NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 23rd, 2015


Your bracket is busted and the Sweet Sixteen is set. Let’s do a Regional Reset. Follow @rtcsouthregion for reporting from Houston this week. You can find all four regional resets here.

New Favorite: #1 Duke. The Blue Devils are well-positioned to make their first Final Four since 2010. Two wins in Charlotte (by an average of 24.0 PPG) did little to diminish their status as the South Region favorite, even with Gonzaga and Utah also impressively advancing en route to Houston. Duke, 31-4 and trending upwards, has made clear the crown will go through them.

Quinn Cook And Matt Jones Helped Duke Cruise By San Diego State And Into The Sweet 16

Quinn Cook and Matt Jones Helped Duke Cruise by San Diego State and into the Sweet Sixteen. (Getty)

Horse of Darkness: #11 UCLA. The only double-digit seed left standing in this NCAA Tournament is the South Region’s darkest horse, despite that double-digit seed owning more national titles than any program in the history of college basketball. UCLA’s serendipitous March has been well-documented, but 80 minutes of solid basketball earned the Bruins a trip to Houston and the second weekend. The impediment to advancement (Gonzaga) will be significantly greater in Houston; can UCLA’s mutation into Cinderella maintain itself for another weekend?

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #3 Iowa State. It was the quick departure of a pair of #3 seeds from the Big 12 that supplied this year’s NCAA Tournament an early jolt on Thursday afternoon. Baylor’s demise on the other side of the bracket was surprising in its own right, but Iowa State’s loss to UAB was legitimately shocking. Fresh off a takedown of Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament championship game, the Cyclones had entered this tourney with engines revving. The draw was favorable in the South – many believed a Final Four run was in the cards. At worst, a second round victory over 14-point underdog UAB felt like a certainty. But the impossible becomes possible very quickly this time of year; before anyone knew it, Iowa State had become the first casualty of the Madness of March.

Completely Expected (First Weekend): #1 Duke.  The gift of proximity proved insufficient for advancement last season when Duke lost to Mercer in Raleigh, but the Blue Devils used a partisan crowd to fuel decisive victories over Robert Morris and San Diego State over the weekend. There was never a doubt about the outcome in Charlotte on Sunday, as Duke wouldn’t allow the Aztecs to settle into the grinding tempo at which they prefer to play. In doing so, the Blue Devils attained a Sweet Sixteen berth that always seemed likely.

I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient. I locked fifth-seeded Utah into the Sweet Sixteen last Sunday and while I don’t want to say there was never a doubt… there was never a doubt. The Utes trailed Georgetown by double-figures in the first half on Saturday, but the early Hoyas’ lead gave way to a second half in which Utah took control. Larry Krystkowiak and Delon Wright have guided the Utes with a cool, steady hand all season, but their composure was never more evident than it was this weekend.

Delon Wright Wasn't At His Best This Weekend, But Still Helped Utah Post Wins Against Stephen F. Austin And Georgetown (Getty)

Delon Wright Wasn’t At His Best This Weekend, But Still Helped Utah Post Wins Against Stephen F. Austin And Georgetown. (Getty)

Except When I Make Stupid Predictions. Iowa State was listed as my second favorite to take the South region. Not only does the Cyclones early flame-out not reflect well here, but the relative ease with which both Gonzaga and Utah advanced to Houston forces acknowledgement that Iowa State may not have been the team to pick in that spot. Also: UCLA’s run to the Sweet Sixteen was entirely unexpected for me.

First Weekend MVP: Bryce Alford, UCLA. I don’t think Alford is the most underrated player in the country, but he may be the most not overrated player in college basketball. Alford has received a lot of blame for early UCLA losses and surprisingly little acclaim for what’s been a pretty tidy sophomore season. He was sensational against SMU and UAB this weekend, making 12 of his 16 three-point attempts en route to averaging 24.5 PPG in the two victories. Earlier this week, colleague Andrew Murawa tweeted this: “I’m glad everyone keeps telling me Bryce Alford sucks, because if I believed my own eyes I might think he’s pretty damn good.” During this first weekend, even the most bitter of Alford detractors would be hard-pressed to pick a fight with Drew’s eyes: To this point, Alford has been the star of the South Region.

Breakout Star: Justise Winslow, Duke. Breakout March stars often come from tiny schools, but sometimes, however, they play basketball at Duke. Winslow has had a nice freshman season in Durham, but the exploits of more acclaimed classmates Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones have often left Winslow underappreciated. He showed off his versatility in the Blue Devils’ two wins this weekend, averaging 9.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists to go with a couple of blocks and steals per game. It’s not that Okafor and Jones aren’t deserving of praise – they have both been sensational — but Winslow supplies a toughness and athleticism found nowhere else on this Duke roster. His role is crucial to Duke’s Final Four chances.

More Home Cooking: No team. Duke is the school closest to Houston, but the Blue Devils won’t exactly be treated to home cooking this weekend – they will still be traveling over 1,000 miles to the South Regional. Fan support will be dictated by which program’s supporters travel in the largest numbers. Duke and Gonzaga should lead the way in that pursuit, and it’s not impossible to think that the Zags’ underdog history helps them accumulate a handful of neutral observers once in Houston. Generally speaking, this is the rare truly neutral site.

Best Regional Semifinal Game: #1 Duke vs. #5 Utah (Friday, March 27, 9:45 PM ET on CBS). It would be hard to head in the opposite direction with this one (we are after all supposed to be watching UCLA play in the NIT quarterfinals this week, not the Sweet Sixteen), but Duke and Utah meet in a matchup high in intrigue. Delon Wright wasn’t at his best in Portland this weekend. That will need to change against the hard-charging Blue Devils, unless Utah expects Wright’s teammates to again shoot 74 percent from the field as they did in Saturday’s win over Georgetown. Matchups on the perimeter between Wright and Jones and inside between Okafor and Jakob Poeltl will be key in determining a victor. Expect Duke to get its first true test of the NCAA Tournament, as the seeds next to these two teams belie a closer matchup.

Best Regional Final (projected): #1 Duke vs. #2 Gonzaga (Sunday, March 29). Why not gather the two best teams in the region to determine a national semifinalist? Better yet, why not gather two of the four most efficient offenses in the country to determine a national semifinalist? In a Tournament filled with low-scoring slugfests, a matchup between two teams defined by their proficient offenses would be a welcomed respite. It wouldn’t quite be a “race to 100” type of affair – neither team is in the top-100 nationally in possessions per game – but the collective efficiency of the Zags and Blue Devils is staggering. No player expected to see extended minutes this weekend has an offensive rating below 110; Byron Wesley is still one of the 500 most efficient players in the country with his offensive rating of 110.7. If the Virginia-Michigan State game set basketball back a few years, this potential regional final could at least return the game to the present day.

Gonzaga's Senior Backcourt Of Gary Bell And Kevin Pangos Will Play In Their First Sweet Sixteen Friday Night. Can They Help Lead The Zags To Their First-Ever Final Four? (USA Today Sports)

Gonzaga’s Senior Backcourt Of Gary Bell And Kevin Pangos Will Play In Their First Sweet Sixteen Friday Night. Can They Now Lead The Zags To Their First-Ever Final Four? (USA Today Sports)

Top Storyline: Gonzaga’s Final Four Quest. The Bulldogs exorcised a few demons in advancing to Houston, but there is still a larger order of business to get to the program’s first-ever Final Four. As an annual participant in the drama of March, it’s high time Mark Few and his gang piece together four straight NCAA Tournament victories. There should be no complaints about a #11 seed waiting in the Sweet Sixteen, but there are no free passes handed out to the Final Four. If they can beat the Bruins and then either Duke or Utah, Gonzaga will have earned its first journey to the national semifinals.

Top Storyline for Contrarians: Pac-12 Statement. Arizona’s credentials as a national title contender have prevented any significant damage to the prestige of the Pac-12, but let’s face it: The league struggled this season. Getting three teams to the Sweet Sixteen, though, does offer a bit of redemption, and an unlikely but possible Utah-UCLA regional final would further salvage a mediocre regular season. Will the Pac-12 take Houston by storm this weekend?

My Pick: Duke. I think the winner of Friday’s Utah-Duke game will ultimately reach the Final Four. Even as we head to Houston for this regional, Utah remains underrated. Their slow tempo belies a surprisingly efficient offensive unit, while the defense (seventh-best nationally) is worthy of the praise it receives. With apologies to Gonzaga, these are the two best teams in the region. I think either will advance if they meet the Zags in the regional final. As far as Friday goes, I think the variety of options in the Duke offense – Okafor, Jones, Cook and Winslow – will prove overwhelming for Utah, leading Krzyzewski over Krystkowiak in the battle of Coach Ks. Duke is the pick to reach Indianapolis.

BHayes (244 Posts)

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