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South Region Preview: Star power and early upsets?

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Here’s the irony about the South Region: there is more star power in this portion of the bracket than anywhere else, yet it is as wide-open as any region this season.

Let’s start with the coaches, as ten of them — Bill Self, Roy Williams, Jay Wright, Shaka Smart, Ben Howland, Tubby Smith, Billy Donovan, Steve Fisher, Lon Kruger and John Thompson III — have made at least one Final Four. That list doesn’t include John Beilein.

That’s almost as impressive as the number of stars that will be setting foot on the court. Trey Burke, Otto Porter, Ben McLemore, Jeff Withey, Shabazz Muhammad, Nate Wolters, Jamaal Franklin, James Michael-McAdoo.

The bottom-line?

There will be no shortage of people to write about in the South.

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Three story lines to watch

  • Will this be the end of the road for Ben Howland at UCLA? The chatter about his job status that started back in November hasn’t exactly subsided. With the amount of talent that he brought into the program this season, what does Howland need to do to save his job, assuming he even wants to remain with the Bruins? A Sweet 16? An Elite 8? Without Jordan Adams? That’s a tall task.
  • Take a look at who Howland drew in the opening round: Minnesota and head coach Tubby Smith, who is dealing with his own hot seat issues right now. Winner remains employed?
  • With the obvious caveat that they first need to knock off Villanova in the opening round, how awesome would it be to see Kansas reunite with former head coach Roy Williams in the round of 32? And to have the game take place in Kansas City, no less?

The Elite 8 matchup is…?: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 3 Florida

I still think that Kansas is probably the favorite to come out of the South, although I think that they are probably the least likely of the No. 1 seeds to make the Final Four. Their back court play has been better of late, but the Jayhawks still don’t have a true point guard. Ben McLemore is going to be a top five pick, but at this point in his career he’s still more of a spot-up shooter and transition finisher than he is a go-to guy. But their defense, anchored by Jeff Withey, can be dominant when it needs to be, and Kansas will need it to be.

As far as Florida is concerned, I’m very well aware of their issues in close games. They are 0-6 in games decided by single digits. But those account for six of just seven losses, meaning that they’ve won a lot of games by a lot of points, which is part of the reason why the Gators are the only team in the country in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency. I don’t think they get challenged until the Sweet 16 and Georgetown, and I think that Florida’s smothering defense — and Will Yeguete on Otto Porter — may be enough to get them to the Elite 8.

Final Four sleeper: VCU Rams

And they may be more than just a ‘sleeper’. Think about it like this. VCU’s press can be flat-out devastating. Akron’s starting point guard was suspended after getting arrested. Michigan may be the nation’s least turnover-prone team, but they are also very young, they haven’t seen a press this season and they’ll have about 48 hours to prepare for it. Kansas has all kinds of turnover issues in their back court. Georgetown and Florida aren’t exactly striking fear in the hearts of Shaka Smart’s club. Am I losing it?

Best opening round matchups

  • No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 13 South Dakota State: This may actually be the single-best opening round matchup int he entire tournament. Similar styles. Nate Wolters vs. Trey Burke. Thank you, Selection Committee.
  • No. 7 San Diego State vs. No. 10 Oklahoma: Lon Kruger knows the Aztecs well from his time at UNLV in the Mountain West, but will that be enough to handle Jamaal Franklin and company?

Matchups to root for

  • No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 8 North Carolina: It’s more than just the Roy Williams thing. UNC actually has a chance to win this game. Going four guards, spreading the floor and forcing Withey to defend on the perimeter is how Oklahoma beat Kansas and how Iowa State nearly beat Kansas twice. That’s what the Heels will do.
  • No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 5 VCU: The clash of styles would just be so intriguing to watch.
  • No. 6 UCLA vs. No. 7 San Diego State: These two schools have developed a bit of a SoCal’s finest rivalry over the past couple of seasons. There are some hurt feelings from the recruiting trail involved here.

The studs you know about

  • Trey Burke, Michigan: Point guard. National Player of the Year.
  • Otto Porter, Georgetown: Small forward. First team all-american and National Player of the Year runner-up.
  • Ben McLemore, Kansas: Future top five pick in the NBA Draft, McLemore may have the prettiest stroke in the country and also throws down windmills in games. Now we’ll see if he can do anything else.
  • Nate Wolters, South Dakota State: The kid’s not a secret anymore. He played in the tournament last season after being hyped up all year long. The only surprise people are going to have about Wolters is that he’s still in school.

The studs the nation will find out about

  • Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State: You should know who he is after he did this.
  • Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova: He’s more than just the complicated last name. The freshman point guard has proven that he has the guts to take and make a big shots.

Upsets that ARE happening

  • No. 11 Minnesota over No. 6 UCLA: I know how well Minnesota has played of late. I get it. But they don’t need to play well against the Bruins. All they have to do is play hard. The Gophers are as good as anyone in the country at getting to the offensive glass, and UCLA is small and doesn’t seem to care all that much about rebounding.

Upsets that AREN’T happening

  • No. 13 South Dakota State over No. 4 Michigan: The Wolverines and the Jackrabbits just play too similar of a style, as they both rely heavily on the playmaking of a dynamic point guard that dominates the ball.
  • No. 7 San Diego State over No. 2 Georgetown: San Diego State struggles shooting from beyond the arc, and that’s exactly what they will be forced to do by the Georgetown defense.

CBT Predictions: As of today, I’m picking Florida over VCU for a trip to the Final Four, but that’s going to chance. Check back on Wednesday for my ‘official’ picks.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Kansas forward arrested on suspicion of battery

DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 19:  Carlton Bragg Jr. #15 of the Kansas Jayhawks reacts after scoring in the first half against the Connecticut Huskies during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 19, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. was arrested on suspicion of domestic battery, according to a report from the Kansas City Star.

Bragg, who was still in custody as of Friday morning, is being held without bond. No charges have yet been filed.

“We are still trying to gather information,” head coach Bill Self told The Star. “But it is a charge which we take very seriously.”

Bragg is a 6-foot-8 sophomore that lost his spot in the starting lineup earlier this year. He is averaging 7.8 points and 5.3 boards in 16 minutes. No. 3 Kansas hosts Nebraska on Saturday.

Frank Martin comments on Sindarius Thornwell suspension

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks drives to the basket defended by Tyler Lydon #20 of the Syracuse Orange in the second half during the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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South Carolina head coach Frank Martin commented on Sindarius Thornwell’s suspension during his call-in show on Thursday.

Thornwell, who was the leading scorer for the 8-0 No. 19 Gamecocks, was suspended indefinitely last Sunday. Martin has yet to provide a reason for the suspension.

“He’s been with us at practice, he’ll travel with us, he’s excited about our team, his role on the team,” he said, according to South Carolina’s 247 site. “Sindarius is one of my favorite guys I’ve ever come across. He messed up and it is what it is. He’s like a son to me. He messed up and he’s owned up to his mess up.”

“Outside of that, I’m not going to get into anything else. He has my full support. Our job is to prepare our team to play, we don’t prepare individual players to play. It’s no different to someone rolling an ankle. We’re down because of a bad decision. We’ll be fine.”

Thornwell is averaging 18.7 points, 6.0 boards and 4.1 assists. The Gamecocks play Seton Hall in New York City on Monday night.

UCF star point guard out indefinitely with thumb injury

STORRS, CT - JANUARY 22: B.J. Taylor #1 of the Central Florida Knights carries the ball up the court in front of Ryan Boatright #11 of the Connecticut Huskies in the first half during the game at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion on January 22, 2015 in Storrs, Connecticut.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Sophomore guard B.J. Taylor is out indefinitely after suffering a hand injury, UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins confirmed at a press conference earlier today.

According to a report from 247 Sports’ UCF site, the injury is a broken thumb, which was suffered in Saturday’s win over UMass.

Taylor is not expected to miss the rest of the season but will be out for an extended amount of time. He missed all of 2015-16 season dealing with a foot injury.

On the season, Taylor, a 6-foot-2 point guard, was having an all-AAC caliber season, averaging 17.0 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 boards.

Weekend Preview: Villanova tested by Notre Dame, bounce-backs for Xavier, Butler

Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia (32), Bonzie Colson (35) and V.J. Beachem (3) talk during the second half of a first-round men's college basketball game against Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 18, 2016, in New York. Notre Dame won 70-63. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 23 Notre Dame, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: This is a fascinating matchup for a couple of reasons. For starters, this is the first real test that undefeated Notre Dame is going to be getting this season. We honestly have no idea how good the Irish actually are, and you wouldn’t be alone in needing to see a team starting Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson prove it before buying in.

But we also haven’t see Villanova tested in a while, either. They won at Purdue earlier this season and, since then, have more-or-less coasted to their undefeated mark. This will not only be a nice gauge game for Villanova, but it will also be a chance for them to pad an NCAA tournament résumé that will need to be strong for them to get a No. 1 seed this year.

The other part of this that’s fascinating? Both of these teams play small ball. There are going to be times on Saturday where 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson is playing center and being guarded by 6-foot-5 Kris Jenkins, who will be at center for the Wildcats.

No. 22 Cincinnati at No. 16 Butler, Sat. 4:30 p.m.: Butler could really use this win. Coming off of a road loss to Indiana State during the week, the Bulldogs will be playing back in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. But here’s the thing: Cincinnati could really use this win as well, and that Bearcat program already owns a road win over Iowa State.

The matchup here will be intriguing as well. Butler plays a more open, run-and-gun style than they did under Brad Stevens. Tyler Lewis is a show-man in transition, as is Kamar Baldwin, and getting Kelan Martin spotting up or attacking a close out is always a good coaching maneuver. Cincinnati is tough and big and physical. They try to wear you down. They pound the glass. They really, really defend. How does Butler handle it?

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FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 17 Wisconsin at Marquette, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: In one of the more under-appreciated rivalries in college basketball, Marquette will be looking to land a marquee win to bolster the non-conference portion of their NCAA tournament résumé. Will
    Nigel Hayes continue to play like an all-american?
  • Utah at No. 13 Xavier, Sat. 5:30 p.m.: The Musketeers have lost back-to-back games and are really struggling to shoot the ball from the perimeter. Utah has struggled this season as they have a young roster waiting on a pair of transfers to get eligible.
  • Michigan at No. 2 UCLA, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: UCLA is now a week removed from their win over then-No. 1 Kentucky in Rupp Arena. This will be the first time they see the floor since then. Michigan had the look of a tournament team earlier in the season, but they’ve lost a pair of winnable games in recent weeks.
  • Hofstra vs. No. 6 Kentucky, Sun. 3:00 p.m.: The Wildcats will square off with Hofstra on Sunday, a game that is only really notable because it will be played in the Barclays Center.
  • No. 21 Florida at Florida State, Sun. 4:00 p.m.: The Gators looked the part of an NCAA tournament team when they lost to Duke in New York City on Tuesday. Florida State is more talented, however, but it’s difficult to trust them. This will be a big win for whoever gets it.

FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Kentucky’s perimeter shooting is officially a concern: The Wildcats are currently shooting 32.2 percent from beyond the arc, which is 254th nationally. The only real threat they have from three in their starting lineup is Malik Monk, and he’s streaky. They can play Derek Willis at the four, but Willis is such a step-down on the defensive end of the floor from Wenyen Gabriel that it may not end up being a net-positive to play him, not when the Wildcats rely so heavily on their defense to create offense in transition.

I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m not even sure there is an answer. This is just what Coach Cal has to work with this season. Can they improve? Probably. The great thing about being a bad shooting team is that shooting is the easiest thing to develop. Teams without size can’t get bigger. Teams without athleticism can’t get more athletic. The only problem? There are just four months left of the season. How much better can Kentucky really get?

One thing worth noting here: The 2010 Kentucky team, the one with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, the one that lost in the Elite 8 because of their shooting issues, finished the season making 33.1 percent of their threes.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. Let’s see if Notre Dame is for real: The Fighting Irish are one of nine undefeated teams left in college basketball, but as good as they have been this season, Mike Brey’s club still hasn’t really beaten anyone. The Colorado win looks better after the Buffaloes beat Xavier. Beating Fort Wayne, the team that upset Indiana, is good. Northwestern and Iowa are Big Ten teams.

But none of those four wins – none of Notre Dame’s nine wins – have come against a team we know will be in the NCAA tournament. We know Villanova will be, and the interesting thing about this matchup is how well the two teams matchup, particularly up front. Neither the Irish nor the Wildcats have much size inside. If Notre Dame can pull off the upset, it will be time to start talking about them much more.

3. UCLA’s first action since the win at Kentucky: The last time that we saw the Bruins take the court they put up 97 points on Kentucky in Rupp Arena. That’s pretty good. It’s also an easy way to get a big head, especially for a team that has so many freshmen on the roster. UCLA will face off with Michigan at home on Saturday. It will be interesting to see how they come out early on in this one.

4. Bounce-back chances for Big East programs: No. 13 Xavier has lost two games in a row now, both of them coming on the road. They were felled at No. 4 Baylor before getting dropped at Colorado on Wednesday. The Musketeers will host Utah, a winnable game that could help them find a rhythm shooting the ball.

No. 16 Butler is coming off of a loss of their home, having been upset at Indiana State by the Sycamores. The Bulldogs will have a bigger test than the Musketeers, as they host a top 25 team in No. 22 Cincinnati.

5. Jonathan Isaac’s health, Florida State’s tournament hopes?: Isaac is the forgotten top ten pick. He’s been terrific this season and has a chance to play his way into the top ten if he continues doing what he’s been doing, but he’s missed the last two games with a hip injury. This is an important game for the Seminoles, as they host Florida this weekend. Will Isaac be available?

UT-Arlington dominates, upsets No. 12 St. Mary’s

Texas-Arlington's Kevin Hervey, left, reacts to a 73-68 NCAA college basketball game win as Ohio State's Jae'Sean Tate looks on  in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)
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UT-Arlington made a statement on Thursday night, completely dominating No. 12 Saint Mary’s in a 65-51 upset win in a true road game in Moraga.

Back in October, I ranked both the Gaels and the Mavericks in the top-5 of my Mid-Major Power Rankings. Saint Mary’s was the obvious top choice, one of the nation’s most efficient offenses that returned Emmett Naar and Jock Landale. UT-Arlington, ranked fifth, served as a dangerous opponent. The Mavs had defeated Ohio State and Memphis in 2015, but their season was derailed once Kevin Hervey, a player with serious pro potential, tore his ACL.

With five starters back, including Hervey, who is just now getting back to 100 percent, UT-Arlington looks every bit the part of a March Cinderella.

The Mavericks jumped out to an early lead by forcing the Gaels to play out of character. Saint Mary’s had already committed a season-high 14 turnovers before the midway point of the second half. The Gaels, who entered shooting 40 percent from three as a team, were held to 8-of-27 (30 percent) from beyond the arc.

UT-Arlington did an incredible job of closing out on shooters. And it didn’t matter the matchup, at times we saw Hervey, a 6-foot-9 junior, come out and run a guard off the 3-point line. While those statistics mentioned above up appear in the box score, the amount of deflections don’t. The Mavericks used its length and athleticism to get their hands everywhere on the defensive end of the floor, making it difficult to find good looks.

In the first half, UT-Arlington controlled the glass. Saint Mary’s found more success in that department after halftime, as Kevin Clark’s offensive putback capped an 11-2 run, which cut the deficit to 52-41. However, the Mavs were able to counter each time the Gaels threatened, never letting the lead get to single digits.

Aside from the struggles the typically-efficient Saint Mary’s offense had, the Gaels failed to keep UT-Arlington guards Erick Neal and Kaelon Wilson out of the lane, whether it be on a high ball screen or a handoff. Saint Mary’s never seemed to have a help-side defender there to protect the rim. Neal had 13 points and eight assists (five turnovers), while Wilson had 10 points off the bench. Hervey had a game-high 15 points and seven rebounds.

UT-Arlington is winners of eight straight after losing three straight. One of those wins includes a double-digit win over Texas in Austin. The Mavericks are the clear-cut favorite to win the Sun Belt. Come Selection Sunday, I’d say plenty of at-large teams would not like to be paired with Scott Cross’ team.