The most challenging of the four regions, the South features Florida, the top-ranked team in the country; Kansas, which won the deepest league in the nation; and Syracuse, which for three months was the nation’s best team.
First-round upset: No. 12 Stephen F. Austin vs. No. 5 Virginia Commonwealth
The Lumberjacks barely missed the tournament last season and are one of the best defensive teams in the nation, allowing 62.6 points per game. They will press you to death. SFA could easily give No. 4 UCLA fits in the round of 32.
Most enjoyable first-round matchup: No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Dayton|
These are the games the big schools never want — little local guy who wants a shot. Bet the farm OSU coach Thad Matta has never wanted this game as the two schools are a mere 70 miles apart. The last time these schools met was 2008, in the NIT. Before that, their previous meeting was in 1988. OSU leads this series 6-3.
Best team: No. 1 Florida
Not even close. The Gators reached the Elite Eight last season, and this team is better than that one. The Gators’ last loss was Dec. 2, against UConn. Florida has lost twice this season, both against ranked teams, by a combined seven points. Forward Patric Young is a future pro.
First top seed to lose: No. 2 Kansas
The Jayhawks played the hardest schedule in the country, and they won another Big 12 title. But they have lost three of the their last five games, and are without shot-blocking center Joel Embiid for at least the first two games of the tournament. Andrew Wiggins is too erratic to rely on to carry this team without Embiid. If they reach the Sweet 16, and Embiid plays, it’s different story.
Dark horse: No. 7 New Mexico
The Lobos were upset in the first round by Harvard last season and return that entire team, led by guard Kendall Williams. This team can beat Kansas.
Toughest player: Kyle Anderson, F/G UCLA
He is 6-foot-9, and is listed as a guard. He averaged 14.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 6.6 assists.
Best pro: Joel Embiid, C, Kansas
He’s a shot-blocker and will guard the rim for years in the NBA.
Future pros: Andrew Wiggins, F, Kansas; Kendall Williams, G, New Mexico; Joel Embiid, C, Kansas; Juvonte Reddic, PF, VCU; Lamar Patterson, SG, Pitt; Tyler Ennis, G, Syracuse
Top-seeded Arizona plays the type of defense that can offset a bad shooting night and is necessary to reach a Final Four. It has the size and a star player in Aaron Gordon. But this region is dangerous, most notably No. 5 Oklahoma. The Sooners have athletes and the coach (Lon Kruger) to prevent Arizona from reaching Arlington.
First-round upset: No. 11 Nebraska vs. No. 6 Baylor
Baylor is good enough to reach another Elite Eight or erratic enough to pull some stunt like losing this game. The Bears, who reached the Big 12 title game, pose some serious matchup problems with forward Cory Jefferson and guard Kenny Chery. But there is the Scott Drew factor and the fact that Nebraska’s Tim Miles is one of the best young coaches in the country.
Most enjoyable first-round matchup: No. 4 San Diego St. vs. No. 13 New Mexico State
Steve Fisher keeps putting the Aztecs back into the tournament because they have a good player — Xavier Thames — and they guard people. NMSU has a front line that features Sim Bhullar (7-foot-5), Tanveer Bhullar (7-3), Renaldo Dixon (6-10) and Tshilidzi Nephawe (6-10).
Best team: No. 9 Oklahoma State
The three-game suspension to NBA lottery-bound guard Marcus Smart did not derail this team, but it made a difference. The Cowboys have two NBA players in Smart and Markel Brown. They have won five of their last seven games, and can defeat No. 1 Arizona.
First top seed to lose: No. 3 Creighton
It’s hard to bet against a special player like Blue Jays senior forward Doug McDermott, but this team is ripe for an upset. It leans on one player, and does not play the best defense.
Dark horse: No. 7 Oregon
It helps the Ducks to open against No. 10 BYU, which last week lost point guard Kyle Collinsworth to an ACL injury. Oregon can score (81.1 points per game) and can defeat No. 2 Wisconsin in a round of 32 game. With the right matchup, Oregon can reach the Elite Eight.
Toughest player: Doug McDermott, F, Creighton
He is an impossible cover. One of eight players to score more than 3,000 career points, McDermott can hit any of a variety of shots via a clean look or after contact. Just expect him to get his 20-plus.
Future pros: Aaron Gordon, F, Arizona; Marcus Smart, G, Oklahoma State; Markel Brown, G, Oklahoma State; Cory Jefferson, F, Baylor; Doug McDermott, F, Creighton; Nick Johnson, G, Arizona
Wichita State has not lost since the national semifinals in 2013 — a 72-68 defeat against eventual national champion Louisville, seeded fourth in this bracket. Michigan is the third Final Four team from a year ago in this bracket. With players like Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker, the Shockers are good enough to reach another Final Four. But this bracket is so loaded, it’s hard to see WSU doing it again.
First-round upset: No. 12 Winner vs. No. 5 St. Louis
All of the matchups for the first four seeds look clean, leaving a struggling Billikens team vulnerable against the N.C. State/Xavier winner. The Billikens guard but can’t score. Playing a team from a bigger conference is a recipe for a loss.
Most enjoyable first-round matchup: No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 9 Kansas State
At the start of the season, John Calipari had his de facto NBA team ready to go undefeated. For the second consecutive season, he has had guard trouble and his kids — led by freshman forward Julius Randle — are playing like kids. Players such as Randle and Andrew Harrison are good, but when a team is this young it is prone to be erratic. K-State guards well, and has a legit guard in Marcus Foster.
Best team: No. 3 Duke
If Michigan had forward Mitch McGary (back), the Wolverines would be the best team, but right now it’s Duke. Freshman forward Jabari Parker is a lottery pick, and Rodney Hood and Andre Dawkins can score. The rub for the Blue Devils is that they are not big inside and their defense is not great. If they are shooting it, however, forget it.
First top seed to lose: No. 1 Wichita State
The gripe is they don’t play anybody. They have defeated tourney teams Tulsa, BYU, St. Louis and Tennessee. If Kentucky gets into the second round, the Wildcats can beat the Shockers.
Dark horse: No. 4 Louisville
Agreed, it’s stupid to think the defending national champions are a dark horse. It’s dumber to think the Cardinals are a four seed. The way this bracket is set up, do not be shocked if Louisville makes it back to the Final Four.
Toughest player: T.J. Warren, F, N.C. State
Because the Wolfpack may have been the final at-large team to make it, and they play Xavier in one of those fake first-round games, there is a good chance you may not get to see Warren play unless you really try. He is one of the best college players in the country; he averages 24.8 points and 7.2 rebounds.
Future pros: Russ Smith, G, Louisville; Cleanthony Early, F, Wichita State; Jabari Parker, Duke; Jahii Carson, Arizona State; T.J. Warren, N.C. State, Julius Randle, F, Kentucky; Nick Stauskas, G, Michigan
This may be the softest, or second softest, of the four regions. Despite winning the ACC regular season and tournament, top-seeded Virginia looks vulnerable because scoring does not come easy.
First-round upset: No. 10 St. Joseph’s vs. No. 7 Connecticut
UConn leans on point guard Shabazz Napier almost as much as it leaned on Kemba Walker in 2011 when it won the NCAA title. Napier isn’t as good as Walker, and if he’s off, the team loses. St. Joe’s forward Halil Kanacevic (6-8, 255) is a load; he complements guard Langston Galloway (17.5 points per game).
Most enjoyable first-round matchup: No. 5 Cincinnati vs. No. 12 Harvard
Harvard won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time last season, and welcomed back seniors Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey from academic suspension. Cincinnati can defend forever, but relies exclusively on Sean Kilpatrick for points (20.7). If he can’t score, the Bearcats are in trouble.
Best team: Iowa State
The Cyclones have four players who average in double figures and have won four in a row, all against tournament teams. They rank sixth in the nation in scoring.
First top seed to lose: No. 1 Virginia
Like his dad, UVA coach Tony Bennett coaches smothering defense. Virginia will grind you until you can’t breathe, but they rank 294th nationally in scoring. Teams that hold the ball and play it close get burned.
Dark horse: No. 4 Michigan State
Hard to call a team from the Big Ten a dark horse, but the Spartans could easily advance out of this region. No major team worked through injuries the way the Spartans did. Major contributors Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Brandon Dawson are back after missing time. MSU won the Big Ten tournament title, and have a coach, Tom Izzo, who knows how to win in March.
Toughest player: Melvin Ejim, Iowa State
The Big 12 Player of the Year averages 18.1 points and 8.5 rebounds. He is a slasher who can put the ball on the floor, and is a matchup problem for guards or forwards.
Future pros: Shabazz Napier, G, UConn; Keith Appling, G, Michigan State; Gary Harris, Michigan State
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