The Midwest region was the first to have its bracket announced, and it might be the easiest one to fill out your bracket for. The Louisville Cardinals are the top seed overall in the NCAA Tournament, the top team in this region, and the likely team to represent in Atlanta.
Rick Pitino's team has battled injuries all season, but might be playing their best basketball of the season now. That is a strong statement, considering they have been in the top five of the MRI computer rankings all season long, and have now moved to No. 2 overall in that ranking (foreshadowing!).
But there are still four games that Louisville has to win before they end up eating peaches. Before we get there, here are the upsets that you should expect during the first round:
1. Take Middle Tennessee State to make it through to the weekend. The Blue Raiders were rewarded for their ability to win on the road according to the chair of the selection committee. Now they need to prove it as they will travel to Dayton, and then -- if they beat St. Mary's -- on to Auburn Hills to face Memphis. Neither of those first two games will be easy, but Middle Tennessee was in the top 15 of the computer rankings at the end of the season, and that is dangerous territory for mid-majors (George Mason was No. 16 in the computer the year it made the Final Four). This is a team that will have a lot to prove when it takes the floor as there were a lot of questions about their candidacy for a spot (including here!) and I can guarantee they won't take that lightly.
2. Creighton could make the Sweet 16: This is a tough call, as Cincinnati was not a kind matchup for the Bluejays in the opening round. They will need to push the tempo and need contributions from everyone on the offensive end, not just Doug McDermott. Then it will come down to Duke, and whether the Jays have enough left after that first game. Here is the thing: you know you can rebound against Duke, and with the way that McDermott and Gregory Echenique hit the boards, this could be second chance heaven for the Jays. Albany is no Lehigh. We know Duke will be there. But Creighton has a good shot to keep the Blue Devils from the second weekend of the Tournament once again, an all-too-often occurence recently.
3. Think long and hard about Valparaiso: We aren't sold on Valparaiso taking out Michigan State, but the computer gives them a 33 percent chance of getting past the first game, so we will throw this out there. We know that the combination of Ryan Broekhoff and Kevin Van Wijk can manage on the inside. And Broekhoff has the ability to move outside, much like some of the power forwards in the Big Ten. This is a difficult matchup for Michigan State. The guard play will be the difference here though, because Keith Appling and Gary Harris are going to be tough to handle.
Top three mid-major players to watch:
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: It is a shame that McDermott is not getting more love for his play this season. He may have been down a little at the start of conference play because of teams focusing on him, but let's not forget what he did during the nonconference season. He had dominant games. He had strong games. He isn't the most polished of players, and that will hurt his NBA Draft stock, but he is still one of the best all-around players and shooters in the country. Let's really hope that he plays well against Cincinnati and that the game against Duke happens. I can't wait to see him go up against Mason Plumlee.
2. Sim Bhullar, New Mexico State: "Best" would be a tough label to put on Bhullar because he is far from the best center you will watch in this NCAA Tournament. But what you will see is a matchup problem for everybody and their mother. Bhullar is 7-5, 355. Name one player on Saint Louis that is even close to that size. Heck, name one player in America that is even close to that size. New Mexico State will need to get the ball down the court (difficult against the Saint Louis defense), and then get it inside to him. But man, when they do, you will see things like this. That will be something to watch.
3. Matthew Dellavedova, St. Mary's: We are hedging out bets here in case the Gaels can take out Middle Tennessee State. There is no better point guard in the region than Dellavedova. Everyone will downplay what he and the Gaels did this season, but he came through night after night for them. And maybe we shouldn't forget that he started for his country during the latest Olympics. Name another point guard that could say that in this Tournament. Shooting, check; passing, check; leadership, check. It is a shame that they are playing one of the biggest upset potential teams in Middle Tennessee State, but if they survive, he is a matchup problem for every team in the region except maybe Louisville.