NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2018

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks. Today and tomorrow we reset each of the four regions. 

New Favorite: #5 Kentucky (26-10). Not only is Kentucky the favorite to win the South Region, it has better odds to reach the Final Four than any team left in the NCAA Tournament, per FiveThirtyEight. Who could have foreseen that on Selection Sunday? Then again, who could have foreseen virtually anything that happened in the South? For the first time in college basketball history, the four top seeds from a single region failed to reach the Sweet Sixteen, leaving the Wildcats standing as the clear-cut favorite in Atlanta. And really, they might have been the favorite anyway. After edging Davidson in the opening round, Kentucky continued playing its best offensive basketball of the season against #13 Buffalo, scoring 1.28 points per possession against a defense that had just baffled #4 Arizona two nights earlier. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (more on him below) was great yet again (27 points on 10-for-12 shooting). Hamidou Diallo (22 points) had his best game in months. Wenyen Gabriel (3-of-5 3FG) continued hitting shots. Since losing to Florida on March 3, Kentucky has looked like an entirely different team — an efficient team — on the offensive end. And that should scare the daylights out of every team left in the Dance.

Kentucky is peaking at the right time. (Kentucky Sports)

Horse of Darkness: #11 Loyola-Chicago (30-5). It speaks volumes about this region that a #11 seed advanced to the Sweet Sixteen and there’s even a debate here, but #7 Nevada and #9 Kansas State both have solid arguments. Still, the Ramblers are the worst remaining seed and no team has taken on that Cinderella “feel” quite like Porter Moser’s group. For Loyola to advance, it took a pair of dramatic (near) buzzer-beaters and some prayers from Sister Jean to upend #6 Miami and #3 Tennessee, the program’s first NCAA Tournament victories since 1985. At no point have the Ramblers looked physically outmatched, though, and it’s doubtful they will against Nevada. Don’t be shocked if this team winds up playing for a trip to San Antonio on Saturday.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #16 UMBC (25-11). Biggest surprise (first weekend)? How about biggest surprise (ever)? In perhaps the greatest upset of all-time, UMBC knocked off #1 overall seed Virginia to become the first #16 seed in NCAA Tournament history to reach the Second Round. Even with several days for that to soak in, the accomplishment remains astounding. Consider that Virginia owned the best record in college basketball (31-2) and won the ACC by four games. And that UMBC lost by 44 points to Albany on January 21. And that Virginia’s defense hadn’t allowed a single opponent to score 70 points this season. Or that UMBC’s offensive efficiency ranked fifth in the America East and didn’t even crack the top 150 nationally. And yet, led by a pair of senior guards with enough swagger to last a lifetime, the Retrievers ripped off 53 points in the second half alone en route to a shocking 74-54 victory, the most total points and points per possession the Cavaliers had surrendered all season. It was the upset to end all upsets.

Completely Expected (First Weekend): Nothing. We’re not trying to be cute here — virtually nothing went as expected in the South Region. A #16 seed beat the #1 overall seed. The #9 seed, Kansas State, reached the Sweet Sixteen without its leading scorer. The #13 seed beat the #4 seed — don’t forget about Buffalo! — and the #11 seed advanced to the second weekend. Oh, and as for #2 Cincinnati? It only blew a 22-point second-half lead against #7 Nevada, giving the Wolf Pack its first Sweet Sixteen berth since 2004. Even #5 Kentucky was far from a sure thing: according to KenPom, the Wildcats had just a 36.7 percent chance of reaching Atlanta before the tournament started.

I’m Exceptionally Smart and Prescient. I said Kentucky was a Final Four sleeper and Creighton was overseeded. Sure enough, the Wildcats are two winnable games from San Antonio and the Bluejays lost handily to #9 Kansas State. I also gave Nevada’s Caleb Martin the Steph Curry Award, and he didn’t disappoint (at least in the clutch): the 6’7″ junior drilled three triples in a row during the overtime period against #10 Texas, then hit the game-tying three with 57 seconds left against Cincinnati on Sunday.

Except When I Make Stupid Decisions. I guaranteed that either Sean Miller (Arizona), Tony Bennett (Virginia) or Mick Cronin (Cincinnati) would finally break through to the Final Four. None did. In fact, none even reached the Sweet Sixteen. Worse yet, only one even reached the Round of 32. I could not have been more wrong.

Clayton Custer and the Ramblers are March sweethearts. (Photo: USA Today Sports)

First Weekend MVP: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kentucky. Kentucky’s freshman point guard has been skyrocketing up draft boards this season, and he showed just why in Boise. After a terrific two-way effort against Davidson (19 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, five steals), Gilgeous-Alexander put on an offensive clinic versus Buffalo, scoring 27 points on 10-of-12 shooting (83% FG!), dishing out six assists and grabbing six boards. He scored from behind the arc and at the rim, in transition and in the half-court, and he only turned the ball over three times. If Gilgeous-Alexander plays this well in Atlanta, look for Kentucky to cut down the nets.

Breakout Star: Clayton Custer, Loyola: The 6’1″ guard couldn’t crack the lineup at Iowa State, so he transferred to a Loyola-Chicago program that had not gone dancing since 1985. And now he’s a March star. Custer’s steady 14-point, four-assist, zero-turnover effort was key against #6 Miami (he was the MVP based on KenPom game scores), but it was his fall-away, kind-iron jumper against #3 Tennessee that’ll keep the point guard in NCAA Tournament highlight reels for years to come.

More Home Cooking: Kentucky, 382 miles to Atlanta. If you thought zombies overran Atlanta, just wait for Big Blue Nation. Year in and year out, Kentucky fans travel farther and in larger numbers than just about any other fan base in college hoops, which means they won’t think twice about making the six hour drive south to the ATL. Not only are the Wildcats the most talented team left in this region, they should effectively be playing in front of a home crowd. Mercedes-Benz Stadium is going to get LOUD.

Best Regional Semifinal: #7 Nevada vs. #11 Loyola-Chicago. The miracle Wolfpack vs. the blessed Ramblers? Yes, please. Setting basketball analysis aside, it required true heroics from both teams in order for this match-up to happen. As such, we should fully expect a great game — with an even better finish — to go down on Thursday night. And even if it doesn’t, we’ll still wind up with a non-power conference program playing for a trip to the Final Four on Saturday.

Best Regional Final (Projected): #5 Kentucky vs. #7 Nevada. More than any team left in this region, Nevada has the size and athleticism to hang with Kentucky regardless of tempo. At 6’7″ apiece, brothers Caleb and Cody Martin are good enough off the dribble to create offense against the rangy Wildcats, which should mean decent looks for three-point specialist Kendall Stephens — who at 6’7″ is capable of shooting over length. And despite losing point guard Lindsey Drew in February, the Wolf Pack simply don’t turn the ball over, ranking first nationally in offensive turnover percentage and coughing it up just twice against Cincinnati’s aggressive defense on Sunday. If scrappy forward Jordan Caroline can keep Kentucky off the offensive glass and force its bigs into foul trouble, look out. This could be a very fun game if it happens.

Can Nevada get to San Antonio? Don’t count out the possibility. (Getty Images)

Top Storyline: Sister Jean. UMBC notwithstanding, no story has captured the nation’s heart quite like Sister Jean, the 98-year-old nun who serves as Loyola-Chicago’s team chaplain. A huge basketball fan who’s been filling out brackets for years, Sister Jean has been the unquestioned inspiration for the Ramblers’ deep run, leading the team in prayer before each game and drawing more media attention than Kim Kardashian. The best part? She only picked Loyola-Chicago to reach the Sweet Sixteen.

Top Storyline for Contrarians: Bruce Weber finally endearing himself to Kansas State fans. Some thought he was on the hot seat in 2015-16. And in 2016-17. And again this season. On Thursday — before Kansas State’s run — Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star wrote: “Reasons why Weber isn’t fully embraced are well known, starting with the lukewarm reception upon his hire, continuing through his lack of success in the NCAA Tournament… Oh, and he’s not Frank Martin.” Basically, the former Illinois head coach has never really felt the love since arriving in in Manhattan. But now is his chance. If Weber can win one more game, he will match Martin’s deepest run at Kansas State; win two more, and the 61-year-old will take the Wildcats to their first Final Four since 1964. That would surely keep him off the hot seat for a while.

Who wins: #7 Nevada. This region has defied logic, so it seems only logical to make an illogical pick. Make sense? Nothing does in the South, just go with it. Dig deeper on Kentucky’s losses (and near-losses) this season and you’ll find that many of the teams it struggled against were efficient, attacking offenses that shot three-pointers at a high rate — very similar to Nevada. UCLA and Auburn are fine examples, both teams that play uptempo like the Wolf Pack. Throw in the fact that Caleb Martin (18.8 PPG) is arguably the best individual offensive player left in this region, and it’s there’s no reason to think the Mountain West champs can’t get to San Antonio.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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