The Dagger previews the Midwest Region of the 2014 NCAA tournament. Read our previews of the East, South and West.
Three who can carry their teams:
* Cleanthony Early, F, Wichita State
* Jabari Parker, F, Duke
* Russ Smith, G, Louisville
Most intriguing opening round matchup: No. 7 Texas vs. No. 10 Arizona State
Two of the better big men in the tournament will square off in this one as Texas 6-foot-9 sophomore Cameron Ridley will battle with ASU senior center Jordan Bachynski, the nation’s leading shot blocker. Both teams have been battle tested in two of the toughest conferences in the nation. The Sun Devils rely on guard Jahii Carson, who averaged more than 18 points a game to fuel the offense. Texas is a bit more diverse with four players averaging between 11 and 13 points. Both teams lost five of their final eight games, but ASU dropped three straight. Might come down to who wins that war in the paint.
Best potential round of 32 game: No. 1 Wichita State vs. No. 8 Kentucky or No. 9 Kansas State
No matter who wins the game between Kentucky and Kansas State, it makes for an intriguing matchup with Wichita State, assuming the Shockers don’t suddenly decide to make history of another kind and become the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16. Wichita State is a team filled mostly with guys who were passed over by the perennial powers and ended up in Wichita where they have bonded and become one of the most tight-knit teams around. Pitting that crew against a Kentucky team filled with one-and-done types who haven’t been on the same page nearly often enough would be interesting. If Kansas State beats Kentucky, it means Wichita State will finally get a crack at one of the big boys from in-state. The Shockers have been trying to schedule Kansas State or Kansas for years.
Ripe for an upset: No. 5 Saint Louis
The Billikens made this an easy choice by losing four of their final five games entering the tournament after starting the season 24-2. It’s not like they’ve gone in the tank. The losses have come in tight, hard-fought games. Actually, Saint Louis has played a lot of those over the course of the season, which could bode well for the tournament. But it’s hard to believe in a team that seems to sinking. The Billikens will face the winner of the Xavier-North Carolina State game. Both teams have proven capable of beating some of the nation’s best teams in the past month. Bottom line, there almost always seems to be an upset in a 5-12 game and this one looks good for it this year.
Bound for the Final Four: No. 4 Louisville
It would be nice to think Wichita State is going to rise to the challenge and survive the toughest region in this year’s tournament to get to a second straight Final Four after a cake walk through the Missouri Valley Conference.
But it seems like the defending national champs are more likely to survive here. Louisville has absolutely dominated its recent competition after some adjustments earlier in the season learning to play without departed several key members from last year’s team. Russ Smith and Montrezl Harrell are as good as anyone in this region and they already own a ring.
Possible Dark Horse: No. 8 Kentucky
It’s tough to call No. 2 seed Michigan or No. 3 seed Duke dark horses. Both have a strong chance of winning this region. So we dig a little deeper and see Kentucky there as the No. 8 seed. This is a Kentucky team that has looked dreadful at times this season with a cast of five-star recruits unable to play team basketball effectively for 40 minutes and sometimes not even for 20 minutes. Then there are games like Sunday when the Wildcats nearly knocked off Florida to win the SEC tournament title. If Kentucky can play the Gators, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, to a one-point game, you better believe it’s capable of a run over the next two or even three weeks.