With all due respect to the other 3 regions in this year’s NCAA Tournament, none of them have the intrigue, the storylines, the egos, the panache of the Midwest Region. Or, being the soccer fan that I am—and because 2014 is a World Cup year—as I like to call this region, the “Group of Death”.
Storylines: Where to begin? First, there is the possible second round (third round according to the NCAA but I refuse to recognize the First Four as a legitimate “round” of the tournament) matchup between #1 Wichita State and #8 Kentucky. The easy and lazy (but legitimate) story is the team many expected to go 40-0 this season versus the team that is 6 wins away from actually going 40-0 this season.
Second, the overall power of this region: based on Strength of Schedule, you have the #3 (Kentucky), #5 (Michigan), #6 (Duke) #23 (Tennessee), #26 (Xavier), #28 (Kansas State), #33 (NC State), #37 (Iowa), #38 (UMass) and #43 (Texas) teams in the country. Ten of the 16 teams in this region have Top 50 SOS. Absurd! And we haven’t even mentioned Louisville, though having a SOS of 80, finished the regular season ranked fifth in the country; won its last 16 of 18 games; won the AAC Tournament by an average of 33.3 points; and right now absolutely looks like one of the 3 or 4 best teams in the country.
Third, five current coaches have been to a Final Four in this decade! Mike Krzyzewski (2010); John Calipari (2011, 2012); Rick Pitino (2012, 2013); Gregg Marshall (2013); John Beilein (2013). Three of the last 4 champions are in this region: Duke (2010); Kentucky (2012); and Louisville (2013).
And finally, fourth, all the incredulous matchup possibilities. In addition to a possible Wichita State – Kentucky matchup, there exists the possibility of a Kentucky – Louisville Sweet 16 matchup in Indianapolis; Kentucky – Duke in the Elite 8; Kentucky – Michigan in the Elite 8; Wichita State – Louisville in the Sweet 16; Louisville – Duke in the Elite 8; Louisville – Michigan in the Elite 8. Amazingly, Louisville could face its Final Four and Championship Game opponents in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8, respectively. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the first round matchup between Louisville and Manhattan!
Players to Watch: Cleanthony Early, Wichita State; Julius Randle, James Young, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Kentucky; Dwayne Evans, St Louis; Russ Smith, Montrezl Harrell, Luke Hancock, Louisville; Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron White, Iowa; Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee; Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Quinn Cook, Duke; Jahii Carson, Arizona State; Nick Stauskas, Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III, Michigan
Four Teams in Indianapolis: Kentucky, Louisville, Duke, Michigan
Team That Could Crash the Party: St. Louis. The Billikens limped into the NCAA tournament, losing their last 4 of 5. But before their late season trouble, St Louis was 25-2, with losses to Wisconsin and Wichita State. If they can find their mojo, the Billikens could be one of the last 4 standing.
Group of Death Survivor: Louisville. It pains me to write that. It hurts me to my very core. I want nothing more than to type “Kentucky” but I can’t. While the Wildcats play in the SEC Tournament was encouraging, it’s hard to ignore everything else that’s happened this season. Louisville seems to be peaking at the right time. Yes, they had had a schedule that was downright pitiful, especially in November and December before conference play started. But since February, they’re 12-1 with 4 wins over Top 25 teams (Cincinnati, SMU, and UConn twice).
Please Kentucky, prove me wrong. I ask for nothing more.