The South Region is clearly the sexiest of the four regions, as all three blue bloods in the region, No. 1 North Carolina, No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 UCLA, are among the most decorated teams in college basketball history. Two of the most entertaining games of this college basketball season involved those three teams—UCLA’s 97–92 win at Kentucky and Kentucky’s 103–100 victory over North Carolina.
Memphis hosts the South Regional final, and that city has always been one of the country’s most dedicated college basketball strongholds. How delicious would having the Tar Heels, Wildcats and Bruins along with four-seed Butler be for a weekend of entertaining basketball?
State of the No. 1 seed
North Carolina fell to Duke in the ACC semifinals, 93–83. That loss doesn’t sound any significant alarm bells for the Tar Heels. UNC is deep, experienced and hungry after being on the brink of the national title last season. It has a top five offense and top 25 defense, according to kenpom.com. The Tar Heels are the hardest team to pick against in this bracket.
Toughest draw: No. 2 Kentucky
Talking to Sean Miller the other day, he mentioned off the cuff that the two teams he’d be petrified to see in the NCAA tournament are Dayton and Wichita State because of their experience. He saw the Shockers last year, and it didn’t go well for Arizona. He follows Dayton closely because his brother Archie coaches the Flyers.
John Calipari can’t like seeing those two tournament-seasoned mid-majors sitting across from him in the second round. This is No. 7 Dayton’s fourth NCAA tournament in a row and No. 10 Wichita’s sixth straight. It will be a rock fight for Kentucky to get out of Indianapolis.
Upset watch: No. 12 Middle Tennessee State over No. 5 Minnesota
Don’t expect a huge point spread in this game, as Middle Tennessee is one of the country’s best mid-major teams. The Blue Raiders added Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams (17.3 points per game) to an already loaded team that includes star junior Giddy Potts (15.8 ppg) and senior Reggie Upshaw (14.5 ppg). Those veterans led Middle Tennessee to a stunning upset over No. 2 Michigan State last year. There’s no doubt that this team is better, which gives the Blue Raiders all the ingredients to pull another NCAA tournament upset.
Minnesota’s lack of NCAA tournament experience and coach Richard Pitino’s first trip to the dance make this matchup the region’s most compelling game. It would be hard to consider it a huge upset if Middle Tennessee wins.
Under the radar player: Winthrop point guard Keon Johnson
Johnson is the Big South Player of the Year and has the quintessential trappings of a player who could emerge as a March darling. He’s just 5’7” and 160 pounds, which makes him endearing. And he’s averaging 22.5 points per game and shooting 40% from 3-point range. Be wary, Butler. He’s got the profile of a player who could go off for a 40-point game.
NBA prospect to watch: Wake Forest forward John Collins
Obviously Kentucky’s freshman class could be here. So could UCLA’s two star freshmen and half of North Carolina’s roster. But perhaps no player has made a bigger leap in the eyes of the NBA this season than the Demon Deacons’ Collins. The 6’10”, 235-pound sophomore has gone from 7.3 points per game to 18.9, and his rebounding has jumped from 3.9 per game to 9.8. Collins is not the kind of player No. 6 Cincinnati will be thrilled to see in its first round game. (That’s provided Wake Forest gets through Kansas State in the play-in game).
Star power: The coaches
There’s plenty of elite players in this region, as Kentucky’s Malik Monk, UNC’s Justin Jackson and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball are all among the brightest stars in the game. But consider the talent on the sideline for a minute. UNC’s Roy Williams and Kentucky’s John Calipari are Hall of Famers. Then there’s an intriguing crew that could end up being prominent faces for the next generation: Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, Dayton’s Archie Miller, Butler’s Chris Holtmann, Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin and Minnesota’s Richard Pitino. Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey and Middle Tennessee’s Kermit Davis are both speculated as candidates for bigger jobs. That’s some serious sideline juice.
One-man show: UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball
Ball has emerged as perhaps the country’s most captivating player this year. He’s resuscitated the UCLA program with his selflessness (7.7 assists per game), shooting (14.6 points per game) and limitless 3-point range. (His overbearing father has also made the Bruins a talk radio topic du jour, as he’s compared his son favorably to Steph Curry and spoken openly that he wants him to play for the Lakers). This will be Ball’s only NCAA tournament appearance before he settles into a top three draft slot. Catch him while you can.
Regional final prediction: No. 1 North Carolina over No. 3 UCLA
The Tar Heels are the best team in the field, and there’s too much youth and too many potential pratfalls to see Kentucky getting out of this region. Look for Carolina blue to be the right hue from the blue blood region.