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.