MIDWEST REGION PREVIEW
The Midwest Region looks like the most difficult region in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. No. 1 seed Louisville is one the hottest teams in the country and the top overall seed in the entire tournament. The stars of the region may well be the coaches, with Lousville's Rick Pitino, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Michigan State's Tom Izzo taking center stage. One of the feel-good stories in the country is also in this region, with No. 4 seed Saint Louis overcoming the death of coach Rick Majerus to win 27 games and take home the Atlantic-10 tournament title. Quite simply, the 2013 national champion may come out of the Midwest Region.
No. 1 Louisville - The Cardinals have won 10 games in a row and 13 of their last 14, the only blemish during that time a five-overtime loss to Notre Dame on Feb. 9. Senior Peyton Siva and junior Russ Smith comprise one of the most experienced backcourts in this year's field, and forwards Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan are key frontcourt pieces. It will not be easy to keep up the late-season momentum, but Louisville could find itself in the Final Four for the second straight year.
No. 2 Duke - The Blue Devils stayed in the conversation for a No. 1 seed all season despite losing forward Ryan Kelly to a foot injury for nearly two months. A disappointing loss to Maryland in the ACC tournament, their first with Kelly in the lineup this season, took them off that trajectory but makes them a dangerous No. 2 seed. The leadership of Duke's seniors - Kelly and fellow forward Mason Plumlee along with guards Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins - will be key to a potential return to the Final Four.
No. 3 Michigan State - Any team led by Izzo is a tough out in March, even though this year's Spartans have lost four of the last seven games. The health of guard Gary Harris, the 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Michigan State's second-leading scorer (12.9 points per game), will be worth watching as he is reportedly dealing with a left shoulder issue. If Harris is out or limited in the early rounds the Spartans may be vulnerable to an upset, but otherwise they have a good chance to make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
No. 4 Saint Louis - The Billikens have lost just once since Jan. 23, and they have not allowed more than 65 points in regulation since Feb. 6. This may be the most emotionally charged, or perhaps emotionally drained, teams in the country after the passing of Majerus in early December, and Jim Crews has to be a top candidate for National Coach of the Year based on what the team has been through. Saint Louis has good scoring balance, with five players averaging at least 9.3 points per game, and its defensive prowess will keep it in games right to the end.
No. 12 Oregon - The Ducks won 26 games and the Pac-12 tournament title to earn their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2008. This was widely considered to be a rebuilding season in coach Dana Altman's third year, but a deep rotation (seven players average at least 22 minutes per game) has helped make up for any lack of experience. Oregon's most experienced player, forward E.J. Singler, is also the leading scorer (11.6 points per game), second-leading rebounder (4.9 per game) and most prolific three-point shooter (35.3 percent). If the Ducks can take down Oklahoma State in the first round, a potential matchup with Saint Louis or New Mexico State makes a run to the Sweet 16 easily attainable for Oregon.
No. 13 New Mexico State - For the second straight year, the Aggies won the WAC tournament to earn an automatic bid, without which they may have been headed to NIT based on a weak schedule with very few notable wins. New Mexico State is in the top 50 in the country in rebounding (46th, 37.6 per game), led by senior forwards Bandja Sy (7.3 per game) and Tyrone Watson (5.1 per game), which stands to give the Aggies an advantage over No. 4 seed Saint Louis in the first round (251st in the country, 32.8 per game) and allow them to stay in the game against potential second-round opponents Oregon and Oklahoma State. The Aggies also have a talented guard in sophomore Daniel Mullings (14.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game), which can serve as an equalizer come tournament time.
No. 4 Saint Louis - While there's something to be said for winning the games you're supposed to, Saint Louis seems to be seeded too high based on its 27 wins. The first-round matchup with No. 13 seed New Mexico State looks like a substantial physical mismatch, which could be enough to make the Billikens vulnerable to an upset if they struggle to make perimeter shots and set their defense. Saint Louis is one team everyone will be rooting for, but a one-and-done NCAA Tournament showing is just as likely as an Elite Eight run.
No. 12 Oregon vs. No. 5 Oklahoma State - The Ducks shook off a couple of dismal road losses (Utah, Colorado) to win the Pac-12 tournament, and guard Damyean Dotson stepped his game during that run, averaging 14.7 points per game while making more than 44 percent of his field goals and over half his three-pointers (8-for-15 ) in three games. Oregon seems to match up well with Oklahoma State all over the floor and both teams have similarly deep benches. Cowboys guard and leading scorer (15.4 points per game) Marcus Smart has made less than 37 percent of his shots from the floor in three of his last four games, and if those struggles continue, the Ducks could waddle right into the second round.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Phil Pressey, guard, Missouri - The Tigers are one of the hardest teams to gauge in this year's tournament, and their success is often predicated on Pressey's performance. His ups and downs have mirrored the team's, highlighted by 10 turnovers in a 31-point loss to Florida and a 19-point, 19-assist game in a close loss to UCLA during non-conference play. Missouri should be higher than a No. 9 seed based on its talent and depth, but the difference between a possible deep tournament run or a first-round loss to Colorado State will rest firmly on Pressey's shoulders.
SWEET 16 PICKS
No. 1 Louisville - Talent, experience and coaching are all difference-making attributes this time of the year. The Cardinals have all three in abundance.
No. 2 Duke - Duke lost in the first round as a No. 2 seed in 2012. Don't bet on that happening again this year.
No. 3 Michigan State - Harris' health will be an important factor, but the Spartans should be able to get by on their trademarks - grit and effort on both ends of the floor.
No. 12 Oregon - The Ducks were underrated by the tournament committee, and if it wins in the first round against Oklahoma State the draw sets up well for Ducks.
FINAL FOUR PICK
No. 1 Louisville - The Cardinals are a rare good team with juniors and seniors in prominent positions, as they have largely been immune to "one and done" players. Having one of the top backcourts in the country is a big reason for their success, and leading-scorer Russ Smith (18.1 points per game) in particular will have to perform well in the tournament. Getting back to the Final Four won't be easy, but not many teams in the country are playing as well as Louisville.