Favorite: #3 Florida (26-7, 16-5 SEC). A month ago, Florida looked like it was destined for a #1 seed and primed for a Final Four run to Atlanta. The Gators were dismantling SEC teams — albeit some very weak teams — and had their potent offense clicking on all cylinders. But then Florida lost at Missouri, and then at Tennessee, and then at Kentucky. Questions began to arise, and rightly so. A team of Florida’s talent and experience should not be losing to SEC teams that will not even make the NCAA Tournament. They seemed unbeatable in the 2012 portion of the schedule, but played down to their level of competition in the SEC. That being said, it would not be smart to pick against Billy Donovan. Donovan has led Florida to the Elite Eight the past two seasons, and done so with largely the same group he has this year. Two seasons ago it was a loss to Butler as a #2-seed and last year a loss to Louisville as a #7-seed. Of their eight impact players, seven are upperclassmen and have extensive experience in the NCAA Tournament. Veteran leadership and NCAA Tournament experience cannot be discounted, and Florida has both in spades. In the “for what it’s worth” department, Pomeroy has Florida ranked #1 overall in his season-long rankings (fifth in offensive efficiency and second in defensive efficiency).
Should They Falter: #2 Georgetown (29-5, 15-5 Big East). Recent history is not on Georgetown’s side as John Thompson III has made a habit of exiting the NCAA Tournament too early. In fact, in the six NCAA Tournaments that JT3 has led the Hoyas to, they haven’t made it past the first weekend four times. The Hoyas won’t win any style points, but that doesn’t much matter. What they lack in flash they have in tough defense and methodical but effective offense. Not to mention that the Hoyas are also fortunate to have Otto Porter, the Big East Player of the Year, on their side. The emergence of Markel Starks as a second dependable scorer adds another dimension to the offense beyond him, though. Their adjusted tempo ranks 313th in the country — in other words, a snail’s pace — and inability to score in stretches on the offensive end doesn’t make them a sexy team to watch, but Georgetown is very comfortable playing grind-it-out kind of games making them an apt postseason team.
Grossly Overseeded: #7 San Diego State (22-10, 10-8 Mountain West). The Aztecs began the season with a 14-2 record and a 2-0 mark in Mountain West play, and appeared to be the class of the league alongside New Mexico. Since that blistering start, San Diego State is a pedestrian 8-8 and finished 9-7 in the MW. It is almost unfathomable that the Aztecs earned a much better seed than Pac-12 champion Oregon — prepare yourselves to hearing a lot about the Ducks’ seed in the coming days —and even a higher seed than fellow Mountain West member Colorado State. SDSU benefited from having a strong RPI (#28) and a challenging schedule which ranked in the top 20, but many prognosticators had them wearing road jerseys in their opening round game, not home whites.
Grossly Underseeded: #8 North Carolina (24-10, 14-7 ACC). After getting embarrassed by Miami and then suffering a tough road defeat to Duke, North Carolina looked like it was headed to the NIT; the Tar Heels had a 16-8 record and were just 6-5 in the ACC at the time. Roy Williams’ young group may have had unfair expectations placed on it in the preseason, but there is little doubt that they should be an NCAA Tournament team now. Their talent and maturation as a team began to show in the second half of ACC play by winning eight of their last 10 games including a narrow loss to Miami in the ACC Tournament Championship. North Carolina’s seed was hurt by having a 2-9 mark against the RPI top 50, but the way in which Carolina concluded the regular season shows that it was playing closer to the caliber of a #5 seed and shouldn’t be marred in the dreaded #8/#9 match-up with the top seed looming.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 seed or lower): #13 South Dakota State (25-9, 16-3 Summit). Last season, Nate Wolters broke onto the national scene. This season, he’s a household name. Wolters and South Dakota State return to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season — and just their second time in school history — and have the ability to advance to the Tournament’s second weekend. The Jackrabbits will do battle with a reeling Michigan squad and, if they are fortunate to beat the Wolverines, would most likely play Virginia Commonwealth in the Third Round. Both Michigan and VCU are popular sleepers to win the South Region, but both teams’ success largely hinge on guard play. Fortunately for South Dakota State, Wolters can match up with any guard in the country, and he can shoot the three ball with anyone (39.0%). Any team that has the ability to catch fire from beyond the arc is a threat to advance in the Tournament.
Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #8 North Carolina. It almost doesn’t seem right to call North Carolina a sleeper, but that’s what they’d be classified as this year assuming they advanced all the way to the Final Four. Just weeks ago, Carolina was a borderline NCAA Tournament team, but now they are playing like a team that appears capable of going on a run. The way P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock have played as of late makes a Cinderella trip to Atlanta a real possibility.
Carmelo Anthony Award: Ben McLemore, Kansas (16.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.0 APG, 43.7% 3FG). If top-seeded Kansas is to make a run to Atlanta, it will largely be because of their talented freshman Ben McLemore. Quite possibly the #1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, McLemore has the ability to score from anywhere in the half-court and has developed into the focal point of a senior-laden Kansas team. In what will most likely be his only NCAA Tournament, can McLemore pull a Carmelo and lead Kansas to a National Championship? It’s a lot to ask of the youngster, but he certainly has the talent to pull it off. Fortunately for Kansas and McLemore, there is a solid nucleus returning to the NCAA Tournament from last year’s national runner-up team to help lead the way.
Stephen Curry Award: Nate Wolters, South Dakota State (22.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 5.8 APG, 2.5:1 A:TO). Last year, Nate Wolters was a mid-major player who was known for stuffing box scores and leading South Dakota State to its first NCAA Tournament in school history. This year, Wolters is a household name and a future NBA Draft pick. There may not be another team in the country that relies on a player to do as much as Wolters does for the Jackrabbits. To average better than 20/5/5 is tremendous. If the Jackrabbits are to win a game, it will be because of Wolters.
Home Cooking: #1 Kansas, 37 miles to Kansas City. One of the perks of being the #1 seed in a region is the preferential treatment the top team receives with regard to the location of games relative to the school’s hometown. For Kansas, they travel a mere 37 miles from Lawrence to Kansas City for their first two games, and if they are so fortunate to advance to the second weekend their games in Arlington are just a shade under 500 miles from the friendly confines of Allen Fieldhouse. It should also be noted that Georgetown and Michigan will have the crowds on their side for the opening rounds as the Hoyas play in Philadelphia — a city littered with Georgetown alums — and the Wolverines in Auburn Hills, just about an hour from Ann Arbor.
Can’t Miss First Round Game: #8 North Carolina vs. #9 Villanova (Friday, March 22 at 7:20 PM on TNT). North Carolina and Villanova are two teams that are peaking at just the right time. The Heels have won eight of 10 games, and the ‘Cats seven of 11 including a critical win over Georgetown to conclude the regular season. Many want to look ahead to the potential match-up pitting Kansas and North Carolina together — similar to last year’s game between Kentucky and Connecticut that never happened — but don’t sleep on Villanova. Although the majority of the Wildcats’ impact players don’t have Tournament experience, Jay Wright’s squad has grown up in a big way this season. Sitting at 15-10 overall and 6-6 in the Big East, Villanova appeared destined for the NIT, but it then defeated Connecticut, Marquette, and Georgetown in the final three weeks of the regular season to all but secure an NCAA bid. Meanwhile, Carolina is equally young and inexperienced, but made serious strides as the season progressed. The individual match-up between James Michael McAdoo and Mouphtaou Yarou will be a dandy to watch. Whichever team emerges from this game has the potential to pose problems for Kansas.
Don’t Miss This One Either: #6 UCLA vs. #11 Minnesota (Friday, March 22 at 9:57 PM ET on truTV). What a scary game this is for the Bruins as Minnesota is far from the prototypical #11 seed. How many double-digit seeds boast wins over the likes of Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan State? Of course, the Golden Gophers are seriously limping into the NCAA Tournament, having lost 11 of their last 16 games, but they have already shown the ability to beat some of the best teams in the country — reason enough for UCLA to worry. To make matters worse, Minnesota happens to be the best offensive rebounding team in the country — a department in which UCLA greatly struggles. It also doesn’t help that UCLA has lost Jordan Adams for the season with a broken right foot. If there is to be a double-digit seed to win its opening game this year, bet on Minnesota.
Lock of the Year: Kansas will not make it to Atlanta. Although the South Region isn’t one of the more challenging regions from top to bottom, Kansas will still be hard-pressed to advance to the Final Four. Bill Self successfully righted the ship after that disastrous three-game stretch that saw Kansas lose to Oklahoma State, TCU, and Oklahoma, but there are a few teams in this region that are serious threats to the Jayhawks. Any team with a dynamite backcourt and strong point guard can fluster KU — Florida, Michigan, and VCU all fit that description. How much can the combination of Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe be trusted? There’s no doubting that Ben McLemore is one of the nation’s best all-around talents and Jeff Withey can change the complexion of a game by himself, but the lack of a rock solid point guard will rear its ugly head and prevent Kansas from advancing back to the Final Four this season.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – purists: #4 Michigan vs. #5 Virginia Commonwealth. Trey Burke and Michigan’s talented backcourt versus Shaka Smart and Virginia Commonwealth’s “havoc” defense. The Rams are a popular pick to advance deep in the Tournament solely because they are such a difficult team to prepare for with just one day available. Even with extended time, that menacing defense Smart has constructed is a bear to handle. How Trey Burke deals with the constant pressure would be exceptional viewing. If Michigan is able to settle into its offense, they may find some success as VCU’s interior defense and rebounding are porous; it’s just a matter of surviving the “havoc,” though.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – media: #1 Kansas vs. #8 North Carolina. In most years, a game of this magnitude with such history between both programs would usually occur on the second weekend or at the Final Four. The storylines for this one are endless. Roy Williams vs. Bill Self. Ol’ Roy against the team he coached for 15 seasons and where he amassed more than 400 wins. Two of the most tradition-rich programs and avid fan bases in college basketball. The media would salivate over such a game, and the venue (Kansas City) would make it all the more appealing.
We Got Screwed: #6 UCLA (25-9, 15-6 Pac-12). It’s not just UCLA that was screwed. One could make the argument that the entire Pac-12 got screwed. Although the league placed five teams in the Dance this season, there has been much debate over the seedings that UCLA, Arizona and Oregon received. The Bruins won the Pac-12 regular season title outright, and were rewarded with a #6 seed and a brutal opener with Minnesota. Truth be told, if UCLA had taken care of business in the Pac-12 championship against Oregon, they most likely would have been a #5 seed. If they hadn’t dropped games in conference play to Arizona State, USC, or Washington State, then they are on a better seed line today. All that said, however, UCLA has a very tough draw and will be lucky to make it out of Austin alive.
Strongest Pod: #3 Florida, #14 Northwestern State, #6 UCLA, #11 Minnesota. Some would argue that three of these four teams underachieved during the regular season. Florida has #1 seed talent and looked to be headed in that direction for much of the year. UCLA was a Top 10 preseason team and has one of the best players in the country suiting up for them each night in Shabazz Muhammad. Minnesota began the season 15-1 and garnered a Top 10 ranking as a result. Despite the struggles at different points this year for these three teams, this Austin pod is absolutely loaded. Lest we forget that Northwestern State is in here as well. If you can believe it, the Demons have more recently won an NCAA Tournament game than Minnesota — 2006, when they defeated Iowa as a #14 seed, and 1997 when Minnesota advanced to the Final Four. They’re obviously a long shot, but Northwestern State has won 13 of its last 15 games and handed Stephen F. Austin two of their four losses this season.
Impressive Track Records: There may not be a better collection of coaches in any other region than the South Region. Proven and veteran coaches are aplenty with names such as Bill Self, Roy Williams, Ben Howland, John Beilein, Shaka Smart, Tubby Smith, Billy Donovan, Steve Fisher, Lon Kruger, and Jay Wright. More than half of the teams in this region have future Hall of Famers and National Championship coaches traipsing the sideline. From 2005-09 Williams, Donovan, and Self won five National Championships.
So-Called Experts: As is so often the case, the “experts” have primarily selected the #1 seeds to advance out of each region. In this case, Kansas is the popular pick to be the last team standing in the South Region. There certainly is a lot to like about the Jayhawks; they have the experience factor on their side along with an imposing frontcourt. However, according to ESPN’s Jay Bilas, Virginia Commonwealth is the team he likes to advance to Atlanta. His rationale for the VCU selection was attributed to their “havoc” defense, its ability to force turnovers and to hit the three-point shot.