The so-called “Group of Death” in this year’s tournament, the Midwest is easily the most impressive quadrant of the bracket. One could make an argument for any of the top four seeds to make it to the Final Four, and many of the lower seeds are potential Cinderellas-in-waiting. Here’s what to keep an eye on:
Best Opening-Round Matchup: #11 St. Mary’s vs. #6 Memphis – The NCAA tournament, like any postseason, tends to be dominated by teams on hot streaks. It’s tough to find a matchup between two hotter teams than that between St. Mary’s, who haven’t lost to anybody not named Gonzaga since before Christmas, and Memphis, which has lost only once in that same time period and has won its last four games by double digits. Both teams are in the top 25 in the nation in points scored per game, and each offense features dynamic, veteran guards. The Gaels’ Matthew Dellavedova is a great passer and a 38.5% three-point shooter, and went 5-for-7 behind the arc in St. Mary’s first-round play-in victory over Middle Tennessee. The Tigers will counter with Joe Jackson, their leading scorer, who has shot spectacularly well (almost 53% from the field) all season long. Though this game being a shootout is a safe bet, both teams are too well-matched to pick a clear favorite. If it’s a close one late, look for Dellavedova and Jackson to be their squads’ respective go-to options.
Player to Watch: Doug McDermott, Creighton – It’s tough for an All-American to be “under the radar”, but that’s certainly the case with McDermott. He’s just about single-handedly led his Bluejays to consecutive Missouri Valley Conference tournament titles and made them one of the most potent offenses in the country with his 23.1 points per game. By any metric, including advanced ones like offensive win shares, true shooting percentage, or player efficiency rating, McDermott is easily a top-five player at the Division I level and a likely late first- or early second-round NBA draft pick. Creighton’s opening-round opponent, Cincinnati, is an excellent defensive team, but if he is able to play his game and get his points, Creighton is as capable of making a surprising run as any double-digit seed in the field.
Upset Alert: #12 Oregon vs. #5 Oklahoma State – Since 2001, at least one #12 seed has beaten a #5 in every NCAA Tournament except 2007’s. It’s one of the most common upsets, and, this year, Oregon will look to be the latest team to continue the trend. The Pac-12 tournament champion Ducks have had a schizophrenic season, and don’t have a single scorer with more than 12 PPG. The Cowboys, however, neither share nor shoot the ball particularly well, and have a thin bench. On both sides of the ball, they are similar teams, with one statistical exception: turnovers. While Oregon is one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to turning the ball over, they also force a lot of mistakes. If they can cut down on their errors and force Oklahoma State into making them, this could turn into the type of grind-it-out game that the Ducks excel at.
Vocabulary Word: “Billiken” – There are several methods that people use when filling out their brackets, one of which is deciding who will win based on a team’s mascot. If that were the way the tournament worked in real life, the St. Louis Billikens would be a shoo-in to win the entire tournament. Named after a good-luck statue created by a St. Louis-area art teacher at the turn of the century, they have one of the most unique team names in all of sports. They may not need good luck charms to be successful in this tournament, though. The Atlantic-10 champions instead rely on a stifling defense and a great turnover margin to win games. They have beaten tournament darlings Butler (three times) and VCU (twice), and will be playing in memory of their coach, Rick Majerus, who passed away in December. Up until their potential Sweet Sixteen matchup with Louisville, the Billikens’ path is one of the easier ones in the region; if they get some momentum, they could be this years’ “mid-major” Final Four participant.
Regional Champion: #1 Louisville – Though the Midwest is, top to bottom, the best region in the bracket, it will be won by the most well-rounded team in the nation, the Louisville Cardinals. They have held teams under 60 points 22 times this season, forced more turnovers than every team except VCU, and didn’t lose a single game to a team that didn’t make the tournament. They have a great inside-out game, with the scoring prowess of Russ Smith, the dishing of Peyton Siva, and the dominant paint presence of Gorgui Dieng. This is a team with plenty of postseason experience, and one of the best coaches in the game in Rick Pitino. It’s their region to lose, but they will make it to Atlanta nonetheless.