracket, the East, is carried by TBS.
*Louisville is a 7-2 co-favorite to win the NCAA title, along with Florida, so that makes the Cardinals the clear betting favorite for this region. Michigan is 16-1 and Kentucky is at 20-1. Tennessee lags at 30-1. If you believe current form matters most, then you have to see value in both Kentucky and Tennessee, each of whom played great last weekend. The Vols in particular, are on a sustained stretch of quality play.
READ ABOUT THE MODERN HISTORY OF THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
Download Memories Of March Madness from Amazon today
*The Cardinals already had a rich program history, winning two national titles under Denny Crum (1980 and 1986), making two other Final Fours (1982, 1983) and in general having a reputation in the early 1980s as the team that peaked in March. Pitino’s brought the glory days back. It was an on-again, off-again start for the Hall of Fame coach, as a 2005 run to the Final Four was wrapped around other disappointments. But now Louisville is on a run of consecutive Final Four trips, including last year’s national title.
*Russ Smith shooting the ball is always the biggest key for Louisville. When the guard is knocking down his shot, this team is almost impossible to beat. They’re so good defensively, especially creating opportunities with pressure, that when they get any offense it elevates them to unstoppable. But let’s say Smith’s shooting is either off or cancels out with what the opposing backcourt does. That heightens the importance of Montrezl Harrell, the forward who’s a good scorer and rebounder, and whose emergence remains the biggest reason I maintain this Louisville team is so much different than the one who was lukewarm in December.
*Michigan ended a long run of postseason disappointments when they reached last year’s NCAA final. It was the first time the Wolverines had been even as far as the Sweet 16 since the days of Jalen Rose, Chris Webber and the Fab Five. Those days, which ended in 1994, were the end of a six-year glory run for Michigan, where they played for three national titles and won one. Michigan was also on the wrong side of history when they were the last vanquished foe for the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, the last undefeated team to win a national title. Which would have made it ironic if Wichita State had survived this season and played the Wolverines in this regional final.
*It’s about perimeter shooting in general and three-point shooting in particular, for the 2014 edition of Michigan hoops. Nik Stauskas was Player of the Year in the Big Ten, averaging 17 ppg. He and Caris Levert make for a sharp-shooting tandem behind the arc, and Stauskas can score off the dribble. Glenn Robinson III doesn’t hit from downtown, but he’s very effective with a 10-15 foot jumper coming off a screen, and his athletic ability is going to be huge against both Tennessee, and a potential Sunday opponent.
*Kentucky’s tradition is as storied as any program outside Westwood. The recent high points were the late 1990s, when they made three national finals and won two crowns—two of the appearances and one of the championships being won by Pitino. Under John Calipari, the ‘Cats have made two Final Four runs, including of course, the 2012 national title with mostly all freshmen. And even though it was only the Round of 32, last Sunday’s win over undefeated Wichita deserves to live on in program lore.
*Julius Randle is the consistent force on this year’s Kentucky team, a burly beast at power forward, who can get 15 points/10 rebounds with the same ease that most of us have in getting our beverage of choice to watch him. The key is going to be backcourt play, and the Harrison twins—Andrew and Aaron. It’s not just their shooting, though that’s naturally important. They have to keep the ball moving. That’s what Kentucky has struggled with this season and it’s what they did well against Wichita.
*Tennessee is the outlier in this regional of the bluebloods. The Vols have never been to a Final Four, and only even played for it once, back in 2010 when they dropped a one-point crusher to Tom Izzo and Michigan State. Tennessee has disappointed as a high seed, including losing as a 2-seed to Louisville in a regional semifinal back in 2008.
*The Vols might be the historical outlier, they might be the low seed around, sitting on the 11-line. But don’t mistake that for lacking talent. This team has two big-time players down low in Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, each athletic players who can score and get rebounds by the truckload. Jordan McRae is an explosive offensive force at guard. It took Tennessee time to find themselves, but they did late in the year and have looked great early in the NCAA Tournament.
Louisville was my Final Four pick in this region when March Madness started, so I’m going to stick with that. I had Duke reaching the regional final, so that now needs to be re-thought. I respect the heck out of what Michigan has done this year, overcoming an injury to their best player (Mitch McGary) to win the Big Ten. But I really think Tennessee is the more talented team, and though it took a while, they’re finally playing like it. I’ll say the Vols win one more time tonight before falling to the Cards on Sunday.