The South Regional of this year’s NCAA Tournament is home to the field of 68’s #1 overall seed in the Florida Gators, and will be settled in Memphis next weekend. TheSportsNotebook has run the tale of the tape of all 17 teams in this region (the 16-seed line is in play tonight in the First Four at Dayton). Now here’s nine general thoughts about this quarter of the bracket, followed by game-by-game picks at the bottom…
*It would seem the dividing line between legitimate Final Four teams and darkhorses is at the 3-seed line. Syracuse holds that spot and while I’m not necessarily sold on them, the Orange are a team that started 25-0, are coached by a legend and went to the 2013 Final Four. You can’t say it’s a shock if Jim Boeheim winds up in Dallas. Certainly the same can be said for Kansas on the 2-line, along with Florida. But it seems a steep drop to UCLA, which is the 4-seed.
*The health of Kansas center Joel Embid is a huge focal point. We know he’s out this weekend, and we’re not sure of his status for next. I’m picking Kansas to win this regional and would suggest that before dismissing them, look at the talent they’ll put on the floor without Embid. Andrew Wiggins is possibly the #1 pick in this year’s NBA draft and combined with Perry Ellis makes up as good forward duo is there is. Wayne Selden is a solid two-guard with a bright future and Naadir Tharpe is an able point guard who can knock down a jumper and distribute. If you had never heard the name Joel Embid, would you dismiss this team?
*Florida seems to be a lightning rod for debate, even as the #1 overall seed. The criticisms of the Gators are that they put their record together in the SEC and if the sport isn’t football or baseball that’s nothing to hang your hat on. I’m with the skeptics have the Gators going out in the Sweet 16 to Virginia Commonwealth. Florida relies heavily on the three-ball and VCU knows how to defend the perimeter, with Briante Weber leading up a solid defense.
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*New Mexico is a team to keep an eye on. They have two really physical inside players in Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk. The Lobos have a point guard in Kendall Williams that can both distribute and shoot from long range. They’re no longer stuck with Steve Alford as their coach, meaning maybe they can actually win an NCAA game or two. The only problem I personally have with New Mexico is that they’d run into Kansas in the second round. But I’d have no issue with picking them to complete a run to the Final Four if they survive that game, and given the physicality of the Lobos, they aren’t the opponent an Embid-less Kansas would have wanted.
*Since I just finished knocking Alford—who never had real NCAA success at either Iowa or New Mexico—we may as well look at UCLA. I chickened out on picking the Bruins to lose to Tulsa in the first round, because I think Kyle Anderson is enough of a beast inside to bail out his coach. But against a more comparable opponent in VCU, I see UCLA falling in round two. Consider this—while they finished second in the Pac-12 and won the league tourney, the Bruins did nothing outside the conference. Are you that big of a believer in Pac-12 hoops?
*The South Region must be where injury-riddled teams go, because after Embid, another big injury is to Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie. Now he’s not the same caliber player Embid is, but Dinwiddie is the Buffs’ one good three-point shooter and he also runs the show offensively. The cupboard isn’t bare without him, but it certainly gives Pitt a good opportunity in the 8-9 game. Either that or it gives Pitt another opportunity to blow an opportunity (redundancy intended) in the NCAA Tournament.
*I love Stephen F. Austin at the 12-seed, and if they were playing UCLA rather than VCU, I’d pick an upset. The Lumberjacks have won 58 games in two years. Last year I felt they should have gotten an at-large bid after losing a heartbreaker in the league tourney. Unsurprisingly, the committee chose instead to reward a mediocre power conference team. I’m glad to see this team getting its chance.
*Dayton closed with a rush, winning 10 of 12 and snagged the 11-seed. This is a team I would have left out of the field. I think six bids for the Atlantic 10 is excessive—they rank comparably to the SEC in conference RPI—and the Flyers were who I would have left home. That said, they do have a decent draw against an Ohio State team that hasn’t been a vintage Thad Matta club and then slumping Syracuse.
*I didn’t pick Stanford to advance, since they’re playing a team I like in New Mexico, and then go against Kansas. Stanford also underachieved this year, going 10-8 in the Pac-12. But if you’re looking for a double-digit seed with the talent to be more, this is the one. The Cardinal have a great all-around guard in Chasson Randle, a tough inside presence in Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis and a pure three-point shooter in Anthony Brown. Is the Selection Committee out to get Kansas, in making sure that the Jayhawks get either this Stanford team or New Mexico?
Here’s the game-by-game picks. I’ve got Florida, VCU, Ohio State and Kansas moving on to Memphis and then the Jayhawks cutting down the nets.
FIRST FOUR: Dayton
Mount St. Mary’s over Albany
#1 Florida over #16 Mount St. Mary’s
#9 Pitt over #8 Colorado
Florida over Pitt
#5 Virginia Commonwealth over #12 Stephen Austin
#4 UCLA over #13 Tulsa
Virginia Commonwealth over UCLA
#6 Ohio State over #11 Dayton
#3 Syracuse over #14 Western Michigan
Ohio State over Syracuse
#7 New Mexico over #10 Stanford
#2 Kansas over #15 Eastern Kentucky
Kansas over New Mexico
Virginia Commonwealth over Florida
Kansas over Ohio State
Kansas over Virginia Commonwealth