by Paul West
More and more in recent years, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is a wide open affair, with a number of credible title threats and no clear frontrunner. This year’s March Madness bracket is no different. Here’s a look at the South Region, where the top overall seed kicks things off close to home.
1 Virginia vs 16 UMBC
The Virginia Cavaliers are the top overall seed in the tournament, and this looks like their best year to go all the way under coach Tony Bennett. Their now famous pack-line defense stifles opponents as well as ever, but there’s a new twist: this year’s backcourt. Kyle Guy is athletic, streaky, and fearless, and Ty Jerome is a legitimate scoring threat whose presence is masked by the defense and the Cavaliers’ conservative (putting it lightly) approach to offense. Jerome only averages 10.5 points a game, but on an up-tempo team, he and Guy (averaging 14.1 ppg) would put up points as a duo. Their oft-untapped scoring ability helps fuel helps UVA’s occasional flurries of transition scoring, which they use defense-to-offense conversions to pull away from frustrated opponents. In a show of respect from the committee, they also draw the close-to-home South Region, where they’d wind up playing in Atlanta for a trip to the Final Four.
The UMBC Retrievers surprised the Vermont Catamounts with a buzzer-beating three, and come into the tournament with little pressure and nothing to lose. Senior guard Jarius Lyles averages 20.2 points a game to go with 5.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists, and is the type of player who can take over a game; he’ll have to if the Retrievers are going to have a shot here. Pick: UVA
2 Cincinnati vs 15 Georgia State
The Cincinnati Bearcats won 30 games this season, haven’t got any glaringly bad losses, and are second in the country in points with a stingy 57.2 points allowed per game. They rely on physicality and toughness at both ends of the floor, though they lack a true game-changing scorer, which might hurt them at some point.
The Georgia State Bulldogs feature a physicality and tenacity which is similar to that of the Bearcats. 6’3″ sophomore D’Marcus Simonds is a well-rounded hybrid who averages 20.9 points, 5.8 boards, and 45 assists per game, and the Bulldogs’ backcourt can shoot the three; if the Bearcats struggle to score, the Bulldogs could keep it close and steal this one down the stretch. Pick: Georgia State
3 Tennessee vs 14 Wright State
The Tennessee Volunteers are big and athletic, and they like to get out in transition. Averaging 15.9 assists a game, they spread the ball around rather than relying on any one shooter to get things going. They also hustle at both ends, meaning most of their signature elements don’t slump–and they’ll be a headache for anyone who has to get through them in the tournament.
The Wright State Raiders are a tough defensive team with balanced scoring, both of which are good for business come tournament time. Unfortunately, nothing else about them really jumps off the page–making them seem like a long shot to advance. Pick: Tennessee
4 Arizona vs 13 Buffalo
The Arizona Wildcats seem like they should be one of the best teams in the country, and with a decisive win over USC in the Pac-12 title game, they might be putting it together just in time. 7’1″ Bahamian freshman Deandre Ayton averages 20.3 points and 11.5 boards a game, and is developing great timing for shot blocking; 6’5″ guard Allonzo Trier can take over a game; and 7ft Serb Dusan Ristic is a versatile big man who exemplifies their depth and athleticism. The Wildcats might be the most under-seeded team in the tournament.
The Buffalo Bulls are an interesting squad. They score 84.8 points a game, on 16.9 assists and 39 rebounds, and their fourth leading scorer averages 14.6 points a game. Unfortunately, they also don’t defend particularly well, and their opponent is not your typical 4 seed. Pick: Arizona
5 Kentucky vs 12 Davidson
The Kentucky Wildcats are athletic, they get after it on the boards, and they’re capable of putting up points on virtually anyone; they also don’t shoot it that well from deep or defend that well. They beat Tennessee 77-74 to win the SEC Tournament, partly because both teams play a similar style and the Wildcats shot the ball just well enough to pull it out; their hot shooting will have to continue if they’ll go on a run.
The Davidson Wildcats won the Atlantic 10 Tournament by taking out a tough Rhode Island team. They’re dangerous: they can score, shoot, and defend, and with 17.1 assists a game (good for 12th in the country), they keep the ball moving on offense. Kentucky will have its hands full with this one. Pick: Davidson
6 Miami vs 11 Loyola-Chicago
The Miami Hurricanes are a scrappy team that came in third in a tough ACC. Unfortunately, they just lost sophomore guard Bruce Brown, Jr.–their third leading scorer, and leading assist man–to a foot injury. They also don’t shoot free throws well as a team, which won’t help them late in a close game.
The Loyola-Chicago Ramblers feature good ball movement, wise shot selection, and capable shooters. Clayton Custer is a quick, athletic two-way guard with a nifty midrange game and the ability to jump into transition off of steals; and the Ramblers only gave up 62.2 points a game in a tough Missouri Valley Conference. Pick: Loyola-Chicago
7 Nevada vs 10 Texas
The Nevada Wolf Pack were inexplicably hammered by San Diego State in their conference tournament, but they’re still a dangerous team. Caleb Martin and Cody Martin, twin transfers from NC State, bring power-conference experience along with versatility and toughness. Caleb is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 19.1 points a game, but he also averages 5.3 rebounds; Cody is more the utility-style player, leading the team in field goal percentage and assists, though he’s capable of putting up points when he gets on a roll. 6’7″ junior guard Jordan Caroline is another scoring threat, averaging 17.9 points along with 8.8 boards.
The Texas Longhorns are a team capable of getting hot, and coach Shaka Smart knows how to get a team ready for the tournament. 6’11” freshman Mohamed Babma is an emerging talent, but the Longhorns don’t seem to have one deciding-factor element that should carry them very far. Pick: Nevada
8 Creighton vs 9 Kansas State
The Creighton Bluejays came in fourth in a tough Big East conference, and they’re probably under-seeded as an 8. Guard Marcus Foster averages 20.3 points a game, and spearheads an offense that puts up 84.3 points a game. The thing is, they also average 18 assists per game, and when they get to lighting it up, they’re hard to stop.
The Kansas State Wildcats their way to 22-11 and fourth place in a tough Big 12 Conference, but their at-large bid is widely considered questionable. Toughness can take you a long way, especially for a team who’s been battle-tested all season; but unless Creighton struggles to shoot the ball, Kansas State is a long shot. Pick: Creighton
Upset alert: Loyola-Chicago, Georgia State.
Sleepers: Loyola-Chicago, Tennessee.
Best player you might not have heard of: D’Marcus Simonds.
Who makes the Final Four? Arizona looks like they’re finding their stride at the right time, and they’ll edge out UVA in a memorable Elite Eight game.