Kansas and Georgetown have come a long way since midseason. The Jayhawks were playing so poorly for a brief stretch in February that head coach Bill Self lost it in a postgame press conference. The Hoyas had to suspend center Greg Whittington. Each team recovered to win a piece of its conference regular season title and they come into the NCAA Tournament’s South Regional as the 1-2 seeds. TheSportsNotebook.com will break down this regional pod-by-pod, make picks and assess the betting odds on the contenders to reach the Final Four.
#1 Kansas vs. #16 Western Kentucky
#8 North Carolina vs. #9 Villanova
The media buzz is all about a potential second-round matchup between Kansas and North Carolina (regular readers of TheSportsNotebook’s college basketball coverage know I refuse to go along with the NCAA’s labeling the play-in games “the first round” and these games “second and third round”. The real second round starts on Saturday). The buzz is justified. Roy Williams coaching against his old school is a great storyline and the fact the games will take place in Kansas City make it even better.
But can North Carolina get that far? Villanova has beaten Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette and Georgetown this season and certainly won’t fear the Tar Heels. Both teams are oriented to the backcourt and thus reliant on their man inside player—James Michael McAdoo for UNC and Mouphtaou Yaro for ‘Nova—to at least deliver a rebounding presence. I’ve gone back and forth on this game several times, but I’m staying with North Carolina out of deference to Williams.
I can’t defer to Williams for the Kansas game though. The Tar Heels’ lack of depth will be exploited by KU center Jeff Withey, and the Jayhawk backcourt scorers of Ben McLemore and Travis Releford will keep North Carolina from collapsing its defenses. Williams did an admirable job getting his young team to improve this year, but the lack of traditional Carolina height does them in here.
#4 Michigan vs. #13 South Dakota State
#5 Virginia Commonwealth vs. #12 Akron
I’ve got no hesitation about moving both favorites forward. I don’t think Akron is good enough, and while South Dakota State is, they’re getting a little too much attention in the mainstream media as a sleeper team. I’m less certain about a good Michigan-VCU game in the second round. The Wolverines aren’t playing well right now, because they aren’t getting a lot from the forward position, namely Glenn Robinson III. But VCU, while having a good forward in Juvonte Reddic, is similarly built around the perimeter game. And when it comes down it, I’ll go with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. They’re better players and Nik Stauskas gives Michigan a three-point dimension better than that of the Rams.
#3 Florida vs. #14 Northwestern State
#6 UCLA vs. #11 Minnesota
There’s no way on earth I’m picking Minnesota to beat anybody. I know UCLA lost 15ppg scorer Jordan Adams to a foot injury that will sideline him for the tournament. I know Minnesota has beaten Indiana and Wisconsin. But the Gophers just tanked so badly down the stretch that I devoted my daily sports commentary on Sunday morning to why they didn’t deserve an NCAA bid. Based on that alone I can’t pick them to advance and they’re playing a team whose coach I respect and who has a great player in Shabazz Muhammad. If the Gophs are going to win they need both a signature performance from forward Trevor Mbakwe, and for UCLA interior players David & Travis Wear to be virtual no-shows. I won’t say it’s beyond the realm of possibility, but I certainly won’t pick it.
I’d like to go with UCLA one more game, due to Florida’s vulnerabilities—this is an offense more dependent on the three-ball than the U.S. economy is on imported oil. That’s just not a good formula. But this is where the absence of Adams impacts my thinking and I’m also drawing on some recent history—Florida beat UCLA in the NCAA final in 2006, in the Final Four in 2007 and in the second round in 2011. All of these games had the coaching matchup of Billy Donovan vs. Ben Howland. Gotta give Billy the benefit of any doubt in this matchup now.
#2 Georgetown vs. #15 Florida Gulf Coast
#7 San Diego State vs. #10 Oklahoma
I can’t be completely lame and make this an all-chalk bracket with the top four seeds advancing. Well, I suppose I could, but this isn’t that kind of tournament. And I have to pick a massive shocker somewhere along the way. So how about a team that’s already proven it can beat a two-seed? Florida Gulf Coast beat Miami back in November and amazingly, they aren’t getting any love from the media as an upset possibility here. The fact they’re still under the radar excites me even more, I’m taking the big first-round upset special here.
That opens the door for the San Diego State-Oklahoma winner to reach the Sweet 16. This game really doesn’t excite me. San Diego State has underachieved a little, but not so much as to be a disgrace. Oklahoma has overachieved a little, but not so much as to win nonstop admiration. The inside-out combo of Steve Pledger and Romero Osby push the Sooners through in this game and then they take advantage of the bracket break and get to the regionals in North Texas.
Billy Donovan’s got the luck of the Irish if this holds up, because his path would be marked by a UCLA team wounded by injury and now getting 10th-seeded Oklahoma. Sooner Nation ends up with more reason to hate Florida—for there was the 2008 BCS National Championship Game, where OU lost to Tim Tebow’s Gators, and now this projected tournament loss.
Kansas-Michigan would be a great game, and it’s here I’m going to roll the dice again. The biggest concern about Michigan as I write this is that they’re a little sluggish right now. But this scenario presumes they get back on track this coming weekend and if that happens they have the talent to contain Kansas on the wings, create offense for themselves in the backcourt and maybe the forwards can keep Withey from taking over the game. I’m picking the Wolverines to win this one and to continue to ride the momentum wave past Florida and get to the Final Four.
Believe it or not, #3 seed Florida is the 7-5 betting line favorite to win this regional, with Kansas clocking in at 5-2. Georgetown is at 4-1, with Michigan a 5-1 shot. Virginia Commonwealth is in a neighborhood of their own at 12-1, and then you mix in the 20-1s of Minnesota and North Carolina and 30-1 on San Diego State. I wouldn’t go any lower than that, but since I did put Oklahoma in the regionals, I’ll point out that you get them at 75-1 to reach the Final Four.
My best bet would be the same as my straight-up pick, since Michigan’s getting a nice 5-1 price. I have to say if I were actually at a betting window, I’d probably adopt a conservative strategy—take both Georgetown and Michigan at equal amounts and if one of them wins the regional, you turn a profit. I like this, because in spite of my upset pick I’m not down on the Hoyas—more up on Florida Gulf Coast and feeling like you have to take a shot somewhere. If Georgetown does take care of business, the path clears up well for them to play Michigan in the final, which works perfectly with my betting scenario.