South Regional: Florida continues as heavy favorite
The South region saw three double-digit upsets in the Round of 64, two double-digit seeds reach the Sweet 16 -- and also has the national title favorite.
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, the South Region had plenty of intriguing storylines -- but those quickly changed as the weekend progressed. Joel Embiid's injury was one of the biggest talking points of the tournament earlier in the week, and it ended up being a major factor for Kansas. Outside of that, though, some of the discussion topics changed.
The South was a region for upsets. It saw three double-digit seeds get wins in the Round of 64 -- and then two more get to the Sweet 16. The region also saw a 29-game winning streak snapped when Stephen F. Austin fell to UCLA, but the Lumberjacks had beaten former Cinderella VCU in the Round of 64. There was an intrastate battle in the Round of 64, when Dayton beat Ohio State in the final seconds. It might have not had the glamour of the Midwest Region, but the South was filled with drama.
Before the four teams descend on Memphis, let's quickly look back and then look ahead.
Three thoughts from the weekend
1. A double-digit seed will play in the Elite Eight
With 10th-seeded Stanford beating New Mexico and then upsetting Kansas, and 11th-seeded Dayton beating both Ohio State and Syracuse in the final minute, we are guaranteed to have a double-digit seed play in the regional final. Neither team had an easy matchup the first weekend, with the team's four combined games being decided by a total of 11 points. Stanford is less of a Cinderella than Dayton because of conference affiliation and public perception, but neither team was a lock for the NCAA Tournament until late in the season -- and Dayton was still sweating on Selection Sunday.
And now, one of the teams will be 40 minutes from going to the Final Four.
2. Joel Embiid's injury ended up costing Kansas a shot at the Final Four
Had Kansas reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, all signs pointed to Embiid returning to play after missing time with a sore back. But the Jayhawks won't be there after falling to Stanford in the Round of 32. With Embiid, though, Kansas could have reversed the 60-57 outcome against the Cardinal. Stanford's size created issues for the Jayhawks, and Kansas didn't crash the offensive glass like it usually does. Tarik Black was the only one getting anything going offensively for Kansas, but Embiid would have provided the Jayhawks with someone who could draw defensive attention in the middle of the zone. Defensively, Embiid would have made life difficult at the rim for Stanford's big men, as well as point guard Chasson Randle.
With Embiid, Kansas could have beaten Stanford, and then would have to take down Dayton in order to get a rematch with Florida. With Embiid, Kansas was a national title contender. Without him, the Jayhawks didn't get out of the first weekend.
3. Florida's status as the title favorite hasn't changed
Nothing has swayed my confidence that Florida is the team to beat in the NCAA Tournament. The Gators entered the dance as the title favorite, but plenty of people were picking Michigan State, Louisville, Kansas and others. Neither Michigan State nor Louisville has looked overwhelming in their first two games, and Kansas is not even in the tournament anymore. Florida hasn't exactly been a juggernaut in its first two games, but the Gators allowed just 100 points total during the first weekend. Florida also handled a Pittsburgh team that was coming off a dominant win over Colorado. The Gators' road to Dallas got easier with the upsets in the region -- and they will be the frontrunner once they get to Texas.
Three players to watch
1. Kyle Anderson (UCLA): Perhaps the toughest matchup in college basketball, Anderson is such a unique player for someone his size. He is 6-feet-9, has very good ball-handling ability and is one of the best passers in the country. Anderson isn't quick, but his ability to keep defenders off-balance is impressive. He only averaged 11.5 points in his first two NCAA Tournament games, but he will be a key against Florida.
2. Scottie Wilbekin (Florida): Wilbekin isn't going to be a first-round draft pick, but there are few players left in the tournament that I would trust more with the ball late in a game. He reads ball-screens exceptionally well, making smart decisions when turning the corner. Wilbekin is also adept at finishing in the lane, with a variety of floaters and runners. He had 21 points in the Round of 32 matchup against Pittsburgh, most coming in the second half.
3. Dwight Powell (Stanford): Powell posed matchup problems for Kansas throughout the Round of 32 game, even though he was sidelined with foul trouble for long stretches. Powell is something of a point-forward, initiating offense and making plays from the top of the key. He can knock down shots, go off the bounce or post up down low. His back-to-back layups against Kansas helped slow the Jayhawks' momentum and get Stanford the win.
Three bold predictions for the South Regional
1. UCLA's offense will keep the Bruins in the game against Florida
The battle between UCLA's offense and Florida's defense will be one of the better stylistic matchups in the Sweet 16. Florida ranks No. 2 in defensive efficiency, while UCLA is No. 12 in offensive efficiency. UCLA will try to push the tempo on the offensive end, hoping to beat Florida down the court and not allow the Gators to set their defense in a half-court setting. The Bruins will have to make perimeter shots, though. Florida rotates and communicates so well in its set defense, filling gaps and helping stop dribble penetration, that UCLA might find it difficult to drive off the bounce. UCLA's ability to spread the floor and make shots could pose a problem, though. Florida hasn't seen an offense this good in a long time.
2. The winner of Stanford vs. Dayton won't be a pushover in the regional final
While both are double-digit seeds, I don't think Florida would automatically steamroll its way into the Final Four. I think Stanford would pose a bigger problem for Florida, because of the Cardinal's size and the way they limit second chances and transition opportunities for opponents. Moreover, Dwight Powell could pose an issue for Will Yeguete due to his inside-outside ability. The Chasson Randle vs. Scottie Wilbekin battle would be terrific. As for Dayton, because the Flyers have multiple players who can spread the floor and knock down perimeter shots, they could stay in the game as well. They have lost just three games in the past two months -- and all were to Saint Joseph's. If Dayton is making shots, it is a tough matchup for anyone.
3. The champion of the South Region will be ... Florida.
Like I said, nothing I have seen thus far in the NCAA Tournament dissuades me from keeping the Gators as the national title favorite. They didn't dominate either game, and let Albany hang around too long in the Round of 64, but Florida is still the most complete team in the country. Very few of the higher-seeded teams had two extremely impressive performances in the first weekend, and Florida's matchups until the Final Four look a little less imposing without Kansas at the bottom of the South bracket. The Gators are experienced, balanced, terrific defensively and have enough weapons on the offensive end. They have been to three straight Elite Eights, but this is the year they break through. Florida will be in Dallas.
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