Bracket Analysis: South Region
|Joel Berry III, North Carolina|
Last season, Middle Tennessee busted more than a few brackets when they stunned No. 2-seeded Michigan State in the first round. The Spartans were a popular National Championship pick, and it showed the Blue Raiders can beat anyone when they are playing well. Many pieces from that team still remain, including the core of forward Reggie Upshaw and guard Giddy Potts. Both were terrific in the upset last year, and are ready to show off in the big stage once more. Potts is an explosive athlete that can score anytime he touches the ball, while Upshaw is a physical presence that runs the floor as well as any big men. Add in Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams, who has become MTSU's leading scorer, and the Blue Raiders have an extremely dangerous offense. That certainly showed itself for much of the season, as Middle Tennessee ran through an underrated Conference USA, finishing off 17-1, despite heavy resistance from quality programs like Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion and Rice. Now, the Blue Raiders have their eyes set on upsetting yet another Big Ten opponent, the fifth-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers. Expect the Blue Raiders to match Minnesota's up-tempo offense with their own aggressive unit and Upshaw attacking Gophers' center Reggie Lynch, who is an elite-level shot-blocker but struggles with fouls. Five/twelve seeded upsets are extremely prevalent every single year and many have singled in on this one as the most likely. In fact, Middle Tennessee is actually the favorite now in this one. With their impressive talent and experience on pulling off upsets, the Blue Raiders may be the most dangerous double-digit seed in the entire field. In fact, UNC may have to be on watch of MTSU if they meet up in the Sweet 16 (which I believe they will).
There were plenty of questions about Steve Alford's future at UCLA following a deflating 2015-2016, in which they went 15-17. After reeling in an impressive recruiting class, the Bruins are back and ready to make some serious noise in the NCAA Tournament once again. Lonzo Ball has become a sensation for his fabulous athleticism and wonderful upside. He has broke the single-season Pac-12 assist record (surpassing Jason Kidd and Gary Payton to do so) already this season, and is trying to rack up even more awards by leading the Bruins deep into the tourney. With his astounding speed, and ability to run basket-to-basket, Ball is the energy behind UCLA's fast-paced, high-scoring offense. Fellow freshman T..J Leaf has also emerged as a quality contributor for the Bruins, now leading UCLA in scoring at 16.2 PPG. The forward can do so many things well; he can stretch the floor impressively (45 percent from three) and has impressive touch around the rim. Joined by underrated center Thomas Welsh, UCLA has an extremely versatile and impressive frontcourt, something many casual fans don't really appreciate about the Bruins. The coach's son, Bryce, is still a fabulous scorer and has cut down on his mistakes with more help around him this season, and swingman Isaac Hamilton does a lot of things well. All those ingredients add up 90.4 points per game for UCLA, easily the highest mark in the nation. With so many weapons, the Bruins should score plenty of points no matter what, but the question that could make the difference between an early exit and possible National Title: can they play defense? UCLA has allowed 84 or more points in all four of their losses, and they are probably going to play some fantastic offenses if they go far enough, including Kentucky and possibly North Carolina. If Alford can keep his guys to play under control and do something on the defensive side, this team has all the talent to do some serious damage.
Years ago, Wichita State burst on to the scene with a Final Four berth, and since then they have been among the most consistent mid-majors in the nation. They are back in the field once more, and ready to cause some more chaos. A poor resume in which their most impressive non-conference victory was probably sub-.500 Oklahoma left them down all the way at a 10 seed despite a 30-4 record, but that may be make the Shockers even more scary. Their long-time core of sharpshooting Ron Baker and point guard Fred Van Fleet is long gone, but the Shockers still play their same, efficient style of offense and suffocating defense. Valuable wing Markus McDuffie is a fabulous offensive weapon that can score in so many ways, and former Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp has replaced Van Fleet as Wichita's floor leader. Those two will have to do a lot, but the offense really doesn't have to be dominant, as the defense allows around 62 points a game, around 14th in the nation. Under Gregg Marshall, the Shockers have long been a defense-orientated team, and that mantra continues. McDuffie is a superb on-ball defender, while center Shaquille Morris can handle great big men in the post and helps Wichita State average 40 rebounds per game, in the top ten in the country. The Shockers will open up the tournament against fellow mid-major power, Dayton. The Flyers have long been a dangerous team under wonderful head coach Archie Miller, but have struggled over the past few weeks. With that in mind, one has to believe Wichita should be the heavy favorite in this one, and a victory could set up an interesting battle against second-seeded Kentucky, assuming they get the job done. Remember, Kentucky ended Wichita State's perfect season in 2014 en route to a run to the National Championship Game. You have to imagine Wichita is ready and motivated to get vengeance on the Wildcats and prove to the Selection Committee that they were under-seeded at a ten. The Shockers may not have that amazingly successful core of Baker and Van Fleet, but this roster still has more than enough to make a run. Even in such a brutal region, they very well may be in contention for an Elite Eight trip, if not more.
Picking the South Region
1 UNC over 16 Texas Southern... Texas Southern just won the SWAC so the season has to be considered a success, but they don't have the depth nor talent to hang with UNC over the course of a game.
9 Seton Hall over 8 Arkansas... After making a run to the SEC Championship Game, Arkansas has plenty of momentum, but the Pirates are playing great basketball and have enough weapons to get the job done.
12 Middle Tennessee over 5 Minnesota... The Gophers have been a great story, seeing the greatest single-season win improvement in Division 1 basketball. However, the Blue Raiders are too talented and dangerous offensively to lose this one.
4 Butler over 13 Winthrop... They haven't got a whole lot of national respect, but Butler beat Villanova twice this season, and are incredibly balanced. They should be able to avoid an upset here.
6 Cincinnati over 11 Kansas State... The Bearcats came out flat in an AAC Championship loss to SMU, but Mick Cronin is a great coach and should have the offense ready to go in this one.
3 UCLA over 14 Kent State... With Ball, Leaf and Alford leading the way, UCLA may just be able to eclipse 100 as they roll over Kent State.
10 Wichita State over 7 Dayton... Both of these teams are extremely tough outs always, but the Shockers are playing better right now and have the edge in experience.
2 Kentucky over 15 Northern Kentucky... With possible SEC Player of the Year Malik Monk and a speedy backcourt, Kentucky should have no problems with the Horizon League champs.
1 UNC over 9 Seton Hall... Seton Hall is extremely dangerous right now, but they aren't deep enough nor have the frontcourt to stop the trio of Meeks, Hicks and Jackson.
12 Middle Tennessee over 4 Butler... This is a fabulous matchup of two teams with opposing styles. Butler should try to slow the game down and play smart, but the Blue Raiders are so good at dictating tempo to their advantage.
3 UCLA over 6 Cincinnati... With a stifling defense, Cincinnati should be able to slow down UCLA somewhat, but they don't have the offense needed to pull of an upset.
2 Kentucky over 10 Wichita State... They might not have the future NBA stars like Kentucky, but the Shockers should be ready to win in a close one here. Unfortunately, Monk, De'Aaron Fox and company may just be too much.
1 UNC over 12 Middle Tennessee... Another good matchup that should be extremely fun to watch. However, Blue Raiders just may run out of gas, ending what could be a Cinderella run.
2 Kentucky over 3 UCLA... The amount of pure talent on display in this one is pretty astounding. Should be very high-scoring, but Wildcats take this one because of the advantage on the sideline, where John Calipari is better than Steve Alford.
2 Kentucky over 1 UNC... Tar Heels are very talented and experienced, but the Wildcats should be able to take advantage of a slow rotating defensive team and a team that isn't consistent from three.
South Region Champion: 2 Kentucky Wildcats