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South Regional: No. 1 overall Kentucky aims to build off loss

by | CBSSports.com
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Kentucky coach John Calipari was fine with the Wildcats losing Sunday's SEC final to Vanderbilt. Really, he was.

In fact, Calipari said he wished Kentucky would have lost in Saturday's semifinal.

"You take each weekend by itself," Calipari said. "You don't look ahead, you don't. You look at this coming weekend. And that's the kind of stuff that I told them after the game. One way I said, I'm fine now. We get this off our plate. We don't have to worry about a win streak, none of that. Let's just go play this tournament."

Yes, this tournament. The NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are not only the No.1 seed in the South Regional, but also the overall No. 1 seed in the entire 68-team field.

For all the success Calipari has had at Kentucky, he had never been voted SEC coach of the year by the league's coaches until guiding Kentucky to an undefeated SEC regular season this year.

Is this also the year he finally delivers a national title to Big Blue Nation?

Three main storylines

1. Defending champions: It was a rough year for defending NCAA champion UConn. Coach Jim Calhoun missed the Huskies' first three Big East games, serving an NCAA suspension handed down last year. And then last month he missed eight games due to spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine normally associated with aging and sometimes with arthritis. Calhoun returned on March 3 as the Huskies won three consecutive games before losing to No. 1 seed Syracuse in the Big East tournament. As a No. 9 seed, the odds are heavily stacked against UConn to win the national title again. Especially when you consider since John Wooden retired at UCLA, only two programs have won back to back titles: Duke in 1991-92 and Florida in 2006-07.

2. Where were you in 1992? No matter where it was, you probably remember Christian Laettner's last-second shot in Duke's 104-103 victory against Kentucky in the East Regional final. The Wildcats and Blue Devils are seeded Nos. 1 and 2 in this year's South Regional, giving us a chance at maybe another classic battle to get to the Final Four. The South Regional final is March 25, just three days shy of the 20th anniversary of Duke's 104-103 victory on March 28, 1992.

3. A shorter path for VCU: Last year VCU went from playing in the first round to making an improbable Final Four run. The Rams had to win five games to get to the Final Four. This season, they only have to win four. Can Coach Shaka Smart repeat last year's magic? Despite winning the CAA tournament this season -- last year, the Rams were the runners-up -- this year's team is seeded lower (No. 12) than last year (No. 11).

South Regional picks:

Who will win: Kentucky. The Wildcats can finally discover if there is such a thing as a good loss. The Wildcats' 24-game winning streak was snapped on Sunday, but still Kentucky is the team to beat. Not only in the South Regional, but was also the NCAA tournament's overall No. 1 seed. One stat that doesn't bode well for the Wildcats -- or for other No. 1 seeds North Carolina and Syracuse -- five of the last seven NCAA champions won their conference tournaments.

Dark-horse pick: Baylor. Can a three-seed really be a dark horse? Sure, when the top two seeds are heavyweights Kentucky and Duke. The Bears won 26 games. They play a flashy brand of offense -- and even flashier new retina-burning yellow jerseys. Of Baylor's seven losses, five were to either Kansas or Missouri.

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Most likely upset: Colorado over UNLV. The Buffaloes entered the Pac-12 tournament with consecutive losses to Oregon and Oregon State. They finished their first season in the Pac-12 in a tie for fifth place. But four consecutive victories in the Pac-12 tournament make the Buffs dangerous opponents against a UNLV club that enters the NCAA tourney 5-5 in its last 10 games.

Best mascot: Jackrabbits or Mountain Hawks? That's a pretty tough call between South Dakota State and Lehigh. The Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky and Delta Devils of Mississippi Valley State also are strong nicknames. However, I've got to give the nod to the Jackrabbits, who are making their first NCAA appearance in only their fourth year of eligibility since becoming a Division I member.

Best point guard: UConn's Shabazz Napier is the Huskies' second-leading scorer (12.7), but also is their top 3-point threat (3.1 per game). Because of his overall game, the UConn sophomore gets the slight edge over Baylor's Pierre Jackson as the South Regional's top point guard.

Best post player: Perry Jones III, Baylor. Yes, another III superstar at Baylor. Robert Griffin III had a pretty decent run on the football field and Jones is just as dangerous on the hardwood. He's averaging 14 points and 7.7 rebounds leading the Bears to 26 victories -- just two shy of the school record set in 2009-10.

Best coach: This is not really a tough choice. It's Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K has won four national titles. That's tied for second all-time with Adolph Rupp. Only John Wooden has won more.

Best reputation: Thanks to Coach K, Duke not only has the regional's best coach, but also the best reputation (and no, I'm not a Duke graduate). They're the New York Yankees of college basketball: folks either love 'em or loathe 'em because of their success and squeaky clean image.

Five stars on display

1. Kentucky’s Anthony Davis: The Wildcats' 6-foot 10 freshman forward hit the trifecta: he was named the SEC's player of the year, freshman of the year and defensive player of the year. As a high school senior in Chicago, he nearly averaged a triple-double -- 32 points, 22 rebounds, seven blocked shots. His shot-blocking ability conjures up memories of Bill Russell. "When you have a guy like that, they come along once in a lifetime," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. Davis leads the Wildcats in points (14.3), rebounds (10.0) and blocked shots (4.6) as a freshman.

2. Iowa State's Royce White: He literally does it all for the Cyclones. White, a transfer from Minnesota, is the only player from one of the power six conferences to lead his team in five categories (scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots). White carried Iowa State to its first NCAA tournament since 2005. Still, he might be better known for what he does off the court with his public battle against anxiety disorder, which he controls through medication.

3. Duke's Austin Rivers: Sure, you've heard of his father -- Celtics coach Doc Rivers -- but Austin is quickly making a name for himself in his freshman season with the Blue Devils. His 3-pointer from NBA range at the buzzer at North Carolina last month ranks among the biggest in Duke history. It capped a career-high 29 point night. "It's amazing what can happen when you have courage," Rivers said.

4. UConn's Jeremy Lamb: Lamb became a solid second option last year behind Kemba Walker in UConn's NCAA title run. This year, he’s been the Huskies' go-to guy. He’s averaging nearly 18 points a game and the 6-foot-5 guard also is UConn's second-leading rebounder and second in steals.

5. New Mexico State's Hernst Laroche: The 6-foot-1 senior guard has played in 134 games in his illustrious career at New Mexico State. He's also started in every single one -- 134 consecutive games since arriving in Las Cruces, N.M., from Montreal, Canada, where he played at Vanier College, a Canadian prep school. Laroche had no trouble making the transition from Canada to New Mexico and is among the school's career leaders in several categories, including the top spot in steals.

Five random notes

1. Indiana lost senior guard Verdell Jones III to a torn ACL in Thursday's Big Ten tournament victory against Penn State. It's a big blow for the Hoosiers, who posted their first winning record (25-8) and received their first NCAA tournament bid under Coach Tom Crean. "His contribution to our program over the course of his career and especially this season, is immeasurable," Crean said.

2. Last season, Colorado coach Tad Boyle hosted a watch party at his house to celebrate the Buffaloes' NCAA tournament bid. It never came. This year, the Buffaloes left nothing to chance by earning an automatic bid by winning the Pac-12 tournament. Ironically, a year ago, while Colorado was snubbed the NCAA, Northern Colorado reached the NCAAs for the first time -- thanks to the players that Boyle recruited before leaving for Colorado. Ironically, the Buffs had little or no success in the Big 8/Big 12 Conference, yet won the Pac-12 in their first season.

3. Mississippi Valley State's coach is in his second season. You probably don't know him as MVSU's coach but more from his playing days at Kentucky. Sean Woods, the former Wildcats' star guided the Delta Devils to their first NCAA tournament since 2008. The school is better known as the alma mater of Jerry Rice, but Woods is slowly improving its prospects on the hardwood. If Mississippi Valley State defeats Western Kentucky in Tuesday's first four game in Dayton, not only would it be the Delta Devils' first ever NCAA tournament victory. But awaiting Woods would be none other than Kentucky.

4. Mike Moser transferred from UCLA to UNLV. The 6-foot-8 sophomore has given the Runnin' Rebels a big boost. Let's just say he prefers the up-tempo game. "Getting the ball off the backboard and then going 100 miles an hour down court and trying to get the best shot you can in the shortest amount of time," Moser said. Moser leads UNLV in scoring (14.1), rebounding (10.6) and steals (1.8).

5. Last season on Selection Sunday, VCU's Bradford Burgess didn't feel very confident about the Rams' chances of getting an NCAA tournament at-large berth. During the Selection Sunday show, Burgess was waiting on his order at Five Guys when he got a text message that the Rams were in. As VCU's only senior this season, he waited for his burger run until after attending Sunday's selection show.

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