By Kevin Doyle, Rush The Court
Favorite: #1 Kentucky (32-2, 16-0 SEC). Shouldn’t really need much of an explanation here. The most talented team in the nation — unquestionably — the Wildcats will be the odds-on favorite to not just emerge from the South Region, but also to cut down the nets in New Orleans. Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones spearhead a terrifyingly good starting five.
Should They Falter: #2 Duke (27-6, 13-3 ACC). Austin Rivers does not play like a typical freshman and while Duke has its flaws on defense (perimeter defense, especially), the Blue Devils are more apt to make a run to the Final Four due to their balance on offense. Rivers and Seth Curry are prolific shooters/scorers in the backcourt, while the Plumlee brothers make for a formidable frontcourt. Much of Duke’s success hinges on junior Ryan Kelly’s health (sprained ankle). Kelly, while not a lockdown defender by any means, is 6’11″ and really helps in defending the three-point line for Duke. Even without a healthy Kelly, Duke still has an easier road to the Sweet Sixteen than other contenders in the South Region.
Grossly Overseeded: #11 Colorado (23-11, 11-7 Pac-12). Clearly, the committee thought higher of the Pac-12 than many others did. First, there was much debate whether this power six conference — far from “powerful” this season — would even receive an at-large bid, but they did in California. Secondly, Colorado was not on anybody’s radar prior to the Pac-12 Tournament as it stood at 19-11 with seven losses in conference play. Yet, winning the conference tournament propelled Colorado to a very respectable seed at #11. Many prognosticators had the Buffaloes at a #13 seed going into Selection Sunday.
Grossly Underseeded: #14 South Dakota State (27-7, 15-3 Summit). It is too big of a stretch to say that South Dakota State is “grossly” underseeded, but I do believe they were worthy of a #13 seed. When comparing the Jackrabbits to the #13 seed in this region, their resume is every bit as good, if not better, than New Mexico State: SDSU has a better overall record, higher RPI, more wins against the Top 100 RPI, and a more challenging non-conference schedule. Not to mention South Dakota State’s thrashing of Washington 92-73, even though the Huskies are not a Tournament team, is very impressive.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 seed or lower): #12 Virginia Commonwealth (28-6, 15-3 CAA). Last year it was VCU’s near-flawless outside shooting that carried them all the way to the Final Four, but the 2011-12 version of the Rams hang their hat more on the defensive end. Shaka Smart’s squad is extremely active on defense, especially around the perimeter. If VCU is to make a run to the second weekend, they will have to go through Wichita State and then most likely Indiana, two of the top outside shooting teams in the Tournament. It will be no easy task slowing down these offenses, but Smart has built this team around creating turnovers, pressuring the ball, full-court pressure, and defending the three-point shot.
Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #5 Wichita State (27-5, 16-2 MVC). Wichita is one of the most balanced yet prolific offensive teams in the Tournament who possesses the ability to win a shootout-type game with any opponent. Joe Ragland leads this explosive offense as he shoots 50% from beyond the arc, while Garrett Stutz provides a nice balance with his smooth inside play; Stutz has the ability to step out and drill the 15-footer, too. The road to the Final Four, in all likelihood, will run through Kentucky, but they actually match up with the Wildcats fairly well. First things first, though, defeating Virginia Commonwealth is far from a sure thing.
Carmelo Anthony Award: Austin Rivers, Duke (15.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.1 APG). We’ve all seen his three-point shot from the wing at the buzzer against North Carolina probably more than any other shot in college basketball this year, and that shot proved to the nation that Rivers is fearless. Sure, he may have a little cockiness/arrogance in him which gives him a propensity to take such a shot, but there is little doubt that Austin Rivers is a confident player who can will his team to victory. Like Carmelo was back in 2003, Rivers is a freshman that has developed into the clear leader of his team. It will be important early on for Rivers to hit his shots — especially from downtown — as he shot a low percentage in Duke’s last four games (20-52 FG, 3-20 3FG).
Stephen Curry Award: Nate Wolters, South Dakota State (21.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 6.0 APG, 2.8:1 A/TO). If you haven’t heard of Nate Wolters prior to the NCAA Tournament, don’t worry because you will soon enough — the junior guard fills up a box score like nobody else. Wolters has scored in double figures in every game this year and is the main reason that South Dakota State has a shot at upsetting enigmatic Baylor. Closely following Wolters in this region is Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum (21.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.5 APG), a player who is a legitimate NBA prospect.
Home Cooking: (#1 Kentucky/#2 Duke, 382 miles). From Rupp Arena to the Georgia Dome: 382 miles. From Cameron Indoor to the Georgia Dome: 382 miles. Amazing, isn’t it? Are these two teams destined to meet in the South Region final? It sure seems that way. Prior to Atlanta, Kentucky and Duke will play in the friendly confines of their home states as the Wildcats are in Louisville and the Blue Devils in Greensboro. 382 miles isn’t too bad of a drive for Big Blue Nation, although, let’s be honest, these games could be played in Alaska and Big Blue Nation would still be there in full force decked out in blue.
A Game Could Be Held In Alaska And Kentucky and Duke Fans Would Still Represent Well (AP)
Can’t Miss First Round Game: #5 Wichita State vs. #12 Virginia Commonwealth (Thursday, March 15 at 7:15 PM ET). These are two of the most recognizable and dominant names in mid-major basketball over the last five years, so that should tip you off to start. Moreover, the contrasting styles of play make this an interesting game from purely an X’s and O’s perspective, as a high-powered offense in Wichita State will test the mettle of VCU’s relentless defense. These teams met in last year’s BracketBusters with the Rams besting Wichita State 68-67, so there certainly is some familiarity between the two.
Don’t Miss This One Either: #8 Iowa State vs. #9 Connecticut (Thursday, March 15 at 9:45 PM ET). If there was a city to be in on Thursday evening, Louisville is definitely the place to catch a pair of games. The Iowa State vs. Connecticut game is intriguing on two levels: 1) Connecticut was a Top 5 team in the preseason, while Iowa State was not even ranked or predicted to make the NCAA Tournament. Clearly, one team has underachieved while the other has exceeded expectations. 2) The victor can definitely pose a great challenge to Kentucky. Connecticut can match all of Kentucky’s star power as they have at least three future NBAers in their starting lineup (Shabazz Napier, Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drummond). Iowa State’s Royce White is one of the better kept secrets in the South Region and can go toe-to-toe with Anthony Davis. Plus, the Cyclones have demonstrated that they can hang with supremely talented and athletic teams as they have defeated Kansas and Baylor this year.
Lock of the Year: Baylor misses out on the second weekend. A bold prediction, to be sure, as the “lock of the year,” but it really would surprise me to see Baylor advance to the Sweet Sixteen. The Bears ended the regular season with a very pedestrian 8-6 record in their final 14 regular season games, and greatly struggle in hindering an opponent’s offense thanks to its porous zone defense. Their length and athletic ability make up for this, but all too often Baylor struggles slowing down a proficient offensive club. In these six losses, Baylor surrendered an average of 76 points. South Dakota State, the Bears’ first opponent, shoots nearly 40% from beyond the arc and is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the tournament. Meanwhile, UNLV — a potential opponent in the third round — is equally impressive as they have a slew of offensive playmakers, most notably Mike Moser, Anthony Marshall, and Chace Stanback. I think Baylor’s Achilles heel comes back to bite the Bears in one of these two first weekend rounds.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – purists: #3 Baylor vs. #6 UNLV in the third round would be a dandy. It would be a glorious collision of two of the better offenses in the tournament duking it out. UNLV made its splash onto the national scene earlier this year when they hung 90 points on North Carolina, while Baylor is coming off an impressive win against Kansas in the Big 12 semifinals. Ironically, it is the team that comes up with crucial defensive stands that will probably decide the outcome.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – media: #1 Kentucky vs. #9 Connecticut in the third round. When Connecticut’s name popped up during the selection show directly underneath Kentucky’s, the media began to salivate instantaneously. Last year’s National Champion versus this year’s projected champ. Anthony Davis versus Andre Drummond. Future lottery picks versus future lottery picks. There are countless storylines that can be formulated for this one. According to the preseason rankings, these are two Top 5 teams with serious star power. Kentucky lived up to its expectations, while Connecticut hit a rough patch and there was doubt that they may even make the NCAA Tournament. Can the Huskies put 40 minutes together and seriously challenge Kentucky? That, among many other questions, are what will be asked heading into this potential third round game.
We Got Screwed: #5 Wichita State (27-5, 16-2 MVC). I suppose that the Shockers have nobody to blame but themselves. If they did not lose to Illinois State in the Missouri Valley semifinals and had gone on to win the conference tournament, they would be a #4 seed and ostensibly have an easier draw. Now, they have the unenviable task of taking down a very good Virginia Commonwealth team and then, most likely, an Indiana squad who has proved they can beat the very best (Kentucky, Ohio State, Michigan State). If they are fortunate enough to make it through the first weekend unscathed, Kentucky looms ahead. Quite the road the Shockers have ahead of them
Strongest Pod: Louisville, #1 Kentucky, #16 Mississippi Valley State/Western Kentucky, #8 Iowa State, #9 Connecticut. I will go on record saying that Western Kentucky will give Kentucky a competitive game for a half, assuming they get past Mississippi Valley State in Dayton, of course. Ever since Ray Harper took over the coaching duties at WKU, the Hilltoppers have been a different team. They knocked off a very good Middle Tennessee team in the final game of the regular season prior to winning four straight in the Sun Belt tournament. It also may help that this game is played in Louisville. But, this pod is not strong because of Western Kentucky, obviously. The #1 overall seed Kentucky certainly is the main reason that this could be the strongest pod in the South Region, but Iowa State and Connecticut are two of the better #8/#9 seeds in this year’s draw. Iowa State, in particular, is getting partially overlooked because so much of the attention is on Connecticut and Kentucky, but the Cyclones will be a tough out. Fred Hoiberg has the Cyclones arriving onto the scene a year earlier than many expected, and that is largely because of great perimeter play. Iowa State’s shoots 38% from three, and defends the arc at a 29.8% clip.
Impressive Track Records: There is a whole lot of history in the South Region. And by history, I mean National Championships: Kentucky (7), Indiana (5), Duke (4), Connecticut (3), and UNLV (1). Will one of these five teams add to their trophy cases?
So-Called Experts: Kentucky is the favorite, hands down. Duke may have been a popular pick two weeks ago, but there are simply too many question marks that surround the Blue Devils. Moreover, a team does not go the bulk of the season ranked as a near-unanimous #1 in the country and suddenly isn’t the favorite to emerge from its region.
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