The Midwest region is developing a reputation as a basketball ghetto. For the second season in a row, a top seed expecting a cushy limo ride to the Elite Eight or Final Four got dragged and dropped off in the projects at 3 a.m. with a diamond encrusted Michael Kors watch gleaming beneath flickering streetlights.
If Kentucky doesn’t get Wichita State, death by a thousand cuts could bleed ‘em out. Last season, Louisville was left to fend for themselves and dodge knife wielding tournament assassins coming for their heads. What didn’t kill them actually made them stronger.
Wichita State doesn't have the advantage of stealth this time around. One year later, as one of the most scouted teams in the nation, they’re no longer an enigma. Everybody sees them coming like Omar on the streets of Baltimore.
They also won't be fortunate enough to dodge top 10 major conference teams until the Elite Eight. Before the Shockers’ strength of schedule was being scrutinized relentlessly, the Shockers reached the Final Four by defeating Pittsburgh, Gonzaga and La Salle before pouncing on Ohio State in the first half of the Elite Eight en route to the Final Four.
Wichita State’s physical style of play is what separates them from Gonzaga, the mid-major No. 1 seed they dispatched last March in the second round.
In essence, Louisville and Wichita State have traded places. For one season, Louisville is emerging from underneath the equity conferences noses. Because they were obscured in the American Athletic Conference, the nation’s most lucrative college hoops program snuck underneath the radar.
Wichita State should view this as a slight and channel those emotions into their court intensity. Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war. The prolific names in their way are simply dominos lined up for the sole purpose of getting knocked down.
Texas Southern should be viewed as a sacrificial lamb whose mascot’s head belongs on a post. Kentucky is an affront to everything Wichita State basketball represents. The closest thing the Shockers have on their roster to a McDonalds All-American is Nick Wiggins’ DNA.
The same goes for NC State. Tennessee and Saint Louis have already tasted defeat at the hands of Wichita State. Iowa’s offense is a tenacious unit, but their soft defense leaves the basket ripe for pillaging.
Kansas State’s Marcus Foster is the primary source of offense in Bruce Weber’s system, but if you cut off the head, the body dies. Gregg Marshall should view Duke, Michigan and Louisville as his opportunity to douse the egos of his coaching peers and announce his arrival as the newest lord of the burgeoning mid-major empire. Nothing would send a message quite like revenge on Louisville for ending their 2013 Final Four weekend early.
Wichita State’s path may be strewn with imposing obstacles, but the Shockers shouldn’t slip into the tournament as meek underdogs. They earned this opportunity to be cast as the big dogs in the junkyard.
4 LOUISVILLE vs. 13 MANHATTAN
Why Louisville will win (the Midwest): Pitino’s relentless defense gets most of the pub, however, this season their offensive efficiency has taken a giant leap forward.
Why Manhattan will beat Louisville: The city slickers from Manhattan assembled their roster with the best of five boroughs and line their bench with Louisville assistants. Head coach Steve Masiello and two of his top assistants logged hours on Pitino’s Louisville staff as late as 2011. Not only are they familiar with the Cardinals full-court pressure, they can respond with a smothering defense. They’re also one of the most protective ball handling teams in the nation, which means the Cardinals will have to score in the half court. Montrezl Harrell won’t be punking Manhattan’s Rhamel Brown, the nation’s ninth best shot blocker.
3 DUKE vs. 14 MERCER
Why Mercer will beat Duke: Their 12th ranked three point percentage defense will bother Duke’s three point ring circus which is the 14th most accurate team in the nation. Langston Hall and the Mercer offense find Duke’s matchups welcoming.
Why Duke will win (the Midwest): Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Amile Jefferson, Andre Dawkins and Rasheed Sulaimon are a scoring chimera being fed by point guard Quinn Cook. They’ve got versatile scorers at all five positions, even if it isn’t their natural spot on the floor. They’ve also solved the rebounding woes and inside scoring woes that plagued them last season.
5 SAINT LOUIS vs. 12 NC STATE
Why Saint Louis will win: Saint Louis is the antithesis of NC State. This is a team seemingly recruited from the remains of a church league. This is the A-10’s best team. Losing to NC State after Shaka Smart’s defense of the conference from Coach K mouthing off would be unacceptable. Saint Louis’ five seniors anchor their typhoon man to man defense that has left offenses flummoxed. However, they’re that blind date described to you as a woman with “a great personality”. You gotta look deep to fall in love with the Billikens, but there’s some substance here.
Why NC State will win: The ACC Godfather, Coach K insisted on NC State’s inclusion in this tournament and the Wolfpack would not want to disappoint. After watching them thrash Xavier, NC State appears to be a team of destiny with a trio of McDonald’s All-Americans in TJ Warren, Tyler Lewis, Anthony Cat Barber and a transfer guard Ralston Turner, who can supplement Warren’s at-will scoring touch coalescing at once. The Wolfpack have sexy roster, but if Saint Louis is the blind date with a great personality, then NC State is the lingerie model who thinks Al Gore was the star of Married With Children.
8 KENTUCKY vs. 9 KANSAS STATE
Why Kansas State will win: Marcus Foster will be Kansas State’s only Diaper Dandie, but Bruce Weber’s crew also plays the best defense of any team from the Big 12.
Why Kentucky will win (the Midwest): The second round could be a seminole moment for Kentucky’s freshmen foster home. If they lose to Wichita State in the second round, John Calipari might spot the trend and begin building rosters entirely out of senior transfers. Beating Wichita State could be the catalyst they need to stride all the way to Arlington, Texas.
They’ve already beaten Louisville once this season and Julius Randle could bring a bib, utensils and enter Hannibal Lecter mode in the post against Duke.
2 MICHIGAN vs. 15 WOFFORD
Why Michigan will win (the Midwest): The Wolverines have scoring options and lottery picks abound. Their defense is troubling, but that’s what we said about last year’s national runner-up. The Wolverines rank 111th in adjusted defensive efficiency and guard like Shaq on ice, because they’ve focused on harnessing their efforts on the offensive end.
John Beilein is their secret weapon. For years he’s beaten the odds in the NCAA Tournament by making strategic adjustments to attack individual opponents’ weaknesses.
7 TEXAS vs. 10 ARIZONA STATE
Both teams are distant longshots to reach the Final Four, but fans in the stands should be on the lookout for any blocked shots getting catapulted in their direction.
Arizona State’s Jahii Carson and transfer guard Jermaine Marshall are a dynamo in the backcourt. Center Jordan Bachynski rejected more field goal attempts than anyone in the nation while Texas rejects shots like a teetotaler on St. Patrick’s Day behind Cameron Ridley’s and crashes the boards better than 99% of the tournament field.
Interior scoring will be at a premium between these two schools. Bachynski has the vertical advantage at 7-2, but he will have his work cut out for him against Ridley’s wide body.
Pick: Texas is the favorite here by virtue of Arizona State’s three-game losing streak.
Prediction: Louisville wins the midwest. Montrezl Harrell is the difference.