State of the No. 1: Louisville
To current and former residents of Bloomington, Ind., the selection of Louisville as the tournament's No. 1 overall seed might have come as a mild shock. Indiana had long been considered the likely recipient of the top spot in the Midwest Region, which meant a game in Lexington, Ky. Instead, Louisville ended the season on a tear, winning 10 consecutive games and capturing the final Big East tournament title, while the Hoosiers lost two of their final four and were knocked out in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament. It was enough to vault the Cardinals over the Hoosiers and award them the title of overall favorite.
Even if Indiana hadn't lost a few down the stretch, a case could be made that no team in the country is better equipped to win the national title than Louisville. The Cardinals play suffocating defense (including a press that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim called the best he's seen this year), go nine deep, and are fast, have good size, and feature a special scorer in Russ Smith (17.9 ppg). All five starters played significant roles on last season's Final Four team, and, as if that wasn't enough experience, coach Rick Pitino, winner of one national title, runs the show.
The question often asked with Louisville isn't if they will win by how they will win. Will it be the speed of senior guard Peyton Siva, the school leader in steals and assists, who is deadly in transition? Will it be the inside play of junior center Gorgui Dieng or will it be one of the talented bench players, like freshman Montrezl Harrell, who scored a team-high 20 points in the Big East tournament final? Will Smith just have one of those games, like he did against Villanova to open the Big East tournament, when he scored 28 points on only 12 shots, when everything he heaves seems to fall? Or, will Louisville's press and match-up zone and stifling man-to-man break an opponent's will, as it did so many times this season?
If you want to quibble, the Cardinals are a mediocre three-point shooting team (245th in the country by percentage) and if Siva and Smith can be baited into taking shots from deep rather than attacking the basket, Louisville becomes vulnerable. But Louisville would seem to be too wise to fall into that trap, with a draw that won't likely see them face a team with a similar mix of athleticism and experience until Duke or Michigan State in the Elite Eight, a trip to Atlanta seems more probable than possible.
Bracket Buster: Creighton
To be sure, seventh-seeded Creighton is flawed. There is no "D" in Bluejays, and they are especially bad at creating turnovers (326th nationally), which is often a good indicator of how successful a team will be in the NCAA tournament. That said, Creighton can flat out score, and in Doug McDermott (23.4 ppg) it has one of the nation's best at it, the kind of player who takes over the spotlight the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
But Creighton is far from a one-man team. Center Greg Echenique (9.6 ppg), wing Grant Gibbs (8.5 ppg) and Austin Chatman (7.6) are capable scorers, as is Ethan Wragge, a valuable sharpshooter off the bench. The Bluejays often have four three-point shooters on the floor and they let it fly, living and (occasionally) dying by the trey. Any team with such an array of shooters is dangerous in March.
Last season, Creighton lost in the Round of 32 to North Carolina. If McDermott gets going and the other Bluejays follow suit, don't be surprised if Creighton goes a game or two further this year.
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Suspect Team: Memphis
This category should be renamed after the Tigers, who were bounced after one game in 2011 and 2012 and look shaky again this season. Memphis has talent -- guard Joe Jackson (13.8 ppg) is the fulcrum -- and the Tigers can run, but they are a hard group to judge because of the mediocrity of Conference USA. What is certain is that Memphis is an awful free-throw shooting team and turns the ball over too much, and if history is any indicator, Josh Pastner's group will go down early once again.
Juiciest Matchup: No. 8 Colorado State vs. No. 9 Missouri
Colorado State led the nation in rebounding and Missouri was not far behind. Few teams have a match for 6-foot-10 Rams center Colton Iverson, but Missouri has some candidates, including Alex Oriakhi, with some help from Laurence Bowers. High-scoring guards have victimized Colorado State in the past (New Mexico's Kendall Williams had 46 points against the Rams), and so one might assume Missouri's Phil Pressey could be in for a big game. But Pressey is also the kind of erratic player that a veteran team like Colorado State can make uncomfortable, forcing him into costly mistakes. Many will give the edge to Missouri because it has the bigger name, but the two teams are more evenly matched than it might appear.
Gamebreaker: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
The Big 12 Freshman and Player of the Year, Smart (15.1 ppg) is bigger (6-4) and stronger than most point guards he faces, and he has brains to match his brawn. The Cowboys are most effective when they get him the ball in isolation and let him get to the rim, which he does with lethal efficiency. His penetration helps get backcourt mate Markel Brown (15.6 ppg) good looks, and the rest of the Cowboys feed off Smart's energy. Smart will be in the NBA next year, so enjoy him while you can.
Best Player You've Never Heard Of: Dominic Artis, Oregon
Artis was one of the best playmakers in the country before going down with a foot injury in January. Had he played his full freshman season, he might be as well known as Oklahoma State's Smart. Instead, he is trying to work his way back into form, and the Ducks need him to get there in a hurry. In the Ducks first 19 games, they went 17-2, including wins over UNLV, UCLA and Arizona. But then Artis went down and the Ducks went 5-4. Artis returned and Oregon went on to win the Pac-12 tournament, but Artis played only 13 minutes in the final. He's a special talent who really knows how to run a team, but how much he can give the Ducks is unknown.
The Pressure's On: Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
He is a legend and will remain the Blue Devils coach as long as he wants, but after last season's stunning loss to Lehigh in Duke's opening game, Krzyzewski needs a rebound year. Given the talent Duke has, there is no excuse for failing to advance to at least the second week of the tournament and a potential matchup with Michigan State. There is no shame in losing to the Spartans, but anything sooner and it will be back-to-back disappointments from Coach K.
Number To Ponder: 1
That was the date last December when Rick Majerus, the former St. Louis coach, passed away. He put the current team together, and the players wear a ribbon on their jerseys in his honor. In a grinder like the NCAA tournament, teams who play with the most emotion often advance, and you have to think the fourth-seeded Billikens won't come up short in that department.
The Pick: Louisville
Duke, Michigan State and St. Louis are all capable of defeating Pitino's bunch. But if Louisville is at its best, it won't lose, and from what we saw in the Big East tournament, Pitino has his team primed for a return to the Final Four.