by Paul West
After one of the more exciting NCAA basketball seasons in recent memory, Selection Sunday is finally here! Millions of bracketologists are studying, stressing and sweating over their March Madness picks. Here’s a region by region breakdown of the 2014 March Madness bracket.
Bracketology 2014: South Region
1 Florida vs. 16 Albany/Mount Saint Mary’s (Orlando, FL)
The Mount Saint Mary’s Mountaineers got to 16-16 on the season and won the Northeast Conference Tournament title in the same game. They’re 50th in the country in scoring, with 76.3 points per game. The University of Albany Great Danes are 36th in the country in defense, allowing 63.8 points per game, making this a defense-offense matchup. Unfortunately for both teams, the Florida Gators are widely considered the best overall team in the country. They’re experienced, they can score, rebound and defend, and they win close games. They have the SEC Player of the Year, point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who manages their flow and can create offense in key moments. Coach Billy Donovan will have the Gators mentally prepared for the postseason, and their run isn’t likely to stop here. Pick: Florida
8 Colorado vs. 9 Pittsburgh (Orlando)
The Colorado Buffaloes spent the early months of the season looking really tough. Then they lost their best player, Spencer Dinwiddie, to a torn ACL. Since then, they’ve gone 9-9, though they’ve continued to show toughness and managed to play themselves into the tournament. Pittsburgh Panthers are a team I picked a while ago as a possible bracket buster. Their defense is an energetic, well orchestrated blitz, and they hold opponents to 62.4 points per game despite playing in the tough ACC. Their 1-7 record against top 25 teams is deceptive, as they’ve lost a lot of close games. This could point to them having trouble closing out good teams, or being really battle-tested for the big tourney. This should be a good battle. Pick: Pittsburgh
5 Virginia Commonwealth vs. 12 Stephen F. Austin (San Diego, CA)
The VCU Rams finished the season strong, making it all the way to the final game of the Atlantic 10 Tournament before being upset by Saint Joseph’s. They’re first in the country in steals with 11.3 per game, and their transition scoring is a big reason they average 75.4 points per game. Their famed “Havoc” defense is as tough as any in the country when it gets locked in, and the Rams are a threat to just about anyone when their game is in tune. Unfortunately, the Rams can also be turnover-prone, which plays to a strength of the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. The Lumberjacks are 31-2 and have won 28 games in a row, and hold opponents to 62.6 points per game. They force 16.4 turnovers per game, they score 76.5 points per game, and they’re eighth in the country with 16.6 assists per game. If the Rams’ shot selection gets fuzzy, the Lumberjacks will make them pay. VCU’s experience, and coach Shaka Smart‘s ability to get the most out of his guys, could be the difference here. Pick: VCU
4 UCLA vs. 13 Tulsa (San Diego)
The Tulsa Golden Hurricane won the Conference-USA Tournament over Louisiana Tech, and are riding an 11-game winning streak. Coach Danny Manning won a national championship as a player, and should have his team mentally prepared for the tournament. But the UCLA Bruins are a force on offense, averaging 81.8 points and 17.2 assists per game with the tenth-best field goal percentage at .490. Kyle Anderson, a 6’9″ hybrid, is one of the most versatile matchup nightmares in the country, and he’s got help. The Bruins are another high seed that opens close to home, and they’d have to have a pretty bad day to lose this one. Pick: UCLA
6 Ohio State vs. 11 Dayton (Buffalo, NY)
The Ohio State Buckeyes aren’t as strong as they’ve been in recent seasons. They don’t shoot the ball especially well, and nothing about them jumps off the screen. They still have senior guard Aaron Craft, a defensive-minded floor leader who can shoot the three and is speedy in transition. They’re strong defensively, and they’re one of the hardest teams to inbound the ball against, which can matter in close games. The Dayton Flyers aren’t a particularly scary team, but they have solid depth. The Flyers are heating up at the right time, having beaten George Washington, UMass and Saint Louis in the past few weeks. Like many games in this region, this one has a chance to go either way. Pick: Dayton
3 Syracuse vs. 14 Western Michigan (Buffalo)
The Western Michigan Broncos are 7-4 against the RPI top 100, and they’re an experienced team that can score. Unfortunately, their aggressiveness leads to 14.1 turnovers per game, which should play right into the hands of the famous Syracuse Orange defense. Once considered a possible 1 seed, Syracuse has been on a bit of a slide. They’ve gotten into foul trouble, suffered from poor shot selection and struggled to get in an offensive rhythm. They’re 7-5 in their last 12 games, and they come into the tournament as much more of a wild card than many would have expected a month ago. Still, they have enough game-changing talent like Tyler Ennis and CJ Fair to avoid losing this one. Pick: Syracuse
7 New Mexico vs. 10 Stanford (St. Louis, MO)
The New Mexico Lobos are one of the other teams I mentioned as a bracket-buster a while back, and they’ve since played their way onto the radar. They split the regular season series against Mountain West rival San Diego State, including blowing them out when the latter was ranked sixth in the country. Then the Lobos ended Championship Week by winning the Mountain West Tournament, beating SDSU in the final game while the latter was ranked eighth in the country. The Lobos have a double-double machine named Cameron Bairstow, a senior from Australia who can take over a game. They can score and rebound, and they like to run the floor. And they might be the most under-seeded team in the tournament, along with Kentucky. The Stanford Cardinal are hard to figure out, as they’ve spent the season alternating good and bad stretches. They take care of the ball, but they don’t attack the glass very heartily and they lack depth. The Lobos should win this one. Pick: New Mexico
2 Kansas vs. 15 Eastern Kentucky
Dominant at times, the Kansas Jayhawks have had an up and down season. Then down the stretch, they lost their game-changing big man, seven-foot Joel Embiid, to a back fracture. While Embiid’s loss didn’t affect the Jayhawks’ seeding, it certainly affects their chances; Kansas is an aggressive team that attacks the paint and the glass, and Embiid is the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Without him, they’re still dangerous but not quite the same. Nevertheless, 6’8″ forward Perry Ellis has stepped up big time in his sophomore year, and Andrew Wiggins is another super-freshman who can dominate a game. The Eastern Kentucky Colonels can really shoot, averaging 79 points per game and ranking eleventh in the country in field goal percentage. The Colonels hit 39 percent from behind the arc and 75 percent from the line. Unfortunately, they lack height and don’t rebound that well. Unless the Colonels shoot really well, Kansas should win this one. Pick: Kansas
Stephen F. Austin is a good team that’s won 28 in a row, and they can make VCU pay for turnovers and poor shooting.
Don’t sleep on…
New Mexico, who got a raw deal with the 7 seed. They match up well against a wide variety of teams, and are a long-shot threat to make it out of their region.
You might not have heard of…
Colorado’s Askia Booker. The 6’2″ junior guard is averaging 14 points a game, and has helped the Buffaloes scrap thheir way into the tournament after losing Dinwiddie.