2017 NCAA Tournament South Region Preview

The South Region is arguably the toughest region in this year's installment of March Madness. With a host of blue-blood programs and potential Cinderella stories, who'll survive?

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LEXINGTON, KY- FEBRUARY 17, 2016 - Rupp Arena during practice before the game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Tennessee Volunteers in Lexington, KY. Photo by Hayley Pennesi/Tennessee Athletics

The most shocking moment in Oscar history wasn’t its Steve Harvey-style mix up this past February—that particular moment was more dumbfounding than it was jaw-dropping or mind-warping.

Rather, the single most shocking moment in the history of the Academy Awards was when Leonardo DiCaprio used his long-awaited Oscar victory to talk about climate change.

It’s obviously a pressing issue, but before winning Best Lead Actor for his role in “The Revenant,” DiCaprio went 0-for-4 in his previous nominations, making him the Buffalo Bills of acting.

Our favorite Leo since DaVinci should’ve used that moment to scream to heavens like Kevin Garnett after the 2008 NBA Finals, “Anything is possible!” Or he should’ve talked mad trash and threatened to fight anybody at that very moment. Or he could’ve dissed the Academy and dropped the Oscar like Obama dropped the mic and said, “DiCaprio out” while throwing birds in the air.

But climate change.

Expect DiCaprio to protest the NCAA Tournament’s South Region this year because not only is the south generally hot, but the sheer strength of this bracket will have the temperature rising.

Seriously, the combination of blue-bloods and potential Cinderella stories makes this region this year’s March Madness Group of Death. Whoever makes it out of this bloodbath alive should receive at the very minimum a participation trophy, which would unfortunately melt away like a snowflake within seconds.

The Favorite

The defending national runner-up North Carolina Tar Heels are the favorites, and for good reason. They obviously possess elite talent, but the on-court personnel isn’t the driving force behind North Carolina’s status as the region’s top seed and overall favorite. No team is more battle-tested than Tar Heels, who managed to survive the gauntlet of the ACC and win the conference regular season title. Plus, this team is on a revenge tour and America loves a good revenge tour (see Clemson vs. Alabama, Cleveland vs. Golden State and New England vs. the entire NFL).

The Contenders

What should geek out every college basketball fan is that three of the top programs in the sport’s history are the region’s top three seeds. While North Carolina grabbed the top seed, Kentucky and UCLA snagged the next two. As for those last two, when both squads are firing on all cylinders in the areas that make them the most dangerous, they are as lethal as any team in the nation.

For the Wildcats, it’s their defensive muscle, which they flexed against the red-hot Arkansas Razorbacks in the SEC title game. For the Bruins, it’s their offensive flair, which perfectly encapsulates the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles. When Kentucky’s defensive intensity matches its offensive capabilities, it’s an almost impossible squad to defeat. Meanwhile, UCLA has six players averaging double figures in scoring, making it no surprise the Bruins averaged a nation-leading 90.4 points per game.

The Pretenders

Butler’s basketball program deserves a ton of credit for its consistency over the years, while Minnesota deserves credit for showing rapid improvement after a difficult 2015-2016 campaign. However, both teams are pretenders, and it isn’t necessarily their fault.

In any other bracket, pencil in one of the two for the Sweet 16, but in this particular bracket, the Bulldogs and Gophers received a tough draw, especially in the first round against the likes of Middle Tennessee State and Winthrop.

The “Cinderella(s)”

Speaking of the Blue Raiders and Eagles, both MTSU and Winthrop—along with Wichita State—headline a bracket that’s not only top heavy, but also features the strongest blend of potential Cinderella stories.

The Blue Raiders became national darlings last March after stunning No. 2 seed Michigan State as a measly No. 15 seed. This season, head coach Kermit Davis has his squad playing at an exponentially higher level, as MTSU went 30-4 during the regular season and ran through Conference USA with ease. How did Davis get his team to go from a 15-seeded underdog to arguably the most heralded No. 12 seed in the tournament? Two reasons. First, the Blue Raiders’ defense combines a pair of zone concepts (1-3-1 and 2-3) that will force teams to execute perfect ball movement in order to find a quality shot. Secondly, MTSU has a pair of experienced point forwards who can dominate inside and handle the ball on the perimeter, which creates matchup problems.

Of the three aforementioned teams, the Blue Raiders possesses the strongest chance to play Cinderella. Winthrop has been a hot Cinderella pick as the season has progressed, but would have to play MTSU if they survive No. 4-seed Butler. Meanwhile, if the Shockers make it to the second round, they’ll more than likely face a Kentucky team playing its best basketball of the season.

The Sleeper

With so many teams to fall in love with, it’s easy to forget about the Dayton Flyers, the region’s No. 7 seed. Unfortunately for the Flyers, they’re paired with a 10th-seeded Wichita State team that is much better than its seeding indicates. However, don’t consider this matchup a forgone conclusion. Dayton’s pair of senior guards in Charles Cooke and Scoochie Smith not only make the Flyers a formidable opponent, but it also means they hold the recipe for a deep tournament run. March Madness is impossible to predict, but one trend that normally holds true is that an experienced backcourt matters.

Players to Watch

Lonzo Ball, G, UCLA: One-billion dollar shoe contracts and a confident father aside, Lonzo Ball is the cog that makes the UCLA offensive engine go. His scoring isn’t off the charts, but that’s because Ball is too busy executing Steve Alford’s offensive system to perfection. It’s an obvious pick, but the freshman phenom—who leads the nation in assists per game—deserves the attention.

Keon Johnson, G, Winthrop – Followers of SEC basketball are familiar with Georgia’s 5-foot-9 superstar J.J. Frazier. In a few days, the college basketball world will be introduced to Big South’s version of Frazier in Winthrop’s Keon Johnson, who at 5-foot-7 is averaging a healthy 22.5 points per game.

Edrice Adebayo, F, Kentucky – The Wildcats’ backcourt receives all the shine, but if Kentucky wants to survive the South, the play of “Bam” Adebayo is paramount for Kentucky’s success. There’s a lot to like about Adebayo: He’s a hard-nosed player with exceptional length, which are two extremely beneficial traits should the Wildcats face the Bruins in the Sweet 16.

Prediction

Round of 64: North Carolina sends Texas Southern to the Stone Age, Arkansas gets back on track against Seton Hall, MTSU pulls off the obligatory 12-over-5 “upset” against Minnesota and Winthrop also pulls off the upset over Butler. In the second half of the bracket, Cincinnati takes care of the winner of Wake Forest vs. Kansas State, UCLA scores 200 on Kent State, Wichita State tops Dayton and Kentucky destroys Northern Kentucky.

Round of 32: The Tar Heels eventually pull away from a pesky Razorback squad, the Blue Raiders continue their Cinderella Run with a win over the Eagles, the Bruins score 150 on the Bearcats and the Wildcats squeak past the under-seeded Shockers.

Sweet 16: North Carolina ends MTSU’s run in such dominant fashion the entire infrastructure of Middle Tennessee collapses and Kentucky’s defense contains UCLA just enough to outscore the Bruins.

Elite 8: The regular season matchup between the Tar Heels and the Wildcats was a classic won by Kentucky, 103-100. This time around, with the fatigue of a long season and excruciating region setting in, points are harder to come by. Eventually, the team with the best players on the court will advance to the Final Four.

Big Blue Nation, you’re heading to Glendale.

Edited by Quinn Pilkey

Featured image by Hayley Pennesi, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

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