After Virginia lost to UMBC last season in the NCAA Tournament, becoming the first No. 1 seed to ever fall to a No. 16 seed, all eyes will be on the South Regional bracket this year to see how the Cavaliers respond. Is it possible -- surely it's not possible -- the Cavaliers' encore showing as No. 1 seed ends in similar fate ... right?
This season, it's No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb that gets the opportunity of a lifetime to repeat history. Taking last season's debacle into account, No. 1 seeds are 135-1 all time against 16s. So yeah, the odds are not great. But as UMBC proved, it's possible! How UVa responds will be a major point of interest -- not just in the first round, but throughout.
Elsewhere in the South, it's quite clear the strength of the bracket is significantly deeper than other regionals. Cincinnati, a team that won 28 games this season and finished runner-up in the American, is a No. 7 (!) seed. Meanwhile, Big 12 title-winning Kansas State is a No. 4 seed, Big East title-winning Villanova is a No. 6 seed, and Tennessee, a team many thought would be a No. 1 seed, landed as a No. 2 seed as a result in part of a loss to Auburn twice over the last week. To say it's a deep bracket would be putting it lightly; the South is the land of Cinderellas-in-waiting, where double digit seeds capable of advancing in the bracket are littered across the regional.
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Best first-round game
No. 5 Wisconsin vs. No. 12 Oregon: The 8 vs. 9 game in this regional -- Ole Miss vs. Oklahoma -- will draw a lot of eyes, as will No. 1 seed Virginia looking to shake its bad juju of facing 16 seeds. But the 12 vs. 5 matchup is the dandy of this regional in the first round, if only because it fits to a T what people look for in a potential upset. Wisconsin was the better team for much of the season, but it lost four of its final 10 games while Oregon, which wouldn't have gotten into the field if not for winning the Pac-12 Tournament, enters the NCAAs having won eight consecutive games. Strictly from a , it projects to be the closest game of the regional in Round 1.
Top potential matchup
No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 6 Villanova: Yeah, a 1 vs. 2 matchup would be cool in the Elite Eight between Virginia and Tennessee. But let's get weird here, shall we? Tennessee-Villanova in the Sweet 16 would be all sorts of quirky and awesome -- two vastly different teams with two vastly different styles. In Tennessee, you have a team heavily reliant on open looks at the rim and in the paint. Meanwhile, Villanova takes an average of 30.1 (!) 3-pointers per game, according to TeamRankings.com -- the most among all teams in this year's field.
Upset lock of the regional
No. 12 Oregon over No. 5 Wisconsin: As soon as this matchup was unveiled, I prepared myself to send thoughts and prayers to Madison, Wisconsin. The Badgers have had a tremendous season, earned a No. 5 seed, and then the committee responded with a, "Hey, you know what? Let's give them a matchup against the hottest double digit seed in the field!" Rough draw. Oregon is deep, talented and experienced, and matches up really well with Wisconsin. If Payton Pritchard continues to show flashes of Magic Johnson with his passing while shooting at his typically excellent rate, Oregon's going to be a second weekend team.
Cinderella team that will surprise
No. 11 seed Saint Mary's: The style of play from Saint Mary's is an absolute curveball that could have teams not only swinging and missing, but falling over the plate in embarrassment at their attempt to knock them out. The Gaels are one of the slowest-paced team in the field of 68; they hold the ball, work the clock, and look for the best possible shot -- even if it takes 29 of the 30 seconds in the shot clock to do so. Defensively, they run mostly man sets, and they are disciplined and well-coached. According to KenPom.com, they gave up 96.9 points per 100 possessions this season, which ranks No. 55 among 353 Division I teams. If Randy Bennett's club can get past Villanova in the first round, they could waltz into the Sweet 16 under the radar.
Team that will make a far-too-early exit
No. 1 seed Virginia: No question. Last season, Virginia lost as a No. 1 seed to No. 16 seed UMBC, and while I'm not predicting that early an exit, I still think the Cavaliers' history and system makes them an early exit candidate.
Virginia has a solid roster with two potential first-rounders in Ty Jerome and Deandre Hunter, but its trudging style of play, pack-line defense, and reliance upon forcing teams to beat them from 3-point range is a strategy that has backfired more often than not. Since 2001, Virginia has lost in the NCAA Tournament six times as a higher-seeded team. They are not to be trusted.
Five players to watch
- Carsen Edwards, G, Purdue: Edwards is averaging 23.0 points, 3.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game for a Purdue team that enters the postseason having won 14 of its last 17 games. Edwards is the heart and soul of the Boilermakers. Best player in the regional by a mile.
- Deandre Hunter, F, Virginia: Hunter isn't the leader of his team in any major statistical category -- points scored, rebounds, assists or steals -- but after seeing what UVa did without him on the court last season, it's impossible to state just how important he is. At 6-foot-7 with a near 7-foot wingspan, Hunter can guard multiple positions, switch onto guards, knock down 3-pointers at a 45.7 percent clip (!) and create shots for himself and his teammates. By this summer, he'll be universally seen as a top-10 draft prospect.
- Payton Pritchard, G, Oregon: Oregon's late-season surge coincided with Pritchard's star turn. In the Ducks' final eight games (all wins) he averaged 15.8 points, 4.9 assists, and 3.5 rebounds in guiding a once-dead team back to the postseason.
- Phil Booth, G, Villanova: Pedigree, pedigree, pedigree. Phil Booth has all of it. In his time at Villanova, he's won two national championships and played different roles on each contending team. As the leading scorer for the reigning title-winning Wildcats, expect him to seamlessly guide them to another run.
- Admiral Schofield, F, Tennessee: Impossible to overstate just how great Schofield has been for Tennessee the past month. A 6-6 guard/forward, he shoots 3s at a 41.1 percent this season, is capable of defending inside and out and plays with a never-ending motor.
South Regional winner
No. 2 seed Tennessee: The Vols have a very manageable path to the title, which will be made easier when Virginia inevitably flops out early. Tennessee has one of the more impressive and experienced rosters in the field this year, and arguably two of the top six players in the regional in Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams. When this team is firing on all cylinders, they're near-unbeatable. Save for a late-season road slip-up to Auburn, the Vols only losses in the regular season came against teams that were ranked inside the top-15.
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