Sweet 16 Preview: Breaking down what’s left of the South Region

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The South Region will kick off the 2016 Sweet 16 action, as No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 3 Miami matchup in a battle of Final Four head coaches; Jim Larrañaga went in 2006 with George Mason while Jay Wright was there in 2009 with his Scottie Reynolds-led Villanova team. The nightcap in Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center will feature the No. 1 overall seed Kansas Jayhawks squaring off with No. 5 Maryland, as Bill Self and Mark Turgeon renew a rivalry that stems from Turgeon’s Big 12 days at Texas A&M.

Here is everything you need to know about the South Region:

KEY STORYLINES

  1. Can Kansas live up to the hype?: Bill Self has a national title and a Final Four on his rèsumè. The former came in 2008, when Mario Chalmers’ three and a slew of missed Memphis free throws earned him a ring in overtime. The latter came in 2012, when he rode Thomas Robinson’s coattails to the national title game. But the Jayhawks have won 12 consecutive Big 12 regular season titles, which is why two Final Fours and five first weekend exits in that timeframe makes people question Bill Self’s ability in March. Like the Jayhawks were in 2010, when they got Farokhmaneshed, the Jayhawks are the No. 1 overall seed and considered a favorite to win the title. Can they get it? Can they at least get to Houston?
  2. Will the real Maryland ever stand up? Or is this just who they are?: That’s basically been the story all season long with this group, right? They have as much talent as anyone in the country, but they just cannot find a way to get the pieces to work together. We see it in flashes: the first half against South Dakota State, that 14-0 run against Hawai’i. But that’s all we get from them. Flashes. At what point do we just accept that this is who Maryland is? Or will they eventually prove us wrong?
  3. The monkey is off of Jay Wright’s back. So … what now?: Villanova had lost in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament the past two seasons as a No. 2 and a No. 1 seed. They also lost in the first weekend in 2010, when Omar Samhan took the world by storm. This year, Villanova shook off that curse in impressive fashion, whipping Iowa into submission. So … where do the Wildcats go from here? Is a trip to the Sweet 16 enough to prove to people that their three-year run of dominance over the Big East means they’re really, really good, or will Villanova always be overrated until they get to another Final Four?

WHY THEY’LL GET TO THE FINAL FOUR

No. 1 Kansas: For my money they’re the best, and most trustworthy, team left in the NCAA tournament. They may not have the ceiling of, say, Maryland or North Carolina, but you’re never going to see their floor, so to speak. They have four guys that can take over a game and beat you, headlined by Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, two former mid-major recruits that have turned themselves into the nation’s most underrated two-way back court. You can’t game-plan to slow down one guy, because if you build your defensive game-plan around stopping, say, Perry Ellis, you’ll give Wayne Selden, Mason and Graham will find room on the perimeter to beat you. A punch does the most damage when you don’t know where it’s coming from.

No. 2 Villanova: People love to crush Villanova because of their league affiliation and the struggles that they’ve had in the postseason. I get that. But remember, this is a team with a senior point guard in Ryan Arcidiacono and a senior center in Daniel Ochefu anchoring the team. Jalen Brunson is a freshman that has the poise of a senior while Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges are impact guys off the bench. And then there is Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart, two matchup problems at the forward spots that make the Wildcats really hard to guard, especially with the way that Jenkins is currently playing.

No. 3 Miami: The Hurricanes are as big and athletic as anyone left in the tournament. Sheldon McClellan is one of the nation’s most underrated talents, Tonye Jekiri anchors a big and physical and old front line that understands their roles, and Jim Larrañaga is one of the best coaches in the country at fitting his offense and his players together. When Angel Rodriguez plays the way he did on Saturday — 28 points and three assists against Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker — they can beat anyone in the country.

No. 5 Maryland: I’d make the argument that Maryland is the most talented team left in the NCAA tournament. Their entire starting lineup could end up cashing an NBA paycheck at some point in their professional careers. Look at it on paper: Of the teams left in the tournament, which front court would you take over Jake Layman, Robert Carter and Diamond Stone? Which back court is definitively better than Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon? And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Trimble has been one of the best big game and big moment players in the country for the majority of his career. They should be a real title contender.

Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)
Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)

BUT THIS IS WHY THEY WON’T

No. 5 Maryland: The Terps haven’t played up to their talent level for a consistent or extended period of time yet this season. They almost gave away their first round game against No. 12 South Dakota State and really only played well for a three-minute second half stretch against Hawai’i in the second round. Why, if this has been an issue all season long, should we believe that they are going to find answers against the best team in college basketball on Thursday night?

No. 3 Miami: Angel Rodriguez. He’s an inconsistent as he is talented. Even in that game against Wichita State, when he played so well, he finished with seven turnovers, five of which came in a four-minute first half stretch that allowed Wichita State to get back into it. This group does have the horses to get to the Final Four, but the question of whether or not they can trust Angel Rodriguez to carry them there is valid.

No. 2 Villanova: This is just not a team with an elite level of athleticism. Josh Hart is the exception. He’s as strong, explosive and tough as anyone left in the event. But beyond that? Kris Jenkins has to be hidden at times defensively. Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson are big guards and savvy offensively but they can struggle at times when they have to guard quicker players. And the one thing about the teams in the South Region — they all have quality back courts, and all of those quality back courts include a pair of quick, talented guards.

No. 1 Kansas: The Jayhawks don’t have a star. Sometimes, that’s a good thing, because it means that you don’t know who is going to be their go-to guy in a given game or on a given possession. But it’s also nice to have that star power that you know you can rely on to carry your team if things get tough. To me, Frank Mason is that guy for Kansas, and as good as Frank Mason has been, is he good enough to be that guy for a team that’s going to win a national title? He might be. But we won’t know the answer to that for another two weeks.

THE X-FACTORS

  • Angel Rodriguez: Read this. It will explain it all.
  • Kris Jenkins: When Jenkins is scoring and shooting the way that he has over the course of the last month, Villanova is a nightmare to try and defend. He’s hit at least two threes in each of the last ten games and scored at least 15 points in nine of them. Good luck trying to guard him and Josh Hart with a big lineup.
  • Melo Trimble: Trimble is one of the nation’s best clutch performers and as good as anyone in ball-screen actions. You want him with the ball in close games, except … for the last month he’s really struggled shooting the ball. Maryland has to have good Melo to have any shot of beating Kansas.
  • Landen Lucas: Lucas has been a revelation for the Jayhawks, providing them with something of an anchor on their front line. His size allows them to better matchup against big men like Diamond Stone or Robert Carter or Tonye Jekiri or Daniel Ochefu or … you get the point. He’s the presence we thought Cheick Diallo would be.

CBT PREDICTION: Kansas wins. Kansas is barely challenged.