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Originally published March 16, 2014 at 8:00 PM | Page modified March 16, 2014 at 9:49 PM

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NCAA tournament: Breaking down the Midwest Region

The Midwest Region features No. 1 seed and undefeated Wichita State, No. 2 seed Michigan, No. 3 seed Duke and fourth-seeded Louisville.


Seattle Times staff columnist

And the winner is ...

LOUISVILLE: It will take a battle-tested team to win such a rugged region, and the Cardinals have the experience, the championship core and defensive mindset needed to survive a series of epic matchups.

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First glance

By any measure, this region is as tough as it gets.

If you want to judge it by experience, the Midwest features three of the Final Four teams from a year ago (Louisville, Wichita State and Michigan). If you want to judge it by stars, the Midwest features headliners Jabari Parker and Russ Smith. If you want to judge it by coaching, the Midwest features Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino and John Calipari.

Wichita State (34-0) is the only undefeated team standing, and despite the Shockers’ experience and winning moxie, they will have to knock off giant after giant just to make it to the Final Four.

By the numbers

26 Combined Final Four appearances by head coaches in this region (including Calipari’s two vacated ones)

7 Combined national titles won by Krzyzewski, Pitino and Calipari

9.7 Kentucky’s rebounding margin, which ranks second in the nation

Contenders

MICHIGAN: The No. 2 seed Wolverines are, as usual, one of the nation’s most efficient offensive teams. They’re only so-so defensively, and they’re a terrible rebounding team without injured big man Mitch McGary, but there’s plenty of talent and firepower on this team.

DUKE: The Blue Devils have a superstar in Parker, and some good complementary pieces such as Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook. If wiry sophomore forward Amile Jefferson can be a factor inside, Duke will be difficult to beat.

LOUISVILLE: The Cardinals have won 12 of their last 13 games, and they’re starting to resemble last season’s title team.

Sleepers

KENTUCKY: The Wildcats have 10 losses, but they’re also one of the most talented teams in the nation. Calipari has advanced at least to the Sweet 16 with his last seven NCAA tournament teams.

ST. LOUIS: The Billikens entered the tournament with four losses in their last five games, but they won 19 in a row before that. If they can recover, they’re capable of pulling off an upset or two.

Headed for a fall?

WICHITA STATE: They can play with any team in the country, and their 34-0 record speaks for itself, as does their Final Four appearance from last season. But the road back to a Final Four could feature games against Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan or Duke.

Star power

Parker, the Duke superstar freshman, isn’t just a likely first-team All-American; he could be the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA draft.

And then there’s Louisville’s Smith, who is vying for the third Final Four of his career. Smith, who scored 42 points against Houston last week, is among the most explosive offensive weapons in the nation.

Cagiest coach

Let’s go with Pitino, who is always good and has been on a roll of late. Factoring in conference tournament and NCAA tournament games, the Cardinals have won 12 straight postseason games, including the 2013 national title, and 20 of their past 21. Pitino is pursuing a rare third straight Final Four appearance, and the Cardinals are currently playing their best basketball.

Best players you might not have heard of

Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Wichita State’s best player (15.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) still isn’t a household name, but the versatile 6-8 forward should be. He averaged 16.2 ppg during the Shockers’ Final Four run last season.

Marcus Foster, Kansas State: The Kansas State freshman is an impressive long-range shooter who makes 40.4 percent of his three-pointers and averages 15.6 ppg.

George Beamon, Manhattan: Manhattan’s hard-nosed 6-4 swingman has fought through injuries to lead his team in scoring (19.2 ppg) and rebounding (6.6 rpg), and he’s also the Jaspers’ best defender.



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