Let’s see: Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo, Coach K, Marcus Smart, Doug McDermott, and — oh, yeah — a 7-foot-5 dude from Canada. When you break down the Midwest region, geez, what’s not to love?
Like name-dropping? The coaches of the top three seeds in the region, Louisville, Duke and Michigan State, have combined for 23 Final Fours and six national championships. McDermott, the engine for No. 7 seed Creighton, has drawn comparisons to Larry Bird, another one-time Missouri Valley Conference legend. Oklahoma State, the 5 seed, rides the broad shoulders of freshman point guard Smart, another future pro.
Like depth? The double-digit-seed club swings a big stick, too. No. 14 Valparaiso is synonymous with bracket-wrecking; No. 15 Albany has a history of being a feisty out. And the 13th-seeded New Mexico State Aggies, of course, have the biggest darkhorse of all: center Sim Bhullar, a 7-5, 355-pound freshman from Toronto who drew headlines with the Canadian FIBA Under-19 national team. The New York Times in 2011 feted him as “poised to become the world’s first prominent men’s basketball player of Indian descent.” And there’s talk that Bhullar, whose parents hail from India, could be a gateway for that cricket-loving nation to get into hoops the way China did when Yao Ming first hit these shores.
Like drama? Cincinnati-Creighton and Oklahoma State-Oregon look, on paper, to be the toss-ups to end all toss-ups. As the curtain lifts, all signs point to Pitino’s Cardinals being the last ones standing once the smoke finally clears in Indianapolis. But this thing has the potential to give us about six levels of crazy first.
Best second-round matchup: Creighton vs. Cincinnati. The Jays like to strike quickly, and from long range. The Bearcats prefer to bludgeon you into submission, swing by swing. It’s the perfect storm of contrasts: According to stats guru Ken Pomeroy, Creighton ranks sixth nationally in offensive efficiency, while Cincinnati ranks 15th in defensive efficiency. The Jays went down to the wire in a one-point win over Alabama in last year’s Dance, and Friday in Philly could offer up the same kind of finish.
Early upset: No. 13 seed New Mexico State over No. 4 seed Saint Louis. Absurd, sure, but what the heck? This season’s had the market cornered on absurd. The Billikens are tougher than five-day-old bread, but they’re not especially, well, big. SLU features four players on its roster that are 6-7 or taller. The Aggies have seven, including mighty Bhullar (10.2 points per game). And New Mexico State ranks 21st nationally in rebounding margin, at +6.4 per game.
Cinderella story: Oregon. Slotting the Ducks as a 12 seed is laughable, of course, but it does make for an interesting pod. The Quack Attack boasts four RPI top-50 victories, including two at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. Dana Altman’s Bracketville history is a mixed bag, sure — but Gang Green was handed a potentially upset-friendly path to Indianapolis.
Best player: Marcus Smart, 6-4, freshman, guard, Oklahoma State. One of the country’s best on-ball defenders (second in steals per game with 2.9), the Cowboys’ star has a linebacker’s body (225 pounds) and was actually better away from Stillwater (17.3 points per game in 15 road/neutral contests) than he was at Gallagher-Iba Arena (13.7). Your hate only makes him stronger.
Best player you don’t know: Ryan Broekhoff, 6-7, senior, forward, Valparaiso. The poor man’s McDermott, statistically. The slick Aussie ranked among the top 20 nationally in 3-point percentage (.432, 20th) and free-throw percentage (.878, 17th) and dropped 24 points on New Mexico last December.
Most underrated coach: Kermit Davis, Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders have six seasons of 23 wins or more in program history. Davis has accounted for two of them, including this season’s 28-5 squad. Once an afterthought in a region dripping with history — Tennessee, Memphis, Vanderbilt, Belmont, and Murray State typically dominate the headlines — Davis has put Murfreesboro, Tenn., back on the hoops map again.
Fact only we can give you: “Man vs. Food” fans rejoice: New Mexico State is home to The Chile Pepper Institute, which describes itself as “an international nonprofit organization devoted to education, research, and archiving information related to Capsicum.” Burn, baby, burn.
Headed to Atlanta: No. 1 Louisville. Nothing travels in the postseason like great defense, and the Cardinals are the best defensive team in the nation, capable of strangling opponents with a press at midcourt and clogging the lane. The class of arguably Bracketville’s classiest region marches on.