A look at the toughest of the four regions.

BEST PLAYERS

1. Louisville G Russ Smith. The Russdiculous One is as hot as his team: He averaged 24.3 points in six of UL's last seven games, and in the seventh all he did was hand out 13 assists. He's an improved 3-point shooters (40.5 percent), averages almost five assists and is a terror on defense. First-team All-American of the no-brainer variety.

2. Duke F Jabari Parker: In a season defined by the stellar group of freshmen, Parker was arguably the best from start to finish. A top-five pick in the upcoming NBA Draft (assuming he leaves school), he averaged 19.2 points and 8.8 rebounds. He's reliable from behind the 3-point line, as well.

3. Wichita State F Cleanthony Early: While not as gifted as Parker or Kentucky's Julius Randle, the Wichita State veteran is the kind of player who wins in March: He's smart, tough, creative and clutch. Just ask Louisville: Early had 24 points and 10 rebounds against the Cardinals in the Final Four duel last year.

Just missed the cut: Michigan G Nik Stauskas.

BEST COACHES

1. Louisville's Rick Pitino: The owner of two national titles is the only coach in history to lead three different teams to the Final Four (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville). He has a slight edge over the man listed just below because of recent success tournament success (i.e., the 2013 title). Typical of a Pitino team, the Cardinals are playing their best when it counts.


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2. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski: The Hall of Famer (two gold medals, four NCAA titles) has experienced his share of March disappointment recently: The Blue Devils have reached the Final Four only once in the past nine years. This team seems equipped for a deep run, but so have many of its predecessors.

3. Wichita State's Gregg Marshall: You know it's a loaded region when Marshall is No. 3 and Michigan's masterful John Beilein doesn't even make the cut. Marshall, who coached Winthrop before taking over in Wichita, is trying to lead the Shockers to the Final Four for the second consecutive year. With Brad Stevens in the NBA, Marshall is the best coach outside the major conferences.

DREAM MATCHUP

No. 3 Duke vs. No. 4 Louisville: It doesn't get much better than Krzyzewski matching wits against Pitino, although we won't complain if Kentucky and Louisville collide in the Sweet 16.

UPSET SPECIAL

No. 12 N.C. State over No. 5 St. Louis. The Wolf Pack, who play Xavier in the First Four, have one of the nation's best offensive players in T.J. Warren (36 points vs. North Carolina, 28 vs. Syracuse). The Billikens are rugged defensively but not playing close to their best basketball, with four losses in their past five games.

SLEEPER PICK

Kentucky. The Wildcats qualify because of their seed (8), not their immense talent. They haven't played well enough, long enough to be considered a serious Final Four contender. But if they are locked in for 40 minutes, watch out -- Big Blue is capable of beating anyone.

LAST TEAM STANDING

Louisville. The most well-rounded team in the region but hardly an overwhelming favorite. Wichita State is perfectly capable of winning four games. Same goes for Michigan, Duke and even Kentucky (if the stars and the moon align).

For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.