NCAA Regional Reset: Midwest RegionPosted by Walker Carey on March 26th, 2014
Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region correspondent, which begins Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis with Tennessee vs. Michigan followed by Louisville vs. Kentucky. The South Regional Reset and the West Regional Reset published yesterday, and the East Regional Reset will release later today. Make sure to also follow @RTCMWRegion for news and analysis from Indy throughout the week.
New Favorite: #4 Louisville. The new favorite is the old favorite, but after the first four days of Tournament action, determining a favorite was not an easy task. Louisville was pushed to the brink by #13 seed Manhattan in its first game before needing a late flurry Saturday to race by #5 Saint Louis. The Cardinals still appear to be the best team in this region, but they are going to need to be sharper in Indianapolis than they were in Orlando if they want to advance to their third consecutive Final Four. To be sharper, Rick Pitino’s squad is going to need guard Russ Smith to elevate his play. The senior has struggled thus far, shooting just 6-of-19 from the field and committing 13 turnovers over the first two games.
Horse of Darkness: #11 Tennessee. For the third time in the four years of the First Four, a team has won three games to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Tennessee will arrive in Indianapolis after a win over Iowa in Dayton and wins over #6 Massachusetts and #14 Mercer in Raleigh. The Volunteers showed during those three wins that they are a very tenacious defensive team and possess a bruising tandem in the post with forwards Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes. The most amazing part of Tennessee’s run to the second weekend might be that Volunteers head coach Cuonzo Martin had been viewed as someone on the hot seat late in the regular season. There was even a faction of the Volunteers fan base that banded together to try to get the school to fire Martin and hire former coach Bruce Pearl. You have to wonder what those fans are thinking now, as the team is headed to the Sweet Sixteen, now with Martin at the controls.
Biggest Surprise (1st Weekend): #3 Duke. In what has been the biggest upset of the NCAA Tournament thus far, Duke was shocked by #14 Mercer on Friday afternoon in Raleigh. The Blue Devils struggled defensively all season and those issues were exposed by the Bears throughout the game. Mercer finished the game with 78 points and shot a sterling 55.6 percent from the field. It was not only Duke’s defense that struggled in the stunning defeat, though, as star forwards Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood also turned in mostly forgettable performances, with the two stars combining to score only 20 points on 6-of-24 shooting. Many thought Duke’s star power could carry it far into the bracket this season, but for the second time in three years, Mike Krzyzewski’s squad was upset in its first game by a heavy underdog.
Completely Expected (1st Weekend): #2 Michigan. The Wolverines, as expected, took care of business in Milwaukee in their first two games, making quick work of both Wofford and Texas. As expected, Wofford was undermanned and Texas simply did not have the perimeter weapons to compete with Michigan’s renowned perimeter attack. Michigan is now headed back to the Sweet Sixteen for the second straight year.
I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient. I predicted that both #2 Michigan and #4 Louisville were locks to advance to the Sweet Sixteen and that prediction came to fruition as both the Wolverines and Cardinals will play in Indianapolis later this week. Both teams were expected to be in this position, but with all the chaos that took place in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, I feel like I can hang my hat a bit on this one.
Except When I Make Stupid Predictions. Like most of America, I viewed Duke’s loss to Mercer as an absolute stunner. I figured that Duke would get by Mercer with ease and then it would take care of business against Massachusetts in the round of 32 to set up an epic battle with Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen. Instead, Duke was sent packing after one game; Mercer clinched a spot in “One Shining Moment” with its monumental upset; Massachusetts showed everyone that it was grossly overseeded; and Tennessee is packing its bags for Indianapolis.
First Weekend MVP: Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee. Apologies to Cleanthony Early of Wichita State and Julius Randle and Aaron Harrison of Kentucky, but the Tennessee forward is the most deserving of this honor. During the Volunteers’ three wins, the junior averaged 20.3 points and 15.0 rebounds per game. Tennessee’s run to the Sweet Sixteen is unexpected and it obviously could not have been done without such a star performance from Stokes.
Breakout Star: Aaron Harrison, Kentucky. The freshman guard had an inconsistent first regular season in Lexington, but he has been a very important factor in the Wildcats’ run to the Sweet Sixteen. In Kentucky’s round of 32 victory over Kansas State, Harrison was a bright spot in what was a shaky offensive performance from the team, finishing the win with 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting. His hot shooting continued in Sunday’s thrilling victory over #1 Wichita State, as he drained 4-of-7 shots from behind the arc and contributed 19 points to the winning effort. John Calipari has been waiting all season for his young squad to come together and have its play match its talent. Thus far in the NCAA Tournament, Aaron Harrison’s emergence coupled with significant contributions from several of his classmates has Kentucky playing the type of basketball that everyone thought it would before the season began.
More Home Cooking: #4 Louisville, 114 miles from Indianapolis. Louisville has the shortest trip to Indianapolis at just 114 miles, but the trip for Kentucky is also pretty manageable, as Lucas Oil Stadium is just 188 miles from Lexington. This will definitely result in a ton of red and blue in Indianapolis this weekend, as the Battle for the Bluegrass will take center stage in the nightcap of Friday’s regional semifinals. It should also be noted that Indianapolis is just 268 miles from Ann Arbor, so the maize and blue will likely also be well represented at the weekend’s festivities too.
Best Regional Semifinal Game: #4 Louisville vs. #8 Kentucky (Friday, March 28, 9:40 PM EST on CBS). A match-up between two intrastate rivals in the Sweet Sixteen? Yeah, we will take that. The Cardinals and Wildcats will meet Friday in a game that is surely to be discussed ad nauseam this week — and with good reason — the two rivals are also the last two national champions and are a combined 20-1 over the last the last three NCAA Tournaments (the only loss came when Kentucky defeated Louisville in the 2012 Final Four). Friday’s battle will also be a rematch of the December 28 contest in Lexington that the Wildcats won 73-66. Expect a similar, hotly-contest gauntlet of a game in the rematch as state bragging rights and a trip to the Elite Eight are at stake.
Best Regional Final (projected): #2 Michigan vs. #4 Louisville (Sunday, March 30). A rematch of last season’s epic national championship game in the Sweet Sixteen would be a ton of fun. While some faces have changed, many of the same players who played for college basketball’s ultimate crown will be on the floor this weekend in Indianapolis. National championship games are often anticlimactic, but last year’s war between the Wolverines and Cardinals provided as much drama and suspense as any game from that Tournament. If the two teams are to meet again this year with a trip to the Final Four on the line, expect both John Beilein and Rick Pitino to have their teams ready to play with that same high level.
Top Storyline: Louisville vs. Kentucky. The two bitter rivals, which are also the last two national champions, battling for a trip to the Elite Eight is the top storyline of the Midwest Region. Not only does this game have the rivalry angle, it is also a match-up between two of the most talented teams in the country and two of the more scrutinized coaches in the country in Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Kentucky’s John Calipari. This game and this “story” will dominate headlines all week leading up to Friday night’s late tip-off. Usually games like this do not live up the hype, but there is a certain feeling about this one that suggests the hype will be warranted.
Top Storyline for Contrarians: Will Kentucky be able to replicate Sunday’s performance? The Wildcats have been an enigmatic team all season, so it is only appropriate that many pundits will question if the young team will be able to carry their amazing performance from the win over Wichita State over to their match-up with Louisville. It is a legitimate question and one that Kentucky fans should seriously consider leading up to Friday night’s action.
My Pick: Louisville. I took the Cardinals to advance to the Final Four when the NCAA Tournament began, so I have decided to stick with them. I think Kentucky will suffer a bit of a hangover from Sunday’s epic clash with Wichita State and show some of its youth in a close loss to Louisville. The Elite Eight match-up will then be a rematch of last year’s national championship game and Rick Pitino’s squad will once again emerge victorious (probably thanks to several more three-pointers from Luke Hancock) in what will be another instant classic.
Revised Vegas Odds to Win Region: