Midwest Regional Preview: Odd Ducks and three big-time programs
No regional has three teams as good as Louisville, Duke and Michigan State. So nothing is a given here. But the Cardinals have to be considered the favorites.
The biggest story: A reasonable man could've argued late in the regular season that the nation's two best teams were Louisville and Duke, and each is still alive in this regional. Rick Pitino's Cardinals are the 1 seed. Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils are the 2 seed. Both are favored Friday, meaning we could be headed for a Sunday rematch of the Battle 4 Atlantis title game played back in November down in the Bahamas. Duke won that game, of course, thanks to a balanced attack that featured all five starters, including Mason Plumlee scoring at least 13 points. But it's important to remember that Louisville center Gorgui Dieng was not available then. He is now. So this should be fun, provided Oregon and Michigan State don't screw it up, which is certainly possible. Louisville is a sizable favorite over Oregon. But Duke-Michigan State projects as a one-possession game.
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The best possible game: The Duke-Michigan State regional semifinal should be great, and Louisville against either on Sunday would be must-see TV. But if asked to pick one, I'll go with Louisville-Duke. It's Pitino vs. Krzyzewski. It's Dieng vs. Plumlee. It's terrific to think about, would be fun to watch and probably come down to the final minutes (as long as Quinn Cook could handle Louisville's pressure).
The three best players remaining
- Russ Smith (Louisville): The junior guard got 23 points in the Field of 68 opener against North Carolina A&T, 27 in the Round of 32 against Colorado State. He's averaging 18.2 points per game on the season. That's tops on the team.
- Mason Plumlee (Duke): The senior big was a National Player of the Year favorite early who slipped some with Ryan Kelly was injured. But he's still averaging 17.2 points and 10.0 rebounds for a team that ranks fifth nationally in offensive efficiency.
- Adreian Payne (Michigan State): The junior forward isn't consistently Michigan State's best player, but when he's on nobody on the roster is better. Payne is averaging 10.4 points and 7.5 rebounds. He got 14 points and 10 rebounds in the Round of 32 win over Memphis.
Ranking the remaining four teams
- Michigan State
Louisville will get to Atlanta because ... the Cardinals are the nation's best team, period. And they're also playing like it, which is crucial. The defense is overwhelming and the nation's most efficient. The offense is good enough, ranked 10th nationally. Louisville has talent, depth, experience and a Hall of Fame coach. Simply put, the Cards check every box. That's why they'll punch their ticket to the Final Four on Sunday.
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