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MIDWEST REGION SWEET 16 PREVIEW
The Midwest Region is one of two regions in this year's NCAA Tournament to have its top three seeds advance to the Sweet 16. No. 1 seed Louisville, No. 2 seed Duke and No. 3 seed Michigan State had little trouble advancing, and Friday night's matchup between Duke and Michigan State will pit two of the most successful programs in college basketball over the last quarter century. There is a Cinderella in the region as well, as No. 12 seed Oregon easily dismissed Oklahoma State and Saint Louis in the first two rounds to further confirm the lack of respect the tournament committee gave the Ducks. The headliners in this region are still the coaches, with Rick Pitino, Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo and Dana Altman leading these teams into the Sweet 16.
No. 1 Louisville vs. No. 12 Oregon
Key Matchup: Louisville's Peyton Siva vs. Oregon's Dominic Artis. Siva has not scored at a high level to this point in the tournament, averaging just eight points per game, but he has averaged 6.5 assists per game and has just five turnovers through two games. The diminutive Artis had 13 points in the Ducks' win over Oklahoma State, and his defensive effort helped keep Cowboys guard Marcus Smart in check throughout that game. Don't look for a huge scoring total from either of these guys, but the point guard that is most effective and efficient on both ends of the floor could prove the difference in the game.
Louisville will Win IF: Chane Behanan makes an appearance offensively. The sophomore forward has now gone eight consecutive games without scoring in double figures and has not attempted more than five shots from the floor in seven of those contests. Apart from that, the Cardinals need to maintain the defensive intensity they've shown recently, allowing more than 60 points just once in their last nine games, in an effort to rattle the Ducks and force players who are not accustomed to handling the ball do so. Louisville also has a decided advantage in experience, which starts to become more important at this stage of the NCAA Tournament.
Oregon will Win IF: it continues to make shots at the clip it has thus far in the tournament. In beating Oklahoma State and Saint Louis, the Ducks made more than 48 percent of their 3-pointers, including 8-of-11 from beyond the arc against Saint Louis. Oregon has three capable ball-handlers in Artis, Damyean Dotson and Johnathan Lloyd, and its overall roster depth may help it withstand Louisville's defensive pressure and overcome any foul trouble that comes.
Player to Watch: Oregon's Damyean Dotson. Dotson has been a driving force offensively for the Ducks in their two NCAA Tournament wins, averaging 20 points per game (8-for-15 on three-pointers), including a career-high 23 points against Saint Louis. His defensive performance against Russ Smith, Louisville's leading scorer, will also be important to any chance Oregon has to pull an upset.
Prediction: Louisville came into the NCAA Tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country, and to this point there's little reason to think it won't continue to play at a high level. Oregon will be the most talented and deepest team the Cardinals have faced to this point in the tournament, but a swarming defense, opportunistic offense and a roster filled with experience should be more than enough to put the Cardinals in the Elite Eight.
No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Duke
Key Matchup: Michigan State's Derrick Nix vs. Duke's Mason Plumlee. The frontcourt battle in general will be one to watch. Nix has been a bit up-and-down all season, but he is averaging 18 points and 11.5 rebounds through two tournament games and will be hard for Plumlee to handle around the basket if he remains engaged and productive. If Plumlee is hampered by foul trouble the way he was against Creighton in the third round, the Blue Devils will be at a distinct disadvantage if they have to go without their top scorer and rebounder against a more talented Spartans squad.
Michigan State will Win IF: Guard Keith Appling is able to play, and play well. The Spartans' leading scorer and assist man (13.3 points per game; 3.4 assists per game) suffered separate left-knee and right-shoulder injuries against Memphis in the third round. Coach Tom Izzo said Appling should be fine to play Friday night, and with an entire week to get healthy it's hard to think the junior guard will not be ready to go for such a big game. Nix and frontcourt mate Adreian Payne need to win their individual matchups against Plumlee and forward Ryan Kelly, and winning the rebounding and scoring margin in those two matchups collectively will be vital to a win for Michigan State.
Duke will Win IF: Plumlee and Kelly stay out of foul trouble. Both were limited by foul issues against Creighton, and that will not stand against the Spartans' big men if the Blue Devils want to stay competitive in this game. Winning individual matchups in the backcourt, particularly Seth Curry against Appling (if he is 100 percent or not) is also critical for Duke.
Player to Watch: Michigan State's Gary Harris. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year had 23 points against Memphis in the third round, and he is Michigan State's second-leading scorer (13.1 points per game). If Appling is out or limited Friday night, more of the backcourt scoring and ball-handling burden would presumably fall to Harris, and in a high-pressure game he'll have to be up to the task. Harris' performance on both ends of the floor could be a leading indicator for how Friday night's game turns out, for better or worse depending on what team you root for.
Prediction: The backcourt talent for the Spartans and Blue Devils is basically equal, assuming Appling plays and is on floor his normal amount. Where Michigan State has an advantage is frontcourt toughness and physicality, and Plumlee and Kelly may have a hard time holding up against Nix and Payne in that area. In what will surely be a highly-contested , Final Four-worthy game and a chess match between two great coaches, expect Michigan State to give the Big Ten at least one team in the Elite Eight.