Louisville is also the most accomplished team of the four remaining in Indianapolis, having won both the Big East regular-season and tournament titles. However you break it down, Louisville has all the ingredients necessary to win two games in Lucas Oil Stadium to advance to the Final Four – coaching, experience, talent, inside-out balance, depth – and, more importantly, the Cardinals appear on a mission this post-season.
Louisville in Indianapolis?
Top Contender: Michigan State. Tom Izzo knows what he's doing in the NCAA Tournament. He's already taken Michigan State to four Final Four's, so the Spartans will be formidable. Michigan State won the regular-season Big Ten championship to earn the region's No. 2 seed. They have talent in Big Ten Player of the Year, Kalin Lucas, a sophomore point guard, and small forward Raymar Morgan.
Michigan State has enough talent, experience and depth to be dangerous. The Spartans are also warriors on the boards, out-rebounding their opponents by 10+ on the season. Don't discount Michigan State's ability to win two games in Indianapolis, particularly with the motivating factor of heading back home for the Final Four.
Surprise Team: It has to be Louisville's Midwest Region semifinal opponent Arizona. Somehow, the Wildcats snuck into the NCAA Tournament despite losing five of their last six games that included a quarterfinal loss in the Pac-10 Tournament.
Still, Arizona can't be overlooked because of the talent of their three big guns – 6'9 Jordan Hill, 6-7 Chase Budinger, and 5-9 Nic Wise. Hill and Budinger both average 18 points and should be first round NBA Draft picks, while Wise scored 50 points in the first two rounds of the NCAA's against Utah and Cleveland State. Though Arizona struggled during Pac-10 play, the Wildcats did pull upsets against Washington and UCLA, in addition to non-conference wins over Kansas and Gonzaga.
Difference-Maker: Terrence Williams. Louisville's senior forward willed the Cardinals to a second round win over Siena. Williams has played himself into a first round NBA Draft pick this season because of his improved outside shooting. But Williams can beat opponents in a variety of ways and that makes him the difference-maker in this region. Whether it is scoring, assists, rebounds or lock down defense, Williams can deliver for the Cards.
Best Coach: How do you differentiate Rick Pitino, Bill Self and Tom Izzo? It's not easy, especially when you consider that all three have NCAA title rings. But Rick Pitino would be my choice for these reasons: He's taken three different teams to the Final Four and boasts a 13-3 record in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds. Pitino's five Final Four appearances are also the more than any other coach in the region.
Home Cooking? While Louisville has the shortest drive to Indianapolis, there are sure to be plenty of fans from both Michigan State and Kansas at Lucas Oil Stadium. Still, Louisville will bring thousands of fans to a city where the Cardinals won their first NCAA Title in 1980. I'd expect red to be the dominant color in downtown Indy this week, giving Louisville the closest thing to a home court edge in the regional.
Breaking Down the Matchups
No. 1 seed Louisville vs. No. 12 seed Arizona
Arizona relies on Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger and Nic Wise for 70 percent of their offensive production. Those three, though, must contend with a Louisville team that might play the best defense in the tournament. Rick Pitino is renowned for devising detailed scouting reports to stop the best players on the other team. Pitino has all week to prepare so you know the Cardinals will be prepared for the Wildcats talented trio.
Also not a deep team, Arizona could struggle keeping up with Louisville's deep bench – an advantage that usually wears opponents down and forces lots of miscues after the break. Hill, Budinger and Wise average between 36-38 minutes per game. Can they play that many minutes against the Cardinals relentless pressure and remain effective?
No. 2 seed Michigan State vs. No. 3 seed Kansas
Both the Spartans and Jayhawks won their league regular-season titles. They both have coaches who have won the NCAA. The difference might be Michigan State's experience, depth and strength on the backboards.
It's impressive that Kansas' Self has his team back in the Sweet 16 a year after winning the title but losing nearly all of the key parts from that championship team. Kansas relies heavily on point guard Sherron Collins for offensive production. If Michigan State puts the clamps on Collins, can youngsters Marcus Morris, Tyshawn Taylor and Tyrel Reed lead the Jayhawks to victory over the Spartans?