NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 21st, 2016

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCEastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCSouthregion and @RTCWestregion.

New Favorite: #1 Kansas (32-4). Meet the new favorite, same as the old favorite. Kansas did nothing over the weekend to diminish its stature as the #1 overall seed and clear Final Four favorite out of the South Region, dropping 105 points on Austin Peay on Thursday before handing Kevin Ollie his first NCAA Tournament loss two days later. In that contest, a 73-61 victory over #9 seed Connecticut, the final margin didn’t even do the Jayhawks justice; Bill Self’s bunch led by 20 points at the half and limited the Huskies to just 27.5 percent two-point shooting for the game. The defense has been sharp, focus doesn’t seem to be an issue and Perry Ellis is playing Most Outstanding Player-level basketball (21.0 PPG, 15-of-21 FG). Even with Maryland and (possibly) Villanova looming next weekend, it would be silly to consider anyone else as the favorite to reach Houston out of this region.

Wayne Selden and the Jayhawks look better than ever. (Associated Press)

Wayne Selden and the Jayhawks look better than ever. (Associated Press)

Horse of Darkness: #3 Miami (27-7). Can we really designate a #3 seed as a dark horse? In this case, yes – the Hurricanes were actually underdogs against #11 seed Wichita State on Saturday, and their hopes seemed grim after coughing away a big first half lead. But Miami (FL), led by point guard Angel Rodriguez, came up with enough big shots to hold off the MVC champs, and now stands just two wins away from its first Final Four appearance in program history. Despite finishing tied for second in the ACC this season, Jim Larranaga’s experienced group was not the subject of much pre-NCAA Tournament chatter. That will change if the Hurricanes take down Villanova on Thursday.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #13 Hawaii (28-6). It’s not just the fact that Hawaii beat #4 seed California that makes this surprising – it’s that the Big West champions never trailed over the final 32 minutes of game action. Despite shooting just 3-of-14 from behind the arc, the Warriors used their aggressive defense (16 forced turnovers) and attack-first offense (20-of-25 FT) to soundly defeat their Pac-12 foe, 77-66. Even though California, already facing several distractions off the court, played without leading scorer Tyrone Wallace (broken hand) and small forward Jabari Bird (back spasms), Hawaii’s wire-to-wire dominance was still surprising.

Completely Expected (First Weekend): #1 Kansas. Considering its recent NCAA Tournament history, there were doubts surrounding Villanova. With Wichita State, Vanderbilt and Arizona in its pod, Miami (FL) was no sure thing. Maryland and California were flawed and it showed. In fact, entering Thursday, Kansas was probably the only team in the South Region expected to reach Louisville with ease. And the Jayhawks did just that, opening up 20-point halftime leads in their wins over Austin Peay and Connecticut, and trailing for all of 1:34 in the two games combined. The road will get more difficult for the Jayhawks, no doubt – Maryland alone will be a tall task – but their first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 2013 is certainly no surprise.

I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient. Told you Iowa was going to beat Temple! If you looked only at KenPom rankings, the Owls – currently ranked 90th, just behind William & Mary – had no business being in the NCAA Tournament to begin with so their opening-round exit was not difficult to forecast. Despite allowing Temple to force overtime and in the face of a decidedly pro-Owls crowd, the struggling Hawkeyes looked (and, for the most part, played) like the better team for 45 minutes.

Villanova made easy work of Iowa in the Barclays Center. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Villanova made easy work of Iowa in the Barclays Center. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Except When I Make Stupid Decisions. Okay, so that was a bit disingenuous. I didn’t merely predict that Iowa would beat Temple; I guaranteed that Iowa would return to midseason form and blow out the Owls. In fact, the Hawkeyes were my Final Four sleeper pick, a team I thought capable of regaining its confidence and giving Villanova, Kansas and any other South Region opponent serious trouble. But not only was Fran McCaffery’s group unable to make quick work of Temple – it took an Adam Woodbury tip-in at the buzzer to knock off the Owls – the Hawkeyes were absolutely dreadful in their second-round matchup against Villanova, surrendering 1.26 points per possession and losing by 19 points. A Final Four contender Iowa was not.

First Weekend MVP: Angel Rodriguez, Miami (FL). The mercurial point guard was outstanding in the Hurricanes’ wins over Buffalo and Wichita State, averaging 26.0 points and 4.5 assists per game and coming up with several clutch shots to see Miami through to the Sweet Sixteen. Against the Shockers, especially, Rodriguez was superb, throwing half-court alley-oop passes, knocking down a huge three-pointer with 1:14 to play, and sinking five free throws in the final minute seal the victory. All told, the senior finished with 28 points in a contest many thought Wichita State would win, especially after the Shockers overcame a large first half deficit and briefly took the lead midway through the second half.

Breakout Star: Wayne Selden, Kansas. Okay, he’s been one of the Jayhawks’ best players all season, so “breakout” might be a bit strong. But prior to the Big 12 Championship game, Selden had not scored 20+ points since late January, including a multi-game, single-digit mini-slump toward the end of the regular season. As a result, the junior’s 22-point performance against Connecticut – along with his 14 points in 19 minutes against Austin Peay – turned some heads. If he continues playing at this level, Kansas will be in great position to cut down the nets, and not just in Louisville.

More Home Cooking: None. Louisville is centrally located but not significantly close to any of the remaining South Region schools. Kansas is closest at 545 miles, with Maryland and Villanova just behind at 605 and 672 miles, respectively. Miami fans must travel more than 1,000 miles to see their team play. If the crowds are partial to any one squad – which will probably happen, considering how well the Kansas faithful travel – it won’t be the result of any home cooking.

Best Regional Semifinal Game: #1 Kansas vs. #5 Maryland. As good as Villanova-Miami (FL) should be, this Sweet Sixteen tilt between a pair of top-five preseason teams might be even better. If Maryland point guard Melo Trimble attacks the basket like he did against South Dakota State and Hawaii (22-of-23 FT) and finds opportunities for forward Diamond Stone in the pick-and-roll, the Terrapins have more than enough talent to hang with the Jayhawks for 40 minutes. There are intriguing matchups all over the court. Perry Ellis has been a master in the paint all season long, but can he remain as effective against Maryland’s enormous frontcourt? Will Kansas guard Wayne Selden (22 points against Connecticut) stay hot? And what about Terrapins’ stretch-four Jake Layman, who scored 27 points against the Jackrabbits? You won’t want to miss this one.

One decade later, Jim Larranaga is eyeing another Final Four run. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

One decade later, Jim Larranaga is eyeing another Final Four run. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Best Regional Final (Projected). #1 Kansas vs. #2 Villanova. The Jayhawks and Wildcats – ranked #2 and #3 in KenPom, respectively – looked utterly dominant in their opening weekend romps, and each team appears fully capable of marching to Houston. But only one can, and an Elite Eight matchup between the two would be a slugfest on both ends of the court. Each squad features great balance – both Kansas and Villanova boast top-15 offenses and defenses – excellent shooting, and efficient, superstar-quality individual players who operate within team-oriented systems. Jayhawks forward Perry Ellis (16.9 PPG) and Wildcats guard Josh Hart (15.3 PPG) each lead their team in scoring, but rarely do you see either guy force shots outside of the flow of a game. Throw in a pair of coaches in Bill Self and Jay Wright who each know what it takes to reach a Final Four, and you have yourself one incredibly juicy regional final.

Top Storyline: Bill Self and Ever-Lurking Criticism. Despite delivering 12 straight Big 12 regular season titles (an absurd streak), two Final Fours and a National Championship to Lawrence, Bill Self – the Naismith College Coach of the Year – still receives his fair share of criticism from folks around the Kansas program and beyond. There are some people who feel he hasn’t done enough. In charge of the #1 overall seed again this season, you can bet that the 13th-year head coach in Lawrence feels at least some pressure to hang another banner in Allen Fieldhouse. These Jayhawks have the best Vegas odds to win it all, so Self will hear the chatter if they don’t at least win the South Region.

Top Storyline for Contrarians: 10 years later, Jim Larranaga Making More March Magic. As George Mason’s head coach in 2006, Jim Larranaga led the Patriots on one of the most improbable Final Four runs in NCAA Tournament history. Now, 10 years later, he has a chance to lead another program – this time a Miami (FL) school with little basketball history to speak of – to its first ever Final Four. If the 66-year old coach pulls off the trick again, it will be among the best stories of March.

Who wins: Villanova. Make no mistake: Kansas is still the logical, odds-on pick, but I have a hunch – simply a hunch – that Villanova has something special in store next weekend. Now that the Wildcats have exorcised their early-round demons and reached the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in seven seasons, it feels like they are playing with house money – not to mention confidence. Jay Wright’s balanced bunch torched Iowa on Sunday and had fun doing it, playing the type of free-flowing, happy-go-lucky basketball that won it the Big East regular season title in the first place. Villanova has what it takes to knock off Kansas, and I think it will.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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