NCAA Tournament South Region Breakdown: Will Virginia Dispel Its March Ghosts?

One year after it became the first No. 1 to lose to a No. 16, Virginia is on the top line again to lead the South Region. Who are their biggest obstacles on the road to the Final Four?
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The 2019 NCAA tournament bracket has been released, and for the next 72 hours March Madness pool enthusiasts and hoopheads alike will be filling out brackets and diving into debates over which teams will be cutting down the nets in Minneapolis. With the path to the Final Four set, we’re sizing up the players, teams and games to watch in each region. What to make of the South, where Virginia once again drew a No. 1 seed?

State of the No. 1 Seed: Virginia

Aside from an early and unexpected exit from the ACC tournament at the hands of Florida State and a pair of losses to No. 1 overall seed Duke, Tony Bennett’s team has put together another stellar season in 2018–19. As the South’s No. 1 seed, Virginia seeks an outcome slightly different than its last time dancing. The Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16 seed in NCAA tournament history with last year’s stunning first-round loss to UMBC, but they’ve certainly earned the region's top spot this season. Their Ty Jerome-Kyle Guy backcourt facilitate one of the best offenses Virginia—a team known for it’s impenetrable and infuriating Pack Line defense—has ever had. Their defense remains as locked down as ever, and their improved offense, largely thanks to the development of sophomore star De’Andre Hunter, has separated this team from its predecessor last season.

A sharp shooting, perimeter-playing team themselves, the Cavaliers have struggled this season when their opponents get hot from beyond the arc (see: Duke-Virginia 2.0, where the Blue Devils shot 61.9% from deep and did serious damage against the Cavaliers’ defense). That said, Virginia still boasts one of the most balanced teams in college basketball right now and has shot an impressive 40.9% from three this season led by Jerome, Guy and Hunter.

The Cavaliers (29–3) will play an NCAA tournament newcomer in Gardner-Webb (23–11) of the Big South Conference in the first round on Friday in Columbia, S.C. Their road to the Sweet 16 doesn’t look too gruesome given that they’ll face the winner of No. 8 Ole Miss–No. 9 Oklahoma if they advance, but a likely matchup against Ethan Happ and Wisconsin (who they beat in the regular season already) or a Barry Brown-led Kansas State will be a little tougher. With defending champion No. 6 Villanova, No. 3 Purdue and No. 2 Tennessee in the bottom half, winning the South is no small feat but without any major first week obstacles, Virginia looks to have gotten a very manageable—albeit not necessarily favorable—draw.

Who Has the Toughest Draw: No. 2 Tennessee

Tennessee took a tough draw in the bottom of the South­, with Cincinnati, Purdue and Villanova all potentially along its path to the Elite Eight. To take the region, the Vols would then likely have to go through Virginia, which would be a tall task in itself. The Bearcats showed some claws as they took the AAC conference crown after a tough end to the regular season, rallying to take down Houston—the tournament’s top seed—after two bad regular season losses. Purdue has been a powerhouse all season, even in light of its Big Ten tournament upset. With a highly efficient offense and a solid defense to complement their scorers, the Boilermakers could be a big-time threat to the Vols. Given that Jay Wright knows how to coach a team through March Madness and has the right combination of veteran leadership in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, it’s not an easy road for Rick Barnes’s crew. No matter who it ends up facing, Tennessee could easily be exposed en route to the South regional final.

The Team That Could Bust Your Bracket: No. 6 Villanova

Look, I’m not saying the Wildcats are good. I’m saying that they know how to dance. Booth and Paschall know how to lead a team that can get scrappy when it needs to, like we saw on Saturday against Seton Hall. Add in some Saddiq Bey and Collin Gillespie and 'Nova could make a run for the South or at least bust your bracket a bit as it knocks off the two and three seed en route to the Elite Eight.

Player to Watch: De’Andre Hunter, Virginia

The ACC defensive player of the year and all-ACC first-team selection this season sat on the bench as the Cavaliers fell on the wrong side of history during their loss to UMBC with a broken left wrist. Hunter, a projected NBA lottery pick, is the Cavaliers go-to-guy on both ends of the floor and he’s got a lot to prove this postseason. Can he hang with the NBA big dogs? The sophomore wing is second on Virginia in scoring (15.1) and rebounding (5.0) this season behind junior guard Kyle Guy and should be a big factor in Virginia’s redemption run. Plus, watching him work the Pack Line is a thing of beauty.

Most Intriguing Matchup: No. 5 Wisconsin vs. No. 12 Oregon

Ethan Happ and Co. will get a major test in the Ducks, who are a dangerous, defense-first team riding an eight-game win streak, including two recent wins over Washington (one for the Pac-12 championship). Without freshman star center Bol Bol, Oregon struggled to find an offensive identity, but it seems to be hitting stride at just the right time as it enters the tournament.

Regional Finalists: Virginia vs. Tennessee

A region finale as one-seed-two-seed as they come. Neither team looked its best in its conference tournament, but after some rest and a few solid showings, they should emerge as the South’s finalists. The two boast the nations’ No. 2 and No. 3 most efficient offenses, per kenpom, and there's tremendous talent on both. A healthy Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy combo with Hunter on the wing produces an offense about as effortlessly efficient as they come (and defense—let’s not forget who we’re talking about here), while Tennessee has two-time SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield to form one of the most formidable duos in the country. An Elite Eight matchup between these teams will be a complete grind given the nature of their styles, but expect the best from both when they face one another in the finale.

The Pick: Virginia

The Cavaliers may not take the national title, but they’ll be tough to beat in the East. At their best, they’re as talented and as balanced as a Tony Bennett team has ever been. Expect them to play at peak performance on this year’s redemption run.