(1) Louisville Cardinals (29–5, 14–4 Big East)
The top overall seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament, Louisville earned the Big East Tournament championship with a 78–61 win over Syracuse. The victory was the U of L’s 10th straight and 13th in its last 14 games — with the only loss being an epic five-overtime defeat at Notre Dame in early February.
Clearly, coach Rick Pitino knows how to get the job done in March, having made six Final Fours with three different schools (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville) and cutting down the nets after winning it all with Kentucky in 1996. With veteran guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith leading the way and defensive enforcer Gorgui Dieng down low, Louisville’s 10th trip to the Final Four — and maybe even its third NCAA title (1980, 1986) — could be in the Cards.
(2) Duke Blue Devils (27–5, 14–4 ACC)
Coach K’s team failed to win the ACC Tournament for only the fifth time since 1999, losing to mediocre Maryland, 83–74, for the second time in eight games. Duke’s up-and-down season has been highlighted by a No. 1 ranking in the AP top 25 and given a black eye by a 27-point loss at Miami in late January.
On the bright side, the Blue Devils are still coached by the greatest NCAA Tournament coach since John Wooden. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has four NCAA championships (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010) and 11 Final Four appearances. This year’s squad has an inside-out game built around big man Mason Plumlee and a plethora of spot-up shooters, including Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly and Quinn Cook — all of whom shoot over 40 percent from 3-point range and better than 80 percent from the free-throw line.
Sweet 16 Sleeper
(5) Oklahoma State Cowboys
Cowboy combo guard Marcus Smart joined Kevin Durant (2007) and Michael Beasley (2008) — both of whom went on to be the No. 2 overall pick in their respective NBA Draft classes — as only the third player ever to be named Big 12 Player of the Year and National Freshman of the Year in the same season. “Smart-acus” is joined by fellow blue chip recruit Le’Bryan Nash and guards Markel Brown and Phil Forte, giving coach Travis Ford a perimeter lineup that will be tough to match up with.
(11) First Four winner (Saint Mary’s Gaels vs. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders) vs. (6) Memphis Tigers
Coach Josh Pastner has not been the wunderkind he was proclaimed as John Calipari’s replacement at Memphis. This season, the Tigers were 1–3 against teams that made the field of 68, with their only win coming against Ivy League champion Harvard, in a 60–50 contest that was much closer than the final score indicates. The winner of the Saint Mary’s and Middle Tennessee No. 11-seed play-in game will have an excellent shot at an obviously talented, athletic and underachieving Memphis squad.
Related: March Madness by the numbers
Doug McDermott, Jr., Creighton Bluejays (7)
The son of coach Greg McDermott is a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate after a dominant junior season. The 6’8” Ames, Iowa, native — who was a high school teammate of former North Carolina star Harrison Barnes — averages 23.1 points per game on 56.1 percent shooting from the field, 86.0 percent from the free-throw line and an amazing 49.7 percent from 3-point range.