For the Monday newspaper, I was assigned to do this first look at the South Region of the NCAA tournament. I’ll post that here and use the same format to give you my initial thoughts on the other three regions over the next two days.
At first glance
Six weeks ago, Kansas, Georgetown, Florida and Michigan were all legitimate contenders for No. 1 seeds. Now, they’re in the same region, making it a tough road to the Final Four.
That quartet had its troubles, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see any of those teams exit early, especially when you consider the depth in the South Region. When young-but-talented traditional powers UCLA and North Carolina are seeded sixth and eighth, respectively, you know you’re in a difficult region.
Don’t sleep on No. 5 VCU, No. 7 San Diego State, No. 11 Minnesota or No. 13 South Dakota State. This unpredictable region might destroy many brackets.
The South is a region of contrasting defensive styles, from VCU’s fullcourt pressure to Kansas’ suffocating man-to-man to Minnesota’s ball-line defense. Georgetown, Florida, San Diego State and UCLA are also among the best defensive teams in the nation, according to college hoops stats maven Ken Pomeroy. In a year of low scores across college basketball, the team that triumphs in the South will have to win ugly.
By the numbers …
81 — Points per game averaged by Northwestern State, the best in Division I this season.
.360 — Opponent field-goal percentage allowed by Kansas defense, the best in Division I.
9.2 — Average turnovers per game by Michigan, the fewest in Division I.
Kansas: This isn’t the most dominant of Bill Self’s Jayhawks teams, but it’s hard to knock a squad that defends as well as this one. Freshman guard Ben McLemore is a top-five NBA draft pick, and center Jeff Withey is a defensive anchor who averages 3.8 blocks per game. They are among the best inside/outside tandems in college basketball.
Florida: The Southeastern Conference was mediocre, and the Gators didn’t even impress in conference play. Still, they have made back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, and coach Billy Donovan, who won consecutive titles in 2006 and 2007, will have his team prepared.
Michigan: The Wolverines are a No. 4 seed that could’ve been much higher if they hadn’t gone 5-5 in their final 10 games. Michigan was No. 1 in late January but dropped some games in the rugged Big Ten. Still, this is a dangerous and efficient basketball team.
Minnesota: The Golden Gophers are athletic, play good defense, and they are coached by Tubby Smith, who won a national title with Kentucky 15 years ago. It’s not a stretch to see them in the Sweet 16.
Headed for a fall?
Georgetown: The Hoyas have the best all-around player in the country, Otto Porter, but they don’t have great pieces around him. Their margin for error is small for a No. 2 seed. If Porter has an off game, Georgetown will be vulnerable.
This is a region full of NBA lottery picks and potential first rounders in June: McLemore, Porter, UCLA freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, North Carolina sophomore forward James McAdoo, Michigan sophomore guard Trey Burke and Michigan freshman guard Glenn Robinson Jr. NBA scouts will flock to the South to make stronger evaluations.
It might be strange to consider 35-year-old VCU coach Shaka Smart cagey, especially in a region that features Donovan, Self, Smith, Roy Williams and Steve Fisher, who have won a combined seven NCAA titles. But Smart has a 6-2 career record in the Big Dance, including a 2011 Final Four appearance, and his “Havoc” defense is befuddling to opponents. His Rams could overachieve again.
Best players you might not have heard of
Nate Wolters, South Dakota State: Actually, you should know the name by now; the 6-4 guard is a great shooter and all-around player, averaging 22.7 points, 5.8 assists and 5.6 rebounds for the Jackrabbits.
DeQuan Hicks, Northwestern State: The 6-7 forward ranks in the top 10 nationally in field-goal percentage (58.6).
Zeke Marshall, Akron: The 7-footer, who averages 3.7 blocks per game, isn’t just the MAC defensive player of the year. He also emerged as an efficient scorer this season, averaging 13 points and 7.1 rebounds and ranking among the nation’s leaders in field-goal percentage (65.4).
And the winner is …
Michigan: Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are the nation’s best backcourt, and the Wolverines usually don’t beat themselves with foolish mistakes, meaning they could be the rare team that rights itself during the tournament.