RTC Bracket Prep: South RegionPosted by Bennet Hayes on March 13th, 2017
All day on Monday we will roll out our region-by-region analysis for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Here, Bennet Hayes (@HoopsTraveler) breaks down the South Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC South Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCSouthRegion).
Favorite: #2 Kentucky (29-5, 16-2 SEC). It’s hard to pick a true favorite when examining the top three seeds in this region, as North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA will all garner buzz as Final Four candidates. However, the Wildcats get the RTC nod as region favorites after a dominant SEC Tournament title run. The Tar Heels are the more experienced unit, but it’s possible that no team in the field can match the talent of these young Wildcats. At the very least, Malik Monk (20.4 PPG) and De’Aaron Fox (16.1 PPG, 4.8 APG) make up the scariest backcourt – freshmen or not – in the entire country, and we’ve heard that guard play matters a little bit this time of year. The Wildcats loom as a favorite in a top-heavy region.
Should They Falter: #1 North Carolina (27-7, 14-4 ACC). The Tar Heels enter the NCAA Tournament with less momentum than Kentucky, but the ACC regular season champions have proved plenty dominant all season long. Whether it was during a three-game romp to the Maui Invitational title in November, or its perfect campaign at the Dean Dome, North Carolina sprinted past opponents like so many other Roy Williams coached teams have before. Justin Jackson (18.1 PPG) evolved into the go-to offensive weapon many thought he would never become, while Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have manned an extremely effective frontcourt operation. The Tar Heels’ notation as secondary favorites in the region should not be perceived as a slight; this is a very good team that at worst is the 1B to Kentucky’s 1A.
Grossly Overseeded: #5 Minnesota (24-9, 11-7 Big Ten). If you are trying to make sense of Minnesota’s placement on the #5 seed line, do not look at the committee’s S-Curve for clarification. The Gophers are closer to a #4 seed than a #6 at #18 overall, and the slew of teams right behind them – Notre Dame, Iowa State, SMU, Cincinnati – all feel significantly more deserving/scarier than Minneapolis’ favorite team. As is always the case in situations like these, it’s important to note the merit of Minnesota’s season – Richard Pitino turned last year’s disappointment into success faster than any Gopher fan could have hoped – but a #5 seed this is not. Middle Tennessee State stands to benefit, and you don’t have to dig deep into the memory banks to recall a Blue Raiders’ March takedown of a Big Ten foe.
Criminally Underseeded: #10 Wichita State (30-4, 17-1 Missouri Valley). It’s always nice to win 30 games in advance of Selection Sunday, including 21 of your final 22 games, then look up to find your team on a worse seed line than your national KenPom ranking. This was Gregg Marshall and his Shockers’ fate yesterday evening, but if anyone knows bracketing isn’t always fair, it is Wichita State. Quality foes were especially hard to find in this year’s MVC, which left the Shockers’ 30-4 season light on RPI-boosting victories, even as they were sprinting up the KenPom efficiency charts. Welcome to the South Region, where your #5 seed is the 33rd best team in the country and your #10 seed is the eighth best. Or at least, so says Mr. Pomeroy.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 seed or lower): #12 Middle Tennessee State (30-4, 17-1 Conference USA). Unlike its conference mate Michigan State a season ago, Minnesota should at least see this upset coming. Middle Tennessee was an immediate upset pick for many when the bracket was unveiled on Sunday, and for reasons beyond its March success of a season ago. JaCorey Williams (17.3 PPG) and Giddy Potts (15.8 PPG) spearhead an offense that shoots it well from both inside and beyond the arc, and the Minnesota team the Blue Raiders have drawn in the First Round is as weak a #5 seed as the NCAA Tournament has recently seen. It remains to be seen if, as a far trendier pre-Tournament pick this year, Middle Tennessee can recapture the Giddy (sorry), freewheeling style that enabled its 2016 NCAA Tournament success, but the materials are there for some more March fun.
Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #6 Cincinnati (29-5, 16-2 American Athletic). The top three seeds in this region are all very good and viable national title contenders in their own rights. However, if a higher seed is going to cause a little chaos en route to Phoenix, the Bearcats appear primed for the role. The Cincinnati defense is typically stout (11th nationally in defensive efficiency), but Mick Cronin finally has a few offensive weapons at his disposal as well. Upperclassmen Troy Caupain (10.1 PPG, 4.6 APG) and Gary Clark (10.7 PPG, 7.9 RPG) are the household names, but emerging youngsters Jacob Evans (13.7 PPG) and Jarron Cumberland (11.3 PPG in last seven games) have brought an outside touch the Bearcats have long lacked. No round sets up as easy for Cincinnati, but the Bearcats’ grinding style has the potential to disrupt any team in this region.
Carmelo Anthony Award: Malik Monk, Kentucky (20.5 PPG, 41% 3PFG). Monk has already posted a 47-point game against North Carolina earlier this season, so there should be little doubt that his explosiveness has the potential to change any game. Critics have asked for a more varied contribution set out of the Kentucky freshman, but Coach Cal and his legion of fans should be plenty fine with Monk if his prodigious scoring ways (18 20-point games this season) persist through March and into April.
Stephen Curry Award: Keon Johnson, Winthrop (22.5 PPG, 3.9 RPG). The Eagles’ 5’7” dynamo is one of the must-watch players in this year’s field. He averaged over 29 PPG in carrying Winthrop to the Big South Tournament title and has made over 40 percent of his three-point field goal attempts this season. Butler will have its hands full in trying to contain him, and failure to do so could extend a sneaky-good Winthrop team’s season.
Home Cooking: #2 Kentucky, 190 miles to Indianapolis. Not only do Wildcat fans have a short drive to Indianapolis for the first two rounds, but the site of the regional semifinals and final, Memphis, is also just 425 miles away from Lexington. Not that it really matters – Big Blue Nation will find its way to any arena the Wildcats occupy – but the geography of the draw benefits no team more than Kentucky in the South.
Can’t Miss First Round Game: #7 Dayton vs. #10 Wichita State, 3/17 at 7:10 PM EST on CBS. John Calipari, in typical John Calipari fashion, ranted and raved on Sunday about the abilities of his Wildcats’ potential Second Round foes. Not everything Coach Cal says should be taken at face value, but he isn’t wrong about the Flyers and Shockers. These are two extremely capable, well-coached outfits – neither of which look to be an easy out. Each has seen recent March success – Dayton made the Elite Eight in 2014, Wichita State the Final Four the year prior – and Archie Miller and Gregg Marshall are excellent at cultivating the always valuable “us against the world” mentality. Whichever team advances will have earned its Second Round ticket.
Don’t Miss This One Either: #5 Minnesota vs. #12 Middle Tennessee State, 3/16 at 4:00 PM EST on TNT. We’ve discussed both Minnesota’s dubious claim to a #5 seed and Middle Tennessee State’s spoiler potential, so everyone should already be on alert for this First Round matchup. Could this be a game where the underdog receives so much buzz that the burden of expectation shifts in the other direction? This Minnesota team is no stranger to disproving expectations, so don’t be surprised if Richard Pitino transforms the Blue Raiders’ Cinderella narrative into a motivation tool for the Gophers.
Lock of the Year: Kentucky and Wichita State will deliver another Second Round thriller. It’s true: Dayton is no easy First Round matchup. But we here at RTC have it on good authority that the Shockers will play to their KenPom ranking to make their way into another classic Second Round match-up with Kentucky. We all remember what transpired three years ago when these two teams met on the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend, and despite roles (and seeds) being reversed, more drama will await. Two coaches that demand everything from their players – and usually get it – will orchestrate a hard-fought, 40-minute contest that will leave fans wanting more.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – Purists: #1 North Carolina vs. #3 UCLA in the Elite Eight. Offense, offense, offense. UCLA ranks third nationally in offensive efficiency, while UNC is fourth; UCLA plays at the 13th fastest tempo nationally, UNC the 53rd. Both teams can score the basketball efficiently and quickly, which would make this Elite Eight clash between blue-bloods one to watch.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – Media: #1 North Carolina vs. #2 Kentucky in the Elite Eight. They played the game of the season on December 17 in Las Vegas, a dizzying 203-point outburst that included 81 points from stars Malik Monk and Justin Jackson. Memphis would surely be happy to host round two, with the stakes, program histories, and current talent levels all but guaranteeing a worthy sequel.
We Got Screwed: #3 UCLA. Since Wichita State’s seeding slight has been well-documented in this space, we want to send minor apologies to the Bruins as well. Their #3 seed is understandable given the dearth of quality competition in the Pac-12 this season, but to be paired with the third #1 seed and top #2 seed – and on the other side of the country – feels a little unfair for a team that certainly has the ability to win it all. They can still do that out of the South, but the road to Phoenix is more challenging than UCLA might have hoped a few days ago.
Strongest Pod: Indianapolis (Kentucky, Northern Kentucky, Dayton, Wichita State) With apologies to the Greenville pod (Seton Hall vs. Arkansas features a pair of intriguing teams), this grouping constitutes the toughest collection of teams in the region. The star power on the sideline alone (John Calipari, Gregg Marshall, Archie Miller) makes the case for Indianapolis, but Wichita State and Dayton are opponents no major-conference foe wants to see as early as round two.
Great Storyline: Lavar Ball’s prophecy: a UCLA national title. Lonzo Ball’s controversial but quotable father predicted a Bruins’ national title many weeks ago. He hasn’t backed down since, and UCLA has both the star and offense to back up the bravado of their most boisterous supporter. The draw is tough and the Bruins’ defensive chops will be tested, but expect Ball and UCLA to retain the spotlight for a little while longer.