NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 21st, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #1 North Carolina (29-7). The Tar Heels might have actually had the most unimpressive opening weekend of the four teams remaining in the South, as they needed a kind late whistle to escape #8 Arkansas on Sunday. However, the region’s #1 seed retains its status as a Final Four favorite in large part because of the draw. Butler posted a pair of workmanlike victories in dispatching #13 Winthrop and #12 Middle Tennessee State last weekend, but the Bulldogs’ road to Memphis was far simpler than that of fellow semifinalists UCLA and Kentucky. Second round wins over Cincinnati and Wichita State, respectively, are impressive notches — victories that confirm both the Bruins’ and Wildcats’ status as National Title contenders. Because Butler is simply not that, North Carolina becomes the only team in a balanced region to not need two victories over elite foes in Memphis, which gives the Heels the inside track to Phoenix.

Joel Berry and the Tar Heels are still the team to beat in a balanced region.(Photo: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #4 Butler (25-8). As noted above, Butler is the only team in the Memphis region that doesn’t qualify as a true contender. That’s no knock on the Bulldogs — a group that put together a nice season and a pair of quality first weekend performances — but there is an obvious drop-off when it comes to program prestige and overall talent against the three blue-bloods in this regional. However, that does not mean Kelan Martin (19 points, six rebounds and four assists in the win over MTSU) and his Bulldogs aren’t capable of winning two games in Memphis. Successfully slowing tempo against the frenetic Tar Heels will be a key to that process.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #8 Arkansas (26-10). The Razorbacks’ season may be over, but in this surprise-less region, their near-upset of #1 North Carolina qualifies as the most sizable surprise of the first weekend. According to KenPom, Arkansas held a 75 percent chance of winning that game with three and a half minutes remaining – a feat few expected before the opening tip. Of course, the Razorbacks proved unable to hold on, but when all four top seeds advance to the regional semifinals, it’s hard to find too many true surprises. More on that below.

Completely Expected (First Weekend): Everything. Not only are all four top seeds advancing to Memphis, but both first round upsets in the South (#12 Middle Tennessee State over #5 Minnesota and #10 Wichita State over #7 Dayton) were won by teams who were favorites in Vegas sports books. Quite exactly, everything went to script in the South.

I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient. I promised you another Kentucky-Wichita State thriller, and thrilled you all were. The Shockers were first able to advance past plucky Dayton to set up this rematch of a 2013 Second Round classic, then delivered Kentucky a 40-minute scare in the next round. No team held more than a six-point lead at any point, and it took two late blocks by Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo to prevent the Shockers from hoisting potential game-winning and tying three-point attempts. Another game bid by Gregg Marshall‘s crew, but the final score belied the same unfortunate reality of three years ago: horribly unfair draw or not, the Shockers’ season was over.

Except When I Make Stupid Decisions. I didn’t expect Arkansas to emerge from its First Round match-up with Seton Hall, much less push the top-seeded Tar Heels to the brink of elimination. Moses Kingsley (23 points, four blocks) sparked the 77-71 win over Angel Delgado and Seton Hall, while sharp-shooting (8-of-21 3FG) positioned the Hogs minutes away from the upset of this year’s NCAA Tournament. The massive North Carolina front line ultimately plowed the Tar Heels through their bad shooting and into the next round (18 offensive rebounds and a +13 rebounding margin for UNC), but give Arkansas credit — they vastly exceeded my expectations.

First Weekend MVP: Lonzo Ball, UCLA. The UCLA freshman posted yet another dominant but smooth performance against Cincinnati Sunday, scoring 18 points (on 10 shots), handing out nine assists and collecting seven rebounds. He spearheaded an offense that scored 1.25 points per possession against a Bearcats’ defense that entered the game among the nation’s 15 best in defensive efficiency. In fact, he looked good enough in doing it to help make the Bruins a Las Vegas favorite in their regional semifinal matchup with higher-seeded Kentucky. His father continues to make headlines off the floor, but that noise can do little to distract from the transcendent season Ball is having on it.

Lonzo Ball helped UCLA fly by Cincinnati and into the Sweet 16 (Photo: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports)

Breakout Star: Landry Shamet, Wichita State. In the eyes of the general college basketball viewing public, Shamet was just another contributor on a Wichita State team full of them. The promising youngster may now be a rising sophomore and not a freshman (this will happen when a season ends) and didn’t light the world on fire from long range this weekend (3-of-12 3FG in two games after shooting 44 percent on the season), but his 20-point effort in the near-upset of Kentucky turned some heads. Shamet outplayed the far more acclaimed freshman on the other side, Malik Monk, and delivered several key buckets down the stretch to keep the Shockers in the game. Wichita State may no longer have the spotlight that the NCAA Tournament provides, but Shamet ensured his status as a player to watch in the Missouri Valley next season.

More Home Cooking: Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky, isn’t exactly a neighboring city to Memphis, but the 423-mile journey to the South regional final should be a fairly easy migration for Big Blue Nation. Expect North Carolina fans to represent on Beale Street as well, but the Wildcats should feel something of a home-court edge this weekend in SEC country.

Best Regional Semifinal Game: #2 Kentucky vs. #3 UCLA. This may be the top regional semifinal game to watch in the larger bracket, too. These two teams battled in a compelling affair at Rupp Arena in December, one that ultimately saw the Bruins seize a five-point win in a regulation game that included 189 total points. Expect scoring to again be on the agenda for Friday night, but whichever team is able to provide the most resistance on the defensive end may be the title contender to find its way to the regional final.

Kentucky grinded out another Sweet Sixteen appearance – can they now handle UCLA? (Photo: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)

Best Regional Final (Projected). #1 North Carolina vs. #3 UCLA. With all due respect to John Calipari and his talented and entertaining Wildcats team, this match-up would feature a pair of historic programs with elite offenses and an eagerness to push tempo. Kentucky is clearly an equal when it comes to tradition and its offense is nearly as good in its own right, but Lonzo Ball’s ascension into the most fun player in the country (and most talked about) leaves us hoping the Bruins’ season has at least two more games left in it.

Top Storyline: UCLA’s explosive march to Memphis. LaVar Ball’s antics in addition to Steve Alford’s Indiana roots and links to the open Hoosierscoaching job have only created more headlines for the Bruins that have nothing to do with the team on the floor. However, it may have only heightened the national appreciation for this turnaround season, as buzz is building behind Ball and his explosive offensive unit. For a number of reasons, UCLA has become one of the must-watch teams of this NCAA Tournament.

Top Storyline for Contrarians: Don’t forget about Butler. The Bulldogs enter Memphis with the decidedly least attention of the four teams remaining, but that isn’t so different from how Chris Holtmann’s team has floated through this entire season. It’s also not that dissimilar from the Sweet Sixteen conversation that surrounded eventual Butler Final Four teams of 2010 and 2011. Butler is talented enough to turn the silence into conversation by the time Friday night is done – don’t sleep on the Bulldogs.

Who wins: North Carolina. UCLA’s free-wheeling offense will prove efficient enough to squeak by Kentucky, but North Carolina’s veteran interior presents a challenge rarely seen in the Pac-12. The Tar Heels should be able to manage Butler in the Sweet Sixteen to set up this match-up, and as fun as the Lonzo Ball show continues to be, it’s Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks that will prove to be the difference between Elite Eight and Final Four. Either way, in a region that was touted as the best before the NCAA Tournament began and has now brought its top four teams to Memphis, the champion will have earned its spot in Phoenix.

BHayes (244 Posts)

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