NCAA Tournament Breakdown: South Region

The NCAA Tournament gets rolling on Thursday. Sports editor Cody McClure breaks down all the contenders and pretenders in the South Region.

Photo by Hillel Steinberg, courtesy of creativecommons.org. No changes made.

Photo by Hillel Steinberg, courtesy of creativecommons.org. No changes made.

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College basketball fans have been waiting for this moment since November. March is finally here. Now that Selection Sunday is out of the way, madness has begun. All across America, millionaire hopefuls are filling out what they believe to be the perfect bracket. Sadly, by this time next week, most of those people will have set fire to their brackets. But if you read TNJN Sports, lucky for you. We’ve got you covered with a breakdown of every region. Here is what to watch for in the South.

The Favorite

Kansas is the overall No. 1 seed, so naturally, a lot of people have the Jayhawks going all the way. With a 30-4 record and its 297th-consecutive Big XII title, Kansas has proved its worth this season. In all reality, the Jayhawks have only won 12 conference titles in a row, but their utter dominance makes it seem like it’s been forever. With wins over Baylor, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky, to name a few, Kansas is rightfully deserving of the No. 1 seed. In the past, being a No. 1 seed has been an advantage for Kansas. Bill Self’s squad won the NCAA Championship in 2008 and made it to the Final Four in 2012. However, in the past two seasons, Kansas has lost in the round of 32 to Stanford and Wichita State, respectively.

Contenders

How about Villanova? The second-seeded Wildcats play excellent defense and distribute the ball as well as any team in the country. Nova has proven it can play with just about anybody, making it a popular pick to advance. Cuonzo Martin’s California Golden Bears also come to mind as a contender in the South. Similar to his teams at Tennessee, this year’s talent-loaded squad at Cal struggled with the schedule early, but has played well in February. Cal is 9-2 in its last 11 games. A team that gets hot at the right time is tough to knock off. Then, there’s Arizona, coached by NCAA Tournament-experienced Sean Miller. His last two teams at Arizona have been to the Elite Eight. While some may view this season as a down year in comparison to the last two, the Wildcats are plenty capable of making noise in March. They are one of the nation’s best scoring teams and have the ability to rebound with two seven-footers playing a significant role.

Pretenders

Miami comes to mind first as a pretender. The Hurricanes earned a No. 3 seed with 25 wins on the resume, but losses to Northeastern, Clemson, and NC State really make you scratch your head. Miami just doesn’t seem like a legitimate threat, especially with a second-round game against Arizona, Vanderbilt, or Wichita State looming. Iowa is another team that probably won’t get very far, having lost five of its last six games. The Hawkeyes’ first-round bout with 10th-seeded Temple may be as far as they get. The Owls are playing well at the right time and want to get their hands on fellow Philadelphia rival Villanova. Miami and Iowa are pretenders. And so is Maryland, sadly. It hurts to say it for a Terps team that came into the year with such great expectations. But again, you need momentum heading into the big dance. Maryland has struggled down the stretch, losing about every other game it plays. Understandably, the Big Ten is a tough league, but Maryland isn’t ready to make an NCAA Tournament run.

The “Cinderella”

It’s Vanderbilt, OK? I know, the Commodores aren’t your typical “Cinderella” squad that comes out of nowhere to make a run. In fact, I was going to put South Dakota State here, but the more I look at it, I’m not convinced the Jackrabbits will have the firepower to knock off Maryland, and honestly, I don’t see many mid-majors in the South Region that are too dangerous. Vandy is interesting, though. The Commodores are an 11-seed and get an awful draw having to play Wichita State just for a chance to meet Arizona. But that’s exactly why they can be Cinderella. The Commodores are built for a Sweet 16 run. They have size, they can shoot the three, and they have a proven track record with wins over Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Stony Brook. They haven’t lived up to their full potential, but have played well down the stretch, for the most part. It’s going to be a gauntlet, but Vandy has the right personnel to get through it. Keep an eye on the Commodores.

The Sleeper

This is different from the “Cinderella,” because it is more about a team that people could see making a run, if not for a low seed and a bad loss here and there. The sleeper in the South Region is UConn. Boy, oh boy, are the Huskies dangerous. They have four players who score over 12 points per game. Defensively, UConn has some of the best defenders it has had under coach Kevin Ollie, allowing only 63 points per game. And let us not understate UConn’s ability to win in March. In 2010-11, the Huskies were having a pretty average year before reeling off five wins in five days to capture a Big East Tournament crown. They went on to win another six straight en route to a national championship. In the 2013-14 season, it happened again. UConn got hot late in the season and earned a No. 7 seed as an at-large team. The Huskies moved on to win another NCAA Championship when nobody expected it. History doesn’t always repeat itself, but this year’s UConn team just unexpectedly won the AAC Tournament. Watch out in the second round, Kansas.

Players to Watch

Melo Trimble is a helluva college basketball guard. He is Maryland’s leading scorer and distributes five assists per game, on average. Though I’m not sold on the Terps right now, a couple of lights-out performances by Trimble could change my mind. Also, keep an eye on big man Luke Kornet for Vanderbilt. The Commodores will go as far as he goes in the tournament. Kornet will have to play well in the paint for Vandy to make a run, and I think he will. The guy is a leader. There aren’t many seven-footers in the region as athletic as Kornet. Finally, don’t forget about Perry Ellis at Kansas. Ellis is an intense post presence, even without being a great rebounder. He is Kansas’ leading scorer. If Ellis doesn’t foot the bill down low, the Jayhawks will have a difficult time in the tournament. The senior, Ellis, is the key to Kansas’ success.

What I Think Will Happen

In round one, Kansas, UConn, Maryland, California, Vanderbilt, Miami, Temple, and Villanova will be your winners. As you can see, I’m buying the Commodores and Owls. Concerning the second round, I am really, really, really tempted to take UConn over Kansas. I’ve almost convinced myself it is going to happen. But for once, I’ll play it safe. Make no mistake, I will hate myself when UConn wins, but I’m going with Kansas. I like Cal to advance over Maryland, Vandy over Miami, and Villanova slightly over Temple. In the Sweet 16, I think Cal beats Kansas. Everybody thinks Cuonzo’s team is going out early, but they are way better now than they were two months ago. From a talent standpoint, Cal is one of the most gifted teams in America. I never trust Kansas, and usually, that pays off. I also like Villanova to end Vandy’s “Cinderella” run at this point. So, in the Elite Eight, I’ve got Cal and Nova. I’ll give the nod to to the Wildcats to get to the Final Four in the South Region.

Note: The predictions made in this South Region preview are bound to change at least 25 times between now and Thursday. 

Featured image by Hillel Steinberg

Edited by Jordan Dajani