Can anyone stop Louisville? The Cardinals (31-5) only bolstered their status as pre-tourney favorites with a pair of blowout victories against North Carolina A&T (79-48) and Colorado State (82-56) in their first two games, running their overall winning streak to 12. As is often the case, Louisville's suffocating press overwhelmed their opponents, as it notched a combined 47 opposing turnovers. Cardinals star Russ Smith posted a tournament-record eight steals in the first game, followed by a 27-point night against Colorado State. Pitino described his team's latter performance as "the best we've played so far at both ends of the floor," but not before stating "We can play much better." That's a scary proposition for future opponents. On the other hand, those opponents will be much more dangerous than the previous two.
Despite landing the tournament's top overall seed, Louisville arguably drew the toughest region of any No. 1 on Selection Sunday, and that appears even more so today. First up is deceiving 12th seed Oregon (28-8), which just got done handing fifth seed Oklahoma State (68-55) and fourth seed Saint Louis (74-57) their worst defeats of the season. Should the Cardinals reach the Elite Eight, they'll face either second seed Duke (29-5) or Michigan State (27-8), the No. 6 and 9 teams in the final regular-season AP poll. Each may have its own Louisville antidote. The Blue Devils rank fourth nationally in committed turnovers (15.7 percent of possessions). The Spartans have a penchant for locking down opposing three-point shooters (29.8 percent). But it may not matter if Louisville continues to play defense to the suffocating extent it has in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
Oregon. The Ducks are hardly Cinderellas -- this is a team that led the Pac-12 standings until the final weekend of the season and won the conference tournament. Neither of their opening weekend wins felt like big upsets -- but beating Louisville certainly would. Coach Dana Altman's team is lean and athletic, with a pair of terrific point guards, junior Johnathan Loyd and freshman Dominique Artis; a rebounding machine in senior Arsalan Kazemi (averaging 16.5 in two tournament games) and a bevy of wing players -- E.J. Singler, Carlos Emory, Damyean Dotson -- any of whom can be their top scorer on a given night.
Oregon is plenty athletic, but it's young and has no individual talent on the level of Louisville's Smith, Peyton Siva or Gorgui Dieng. "I've never played against a press like theirs," Loyd told the Oregonian. "But I love the challenge."
Which coach will win the battle of wits? Talk about a star-studded regional for coaches. Between Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Louisville's Pitino, there are 23 combined Final Fours and six national titles between them. Oregon's Altman has not yet reached that milestone, but he reached the NCAA seven times at mid-major Creighton and is making his first run in three seasons in Eugene.
Izzo, in particular, is renowned for his in-tournament game-planning, as evidenced by his staggering 18-3 record in second games at a tourney site. But Altman is quietly developing a similar reputation. For last Saturday's Saint Louis game, Altman employed a zone defense much more than usual and it flustered the Billikens into an uncharacteristic 3-of-21 shooting day from the perimeter. It will be interesting to see what wrinkles Izzo and Altman have in store for their favored opponents.
Seth Curry. As a fifth-year senior, Curry has developed into an elite shooter (hitting 43.6 percent from three) and bona fide night-in, night-out scoring threat, averaging 17.3 points per game. And he's done so despite playing with a lingering shin injury. He scored 26 in the Blue Devils' Round of 64 rout of 15th seed Albany and 17 against Creighton. While he shot just 5-of-15 in Sunday's win, his key three-pointer with 6:43 remaining helped turn back a brief Bluejays surge and reclaim control the rest of the second half. "He's been absolutely incredible," said Krzyzewski.
Duke vs. Michigan State. Two of the sport's most prestigious programs meet for a third time in the NCAAs under their current coaches, having split the previous two meetings. It's a fascinating matchup, in part because of the anticipated duel down low. Duke's 6-foot-11 All-American Mason Plumlee (17.4 points, 10.2 rebounds) and 6-11 standout Ryan Kelly (14.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 46.7 percent three-pointers) complement each other in much the same fashion as the Spartans' tandem of brawny 6-9, 270-pound Derrick Nix (10.0 points , 6.5 rebounds) and versatile 6-10 Adreian Payne (10.4 points. 7.5 rebounds). Izzo's teams are known for their physicality, and on Friday they'll attempt to wear down Plumlee.
For their part, the Spartans can get their points from any number of players, most notably guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris, and it will be interesting to see how Duke defends them. The Blue Devils have done a nice job neutralizing an opponent's primary scorer, as they did Creighton star Doug McDermott, who shot just 4-of-16. They're able to rotate several different players outside, including Kelly. But Michigan State presents a more balanced attack. "We're a hard [team to] scout," said Izzo, "because the head coach doesn't know who to expect it from all the time, so I don't know why the opponent would."
Team With the Most At Stake
Louisville. With five of the top seven players returning from last year's Final Four team and the valuable addition of George Mason transfer Luke Hancock, Louisville was pegged as a preseason national title contender, second only to Indiana, and after brushing off some rough patches, matched if not exceeded those initial expectations by season's end. Pitino has had some excellent teams at Louisville, but this is the closest he's come to replicating some of his elite teams at Kentucky. While Louisville, Duke or Michigan State could each be seen as viable title contenders, Pitino's team has been dubbed something special from the time last season ended. Anything short of the Final Four would be viewed as a disappointment.
Number to Ponder
76-71. Should Louisville and Duke advance to the Elite Eight, that was the score of their first meeting, a Blue Devils victory in the Bahamas on Nov. 24. That seems like three years ago at this point, but it's worth noting that Duke handled the Cardinals' defense effectively, making 54.3 percent of their two-point shots.
Louisville. The Cardinals should handle Oregon, and while they will face a steep challenge whoever emerges on the other side, it's hard to pick against them the way they're playing defense right now.