9 Thoughts On The NCAA Tournament South Regional: Can Florida Hold Serve?

The NCAA Tournament South Regional has its Sweet 16 games tip off on Thursday, with a place in the Final Four being settled on Saturday. This is the gutted bracket of this year’s field, with 10-seed Stanford and 11-seed Dayton having advanced, and one of those guaranteed to move forward to Saturday.

Stanford-Dayton start the proceedings from Memphis on Thursday with a 7:15 PM ET tip, and then UCLA-Florida going at approximately 9:45 PM ET. Both games will be televised by CBS. TheSportsNotebook looks ahead to the weekend with our Notebook Nine, nine talking points on this regional drawn from a mix of history, the betting odds and personnel analysis.

*Florida is the top-heavy favorite to win this regional. The Gators, as the tournament’s top overall seed, already held that distinction by a small margin, but with Kansas and Syracuse knocked out, everyone is expecting Billy Donovan’s team to at least reach the Final Four in Dallas. The Gators are a 7-2 co-favorite to win the NCAA title (a distinction shared with Louisville). UCLA is 25-1, while Stanford and Dayton have the longest odds of any of the 16 teams playing basketball, priced at 65-1 and 85-1 respectively, to cut down the nets in Big D.

*Donovan has gotten Florida fans used to watching big basketball games in March under his watch. Actually winning those games is close to a 50/50 proposition, but Florida consistently advances. They’ve got the back-to-back national title runs of 2006 and 2007. They went to the NCAA final in 2000 and lost to Michigan State (a team they could meet in a national semifinal this year). Of more recent vintage, Donovan has taken his program to regional final games each of the last three years. That’s where the frustration kicks in, as Florida has lost all three and seeing them clear that hurdle and return to the Final Four is a prominent storyline in Memphis.

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*The Gators bring a very well-balanced team to this regional weekend. Any one of Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II can beat you from the perimeter and Patric Young is a sound presence on the front line. You can’t key on any one player in this lineup. They’ve also shown an ability to win ugly, when Albany gave them a tougher run than expected and Pitt played its usual physical game. The downside? Well, when Albany gives you a tougher run than expected, maybe you’re not a dominant team—at least not worthy of us just assuming this weekend will be one long coronation rather than a real battle.

*UCLA’s storied basketball history needs no recounting, and they’ve had intermittent runs of success since John Wooden stepped down after the 1975 season and the modern era of the NCAA Tournament began. There has only been one national title though, back in 1995. The most recent run of success was authored by Ben Howland, who took the team to three straight Final Fours from 2006-08. UCLA partisans locked in the past chased Howland. The irony is that Howland was done in by two prominent losses to Florida, in the 2006 NCAA final and the 2007 Final Four. Now Steve Alford has a chance to prove he can beat the Gators.

*The Bruins have the star power to create problems for the Gators and to blow out either Stanford or Dayton. Jordan Adams is a good player on the perimeter who can fill it up and Kyle Anderson is a 6’9” bruiser who can score and hit the boards down low. If one or both of these players has a great game, it will be tough for Florida to beat them and impossible for the Stanford-Dayton winner to do so. The flip side? UCLA is a notoriously inconsistent team and Alford’s March record is spotty—actually that’s being kind. This is the first year he’s had any success at all and it amounts only to beating Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin.

*Stanford was a regular player on the national scene from 1998-2004, The Cardinal made the Final Four in 1998 and played a great battle with Kentucky, losing an epic national semifinal game. Those were the days when Mike Montgomery (currently at rival Cal after a stop in the NBA) had the program at its high point and even though Stanford has never made it back to the Final Four, they spent seven years in the limelight. After losing as a 1-seed in the second round of the 2004 NCAA Tournament, they began to fade and their upset of Kansas this year has returned them to significance.

*Don’t sleep on this Cardinal team’s talent. They have two very good inside players in Josh Heustis and Dwight Powell and I believe they have the best frontline of anyone in Memphis. Chasson Randle is a terrific floor leader. I want to respect head coach Johnny Dawkins, but I can’t get past this feeling that the question we should really be asking of the coach is why it took this long for them to get started. But beating New Mexico and Kansas in a three-day span last weekend is a big-time effort.

*Dayton is the longshot and it’s been 1984, back in the days when Roosevelt Chapman was playing small forward that the Flyers have survived the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Their history in big NCAA games involving UCLA in some degree or another. The Flyers lost the NCAA final to the Wooden-era Bruins back in 1974. And while it was Georgetown that the ’84 team fell to, it was a West Regional final played at Pauley Pavilion. That doesn’t bode well if we get a UCLA-Dayton final on Saturday.

*I haven’t been buying on Dayton this whole tournament. They’re the team I would have left out of the field of 68 to make room for UW-Green Bay (and I haven’t changed my mind regardless of what happens—teams prove they belong before the tournament starts, not after). But if you’ve beaten Syracuse and Ohio State, there’s no reason you can’t beat Stanford. Jordan Siebert leads a balanced team that goes nine deep and while they don’t have a star, foul trouble should never be an issue.

Not only is this the gutted bracket in the field overall, it’s the one that gutted my picks, with this being the one region where I’ve lost my Final Four pick (Kansas) along with the darkhorse I was counting on to make a run to the regional final (Virginia Commonwealth). So I’m starting from scratch, meaning I get to be wrong all over again.

I like Florida to hold serve on Thursday and Stanford to pound on Dayton. If we get a Florida-Stanford game on Saturday that would mean the Cardinal has retained their momentum, and I’ll take them to continue this run all the way to Dallas. If Dayton wins, I think the Flyers fall on Saturday no matter what. And of course, if I would pick Stanford to beat Florida, I’d also pick them to beat UCLA. Although I’m sure the fans in Memphis aren’t anxious for a Pac-12 battle in their own backyard.