Bracket Prep: South Region AnalysisPosted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on March 17th, 2014
Throughout Monday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (10:00 AM), Midwest (11:00 AM), South (1:00 PM), West (2:00 PM). 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).
You should also check out our upcoming RTC Podblast with Bennet breaking down the South Region, which will drop both on the site and on iTunes Tuesday.
Favorite: #1 Florida (32-2, 21-0 SEC). The Gators are the clear front-runner to win the South region, and after winning their last 26 games, should also be the presumptive favorite to cut down the nets in Dallas. Winning four games in a row to reach the Final Four is never an easy chore, but the field’s #1 overall seed has all the necessary ingredients to make a fourth final four run under Billy Donovan.
Should They Falter: #2 Kansas (24-9, 15-5 Big 12). The Jayhawks’ case is a tricky one. With Joel Embiid, Kansas is easily the scariest #2 seed in the field and a serious threat to win it all; but the Jayhawks are far more difficult to quantify without their gifted freshman big man. Nothing is definite with Embiid’s prognosis, but if healthy and able to play, Kansas would only be the slightest of underdogs in an Elite Eight rematch with Florida. The outlook gets a little gloomier if the future trumps the present for the potential #1 overall pick in April’s NBA Draft (the one named Joel), but Andrew Wiggins’ recent offensive explosions still make Kansas a threat to run deep in this Tournament. Don’t forget that they will have a nice home court advantage in St. Louis for rounds two and three, and that crutch could help the Jayhawks advance to the second weekend without too much fuss – with or without Embiid. It’s still Bill Self and KU; don’t make the mistake of believing Joel Embiid’s health will be the sole determinant of the Jayhawk’s fate.
Grossly Overseeded: #8 Colorado (23-11, 12-9 Pac-12). There are no egregious examples of overseeding in this region, but Colorado stands out as the South’s most overvalued team. #3 Syracuse and #5 VCU may also have been generously awarded an extra seed line, but as currently constructed, the Buffs deserved to be closer to the cut-line than their #8 seed would suggest they actually were. Since Spencer Dinwiddie went down on January 12, Colorado managed only a .500 record in the Pac-12 and rarely looked competitive in outings against the upper echelon of the league. They are just 64th in KenPom’s rankings (only NC State is worse among at-large selections), and each of their three wins since February 19 was earned by the narrowest of margins (quirky note: all had final scores of 59-56). Askia Booker has remade himself in Dinwiddie’s absence and Tad Boyle deserves a ton of credit for navigating CU through the storm and into this field, but Colorado is just not one of the 32 best teams in college basketball.
Grossly Underseeded: #7 New Mexico (27-6, 18-3 Mountain West). The Lobos’ seed line is one of the easiest bones to pick with the selection committee. New Mexico went 18-3 in the Mountain West, won the league’s conference tournament, and hasnt’t lost a game by more than three points since December 17. As a result, most bracketologists had New Mexico on the #5 line heading into Selection Sunday, but a down year for the Mountain West appeared to ultimately weigh heavily in the committee’s assessment of the Lobos. Don’t cry for Craig Neal’s team, though. The seeding slight should serve to only further incite the “unfinished business” rallying cry that has fueled the Lobos all season, and New Mexico will show up in St. Louis as a nightmare of a #7 seed.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 seed or lower): #12 Stephen F. Austin. Thirty-one wins later, the Lumberjacks have arrived in the NCAA Tournament. Since I’ve heard from my friends Fred, Cleanthony, and Ron that winning a lot of games in the regular season doesn’t always convince others of a team’s ability, it’s worth nothing that there are factors beyond the gaudy record making SFA a threat to win two games this weekend. They are a small, guard-oriented team that should be well-equipped to deal with the trademark VCU pressure, and the Rams so-so offense (248th in effective FG%) may not be able to take advantage of SFA’s biggest weakness, their FG% defense. It’s a classic tempo clash, so give SFA a real chance to advance if they can routinely get into their half-court offense. UCLA would likely await in round three, where the Jacks would again have the opportunity to dictate tempo to a team that wants to get up and down the floor. I’m not saying either win will happen, but there’s a chance.
Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #4 UCLA (26-8, 15-6 Pac 12). Steve Alford has to be thrilled; his team is red hot yet still somewhat under the radar, they are headed to nearby San Diego, and the Bruins have even been tossed into a pod that features little in the way of immediate danger. The rash of conference tournament upsets had implications all the way up to a softer-than-usual #13 seed line, so expect UCLA to slide by Tulsa in round two before the turnover-averse Bruins (16th nationally in turnover percentage) pass their way right through VCU’s havoc. Getting through potential match-ups with Florida and Kansas/Syracuse/New Mexico won’t be so easy, but Kyle Anderson is playing his best basketball of the season (and that’s saying something) while also getting help from a talented supporting cast. Seven members of the eight-man UCLA rotation enter the NCAA Tournament with offensive ratings of at least 110, which tells you something that Arizona, the best defensive team in the country, can surely attest to: These Bruins are hard to stop. If their defense (which is probably better than you think) can withstand the test of March, UCLA has a real opportunity to make a run to Dallas.
Carmelo Anthony Award: Andrew Wiggins, Kansas. This one feels pretty natural, doesn’t it? For Kansas to reach Dallas, Wiggins would be well-served in producing his best Carmelo impersonation. That idea may have seemed a bit far-fetched for much of this season, but Wiggins has taken over offensively since Joel Embiid went down, averaging 33 points per game in the Jayhawk’s last three contests. After all the talk of him being overrated in November and December, how fitting would it be for Wiggins to carry the Jayhawks to Dallas when pundits finally start sleeping on an Embiid-less Kansas? He may be ready for a prolific NCAA Tournament performance.
Stephen Curry Award: Glenn Cosey, Eastern Kentucky. A difficult second-round match-up with Kansas may render his talents for naught, but Glenn Cosey (18.8 PPG, 4.2 APG, 43% 3FG) fits the profile of a giant-killing star to a T. The diminutive (6’0”) Colonels point guard engineered a near-upset of VCU back in December and has the ability to get hot in a hurry, having made six or more three-pointers five different times this season. The Colonels are not big and struggle defensively when they aren’t forcing turnovers, but led by Cosey, may have a shot at scaring the Jayhawks if they can do what they do best – make three-point shots.
Home Cooking: #3 Syracuse, 50 miles to Buffalo. All of the top four seeds in the South will spend their opening weekends close to home – Florida in Orlando, Kansas in St. Louis, and UCLA in San Diego – but the journey is especially short – and needed – for the Orange. After losing five of seven games to close the regular season, Jim Boeheim’s team is in search of something to change the Orange’s momentum, and the home-cooking might just do the trick. First things first: After spending the last three weeks making the bottom of the ACC look like Duke and Carolina, Syracuse should be careful with Western Michigan, but provided the Orange dispatch WMU, that Carrier Dome-simulating atmosphere could be the difference against either Ohio State or Dayton.
Can’t Miss Second Round Game: Dayton vs Ohio State, 3/20, 12:15 PM on CBS. The battle for Ohio, only it takes place in Buffalo! To be fair, we would probably need to invite Cincinnati and Xavier to join us on the other half of the pod if we really wanted to put the state title up for grabs, but storylines run deep in this second round match-up. Dayton coach Archie Miller was an assistant to Thad Matta years ago, while Dayton leading scorer Jordan Sibert (12.5 PPG, 44% 3FG) was once a Buckeye before transferring in search of more playing time. He found it 70 miles west in Dayton, and no matter how peaceable the parting of ways was in Columbus, you better believe that he would like nothing more than to send Matta and company back to Columbus for the summer. For those keeping track at home, Ohio State is 255th nationally in three-point shooting at 32.6 percent this season, and Sibert would be a senior had he stayed at OSU. Hmmmm….
Don’t Miss This One Either: VCU vs Stephen F. Austin, 3/21, 7:27 PM on truTV. Turnovers for everyone! Both the Rams (25.6 TO%, 1st nationally) and Lumberjacks (24.4 TO%, 3rd nationally) force turnovers at a frenetic rate, so if you enjoy pressure defense, or as some would call it, “havoc,” this game is definitely worth a watch. Plus, we get to find out what the deal is with Stephen F. Austin! I don’t care who you are, or if you have a live-stream to Southland Conference games that you have been making use of – you do not know what to expect out of the Lumberjacks in this NCAA Tournament. If they are truly the sleeper many are touting them to be, then then this SFA thing could get pretty fun; but even if they aren’t, I never mind seeing Shaka Smart’s team force 30 turnovers. Either way, a game to watch.
Lock of the Year: Florida/UCLA Sweet Sixteen Match-Up. Put this one in the books – we will get a rematch of the 2006 National Title game in this regional semifinal. Neither Colorado (the no-Dinwiddie version) nor Pittsburgh owns a marquee win this year, so don’t expect Florida, in Orlando no less, to disrupt this reunion. The Bruins won’t want to miss it either, though, and they should have a decent home court advantage in San Diego to help propel them by Tulsa and either VCU or SFA. On the resumes of the six possible opponents (again evaluating Colorado without Dinwiddie) that the Bruins and Gators could play in the second and third rounds, there is just one (ONE!!!) victory over a Top 25 team (via KenPom), and that win happened all the way back on November 12 (VCU over #4 Virginia). That total will not get to two – expect to see Florida and UCLA in Memphis.
Juiciest Potential Match-up – Purists: Florida vs Kansas, Regional Final. If Kansas finds its way to the regional final, it’s a decent bet that either Embiid is back or that Wiggins has continued to elevate his game. At full strength, the Gators and Jayhawks are not only clearly the two best teams in this region, but also could be the two best teams in the entire bracket. Kansas lost at Florida by six points back in December; getting the chance to run that game back would be a treat for fans everywhere.
Juiciest Potential Match-up – Media: UCLA vs New Mexico, Regional Final. This one would take a little work – both Florida and Kansas would need to fall along the way, but allow everyone to dream a bit here. Craig “Noodles” Neal has settled in nicely to the seat that Steve Alford vacated last spring, but that doesn’t mean Lobos fans have gotten over Alford’s abrupt departure. The UNM faithful, long one of America’s most passionate fan bases, would love nothing more than a chance to end Alford’s NCAA Tournament dreams while cashing in on their own. The match-up would also be an interesting one on the floor; could the Wear twins possibly matchup with New Mexico bangers Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk? Who guards Kyle Anderson? Do the Lobos get sucked into the Bruins up-tempo pace? The questions abound, but there is zero doubt that this would be an utterly contentious affair. Really now, what more could we ask for?
We Got Screwed: #7 New Mexico (27-6, 18-3 Mountain West). We have already covered the underseeding of the Lobos (and as it turns out, they were also the lowest rated #7 seed in the field), but this draw does them few favors otherwise. Unless Stanford finds a new coach before Friday (it may be the NCAA Tournament, but Johnny Dawkins jokes are still easy), the first round match-up with the Cardinal should be pretty manageable, but drawing Kansas (in St. Louis) in the third round is a veritable nightmare. Sure, if Embiid is unable to go, then things start to look a lot better, but New Mexico already lost to the Jayhawks by 17 earlier this season in Kansas City and Kansas has enough interior personnel beyond Embiid (Perry Ellis, Tarik Black, Jamari Traylor, etc.) to battle down low with Bairstow and Kirk regardless of the freshman’s status. I’m not saying New Mexico couldn’t win this game, but plug them into the #7 seed in any other region, evaluate potential third-round matchups with Villanova, Michigan and Wisconsin, and smile. The smaller Wildcats and Wolverines would shudder at the prospect of the Lobo front line, and even Wisconsin couldn’t feel comfortable with the physicality that Bairstow and company bring to the table. New Mexico is a viable candidate to emerge from the South, but the deck has been stacked against them here.
Strongest Pod: New Mexico/Stanford, Kansas/Eastern Kentucky. There’s a little more balance in that UCLA/VCU pod, but in my mind, this is the only pod in the South with two viable Final Four contenders in it. Both Kansas and New Mexico are capable of winning four games and reaching Dallas, while Eastern Kentucky is also a pretty dangerous #15 seed in a bracket with severely weakened #14-#16 seed lines. I have a hard time believing Stanford will put up much of a fight against New Mexico, but the Cardinal still went 12-9 in a tough Pac-12. Beating the Jayhawks in St. Louis won’t be easy for any of these teams, but the quartet as a whole provides real quality.
So-Called Experts: Seth Davis slid Stephen F. Austin into the Sweet Sixteen faster than you can say “Southland,” while New Mexico appeared to be a trendy selection for the Sweet Sixteen and beyond with the CBS crew. With Embiid’s status uncertain, Florida appears to be the consensus pick almost anywhere you look to emerge from this region, and seems like the only #1 seed analysts feel truly safe about moving into the national semifinals.
Vegas Odds To Win Region: