NCAA Regional Reset: South RegionPosted by Bennet Hayes on March 25th, 2014
Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is the NCAA Tournament’s South Region correspondent, which begins Thursday night at FedEx Forum in Memphis with Dayton vs. Stanford followed by UCLA vs. Florida. Look out for the West Regional Reset later today and the East and Midwest Resets tomorrow. Make sure to also follow @RTCSouthRegion for news and analysis from Memphis throughout the week.
New Favorite: #1 Florida. Nothing has changed on this front. The Gators looked as overwhelming as ever in their third round defeat of Pittsburgh, and with only one other top-nine seed remaining in the region, the NCAA Tournament’s #1 overall seed is in fantastic shape to make its way to Dallas. The Sweet Sixteen match-up with UCLA won’t be easy, but more on that later – the Gators are still the South region’s clear favorite.
Horse of Darkness: #11 Dayton. This quadrant offered plenty of candidates for the honor, but with apologies to Stephen F. Austin (only one win) and Stanford (too familiar a brand), the Dayton Flyers advancing to their first Sweet Sixteen since 1984 makes for the South Region’s best Cinderella story. We make loyal Flyer fans pretend like the First Four is a big deal annually – and their love of basketball prevents them from failing in this pursuit – so it’s only fair that they finally get something to cheer about from their own team. On February 1, Archie Miller’s club (1-5 in the Atlantic 10 at the time) wasn’t even one of the top eight teams in their own conference, but after a late-season surge and this unexpected Tourney run, the Flyers will play on Thursday for a chance to be one of the final eight teams left standing in all of college basketball. What. A. Turnaround.
Biggest Surprise (1st Weekend): #10 Stanford. When it comes to unexpected visitors in the South Region semifinals, Dayton wins the heart (see above), but Stanford steals the mind. I was far from the only one that gave the Cardinal little chance of beating New Mexico — let alone Kansas — but two wins in St. Louis later, Stanford may be the most surprising team to see the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend. They beat the Lobos with a lethal three-point attack (8-of-15 3FG), then toppled Kansas without the need for even one long-range field-goal (0-of-9 3FG). The two masterpieces (generously termed, but yes, still masterpieces) may not have been cooked up with the exact same ingredients, but throughout this first weekend, Stanford displayed a toughness and late-game poise that many (including myself) never knew they had.
Completely Expected (1st Weekend): #1 Florida. Very little went as planned in the South, but the top-seeded Gators took care of business as you would expect them to do. Albany did run a little bit of a scare into Billy Donovan’s troops for about 30 minutes, but the Gators pulled away down the stretch to advance to the round of 32. Once there, they decided they’d had enough dramatic moments for one weekend, trouncing Pittsburgh in convincing fashion to secure their reservations for Memphis. The unpredictability of the first weekend is always fun, but a small dose of sanity can be a welcomed gift in the midst of the madness, so thank you to the Gators for being one of the few squads in the South to supply first-weekend results that aligned with pre-Tournament expectations.
I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient: My lock of the first weekend was a Florida-UCLA Sweet Sixteen match-up, and the Bruins and Gators got to this match-up in exceptionally easy fashion. Documented above is Florida’s painless road to Memphis, but UCLA may have made the journey look even easier. In a pair of 17-point victories over Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin, the Bruins made offense looked as simple as can be (39 assists on 49 field goals), and as a result, neither opponent ever really threatened to add another chapter to the book that Steve Alford has been writing about horror and basketball in March. Oh, and for including an Alford-coached team in a lock that involved not one, but TWO NCAA Tournament wins, feel free to throw a couple bonus points my way. Joking aside, Alford and UCLA deserve credit for a clinically efficient stay in San Diego this week.
Except When I Make Stupid Predictions: Sorry, Stanford. If you read any of my South Region previews, you may have actually been unaware that Stanford was in the region – I had already skipped ahead to a New Mexico-Kansas battle that was DEFINITELY going to happen; Stanford was merely popping their head in to St. Louis, saying hello to ensure Dawkins’ job was saved, and then making its way back to Palo Alto. Well, Chasson Randle and Co. have certainly guaranteed that Dawkins will be back for another season, and in the process, may have also indirectly answered my snarky pre-Tournament question: “If you are a Stanford fan, is it a good thing that Johnny Dawkins has supposedly saved his job?” If you are a Stanford fan and you like Elite Eights, the answer might soon have to be a yes.
First Weekend MVP: Chasson Randle, Stanford. Scottie Wilbekin was brilliant against Pitt (21 points, 9-of-15 FG) and Jordan Adams averaged 20.0 PPG in UCLA’s two victories, but Randle gets the nod as the South Region’s first weekend MVP. He didn’t step off the floor during the Cardinal’s 80 minutes of St. Louis glory, scored 23 of the Cardinal’s 58 points in the win over New Mexico, then contributed 13 points and seven steals in Stanford’s upset of Kansas. Randle is as important to his team as any player in the country, and it could not have been more obvious this weekend. Unfortunately, he is also the single biggest reason why we had to hear Jim Nantz utter something about the “St. Louis Cardinal” in the aftermath of the Stanford victory, but Randle’s on-court value was enough to overcome his role in this regrettable event.
Breakout Star: Desmond Haymon, Stephen F. Austin. Any number of Dayton Flyers could qualify for this honor, but why not give a tip of the cap to a player who gave us one of the unforgettable moments of this, or any other, NCAA Tournament. Haymon had 17 points in both SFA games this week and connected on more than one clutch shot in the upset over VCU, but his lasting memory will surely be a singular moment… plus a free throw. Game-tying four-point plays in the waning seconds don’t exactly happen all the time, and when the moment paves the way for a first-round upset in the NCAA Tournament, you can be sure that it won’t leaving the memory banks – or montages — anytime soon. SFA quietly exited the Dance just two days later, but on Friday night, Desmond Haymon needed only a few seconds to permanently etch his name in NCAA lore.
More Home Cooking: Nobody. Both Dayton and Florida should have sizable contingents in Memphis, but with at least eight hours of highway separating each school from Tennessee’s largest city, it’s hard to believe that either team will feel right at home. UCLA and Stanford will obviously have a significantly longer trek to Memphis. Expect Florida to have an advantage in pure number of supporters, but the plucky Flyers may pick up a neutral fan or two in ratcheting up the most FedEx Forum support this weekend.
Best Regional Semifinal Game: #1 Florida vs. #4 UCLA (Thursday, March 27, 9:45 PM ET on CBS). Maybe you have a double-digit seed fetish and like games played in 50s, but I’ll take the match-up of the two best teams left in the South. Florida hasn’t seen many teams in the SEC that push tempo like UCLA does, and the Bruins have plenty of shooters (38.6 percent from three as a team) to exploit a three-point defense that is weakest link of the Gators’ statistical profile. Patric Young, Dorian Finney-Smith and Will Yeguete should give the Wear twins plenty of trouble up front, but can the Gators offense keep pace with UCLA? Florida will be favored, but I’m excited to see how Billy Donovan’s team deals with the toughest opponent it has seen since early December.
Best Regional Final Game (projected): #4 UCLA vs #10 Stanford (Saturday, March 29). Blame Kansas and Syracuse for making this our best-case scenario, and it does feel like the South’s regional final will be contested on Thursday night, doesn’t it? (I’m not talking about Dayton and Stanford) Florida versus either the Cardinal or the Flyers has the potential to be a rout, so a renewal of this Pac-12 “rivalry” may be our best bet for a memorable regional final. And yes, our best bet for a memorable regional final includes two teams that produced an 84-59 result the last time they met (in the Pac-12 Tournament two weeks ago). Before I completely fail at promoting this Saturday possibility, I’ll note that the two teams did split regular season games, and their familiarity does offer a definite subplot – something that is nowhere to be found in other possible scenarios.
Top Storyline: Florida’s march towards a title. It’s National Championship or bust for the Gators, but the road looks to toughen significantly when they meet the Bruins on Thursday night. Of course, the potential regional final match-up with a double-digit seed has many sliding Florida through to the Final Four already, but the Gators can’t begin glancing at the finish line just yet. The SEC did little in the way of challenging this team, which has made a firm NCAA Tournament test long awaited by everyone (Billy Donovan is probably included here). They should get it on Thursday.
Top Storyline for Contrarians: Can Stanford or Dayton reach the Final Four? They wouldn’t play the unwelcomed guest role quite as well 2011 VCU or 2006 George Mason, but could either of these two underdogs join those programs in ignoring their double-digit seed line and making the National Semifinals? Stanford and Dayton are the two worst teams remaining in the field according to KenPom, but it’s guaranteed that one of them will be 40 minutes of basketball away from North Texas. Dayton is the better story, but Stanford may possess the team more capable of notching two wins this weekend; can either turn the pre-Tournament unthinkable into a reality on Saturday afternoon?
My Pick: UCLA. There have been many hints at the selection through this reset, but here it is: I like UCLA to upset Florida. The SEC is 7-0 in this NCAA Tournament, but I’m still not sure how much stock we should put into the Gators 21-0 stroll through the league in a down season. At the very least, the conference has few teams capable of approximating UCLA’s offensive firepower, and I want to see a team force Florida to match them bucket for bucket. A hidden reliance on Wilbekin and Michael Frazier to make threes makes the Gators more vulnerable than you think, and despite their fearsome appearance, the Gators’ frontcourt may not be capable of fully exploiting that soft UCLA interior. Alford’s team has reached the Sweet Sixteen with little national attention paid, but expect that to end on Thursday night.
Revised Vegas Odds to Win Region: