Kansas is the No. 1 seed in the South Region after winning the Big 12 by two full games and taking home the Big 12 tournament title. The Jayhawks have the best profile of anyone in the country; they had a No. 1 seed locked up weeks ago. No one can complain about the Jayhawks being a top seed, but the Jayhawks may have a gripe about their region.
The South is stacked, with a No. 4 and No. 5 seed with the ability to get to a Final Four, a No. 7 seed that spent much of the season ranked in the top ten and play-in game participants that can both legitimately win three or four games in the tournament.
THREE STORYLINES TO WATCH
- Kansas is the best team in the country this season. Will it carry over into March?: The Jayhawks have been terrific all season long. They won the toughest conference in the country by two full games and followed that up by winning the Big 12 conference tournament as well. But here’s the thing about Kansas and the Big 12 in general: a relative lack of NCAA tournament success has led some to believe that the conference isn’t all that good. The Jayhawks haven’t been out of the first weekend of the tournament since 2013, and in five of the 11 years that Bill Self has won the Big 12, the Jayhawks were upset before the Sweet 16.
- Is this the year Villanova makes a run?: The Wildcats have developed a nice little reputation for themselves for being the high seed that chokes in March. They lost to UConn in the second round as a No. 2 seed in 2014. They lost to N.C. State in the second round as a No. 1 seed last year. This season, they’re looking at a second round matchup against a Temple team they blew out in January and an Iowa team that hasn’t been good in a month. Is this the year the narrative dies? One key thing to monitor: The status of Daniel Ochefu’s ankle. He was limited during the Big East tournament.
- Which under-achiever will have postseason success?: Maryland, on paper, may have the best starting five in college basketball. They’re a No. 5 seed. Cal has one of the five most talented teams in the country. They’re a No. 4 seed. Iowa, the No. 7 seed, spent much of the season ranked in the top ten. Play-in game participants Vanderbilt and Wichita State were both considered Final Four teams in October. Can any of them put together a run in this tournament?
THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … ?: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 3 Miami (FL)
The more that I look at this region, the less intimidating it seems. While the tendency will be there to call it “loaded” or the “bracket of death”, the truth of the matter is that people are only going to say that because the South is chock-full of teams that we thought were going to be good at some point this season — Cal, Maryland, Vandy, Iowa. None of them have proven anything this season beyond being unable to live up to those expectations.
That’s why I have Kansas making it to the Elite 8. I don’t think they get challenged all that much, either. I think I like Miami coming out of the bottom-half of the South, but that’s as tough as any Elite 8 pick to make. Villanova caught a break with some friendly matchups, Arizona has the pieces — and the coach — to win three games, Vandy and Wichita State are dangerous. I’m rolling with the Hurricanes because I love their guard play and they’re a veteran group with a head coach that knows how to get to a Final Four.
FINAL FOUR SLEEPER: Vanderbilt/Wichita State winner
I think I predicted both of these teams as Final Four teams at some point during the preseason. Wichita State has done nothing but win during the careers of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, and there’s no reason to believe they can’t continue to do that in March, even if it comes as an underdog this season. Vandy, on the other hand, has three future NBA players and a boat-load of knock down shooters. They’re tough to matchup with because of their size and because Wade Baldwin IV can go into takeover-mode. Their issue this season as simply been showing up to play. They don’t always do that.
UPSETS THAT CAN HAPPEN
- No. 12 South Dakota State over No. 5 Maryland: I’m just not sold on Maryland being able to turn this thing around. The pieces don’t fit. SDSU is no pushover. They have a really good back court and a big man in Mike Daum that is as productive on a per-minute basis as anyone in the country. Don’t let Max Landis get it going from three.
- No. 13 Hawai’i over No. 4 Cal: Hawai’i is going to have a long way to travel to get to Spokane, but once they get there they’ll give Cal some trouble Stefan Jankovic is a matchup problem up front with Eran Ganot has a couple guards that can really lock up in his back court. If good Jabari Brown shows up, however, how does Hawai’i stop him?
- No. 7 Iowa over No. 2 Villanova: I have zero faith in Iowa being able to win this game — get to this game? — but on paper, they really do matchup well with the Wildcats. If he can handle Josh Hart’s physicality, Jarrod Uthoff is a tough cover for Hart, while Villanova’s guards and Iowa’s guards are similarly limited.
UPSETS THAT WON’T HAPPEN
- No. 1 Kansas losing first weekend: Famous last words, I know, but I just don’t see it happening this season. I think Kansas is too good and too balanced. The emergence of Devonte’ Graham of late has been enormous for this team.
FEEL LIKE GAMBLING?: Maryland-Cal winner in the Final Four
Maryland was the preseason No. 1 team in the country, according to some. Cal was a preseason top 15 team. Both of them, when they’re playing their best basketball, are legitimate Final Four picks. I just don’t think that we are ever going to see those teams show up. The Terps don’t have enough guards and they can’t find a way to effectively get Robert Carter, Diamond Stone and Jake Layman on the floor at the same time. And what has Cal done away from Haas Pavilion to make you think that they’re going to be able to beat Kansas anywhere but Haas Pavilion?
THE STUDS YOU KNOW ABOUT
- Jabari Brown and Ivan Rabb, Cal: Brown is a top five pick and Rabb will go in the lottery. They’ve played like it down the stretch of the season as well.
- Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart had an all-american season and beat out Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil for the NBCSports.com Big East Player of the Year. What doesn’t he do well?
- Melo Trimble, Maryland: Big shot Melo has looked like anything-but the nation’s best closer the last month. Good Melo makes the Terps good enough to overcome their flaws.
- Wayne Selden’s uncle, Kansas: He is a national hero.
THE STUDS YOU’LL FIND OUT ABOUT
- Kris Jenkins, Villanova: Jenkins has been near-unstoppable for the last month. His ability to score on the perimeter as a small-ball four is such a weapon for Jay Wright, because opponents cannot hide their four-man on Hart defensively.
- Devonte’ Graham, Kansas: Graham capped off the Big 12 tournament with a sterling 27-point performance in a win over West Virginia, and he’s about the fifth-most famous member of the Jayhawk back court.
- Shelden McClellan, Miami (FL): McClellan is an insanely talented guard who has spent his entire college career flying under the radar.
BEST OPENING ROUND MATCHUP: No. 6 Arizona vs. Wichita State-Vanderbilt
Everything about that game is awesome to be. The First Four battle will be thrilling on Tuesday night, while Arizona is going to get a fight from whoever advances.
MATCHUPS TO ROOT FOR
- No. 5 Maryland vs. No. 4 Cal: So much talent will be on the floor for this one, because if they square off someone is going to have to win.
- No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 11 Wichita State: Wouldn’t this be fun? The two in-state rivals who refuse to play each other get a rematch of last year’s second round, when the Shockers knocked off Kansas.
CBT PREDICTION: Kansas rolls through the region, and frankly, I think they roll through relatively unchallenged.