College Basketball Coverage: Midwest Regional Preview

It was 27 years ago that a young Mike Krzyzewski brought his first Duke team to the Final Four. It was 1986 and that was when a place like Dallas’ Reunion Arena could still host college basketball’s showcase event. Coach K came up just short of a title. His team, which included a post player named Jay Bilas, went up against Louisville in the final and lost 72-69.

The Blue Devils and Cards haven’t met in the NCAA Tournament since. Now they’re set up as the favorites in the Midwest Regional, which TheSportsNotebook previews here today. We’ll walk through the bracket pod-by-pod, move ahead to the regionals in Indianapolis and make a final selection for the Final Four, along with evaluating the betting odds.

#1 Louisville vs #16 NC A&T/Liberty
#8 Colorado State vs #9 Missouri

The big issue for the Colorado State-Missouri game is whether CSU guard Dorian Green will be healthy. He missed the Mountain West tournament with an ankle injury, though he’s listed as probable. The fact this pod falls on Thursday/Saturday didn’t help the Rams, which could have used an extra day rest for Green.

In either case, I’m picking Missouri. The Tigers have a nicely balanced lineup of Phil Pressey running the show, Laurence Bowers at power forward and Alex Oriakhi at center. I’m frankly surprised they’re seeded this low—I’d have though the Committee would have cut them some slack for games lost when Bowers was out. The downgrading of Mizzou did Colorado State no favors, and gave Louisville a tougher-than-they-deserved game for the second round (as I’ve noted in the other tournament preview articles in TheSportsNotebook’s college basketball coverage, I think the real first round is Thursday, in spite of the NCAA’s attempts to insist otherwise regarding the play-in games).

Louisville should survive the challenge from Missouri, though I think it’s going to be a challenge. Cardinals’ center Gorgui Deng can neutralize, if not outright own, Oriakhi in the paint and the backcourt combo of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith is too well-balanced. Finally, Rick Pitino’s team simply plays too good of defense to lose this early.

#4 St. Louis vs. #13 New Mexico State
#5 Oklahoma State vs. #12 Oregon

Oklahoma State-Oregon does promise to be a good game, although I’m not sure why everyone on the ESPN Selection Show last night was all over the Ducks for the outright win—one analyst picking them might have made sense, but there was a groundswell for Oregon that I don’t think is justified. Oklahoma State is a good, under-the-radar basketball team. Marcus Smart is the kind of player who can transform a tournament game with his explosiveness. Markel Brown is the kind of floor leader every team needs in March. Le’Bryan Nash is a quality scorer on the wing. Oregon has advantages in post play that certainly put an upset in play, but I don’t see them as overwhelming and I like the Cowboys.

I further like Okie State to take out St. Louis. The Billikens deserve immense credit for what they did after Rick Majerus passed away. Jim Crews was TheSportsNotebook’s pick for national Coach of the Year. But they’re just not as talented as the Cowboys on the perimeter and St. Louis has the same weakness—lack of a really good interior game, so they can’t take advantage of that opportunity.

#3 Michigan State vs. #14 Valparaiso
#6 Memphis vs. #11 Middle Tennessee/St. Mary’s

The whole trio of Memphis-Middle Tennessee-St. Mary’s looks very interesting, and I feel at least fortunate that I’m in a pool which gives you both teams in the play-in game (i.e., if you want to pick St. Mary’s, you get MTSU along with it, thus allowing people to submit their entries by the start of Thursday, the real first round). I’m going with St. Mary’s both tomorrow night and then against Memphis. Matthew Dellavedova is the kind of guard who’s a difference-maker in games like this, which makes the difference against the Blue Raiders. Then I just feel the Gaels have been tested a little more in the West Coast Conference, thanks to the presence of Gonzaga and even BYU, while Memphis really wasn’t in Conference USA.

Whoever advances is going to get smashed by Michigan State. The Spartans are tough on the glass, too tough defensively, and too well-coached to make an early exit against as flawed a team as whomever they draw. I say Sparty will be crushing St. Mary’s, but you can substitute the other names just as easily.

#2 Duke vs. #15 Albany
#7 Creighton vs. #10 Cincinnati

Creighton brings Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott into a battle with the Big East, as they meet Cincinnati. The Bearcats have been disappointing this year, although power conference teams have fared well over the years in games like this one, against a midmajor. But I feel like Creighton’s a little more battle-tested than your average mid-major team. They made the second round a year ago and McDermott’s had the national spotlight on him all year. The Bluejays overcame a rough stretch off play are in a good spot after closing the season strong.

I might like Creighton in the first round, but McDermott and backcourt mate Gary Gibbs won’t be enough against Duke. Mason Plumlee should have himself a big day in the low post, and the Dookies roll on into Indy.

Louisville-Oklahoma State
Duke-Michigan State

Oklahoma State is well beyond its pay grade in this grouping. And from a talent standpoint I have to say the same about Michigan State. The Spartans have been tested in the Big Ten and head coach Tom Izzo has been tested over the years, so they’ll come out and compete. But Duke, with a healthy Ryan Kelly in the lineup is simply a better team.

I consider the Midwest the one bracket that’s really top-heavy and find it hard to fathom anything other than a Duke-Louisville game in the final. These teams were atop my short list of national title candidates this weekend and I hate to see them in the same regional. I’m picking Duke and do consider them a little bit better with Kelly in the lineup. But honestly, my main reason is that they’re the #2 seed and our pool rewards you for picking lower seeds. Furthermore, anyone who’s watched college basketball this year knows what’s happened with #1 teams nationally. And Louisville is the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Coach K gets his revenge on the ‘Ville, 27 years after the fact.

Louisville being a 10-11 shot in this region doesn’t surprise me, but Duke going off as high as 3-1 does. I would have thought the Blue Devils would have been much closer to Louisville in the betting lines. Michigan State comes in at 5-1 and St. Louis at 8-1. Then drop down to Creighton at 15-1 and Missouri and Oklahoma State at 20-1.

The team I pick to win the regional isn’t always the best bet, but this is a case where there’s no point overcomplicating things. I think Duke’s a virtual lock to at least play in the regional final and based on that, a 3-1 price is just fine.

When all four regional previews are complete, TheSportsNotebook will compile the Final Four picks and best bets into a single national championship post, including the betting odds for the big prize.