The South Region is super top heavy with blue bloods North Carolina, Kentucky, and UCLA, who have a combined 24 titles. While there are some good teams up and down this bracket, you should probably expect Coach Roy and Coach Cal to get back to another Final Four this year. Who else will meet UNC and Kentucky in Memphis next weekend? Let’s take a look.
1. North Carolina Tar Heels (27-7)
How They Got There: At-Large from the ACC.
Season Review: North Carolina made it all the way to the title game last year, only to have their hearts broken by Josh Hart and Villanova. Besides Marcus Paige, most of the last year’s Tar Heel team came back this year and they have been one of the best teams in the country since the start of the season. UNC won the ACC regular season and beat almost every top team in the conference at least once. The Heels are led by Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks. The Carolina frontcourt is one of the best in the nation, but they are a little thin in the backcourt outside of Berry II. Also, not to be forgotten, UNC lost to Duke twice this year.
Tournament Prediction: The Heels are trying to avenge last season’s title game loss to Nova in this tournament. They should easily get out of the first weekend, and I don’t see Butler or Purdue giving them much trouble in the Sweet 16. In the Elite Eight, they will likely play Kentucky or UCLA. That game could be an all-timer (we already saw Kentucky squeeze by UNC in December this year in a shootout). While I would love to see Duke vs UNC IV in the championship, I think UNC will go down in the Elite Eight matchup.
2. Kentucky Wildcats (29-5)
How They Got There: SEC Conference Champions.
Season Review: Malik Monk tha God and De’Aaron Fox have been fabulous all season for the Cats. Both players look to be lottery picks in this year’s loaded NBA Draft and boy have they earned that hype. Monk averages over 20 points per game and shoots over 40% from behind the arc. Oh and he also dropped 47(!) on top seed UNC in a win earlier this season. Fox averages 16 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds and would probably be the top overall prospect in the draft if he could shoot. As a team, the Cats were super competitive all season and even their losses weren’t bad (they lost to #1 seed Kansas, #2 seed Louisville, #3 seed UCLA, and #4 seed Florida… and Tennessee). Kentucky dominated the SEC regular season and tournament and are now back as a big threat in the NCAA tournament once again.
Tournament Prediction: Malik Monk is my favorite player in college basketball this year, so this may have some inherent bias in it, but I think Kentucky is Final Four bound. They should breeze through the opening weekend, setting up a rematch with UCLA. This time, Kentucky comes out on top setting up yet another rematch with UNC. In an all-time classic, Coach Cal and the Cats beat the Roy and the Heels behind their awesome backcourt. In the Final Four, Kentucky advances to the National Championship game before losing to Coach K and Duke in the most watched final of all time.
3. UCLA Bruins (29-4)
How They Got There: At-Large from the Pac 12.
Season Review: UCLA has been one of the most explosive and fun times to watch all season on the offensive end, averaging over 90 points per game which leads the nation. They are of course led by super freshman Lonzo Ball, whose dad’s takes are so hot, he should write for us. Ball was brought up in the Steph Curry mold and can shoots 3s at a super high rate. UCLA has beaten Arizona, Oregon, Kentucky, and Michigan this year, so no one would be surprised if they made a long run in March Madness this year. This program has a great historic resume, but hasn’t made a deep run in the tournament since 2008. Can Steve Alford finally get his Bruins over the hump for the first time in his tenure?
Tournament Prediction: UCLA has a fairly easy path to the Sweet 16 for a 3 seed, so viewers should be excited to see a big rematch with Kentucky next week. The Bruins beat them once this year, so we know it should be a good game, however the Cats have been improving all year and are simply a more talented roster than UCLA. The Bruins have a few more Ball’s in the pipeline though, so they will be competitive for the next few years.
4. Butler Bulldogs (23-8)
How They Got There: At-Large from the Big East.
Season Review: America’s favorite cinderella team over the past decade or so is now a pretty consistent force in the Big East. The Bulldogs have been solid all year, beating Arizona, Northwestern, and Cincinnati…not to mention Villanova twice. Butler actually has twice as many wins over the defending champs than every other team in the country combined. Butler lost their last two games of the year, but they should be ready for yet another tournament run.
Tournament Prediction: Butler should have no problem with Winthrop, which should set up a Round of 32 matchup with Minnesota. I have no faith in the Big Ten overall, so the Bulldogs should get back to the Sweet 16, before losing to North Carolina.
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers (24-9)
How They Got There: At-Large from the Big Ten.
Season Review: Minnesota was a huge surprise this year as they played super well in Big Ten conference play. Part of this was probably due to a down year in the conference, but they did get wins over Purdue, Michigan, Maryland, and Michigan State. You have to give a lot of credit to Rick Pitino who turned this team around after only 8 wins last year. They have a great defense, and the only way they will make a run is if they can shut down other teams.
Tournament Prediction: The Golden Gophers are highly overrated as a 5 seed and could easily go out in the first round. I think they survive one game, but I don’t see them getting past Butler.
6. Cincinnati Bearcats (29-5)
How They Got There: At-Large from the AAC.
Season Review: Defense, defense, defense. The Bearcats are no fun to play and gave opponents trouble all season. Fairly under the radar, Cincinnati only lost 5 times all year and two of those were to conference champion SMU. Their record is probably a little inflated in a down conference, but don’t sleep on the Bearcats. The team allowed the 4th least PPG in the country (60.5) and that will be the way they get wins in the tournament.
Tournament Prediction: I think the Bearcats can shut down their opening round opponent, but they just don’t have enough offense to upset UCLA this weekend.
7. Dayton Flyers (24-7)
How They Got There: At-Large from the A-10.
Season Review: Dayton has been pretty strong all season, led by four senior starters. The Flyers won the A-10 regular season over strong teams like VCU, Rhode Island, and Richmond. This is actually their fourth straight tournament berth, so these seniors know what to expect this week. However, the Flyers are somewhat overrated and only have won solid win (Vanderbilt) over a non-A-10 team.
Tournament Prediction: The Flyers come into the tournament on a two game losing streak and that will continue as they fall to #10 seed Wichita State.
8. Arkansas Razorbacks (25-9)
How They Got There: At-Large from the A-10.
Season Review: The Razorbacks have been firing on all cylinders on offense this season, averaging almost 80 points per game. Arkansas finished third in the SEC, but honestly they haven’t really beaten anyone good all season, losing to Kentucky and Florida twice in conference play, and also losing to Minnesota and Oklahoma State. Expect Arkansas to hang with other mediocre teams, but they won’t be making a deep run when they hit a talented team.
Tournament Prediction: Arkansas has actually lost to UNC the last two times they have been in the tournament. Let’s keep the streak alive.
9. Seton Hall Pirates (21-11)
How They Got There: At-Large from the Big East.
Season Review: The Pirates were average most of the season, but came on strong in February, winning 8 of their last 11 games. Seton Hall won at home versus Creighton and on the road at Butler during this stretch. They did lose to Villanova three times this year, but almost beat them in the Big East tournament. Forward Angel Delgado leads the nation in rebounding at 13.1 rebounds per game, so whoever plays the Pirates better shoot well from the field.
Tournament Prediction: I want the Pirates to make a run, but I’m just not buying into them this year. I think they go down to Arkansas in the opening round.
10. Wichita State Shockers (30-4)
How They Got There: Missouri Valley Conference Champions.
Season Review: The Shockers have been great all season and come into the tournament on a 15 game win streak. Wichita State shoots over 40% from behind the arc and play solid defense, so they will be a tough out for any team. To me, they are underseeded at #10 considering their record and recent history of success. However, they did lose all of their games against the big boys (Louisville, Michigan State, Oklahoma State), so maybe the committee knows more than me.
Tournament Prediction: The Shockers can squeak by Dayton in the first round, but I don’t think they have the horses this year to compete with Kentucky. But you never know with a Gregg Marshall coached team.
11. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (19-13)
How They Got There: At-Large from the ACC.
Season Review: The Deacons are back in the tournament for the first time since 2010. They had a bit of a renaissance this season under new coach and former Kansas star Danny Manning. Wake did beat Louisville this week, but that was the only ranked team they were able to take down. They probably aren’t truly as good as their record indicates.
Tournament Prediction: Welp. They already lost.
11. Kansas State Wildcats (20-13)
How They Got There: At-Large from the Big 12.
Season Review: Kansas State is a slight head scratcher as a tournament team, after going sub .500 in an overrated Big 12. They did beat Baylor twice and WVU once though, so they can ball. The Wildcats are another good defensive team that lock down more talented teams on the right night. Michael Beasley isn’t walking through the door though, so don’t expect any superstar outputs from this squad.
Tournament Prediction: They already have one win under their belt! Sadly, I think it will be the only one they get and they will probably lose to Cincy in the real first round.
12. Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (30-4)
How They Got There: Conference USA Conference Champions.
Season Review: Tom Izzo and the Spartans definitely remember MTSU from last year. The Blue Raiders had the upset of the tournament as a #15 seed beating the #2 seed before losing to eventual Final Four team Syracuse. The committee gave MTSU a little more respect this year, giving them a well deserved #12 seed. The Blue Raiders did beat both UNC Wilmington and Vanderbilt this year… the same Vanderbilt that beat Florida three times. MTSU won’t have the surprise factor that they did last year, but they do get another Big Ten opponent in Minnesota.
Tournament Prediction: As great as it would be for MTSU to pull another awesome upset, I do not think the magic will be there for them this year, even though Vegas has their game as a pick-em. There is too much confidence in the Blue Raiders and they are due for a let down.
13. Winthrop Eagles (26-6)
How They Got There: Big South Conference Champions.
Season Review: Winthrop has been pretty good all season, winning the Big South regular season and conference tournament. The Eagles best player is PG Keon Johnson who averaged 23 points per game this season. Winthrop beat Illinois earlier this season, which shows they can beat the most mediocre team in the Big Ten… which is something?
Tournament Prediction: I’ve heard a lot of people say that Winthrop is a big cinderella candidate. I’m not seeing it and think Butler will beat them by double digits.
14. Kent State Golden Flashes (22-13)
How They Got There: MAC Conference Champions.
Season Review: Kent State had a pretty mediocre season overall, only earning the #6 seed in the lowly MAC Conference Tournament. However, they put it all together and rolled through all of the MAC opponents to earn an automatic bid. They beat Akron twice, which is cool? The Golden Flashes can’t really shoot, which I’m sure won’t be an issue for them against the top offense in the country…
Tournament Prediction: Yeah, Kent State is going to get blown out by UCLA.
15. Northern Kentucky Norse (24-10)
How They Got There: Horizon League Conference Champions.
Season Review: The Norse are making their first trip to the NCAA Tournament in their first ever year of eligibility. Take that Northwestern. They actually only won 9 games last season, so this year was quite unexpected, with a 15 win improvement. Northern Kentucky is led by big man Drew McDonald who averages over 16 points and almost 8 rebounds per game. McDonald is the team’s tallest player though at 6’7”, so don’t expect them to rule the paint against a massive Kentucky squad.
Tournament Prediction: A real David vs Goliath matchup for the State of Kentucky. While the Norse are a great story, Goliath is winning this one easily.
16. Texas Southern Tigers (23-11)
How They Got There: SWAC Conference Champions.
Season Review: You have to give Texas Southern credit, they aren’t afraid to schedule tough opponents. They played on the road at Arizona, Louisville, Baylor, and Cincinnati. Sadly, they also lost all four of these games by at least 22 points. The Tigers are actually the shortest team in the tournament (and the country), so don’t expect them to do too well against the ultra big and athletics Tar Heels. Fun Fact: Michael Strahan went to Texas Southern.
Tournament Prediction: It should get ugly fast for the Tigers in Round 1.
Photo Credit: SB Nation