Louisville started the season with great expectations, but they lost Gorgui Dieng to a wrist injury and then lost to Duke in the final of the “Battle 4 Atlantis.” They won the next 11 games, but weren’t getting the same attention as Indiana and Duke. Then a three-game losing streak had people questioning whether Louisville was going to be an elite team this year. Since then they’ve proved all their doubters wrong by winning 13 of their next 14 games. Louisville won the Big East regular season and conference tournament titles. Their resume contains 10 top 50 RPI wins with all five of their losses are to teams ranked 51 or better in RPI. That’s incredibly impressive.
It all starts with Rick Pitino, arguably the best basketball coach in the land. Not only has he coached his guys up well, but he’s inspired confidence in the backcourt duo of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. Siva, the senior point guard, seems to have been around the program for eight years at this point, not just four. Smith has a lot of “oh no” to his game, but he’s playing his best basketball this season. The Cardinals have plenty of bodies in the frontcourt between Dieng, Chane Behanan, Monrezl Harrell, and Stephan van Treese. The x-factor is Luke Hancock, who has found his shooting stroke late in the season. Their aggressive defensive style is awfully difficult to prepare for in a tournament format. It all creates a recipe for success, which is why I’m picking Louisville to win it all this season.
The rest of the region, however, isn’t a cake walk. Duke’s only lost one game this season with their full complement of players. My biggest issue with Duke is the inconsistency of their guard play and how they allow good perimeter players to score too easily at times. (This was an issue last year in their loss to Lehigh as well.) Still, Duke is up for any challenge and has a loss against Louisville (although without Dieng) to hang their hat on. Michigan State is obviously well coached with Tom Izzo at the helm, but they’ve failed miserably in close-and-late situations this year. Their PG Keith Appling was the one to blame (not anything you want from your PG) in the three back-to-back losses to Indiana, Ohio State, and Michigan. Izzo will need to pull some magic out of his hat.
It doesn’t end there. Saint Louis was very unfortunate to end up in Louisville’s region because they’re an exceptional team who impressed all of us by winning the Atlantic 10 regular season and conference tournament title. They’re a very balanced offensive team who plays sound defense as well. They’re a lock for the second weekend. Memphis has all the talent in the world, but their coaching leaves something to be desired. Colorado State got a bit of the shaft as a #8 seed considering how well they’ve played this year. Missouri was supposed to be a lot better than they were, making them a dangerous #9.
First round upset that will happen: Oregon over Oklahoma State
Oregon’s the best #12 seed you’ll ever see considering they finished second in the Pac-12 regular season and won the conference tournament. The committee really did them a disservice by seeding them that low. They lost four games when their starting PG Dominic Artis was injured and another two while he was rounding himself back into form. Despite not playing that well in recent games, his presence on the floor clearly gives the team more confidence and ability. Oklahoma State is a young team; four of their five leading scorers are sophomores or younger. Four of Oregon’s top six scorers are seniors. Experience wins out over youth in this one.
First round upset that won't happen: Cincinnati over Creighton
I feel sorry for you if you’ve watched Cincinnati play at all over the last two months. You did, however, learn something. Not only did you watch them lose seven of their last 12 games, but you saw their 117th ranked offense (based on efficiency) put on inept display after inept display. They really struggle to score in the half-court and are only doing decently because of their strong defense. Creighton meanwhile is sixth in the country in offensive efficiency and have no problem grinding out baskets in the half-court. This won’t turn into a run-and-gun game anytime soon.
Best Non-Bracket Bets:
Saint Louis (-9) over New Mexico State – A well-coached group who will be all business and leave a less-talented team in the dust.
Louisville to win the national championship (+550) – If you’re a believer like me.
Oregon (+3) over Oklahoma State – As mentioned above, we’re feeling the Ducks and their motivation factor.
Saint Louis to make the Final Four (+800) – They’ll probably lose to Louisville, but it will be close. They can beat whoever they face after that.
Creighton (-3) over Cincinnati – It’s time to do the Dougie.