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The immediate reaction to the release of the NCAA tournament bracket was an unqualified, somewhat scream-y, "The Midwest Region is SO HARD." And it is: As has been widely cited in the wake of the bracket announcement, seven of the KenPom Top 20 are in that region. That's crazy. I'm not sure I feel about the NCAA tournament co-opting the "Region of Death" business from the World Cup, but if there ever were such a beast, this is it.
The two scariest teams coming out of the conference tournaments were Louisville and St. Louis, and they're both here. Also here: A team most expected would get a No. 1 seed (Duke), a school that has made the Final Four three times in the last eight years (Michigan State) and a team that's probably the most talented in the Big 12 (Oklahoma State). Oh, and the most underseeded team in the whole tournament, a No. 12 seed that just blitzed through a major-conference tournament (Oregon).
It's stacked, 'tis what we're saying. Let's go through game by game:
16 North Carolina A&T (19-16) vs. 16 Liberty (15-20)
Tuesday, Dayton, 6:40 p.m. ET
Neither team was the favorite to win its conference, and Liberty started its season 0-8 and 1-10, finishing 6-10 in the Big South. No matter! The Flames are only the second team in NCAA history to reach the tournament with 20 losses, and it's worth noting that this is part of the plan: Liberty, founded by Jerry Falwell, wants to be the evangelical Notre Dame. Junior John Caleb Sanders scored 27 points in the Big South title game, and I say they remain hot.
11 Middle Tennessee State (28-5) vs. 11 St. Mary's (27-6)
Tuesday, Dayton, 9:10 p.m. ET
You hate to see two mid-majors having to take each other out before the tournament unofficially begins, but it's tough to argue either one of these teams didn't belong in this play-in game. The thing about MTSU is that until its belly flop against Florida International in the Sun Belt semifinals, the Blue Raiders dominated the conference, losing only once, in overtime, back on January 3. MTSU's backcourt is its strength, with Marcos Knight and defensive whiz point guard Bruce Massey. Relying so much on the backcourt would be a problem against a team with a big powerful frontline, at a non-mid-major. But here, we like their odds to take care of St. Mary's, unless Matthew Dellavedova gets red-hot.
Pick: Middle Tennessee State.
1 Louisville (29-5) vs. 16 Liberty
It still feels like no one realized how good Louisville was until it was too late.
8 Colorado State (25-8) vs. 9 Missouri (23-10)
A strong nonconference slate for the Tigers sort of disguised that they didn't come even close to coming in and dominating their first season in the SEC like their fans had all claimed they would. Alex Oriakhi brings the bulk, but the guard play has been inconsistent and the Tigers, despite their talent, just never quite looked right all season. Also: Colorado State is from the far superior conference; the Mountain West had top 25 teams and was deep. We think they're going to shoot the Tigers out of the gym and add another to Larry Eustachy's comeback story.
Pick: Colorado State.
5 Oklahoma State (24-8) vs. 12 Oregon (26-8)
Thursday, San Jose
Oregon is dramatically underseeded … but that doesn't mean this is a good matchup for them. The Cowboys' backcourt is one of the strongest in this whole stacked bracket. Oregon might have been better off, if they were gonna be stuck with a No. 12 seed, with a Wisconsin or even a VCU.
Pick: Oklahoma State.
4 St. Louis (27-6) vs. 13 New Mexico State (24-10)
Thursday, San Jose
The Billikens might be the hottest team in college basketball right now; the A-10 had four other teams make the tourney, and they all looked terrified of St. Louis at Barclays Center for the conference tournament. Their story -- which is actually deeper and more nuanced than just "playing for their late coach Rick Majerus" -- is inspiring and this team is playing like their feet are barely touching the ground. Plus: The Best Buy thing is amazing.
Pick: St. Louis.
6 Memphis (30-4) vs. 11 Middle Tennessee State
Tuesday, Auburn Hills
Hey, look, it's a battle of teams that haven't really been tested all season. (They've both beaten only one other tourney team. Memphis beat Harvard, and MTSU beat Mississippi, though they have to face one another to get to this game.) Memphis still hasn't won a tourney game under Josh Pastner … and we see the upset happening here. That seat's gonna start to get hot, no matter how much everybody likes the guy.
Pick: Middle Tennessee State
3 Michigan State (25-8) vs. 14 Valparaiso (26-7)
Thursday, Auburn Hills
For all Tom Izzo's NCAA success, he has lost in the first round of the tournament twice in the last seven years. Of the top four seeds in this region, Michigan State is the most likely to fall in the first round; Valpo is tough, and this MSU team has some of the same inconsistency that has plagued the last few Izzo teams. I don't have the guts to pick Valpo here, but it's still tempting.
Pick: Michigan State.
7 Creighton (27-7) vs. 10 Cincinnati (22-11)
A lot of people will pick Creighton here because they have Doug McDermott and Cincinnati has been almost obnoxiously frustrating all season … and we will as well, for those exact reasons.
2 Duke (27-5) vs. 15 Albany (24-10)
No one remembers this now, but the Great Danes were only down by 1 to No. 1 seed Connecticut (with Rudy Gay) back in 2006. We all desperately want to hug Albany's mascot.
Click on image to view full Sports on Earth bracket.
1 Louisville vs. 8 Colorado State
It wasn't very long ago that everyone was wondering if Syracuse would get the No. 1 seed out of the Big East, and then Georgetown. But Louisville is peaking at the right time, and if Eustachy and company watch the game tape of that Cardinals run against the Orange in the second half of the Big East tourney final, they might never stop crying.
4 St. Louis vs. 5 Oklahoma State
Saturday, San Jose
This might be the most entertaining game of the entire first weekend. Fast-paced, attacking teams (particularly on defense) who both feel like they're fated this year. But we think SLU is more fated: This has been too all-time of a season to end before the second weekend.
Pick: St. Louis
3 Michigan State vs. 11 Middle Tennessee State
Saturday, Auburn Hills
As if you can't tell already, we are far from sold on this Michigan State team. They should be able to knock around the Blue Raiders, but this game may come down to the Spartans' Keith Appling, and whether or not he can be disciplined enough to lead rather than to try to win everything by himself. Sorry: We don't trust him, or the Spartans. Middle Tennessee State is going the VCU route this year.
Pick: Middle Tennessee State
2 Duke vs. 7 Creighton
We still think this Duke team has a little 1989 Illinois in it, with Ryan Kelly in the Kendall Gill "with him, they're nearly unbeatable" role. Duke has the easiest route to the Sweet 16 of any team in this region.
1 Louisville vs. 4 St. Louis
All told, in this region of death, these are the two teams we're most excited about. Louisville's more talented than SLU, but the Billikens are more organized and just as relentless. They're also just as hot as the Cardinals right now. Man, do we want to pick SLU. But we just can't. This team has been driven all season long, and Peyton Siva isn't gonna be stopped by a happy story.
2 Duke vs. 11 Middle Tennessee State
This is where the dream ends for the Smurf Raiders.
1 Louisville vs. 2 Duke
What a region of death this is. Duke, when it has had its full team together, has lost one game all season, that fluke in the ACC tournament. (A game, it turns out, it sort of needed.) We think they go all the way this time.
Around the Midwest Bracket
Best Player You Never Heard Of.
Well, maybe not best. But certainly tallest. New Mexico State has Sim Bhullar, who is not only listed at 7-foot-5, 360 pounds, but is also from Canada. He also has legit game: Check out SB Nation's collection of GIFs: You will be guaranteed to stop the game-to-game flipping when you see him. He's just a freshman too.
Missouri is somewhat famously the best college basketball program to never make the Final Four, but a ton of other teams in this bracket have made it, from former champs Louisville, Duke, Michigan State, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State and Oregon to Memphis and New Mexico State, who made it in 1970 under Lou Henson.
What's a Billiken?
Indianapolis is the center of the known universe.
For all the talk of Louisville taking away the Indianapolis bracket from the Indiana Hoosiers, there's another Indiana team in the bracket, Valparaiso. It's from the northern part of the state, though, and is actually 40 miles farther away from Lucas Oil Stadium than Louisville is. (You can get to Indy from Louisville in an hour and a half if you speed.) Cincinnati, though, is closer than both of them.
These schools in the Midwest Regional originally had the following different names:
Albany: New York State Normal School.
Cincinnati: McMicken University.
Colorado State: Agricultural College of Colorado.
Duke: Brown's Schoolhouse.
Liberty: Lynchburg Baptist College.
Louisville: Jefferson Seminary.
Middle Tennessee State: Middle Tennessee State Normal School.
New Mexico State: Las Cruces College.
North Carolina A&T: The Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Colored Race.
Oklahoma State: Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College.
Saint Louis. St. Louis Academy. (It's actually the oldest college west of the Mississippi.)