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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Region Preview: Midwest

   Bracketology Baby.  You have until Thursday morning to lock in your picks.  To those who just pick based on the hotness of team cheerleaders or the color schemes of uniforms, let me say a few words.  If you were taking the Bar exam on thursday, would you choose answers based on preposterous criteria?  Would you blow off studying to watch re-runs of an old tv show or go on a date with your girlfriend?  Obviously, the answer to these questions is no.  You may need to be anti-social for a few days, but that's okay!  Study up.  Read my analysis, read my stats, and decipher what advice you like and what advice you despise.  Also be sure to check my clear-cut Midwest bracket at the end of the article.  You need to construct the best possible bracket before Thursday.  This is more important than becoming a lawyer.  A perfect bracket is immortality.

  I now present my Region Preview.
      Player to Watch- 

    Dwayne Evans, Junior- Saint Louis Billikens
The 6'5 Forward has been shredding up the A-10 all year as the number 1 option on this impressive Billikens squad.  This weekend, Evans showcased his talents on a big stage averaging 21.7 ppg and 9.3 rpg in 3 games en route to a Saint Louis A-10 Conference Title.  Evans connected on 26 out of 31 attempts from the charity stripe (a very solid 83.9 % FT percentage) but what's more impressive is that he shot an out of this world 76 % from the field (25 shot attempts).  On a team that focuses heavily on the "we" rather than the "me," Evans sticks out from the pack as he is a ferocious on and off the ball defender.  On the offense end, he is relentless and physical as an undersized forward.  Evans has made incredible strides this year averaging 13.6 ppg, or almost 6 more points than he averaged as a sophomore.  He's the guy most people have never heard of that is most likely to steal the show in this region.    

        Best Matchup- 5 Oklahoma State vs 12 Oregon
Let's take a look at PGG and opponents PPG for these squads. 
Oklahoma State: 72.3 ppg, 62.8 Oppg; University of Oregon: 71.7 ppg, 63.6 Oppg.  It's ridiculous how close these numbers are.  However, these teams get their points in completely different ways.  O-State relies on their three stars who all average at least 14.2 ppg.  Oregon, on the other hand, relies on sharing the rock as no player averages more than 12 ppg (6 guys average at least 8.5 ppg).  Coming back to a similarity, both teams are putrid from long-range.  The problem in picking this one is that I love both of these teams.  If you're trying to pick strategically, Oklahoma State may be the way to go as I expect this matchup to be a popular 12-5 upset pick (picking a solid Oklahoma State team can set you aside from the pack).  At the end of the day, I like Oregon in a real close game.  My two main reasons:  The Ducks' are hot coming off a Pac 12 tourney victory.  More importantly, Oregon should be embarrassed by their low seeding.  I expect them to come out with something to prove.  Never underestimate the power of the "NOBODY (in the selection committee) BELIEVES IN US" factor as a motivational tool.  

       Interesting Tid-Bit- Tom Izzo has a career coaching record of 412-169.  In his 16 years as Michigan State head coach, the Spartans have never missed a tournament.  However, Izzo's career record vs Duke and Coach K?  1-6.  These teams could meet in the Sweet 16.

        More Interesting Tid-Bit- SUNY (State University of New York) Albany has 3 times as many players from Australia than New York.  What ever happened to walk-ons?

       Cinderella Candidate- 8 Colorado State
I can't really see any double digit seeds making a run out of the Midwest as the top seeds are rock solid.  However, I could see the Rams making some noise in their matchup vs Louisville (assuming the Mountain West powerhouse muscles past Mizzou).  The Rams are tough on the glass with Colton Iverson and the 6'5 senior Pierce Hornung leading the charge.  This squad hauls in 14.4 offense boards per contest which is good for 4th best in the nation.1  The Rams are also stingy with the rock turning the ball over 10.8 times per game (13th best in the nation).  In this possible round of 32 matchup against Louisville, the Rams match up well against the Cardinals' pressure defense.  Tons of people have Louisville going deep into tourney but I think they falter early on.  Their cause of demise?  Perhaps it will be the boys from Fort Collins.  

     Best Hypothetical Moment- SUNY Albany pulls a Lehigh-esque upset against the Dukies.  As Albany celebrates by throwin' up their top performers in the air, a group of ignorant Great Dane fans raise Ryan Kelly up thinking he's one of their own (Albany's got 10 white guys on the roster).  I am salivating at the thought of Ryan Kelly flailing his limbs in confusion as he is hoisted up on the shoulders of the Albany faithful.  Guy goes from hanging his head down after a 1-8 performance from long range to just accepting the praise and celebrating with the Danes.  Would be quite the spectacle.  I wish I could show this vid (doesn't seem to be anywhere on the youtube database) but if anyone watched the show "Drake and Josh" back in the day, remember that scene when Megan shrieks "I DON'T LIKE BEING LIFTED."  Well, that's Ryan Kelly come friday if this scenario plays out.  

       Committee Screw-Up- Oregon as a 12 seed
This seeding is indefensible.  The Ducks ran the table to capture the Pac 12 Tourney Title while going 2-0 vs the top 25 in the regular season.  Heck, they went 3-0 vs Pac 12 foes Arizona/UCLA who are both 6 seeds.  They also beat UNLV in Las Vegas earlier in the year.   Literally makes no sense for Oregon to even be a double digit seed.  

    Biggest Mismatch- Duke's size vs Albany's lack of size.  
Duke sports a dynamic duo of Mason Plumblee (6'10) and Ryan Kelly (6'11).  Albany's best players (Mike Black and Jacob Iati) are 6'0 and 5'10, respectively.  Yikes.  John Puk (6'10) and Blake Metcalf (6'9) are the bigs who will need to play big minutes for the Great Danes.  The difference?  Plumblee/Kelly average 15.6 combined boards per game.  Puk and Metcalf grab 8.5 rebounds a game.  This, my friends, is what we call a mismatch.  

The Matchups

1stat from the creatively named  All stats used are courtesy of statsheet or ESPN.

 1 Louisville vs 16 NC A&T/Liberty- Louisville went 14-4 in the ultra competitive Big East en route to the conference tourney title.  Out of conference, they demolished Missouri, beat Memphis by nine, and took down Kentucky when the Wildcats had Nerlens Noel.  Their only non-conference loss was to Duke by 5.  And by the way, they're the #1 overall seed in the whole damn tournament.  On the opposite edge of the spectrum, you've got an all-out dogfight for the Midwest 16 seed.  The Aggies finished 6th in the helpless MEAC.  They have no good wins.  They have no decent wins.  In fact, what makes their resume stand-out is that they were courageous enough to schedule a game vs Cincinnati!  They lost 93-39.  They also scheduled a game vs Big 12 at-large Iowa State (lost by 29).  Honestly, when you're the 4th best team whose name starts with "North Carolina" you can officially close the book on tourney hopes.2  The Liberty Flames are even more of a sob story.  Their best win?  Big South championship game against conference powerhouse Charleston-Southern.  Their best loss?  A non double-digit point loss to Georgetown.  You tell me, which feat is more admirably?  If you pick Liberty to make the Round of 32, you're either a classic jokester, a Liberty student or an uninformed bracketeer who just thought 'well, I'm an advocate of freedom so let's go with Liberty.'  I refuse to give you a verdict for this game.  You decide.3

8 Colorado State vs 9 Missouri-

Colorado State- As I alluded to earlier, this squad can handle itself on the boards and they do not turn the ball over often.  These two attributes are very important in a single elimination tourney.  Yes, it is a bit troubling than CSU compiled a 3-7 record against tourney teams and only played 1 game vs a "Power 6" squad, a 9 point loss in Boulder to the Colorado Buffaloes.  In this matchup, I expect the Rams to control the pace and control the boards.  If they can contain Phil Pressey and the dynamite Mizzou offensive attack while making sure not to give up second chance opportunities, they will be in good shape.  

Missouri- Oh, Missouri.  The Tigers and I go way back to last March when I selected them to win the tourney, only to see them lose in the first round to a 15 seed.  They ripped my heart out, threw it on the floor, danced on it, ball-room danced on it, then gave it back to me after they made a late comeback.  A few possessions later, we went through the whole "ripping my heart out charade" again as the Tigers could not defend the Spartans (and we're not talking about Michigan State here).  This season, Missouri started off hot with a 10-1 record including victories against VCU and the then 10th ranked Fighting Illini.  Surprisingly, Mizzou was unable to dominate the SEC as they incurred losses to 4 non tourney squads (LSU, Texas A & M, Arkansas, Tennessee).  I watched the end of the game vs Arkansas.  The Tigers were up by 4 with 29 seconds to go until Razorback star B.J Young went the length of the court himself, putting in a layup while drawing a foul.  Following a Pressey turnover, B.J Young went down the court AGAIN, in what looked like a replay of the last possession, put up a layup and drew the foul.  Arkansas won by 2.  Sometimes, you have to judge by the "eye test" and boy did Missouri look like a team without any heart or drive.  Basketball wise, you never know who will show up.  Laurence Bowers and Jabari Brown could be knocking down threes, or Pressey could be turning the ball over every other possession as he gave the rock up 3.6 times per game this year (14th worst in the country).    

Verdict: I'm edging on the side of caution here and picking Colorado State.  You should, too.  

5 Oklahoma State vs 12 Oregon- See "Best Matchup" above for a look into my favorite first round tilt of this region.

4 Saint Louis vs 13 New Mexico State-

Saint Louis- The Billikens have only lost once since their January 19th home overtime loss against Rhode Island (an overtime loss @ Xavier).  Coming off a season in which they beat Memphis as a 9 seed and then almost took down goliath #1 seed Michigan State, the Billikens wanted to prove 2012 was not a fluke.  And man have they done that going 13-3 in the underrated A-10 Conference.  Critics will say that Saint Louis hasn't beaten any quality teams but the facts prove this to be a fallacy.  They beat VCU (a #5 seed) twice and Butler (a #6 seed) a whopping three times.  Saint Louis plays like Wisconsin.  They run a deliberate half-court offense, do not turn the ball over, and are excellent on defense.  As we've seen, this style of play is a recipe for success in winning early-round tourney matchups/avoiding big upsets.  

New Mexico State- The Aggies went 14-4 in the WAC; their best win came against the Denver Pioneers AKA the team everyone expected to win the WAC tournament and shock a #4 or #5 in the Big Dance.  New Mexico State is no Denver, though.  They turn the ball over often and are abysmal from the 3 point line.  Essentially, the only draw here is that the Aggies sport the WAC freshman of the year, a 7'5 Center.  With 2.4 blocks per contest, Sim Bhullar will be a fun cat to watch.  He also weighs a portly 355 pounds.  

Verdict: Don't overthink this one, folks.  Saint Louis is a much better squad and I expect them to win by 20+.  They will come out quick, control the pace, take an early lead and never look back.  Final Score: Saint Louis 73, New Mexico State 47

6 Memphis vs 11 Middle Tennessee State/11 St. Mary's-

Memphis- Scraping by Southern Miss by the skin of their teeth, Memphis won the Conference USA tourney finishing off their season undefeated in conference play.  However, the Tigers went 0-2 against the top 25 and their best wins were their 3 victories against Southern Miss as well as a 5 point win at Tennessee.  The only team in the Big Dance that Memphis beat was Harvard so it must be stated that Memphis is totally unproven against elite competition.  In fact, since Calipari departed, Memphis has not won an NCAA tournament game.  This team runs a fast pace offense, scoring 75.8 ppg, led by Junior guard and Memphis native Joe Jackson.  Saying that picking Memphis to make a deep run in the tournament is risky is an understatement.  

Middle Tennessee State- The Blue Raiders made their way into the Last Four In because they did not slip up and lose many games to inferior teams (19-1 in the Sun Belt).  However, Middle Tennessee needed an At-Large bid because they couldn't take care of business in their conference tournament; they lost to Florida International in the semi's.  I wish they would have taken care of business because wouldn't you rather UVa in the tournament over Western Kentucky?4  Anyway, the Blue Raiders got trounched by Florida and Belmont and lost to Akron in OT (all tourney teams).  Their only impressive win came against Ole-Miss.5  I really think this team is unproven.  Buyer Beware.  

St. Mary's- I'm sorry but the Gaels resume is utterly unimpressive for an 11 seed.  No, I did not see them play more than 1 game this year (One of the Gonzaga games).  I do not care that they are 31st (actually tied with Middle Tennessee) in RPI.  Like the Blue Raiders, the Gaels only have 1 quality victory, which came at the hands of Creighton.  In their only game against a "Power 6" squad, the Gaels lost to Georgia Tech by nine.  Georgia Tech went 6-12 in the ACC.  I'm sorry but I'm not buying St. Mary's as a Cinderella Candidate.  I'll be surprised if they beat Middle Tennessee tonight to be quite honest.  

Verdict: I'm not a big fan of any of these teams, but I'm going to go with Memphis.  They beat Southern Miss three times!!  In all seriousness, Memphis will bring their athleticism to the table and win a close call over one of these 11 seeds.  The Tigers are 4th in the country in blocks per game.  

3 Michigan State vs 14 Valparaiso- 

Michigan State- Tom Izzo.  Dude just wins tourney games.  Sparty plays a typical Big 10 game; they slow the pace, are deliberate on offense, and rebound efficiently.  They are prone to being careless with the ball, though, as they are around the middle of pick country-wide in this stat.  In this regard, the Spartans are atypical of a Tom Izzo led team.  State is a truly balanced squad as they sport 5 men who average at least 9.4 ppg.  If Keith Appling and Gary Harris are on their game, this team is tough to handle.  Appling may want to leave the 3 point shooting up to Harris and big man Adreian Payne, however, as they shoot 41.3 % and 45.5 %, respectively from three (Payne only has 33 attempts).  Appling shoots 31.1 % from downtown.  

Valparaiso- The team from suburban Indiana was given a nice draw close to home in the Midwest region (Regionals played in Indianapolis).  It's too bad Valpo won't get past the first round.  The Crusaders have only played two elite teams (Saint Louis, New Mexico) and they lost to both, only by 13 in each contest though.  The best thing this squad has going for them is that are very efficient with their shots.  Valpo sports a 48.9 FG % which is good for 6th in the nation.  If Senior Ryan Broekhoff can get hot, who knows.  He shoots a robust 43.2 % from beyond the arc.

Verdict: If you go with Valparaiso, I salute you.  You are getting yourself into an exciting first 4 minutes of the game.  If you go with Michigan State, you are copying me.  I like the Spartans.

7 Creighton vs 10 Cincinnati-

Creighton- The Bluejays are led by Mr. McDermott, their coach, as well as Mr. McDermott, their offensive machine.  Doug leads Creighton with 23.1 ppg and 7.5 rpg.  He also is an incredibly efficient scorer shooting 86 % from the charity stripe, 56 % from the field and 49.7 % from long range.  Clearly, he's not one of those typical coaches' sons who takes approximately 36 shots per game but only makes 5 of them.  He actually is the best player on this squad and it's not even close.  Creighton is fairly proven this season having beaten Wisconsin, Arizona State and Cal.  In conference, they took 2/3 from MVC rival Wichita State.  Their philosophy? Only take good shots.  The Bluejays are 25th in scoring while boasting the #1 FG % in D1.  They are 2nd only to Columbia in True Shooting Percentage.  

Cincinnati- The Bearcats are a supremely athletic squad.  They are fast, strong and tough on the boards (7th most rebounds per game in the country).  Playing in the loaded Big East, they are also familiar with the need to strategize to stop one monster offensive threat (Otto Porter and Russ Smith come to mind). Cincinnati leads on offense with a three headed monster in Sean Kilpatrick, Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker.  On the defensive end, they sport three bangers in the 6'7 Titus Rubles, 6'8 Justin Jackson and the 6'10 Cheikh Mbodj from Senegal.  What's troubling about the Bearcats is that they have not been sharp lately (5-7 in their last 12 games).  

Verdict: I have a very strong opinion on this game.  I'm picking Cincinnati.  Because of Cincinnati's rebounding ability, Creighton will not have many second chance opportunities.  And because Cincinnati plays excellent interior defense (5th in blocks per game in the nation), Creighton will be forced to hit a ton of threes, which I must admit they are very capable of (1st in the nation in 3 point %).  If they start missing, however, the Bearcats could claw out some big runs.  Although Cincinnati doesn't shoot well, they get a ton of second chance opportunities.  Expect tons of tip-ins and second chance layups against Creighton's mediocre defense.  
    This game reminds me of South Florida (12) vs Temple (5) last year.  South Florida had a very athletic and physical squad that shot poorly.  Temple had an uptempo, high scoring offense.  The Bulls beat Temple by 14 holding the Owls to 44 points.  

2 Duke vs 15 Albany- 

Duke- Just take a look at Duke's schedule.  Coach K doesn't schedule those classic cup-cake schedules for big D1 programs.  You know, the ones where the powerhouse invites 15 straight atrocious teams into their building only to win by 20+ every night.  Coach K is of higher class than that.  Duke beat Kentucky (with Noel), Minnesota, VCU, Ohio State, Louisville, Temple and Davidson BEFORE starting their grueling ACC road.  With Ryan Kelly, the Blue Devils have one loss.  It happened against Maryland in the ACC tourney last week and it seems like that's all anyone remembers.  Duke shoots the lights out (4th in 3 point % nationwide) and when a Blue Devil misfires, Mason Plumblee is usually under the rim cleaning up the mess.  The Dukies have an extremely tough road ahead, but I would not be surprised to find them in Atlanta come Final 4 weekend.  

Albany- The Great Danes shocked many in defeating Vermont to capture the American East conference crown.  This team went 9-7 in the conference and... wait... I just caught myself about to go into analysis of Albany.  May I repeat, they went 9-7 in the awful American East Conference (just saying, the BU Terriers would have made noise in the conference tourney if they were not unfairlyruled ineligible to participate).  To everyone who remembers the upset pulled off by the Lehigh Mountain Hawks, let me tell you, Albany is no threat to Duke.

Verdict:  The Great Danes better be blastin' the SUNY motto in their headphones to get pumped up for this one.  Unfortunately for the boys from New York's capital, I'm forecasting a blowout.  The institution of Duke University will not tolerate another 2 seed first round meltdown.  Duke wins 86-40.  
2In case you were wondering, UNC (Chapel Hill), NC State and North Carolina Central (finished 2nd in the MEAC but inexplicably lost to A & t to end their season) round out the top  three.  

3I decided to break format on this game because these lowly 16 seeds do not deserve the common courtesy of having their own section.

4Unless you're a die-hard Hilltopper.  In that case, down with the Jayhawks!

5Is anybody not wondering how Marshall Henderson took this loss (first Mississippi loss of the season).  My three guesses to how he may have reacted:
1) He attempted to capture and domesticate a baby panda
2) He committed arson somewhere in rural Tennessee (he just seems like a let-me-light-something-on-fire sort of fellow)
3) He quit the team on the spot only to begin begging for his slot back three minutes later in a wave of tears

6According to BU Today, the Terriers were not eligible to participate solely because they are leaving for the Patriot League next year.  This makes as much sense as pizza without cheese.  Wasn't the Big East Tournament Championship game just played by two teams that are bolting for the ACC next year (Louisville and Syracuse).  Such a petty move by the American East.  

Round of 32

1 Louisville vs 8 Colorado State-

   Don't be shocked if the Rams give the Cardinals some trouble.  I'm buying a low-scoring, defense driven affair that stays relatively close until the last 8 minutes or so.  Louisville's pressure defense will be something CSU is not used to.  Additionally, if the Cardinals go up at any point, it will be hard for the Rams to get back as they are terrible from 3 point land (33.2 %).  Colorado State has depth but do they have the lock-down defenders needed to contain Peyton Siva and stop Russ Smith in crunch-time?  I say no.  

Final Score: Louisville 66, Colorado State 51  

12 Oregon vs 4 Saint Louis- 

  Oregon is turnover prone.  St. Louis holds the ball and doesn't let go.  When it comes down to it, I just believe that this 2013 Saint Louis team is special.  I do believe Oregon will give them a run for their money, but I'm picking the Billikens.  

Final Score: Saint Louis 57, Oregon 49

6 Memphis vs 3 Michigan State-

    As I stated earlier, I'm not a big fan of this Memphis squad.  I can't see how anyone can pick against the Spartans in this matchup.  State went 13-5 in the best conference in college basketball while posting a 25-8 total record.  Of those 8 losses, literally NONE of them were "bad losses" unless you count losing to Minnesota (#9 at the time) or Connecticut (#23 at the time) as a bad loss.  In terms of quality victories, State beat Wisconsin twice as well as Kansas, Michigan and Ohio State.  I do think it will be close, but I am not thinking twice about this one.  Some 6 v 3 matchups are hard to predict; this decision is as easy as a plump 5th grader's decision to eat glue or not.  It's a no-brainer.  

Final Score: Michigan State 63, Memphis 58

10 Cincinnati vs 2 Duke-

   Duke shoots 73.2 % from the line; Cincinnati shoots a less-than-stellar 64.9 %.  These stats matter especially in a do-or-die type setting.  I really can't see Cincinnati posing any kind of threat to Duke.  Yes, the Bearcats can defend and rebound but Duke employs such a lethal offense that gets everyone involved.  Expect a lot of fast-break buckets for the Blue Devils in this affair as Cincinnati's misses will allow the Dukies to run on offense.  That means Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly will be open for kick-out 3's.  If they are on, this game could be a blowout.  

Final Score: Duke 83, Cincinnati 55

Sweet 16

1 Louisville vs 4 Saint Louis

   Here comes my big call of the Midwest region.  Saint Louis knockin' off the Cardinals.  I don't think the press will be that effective against the polished offense of the Billikens.  I could throw stats out all day but this one is a gut call.  EVERYONE'S on the Cardinals.  Give me Saint Louis in a tight, down to the wire spectacle.  

Final Score: Saint Louis 61, Louisville 59

3 Michigan State vs 2 Duke

   State against Duke is an awesome matchup.  It's a travesty that I'm writing about a hypothetical Sweet 16 affair rather than a hypothetical Final 4 extravaganza.  Izzo and Coach K will battle but I like Duke to pull away with superior three point shooting.  In crunch time, Duke can feel confident fouling several State players (Keith Appling- 74.5 %, Gary Harris 75.6 %, Derrick Nix- 72.4 %, and Branden Dawson- 53.9 %).  If Duke double teams Adreian Payne (83.2 %), State will be sending a spotty free throw shooter to the line every time.  On the contrary, Michigan State will be fouling the likes of the four shooters I mentioned above in my Cincinnati/Duke blurb.  All four of them (Sulaimon, Cook, Curry and Kelly for those of you who would rather not scroll up) shoot upwards of 80 % from the line.  Furthermore, I doubt that the aforementioned Payne will be able to out rebound Plumblee down low.  Izzo falls to 1-7 all time vs Coach K.  

Final Score: Duke 74, Michigan State 67

Elite Eight

4 Saint Louis vs 2 Duke

And Your Midwest Region Victor/Final Four Contender- Saint Louis Billikens

   The late Rick Majerus built this team; he is the brains behind the Billikens' transformation into a top-tier D1 hoops program.  His guys will be playing their hearts out the whole tourney, and in the elite eight, I think they elevate their game up a notch to beat Duke.  It also helps that Saint Louis matches up well against Duke.  The Blue Devils often live and die by the three and Saint Louis is an excellent defensive squad (17th best in opponents ppg).  In this affair, I expect Duke's 3 point shooting magic to fade as the Billikens force them into myriad bad shot selections.  To quote Jimmy V, "Don't give up; Don't ever give up."  This will be the motto of the 2013 Saint Louis Billikens.

Final Score: Saint Louis 59, Duke 56

Round of 64

March 21-22

Round of 32

March 23-24

Reg. Semis

March 28-29

Reg. Finals

March 30-31

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