South Region Preview: Florida has open road to Dallas
Top overall seed Florida is the favorite to win the South Region.
The South Region is home to the field's top overall seed, with No. 1 Florida sitting atop the bracket. Kansas is the region's No. 2 seed, staying along the two-line despite the uncertainty surrounding Joel Embiid and his injury. Syracuse is another team not at its peak entering the NCAA Tournament, and the Orange received a No. 3 seed. Pac-12 tournament champion UCLA rounds out the top four lines.
Florida will be the favorite entering the NCAA Tournament, but a healthy Kansas has as much talent as anyone in the country -- but will the Jayhawks get to the second weekend? There are several potholes for the higher seeds in this region.
Here's a breakdown of the South Region.
Three initial thoughts on the region
1. Joel Embiid's injury didn't cost Kansas a 2-seed: There was some question entering Selection Sunday on whether Kansas would drop to a 3-seed because of the back injury to the Jayhawks’ freshman big man. Embiid is a long shot for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and there is some doubt as to whether he can play if Kansas reached the second weekend. Because of that -- and the way Kansas lost two of its final three with him on the sideline -- it wasn’t a lock that the Jayhawks would stay on the two-line.
2. New Mexico is dangerous as a 7-seed: The Lobos have lost only three games since mid-December by a combined seven points. They just won the Mountain West Conference tournament championship, beating San Diego State in the title game. New Mexico had three top-25 wins, a top-15 RPI, a 14-4 record away from home -- with its worst loss coming to UNLV back in January. The Lobos probably are seeded too low, but they have an experienced group led by stars Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams that can make some noise.
3. Shine could be coming off VCU's Cinderella star: Everyone has always loved VCU as a sleeper pick in the NCAA Tournament. The Rams were known for pulling upsets, beating the likes of Duke and Kansas. But this time, VCU is going against what likely will be the most popular upset pick of the tournament: Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks have won 28 games in a row, and have plenty of experience across the roster. They could be the team that knocks off VCU in the Round of 64.
Five best players in the region
1. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: Wiggins had some inconsistent games throughout the first half of the season, but he hit his stride in Big 12 play -- including scoring 41 points against West Virginia in the regular-season finale.
2. Kyle Anderson, UCLA: Might be the most difficult matchup in the country. He's 6-foot-9, handles the ball like a point guard, has tremendous vision, and also gets involved on the glass.
3. Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: One of the best big men in the country, Bairstow is ready to become a household name to the casual fan. He's averaging 20.3 points and 7.4 rebounds and is extremely consistent.
4. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: The Orange slumped toward the end of the season, and Ennis lost his luster a bit as a result. Can he -- and Syracuse -- regain their mojo in the big dance? He was one of the best freshmen all season.
5. Scottie Wilbekin, Florida: As the No. 1 team in the country, the Gators needed a representative on this list. Wilbekin is the guy who makes Florida go and the player who needs to be limited if you are to beat the Gators.
Five bold predictions for the region
The biggest Round of 64 upset will be … No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over No. 5 VCU. VCU used to be everyone’s favorite upset pick -- but now it's going to be the other way around. Stephen F. Austin has won 28 straight games entering the NCAA Tournament, and the Lumberjacks are capable of taking care of the ball against the Rams' pressure.
The lowest-seeded school to make the Sweet 16 will be … No. 7 New Mexico. I love the Lobos' road next weekend. They open with Stanford, a team they should beat in the Round of 64. And then in the Round of 32, they will face a Kansas team without Joel Embiid. With Bairstow and Alex Kirk down low, they have the pieces in the paint to take advantage of Embiid’s absence for the Jayhawks.
The player the country doesn't know now but will by Saturday is … Stephen F. Austin's Desmond Haymon. I could go with Bairstow in this spot, but he should be known to most college basketball followers by now. Instead, let's go with Haymon, the best player for Stephen F. Austin. He's an effective scorer, capable of getting to the rim and drawing contact, while also being used as a playmaker. He will be key against VCU.
The Elite Eight showdown … No. 1 Florida vs. No. 7 New Mexico. As I said before, I like New Mexico's half of the bracket. I think the Lobos upset Kansas in the Round of 32, and then take down Ohio State in the Sweet 16. The top half of the bracket is all Florida. The Gators could have some trouble against the high-octane offense of UCLA, but they play some of the best defense in the country and could force the Bruins into a half-court affair.
The champion of the South Region will be … No. 1 Florida. The Gators are my national title favorite heading into the NCAA Tournament, and they are the heavy favorite to get out of his region. If Kansas advances to the second weekend and Joel Embiid comes back fully healthy, the Jayhawks could pose a threat to the Gators -- but I like Florida's combination of experience, balance and lockdown defense. They can play at multiple tempos, which is also key in the Big Dance.
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