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NCAA Tournament Midwest Region

Rick Pitino
Adam Reeves

The NCAA Tournament Midwest Region starts off Thursday with a sight sure to make every Kentucky fan sick: The University of Louisville Cardinals will open play as the tournament’s overall number one team on Kentucky’s home floor. This feeling is only worsened by Kentucky’s loss to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT (short for “Not In Tournament”). Just how many UK fans show up to root against the Cardinals isn’t the only storyline in a region chocked full of contenders. Here’s a breakdown of the Midwest Region, just in time to fill out your bracket (and promptly throw it away when Duke loses to a 15-seed. Again).

All Chalk

The Midwest Region features the tournament’s toughest collection of top seeds. Louisville, Duke, and Michigan State can all make the Final Four. And don’t sleep on St. Louis. The Billikins beat New Mexico, Butler, and VCU – all tournament teams. Despite playing the first two games in nearby Lexington, Louisville might have something to complain about given the strength of its competition to make the Final Four. All this strength, though, promises for some great late-round matchups. Pitino, Coach K, and Izzo all bring tournament experience to a field otherwise characterized by unpredictability.

Sleepers

No one thinks the Final Four is going to be all number one seeds. Only four times have the top four seeds from each region made it past the first round. This year, the predominant theme has been “it’s anyone’s tournament.” In keeping with that theme, the Midwest Region has a few unfamiliar names that might make a run deep into March. First, meet the Billikins of St. Louis. With balanced scoring (5 players average at least 9 points per game), and experience (St. Louis lost close to Michigan State in last year’s tournament), the Billikins could give Louisville a run for its money in the Sweet 16.

(A funny aside: The phrase “Sweet Sixteen” was actually first used by the Kentucky high school state boys’ basketball tournament, which featured sixteen teams from regions throughout the state. The NCAA purchased the rights to use the phrase from the Kentucky High School Athletic Association in the 80’s – and for a lot less than you might think.)

The other sleeper from this corner of the bracket? The Creighton Blue Jays. Featuring player of the year candidate Doug McDermott, Creighton beat Wisconsin, Cal, and Wichita State and won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. McDermott is a player that, if he catches fire, could carry Creighton to the second weekend of the tournament.

Best Opening Round Game

8-seed Colorado State vs. 9-seed Missouri. The Tigers from Missouri are surely itching to atone for last year’s second-round loss to Norfolk State. It won’t be easy, though. Missouri will face maybe the country’s best rebounding team and one of the only teams with five senior starters in Colorado State. Either team could push Louisville, and it promises to be a good one. While more viewers will be familiar with Frank Heath’s Missouri squad, unless talented but streaky Missouri point guard Phil Pressy is on his game, Missouri could be looking at another early exit.

Best Mascot

Let’s face it. You aren’t going to win your office’s bracket contest. It’s a well-known fact that the girl making her picks based on team colors and mascots is going to win, and there’s nothing you can do about it. With that in mind, let’s pick the best mascot in the Midwest Region. There are Tigers (see, e.g., Memphis, Missouri), Aggies (see, e.g., North Carolina State, New Mexico State), and Devils (Duke, Blue; St. Louis, Billikens (sorta)). The most fearsome mascot is surely the Blue Raiders of MTSU (sorry Sparty). But the best mascot belongs to the Albany Great Danes. Everyone loves dogs. Everyone loves the comic strip Marmaduke. This is a no-brainer. Too bad they won’t beat Duke.

The Winner

For a Kentucky fan, choosing between Louisville and Duke is no easy task, but for all the “anyone can win rhetoric,” it’s going to come down to these two teams in the Elite Eight. Duke beat Louisville earlier in the season, and if Russ Smith keeps doing Russ Smith things at the end of games, Duke might well pull it out. The smart money is on the tournament’s best team, though, and as much as I hate to do it, I think Louisville makes the Final Four from the Midwest Region. L1C4 my friends.

 

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