In my fourth and final First Round Preview article for this year’s NCAA Tournament, I’ll now take a look at the South Region, featuring a gauntlet of historic men’s college basketball programs.
The 1-seed in the South is the ACC regular season champion North Carolina Tar Heels, who some believe did not deserve a 1-seed over teams like Duke and Arizona, but here they are. If they can reach the Elite Eight, they could have a really difficult opponent, either 2-seed Kentucky, the SEC regular season and tournament champs, or 3-seed UCLA, who failed to win either Pac-12 titles, but were ranked as high as 3rd in the nation down the stretch.
The popular opinion is that the South Region is the most difficult in this year’s bracket, so the team that gets out of Memphis will have certainly earned their trip to the Final Four. Here is my preview of the First Round in the South Region!
*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of KenPom and ESPN*
#1 North Carolina (27-7) vs #16 Texas Southern (23-11)
Friday 3/17, approx. 4:00 pm TNT
Overview: Despite seven losses, which ties the most losses ever for a 1-seed, North Carolina has an extremely impressive resume. They dominated Wisconsin and Oklahoma State in non-conference play, and then picked up wins over Florida State, Virginia, Louisville, Duke and Notre Dame in ACC play. For those keeping track at home, those are the teams who finished 2nd through 6th in the league, behind the Tar Heels. Texas Southern, under former Indiana and UAB coach Mike Davis, has been known to play a brutal out-of-conference schedule, earning money for the athletic department, and preparing the team for the postseason. Since conference play started, the Tigers are 19-2. UNC struggled against 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast last year, and Texas Southern will not be intimidated.
Key Players: Marcus Paige led this Tar Heel team on their run to the National Championship game last year, and junior guard Joel Berry has nicely taken over that role for this year’s team. Berry is averaging 14.8 points, 3.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Fellow junior Justin Jackson (18.1 PPG) is another very important player for UNC. The Tigers have one of the shortest players in the Tournament in 5-7 freshman Demontrae Jefferson, and he is second on the team in scoring with 14.9 points per game. The leading scorer for Texas Southern is junior guard Zach Lofton, who averages 17.0 points a contest.
Why UNC will Win: I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but a 16 has never beaten a 1, and it’s not going to happen here. North Carolina is a popular pick to go all the way, and I think that’s because they do everything well. This team does not have a weakness. Good guards, size, speed, shooting ability, they are the total package, and when they are clicking, their isn’t a team in the nation that can beat them.
Why TXSO will Win: I’m getting a little lazy at this point, but they won’t win. If the Tar Heels have a weakness, it’s that they are susceptible to being denied at the rim, and they struggle with fouls. If Texas Southern can attack the rim on the offensive end and defend the rim well on defense, maybe they can keep this game close.
#8 Arkansas (25-9) vs #9 Seton Hall (21-11)
Friday 3/17, 1:30 pm TNT
Overview: I must admit, I did not realize how good a season Arkansas was having until they reached the SEC title game as the 3-seed in the conference. I am still shocked that this team didn’t lose double digit games. Even I, a huge college basketball fan, had to look up their roster because I did not know a single player on their team. That’s about as innocuous a season you can have. Meanwhile, it was another really good season in the Big East for Seton Hall, coming on strong down the stretch winning four in a row to end the regular season before losing by two in the Big East Tournament to Villanova. The Pirates are a dangerous team.
Key Players: One of the biggest reasons Seton Hall is dangerous is their biggest player, 6-10 junior Angel Delgado. He is an absolute load to handle in the paint, averaging 15.3 points and a whopping 13.1 rebounds a game. He is one of the best rebounders in the nation. The Pirates have a couple talented perimeter scorers as well in fellow juniors Khadeen Carrington (16.9 PPG) and Desi Rodriguez (15.9 PPG). I said earlier that I didn’t know any of the Razorback players, but they are talented if the stats are to be believed. It would appear that the key players are a couple seniors, 6-3 guard Dusty Hannahs (14.6 PPG, 90.3 FT%) and 6-10 forward Moses Kingsley (11.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG). A couple juniors, guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford, also average double-figures for Arkansas.
Why ARK will Win: Arkansas has a good record, but they have a spotty resume. They only have four wins against teams in the Field, and two of those games are against Vanderbilt, a 9-seed. If they are going to win this game against a hot Seton Hall team, they will need to stick with what they do best, and that is play up-tempo (which Seton Hall is not great at) and get to the free throw line (where they are one of the 25 best teams in the country in free throw percentage). Do that, and the Razorbacks should win.
Why SHU will Win: As you already know if you’ve been reading my preview articles, I am a believer in momentum this time of year. There are a lot of teams in this tournament that are better than Seton Hall, but there aren’t many playing with the momentum that they are. I believe that Seton Hall has better interior players than Arkansas, and they have better guards than Arkansas. If you make that into an equation, that equals a victory here. Run the offense through Angel Delgado and crash the boards, and the Pirates should have no issues moving on.
#5 Minnesota (24-9) vs #12 Middle Tennessee (30-4)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 4:00 pm TNT
Overview: Richard Pitino, son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, has done a fantastic job with this Golden Gopher team. The Pitino’s are now the first father-son duo to coach in the same NCAA Tournament. It’s been a great season for Minnesota, with wins over Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Purdue, Maryland and Michigan. It’s one of the best seasons in Minneapolis in a very long time. But it could all go for naught considering the draw that they received in the Tournament, facing a Middle Tennessee team that people have been looking forward to seeing back in the Tournament since the season began. If you remember, the Blue Raiders knocked off national title favorite Michigan State last season in the First Round as a 15-seed. The stars from that game are back this year, and this team had an even better season, earning a 12-seed (and I thought they should have been higher). This will be a fun game.
Key Players: The Gophers have a nice blend of upperclassmen and underclassmen, led by junior guard Nate Mason (15.5 PPG, 5.0 APG) and freshman forward Amir Coffey (12.1 PPG). Those are the leading scorers for Minnesota, and they will need to play well for this team to win. I mentioned the stars for Middle Tennessee last year returning. They are senior forward Reggie Upshaw (21 points versus MSU last season) and junior guard Giddy Potts (19 points, 3-5 from 3PT range against MSU). Those guys are happy to be back, but neither of them are the Blue Raiders’ best player. That is senior Arkansas-transfer JaCorey Williams, who averages 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, and had to watch the huge victory over Michigan State last year on the sidelines, sitting out a year due to transfer rules. He will be chomping at the bit for this game.
Why MINN will Win: Middle Tennessee is a great story, and a really good team, but it’s been a wonderful season for Minnesota, and with the Blue Raiders being a trendy upset pick, the Gophers will love to bust a few brackets. Minnesota will be one of the best defensive teams that MTSU will have played this season, so who knows how their talented offense will respond. The Gophers will need to play up-tempo and limit good looks from the perimeter (which Michigan State couldn’t do last year), but if they do those things, they’ll come out on top.
Why MTSU will Win: They beat a really good Michigan State team last year, and if nothing else, that experience will have this team believing that they can beat anybody in this Tournament. Potts and Upshaw know what it’s like to win games in this thing, and the addition of JaCorey Williams only makes them better. Minnesota is an over-seeded team in my estimation, and the Blue Raiders are good on both ends of the floor. As long as they don’t get caught playing the game Minnesota wants them to play, meaning they slow the game down and take good shots (and make them of course), I like the Blue Raiders to win a game for the second straight Tournament.
#4 Butler (23-8) vs #13 Winthrop (26-6)
Thursday 3/16, 1:30 pm TNT
Overview: Another year, another overachieving Butler team. I’m starting to think that Chris Holtmann is just a fantastic coach. This team was expected to be a fringe-Tournament team, possibly winning a few big games in Big East play. Instead, they finished second in the conference, sweeping the season series with the defending National Champion Villanova Wildcats. Their 8-point win in Philly on February 22 is one of the most impressive wins any team has this season. It was a very good season for the Winthrop Eagles as well, returning to the Tournament for the first time since 2010. Two of their six losses this year came in overtime, and they have a win over a major conference team in Illinois, a better win than a lot of 13-seeds or lower have this year.
Key Players: When it comes to short players in this Tournament, none are better than 5-7 senior guard Keon Johnson for the Eagles. Johnson is extremely talented, averaging 22.5 points a game, shooting better than 86 percent from the free throw line and 40.4 percent from 3-point range. He is one of the best scoring guards in this entire Tournament, and he could become a household name when this is all said and done. For Butler, it pretty much comes down to how 6-7 junior guard/forward Kelan Martin plays. He leads the team in scoring at 16.1 points per game, and in rebounding with 5.7 boards a game. If he plays well, they usually win. If he struggles, they struggle.
Why BUT will Win: Winthrop is a fun team to watch (trust me, this will be a game you’ll want to tune in to), but Butler is just too much for them. Butler is great at controlling the tempo of the game, protecting the ball, and they are very efficient on offense, especially inside the arc, where Winthrop just doesn’t have the size to compete with the Bulldogs. Some may pick this to be an upset, but I like Butler to advance fairly easily.
Why WU will Win: Crazy things happen in March, and really good players have been known to thrive in the spotlight that the NCAA Tournament provides. Winthrop will try to speed this game up and make Butler uncomfortable. If they can do that, they have a shot. Keon Johnson could also just go off, and there might not be anything Butler can do about it.
#6 Cincinnati (29-5) vs #11 Kansas State (21-13)
Friday 3/17, 7:27 pm TruTV
Overview: Mick Cronin has led Cincinnati to the Tournament for the 7th consecutive season, and I honestly believe that this might be his best team yet. It was the Bearcats and SMU at the top of the American, and then it was everybody else. They did beat SMU once this season, and they also scored victories over Iowa State and Xavier along the way. They are a Top-10 defensive team, which gives them a chance in any game. Kansas State was able to get past Wake Forest in the First Four, winning 95-88. Since the start of the First Four in 2011, a team from those games has advanced to at least the Round of 32 every season. Could it be K-State?
Key Players: I cannot believe Troy Caupain is still at Cincinnati, because it feels like he’s been there forever, but he is still one of the most important players to the Bearcats’ success. He does a little bit of everything for the Cats, averaging 10.1 points, 4.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game, while leading the team in minutes. Junior forward Kyle Washington is another key player for Cincy, averaging 13.1 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. K-State has gotten here thanks to the efforts of senior Wesley Iwundu, who scored 24 points to go along with 7 assists and 6 rebounds in the win over Wake Forest. Sophomore guard Kamau Stokes played well also, tallying 22 points on 5-8 shooting from 3-point range.
Why CIN will Win: I mentioned that this is probably the best team Mick Cronin has had in his tenure at Cincinnati, and they will look to buck the trend of the Bearcats underwhelming in the NCAA Tournament. Cronin is due for a deep run in this thing, and this will be his best chance. They will win here if they can take care of the ball and get hot from 3-point range, as K-State really struggles to force turnovers and defend the arc. Cincinnati can win from inside or outside, so I think they focus on getting open perimeter shots, and shoot their way into the Second Round.
Why KSU will Win: History suggests that a First Four team will go onto the First Round and get a victory, and I really don’t like Providence or USC’s chances against SMU, so that leaves Kansas State to be the First Four’s representative in the Round of 32. They have a game under their belt, so the pressure is off. A team playing with no pressure in the Tournament is a dangerous team. The Wildcats had one of the best shooting performances in school history against Wake. If they can come close to that kind of performance here, they’ll get the victory.
#3 UCLA (29-4) vs #14 Kent State (22-13)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:57 pm TruTV
Overview: This UCLA team is probably the most polarizing team in this entire field, and that may or may not be due to the outspokenness of one named LaVar Ball. I wish I could say he’s a player, but he’s actually the father of star freshman guard Lonzo Ball, and for me, his dad is wrongfully taking the attention away from the magnificence that is Lonzo on a basketball court. This is one of the best offensive teams in the nation, and they’ll look to shoot their way to a National Title. Kent State came from out of nowhere to win the MAC title as the 6-seed in the conference, winning four games total, three in three days, to earn their trip to the Dance. Despite their finish in the MAC regular season, this is one of the best teams in the conference, and they will not be a pushover for UCLA.
Key Players: Lonzo Ball has a chance to be the 1st overall pick in the NBA Draft, and for good reason. He does it all for the Bruins, averaging 14.6 points, 7.7 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. Fellow freshman T.J. Leaf is important for UCLA as well, averaging a team-leading 16.2 points per game. And don’t forget about the coach’s son, senior shooting guard Bryce Alford (15.8 PPG, 43.5% 3PT). Kent State has a star of their own in 6-8 senior forward Jimmy Hall. Hall leads the team 18.9 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, and he’ll need to have a great game if the Golden Flashes have a shot at the upset.
Why UCLA will Win: It’s going to take a really good defensive team to knock off the Bruins, and Kent State is not that team. UCLA likes to play fast, and they are extremely efficient. KenPom has them in the top-6 most efficient offenses inside and outside the arc. A team that plays fast and doesn’t miss is a team that is tough to beat. Way too tough for Kent State at least.
Why KENT will Win: It’s not impossible, believe it or not. 14-seeds have beaten 3-seeds before, and honestly, if UCLA struggles at all on offense, they can lose, because they don’t play a lick of defense. You need to outscore the Bruins to beat them, but Kent State is capable of that. They are a great offensive rebounding team, so if they can attack the offensive boards and get a lot of second chance points, they might be able to pull off the shocker.
#7 Dayton (24-7) vs #10 Wichita State (30-4)
Friday 3/17, 7:10 pm CBS
Overview: I feel so bad for Archie Miller and Dayton. They had a fantastic season, winning the A-10 regular season title while picking up great wins over Alabama, Vanderbilt, Rhode Island (twice) and VCU. They deserved a better draw than this. Wichita State has the resume of a 10-seed. They have just one win over Tournament teams, and that was against South Dakota State, a 16-seed. However, advanced analytics LOVE the Shockers. KenPom has Wichita State as the 8th best team in the nation. This team will fuel the argument for the Committee to use more advanced statistics in choosing the NCAA Tournament Field. Unfortunately, that won’t make Dayton feel any better.
Key Players: Don’t automatically count out the Flyers though. They are a very experienced team, led by a trio of seniors that want to go out on the right foot. Charles Cooke, Scoochie Smith and Kendall Pollard are three fantastic players, and they combine for over 43 points a game. They will not be scared of the Shockers. It’s a little strange to see a Wichita State team without Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, but Gregg Marshall has reloaded nicely. The Shockers have five players who average better than nine points a game, and they are led by 6-8 sophomore Markis McDuffie, who averages a team-leading 11.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. He is key to Wichita’s success.
Why DAY will Win: I feel like there isn’t much pressure on Dayton in this game. The majority of people don’t expect them to win, and I think that actually will make them play with a little added motivation. Wichita State does not force many turnovers, so if Dayton can control the ball and play the game at their tempo, they can very easily win this game.
Why WSU will Win: There might be some pressure on the Shockers for the same reason that there isn’t much pressure on Dayton, but this team under Gregg Marshall has rarely buckled under any pressure. This team hasn’t beaten anybody of note, but they are extremely efficient on both ends of the floor. They are extremely good on the perimeter, so if they work the ball and don’t settle for bad shots, they will look like the Wichita State team that everybody expects, and they’ll move on to the next round.
#2 Kentucky (29-5) vs #15 Northern Kentucky (24-10)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:40 pm CBS
Overview: It’s the in-state battle that nobody knew they wanted until now! Okay, I joke a little bit, but maybe a little rivalry can be born from this matchup. John Calipari’s Wildcats went through a lot of growing pains this season, but they are rounding into form at the right time, winning the SEC regular season and tournament titles, and they enter the Dance riding an 11-game winning streak. Northern Kentucky, meanwhile, benefited from some big upsets in the Horizon League Tournament, defeating 5-seed Wright State, 9-seed Youngstown State and 10-seed Milwaukee to earn their spot in the Tournament.
Key Players: Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Edrice “Bam” Adebayo are the stars of this team, all freshmen, and all likely NBA lottery picks. They are the three leading scorers for this team (20.4, 16.1 and 13.3 PPG respectively), and they will be key to Kentucky’s success in this Tournament. For the Norse, it’s sophomore forward Drew McDonald who makes things go. He leads the team with 16.4 points and 7.7 boards a game, and he is talented inside and outside the arc. His floor spacing could open things up for the rest of the team.
Why UK will Win: Malik Monk is arguably the best pure scorer in this Tournament. When he is on, he scores in bunches, and he is extremely difficult to contain. But he is very streaky, and is just getting out of a really bad funk. As long as he doesn’t revert back to that, he will score at will against Northern Kentucky, and the Norse won’t stand a chance.
Why NKU will Win: 15-seeds beating 2-seeds, as I’ve mentioned before, is not unprecedented. Especially when the 15-seed is as good offensively as Northern Kentucky is. Kentucky will look to get out and run, but they won’t be successful with that if the Norse can make shots. Make some shots early, get Kentucky out of their comfort zone, and we could see a massive upset.