The top four seeds in the South Region have each enjoyed streaks of success this season that make any of them a compelling choice to advance to the Final Four: No. 1-seed Baylor started 18-0, No. 2 Ohio State won 10 of 11 games in the brutal Big Ten at one point, No. 3 Arkansas won 12 in a row against SEC opposition and No. 4 Purdue closed the regular season on a five-game winning streak against Big Ten teams.
So while the region's middle and lower tiers may be a touch light on potential Cinderallas, its upper tier is highlighted by a quartet that has each been lethal at times. There could be some compelling second-round games as well. Regardless of who wins the 8-9 game between North Carolina and Wisconsin, Baylor is in for a battle.
If No. 13 North Texas can continue the magic it found in the Conference USA Tournament, the Mean Green will feel great about their chances of advancing to the Sweet 16. That's because No. 5 Villanova is vulnerable without star guard Collin Gillespie, and No. 12 Winthrop is untested against top-flight competition.
So let's buckle up and dive in to the storylines of the South Region.
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Best first-round game
(6) Texas Tech vs. (11) Utah State: As the last game in Friday's early wave, this one will more or less have the spotlight to itself by the time the second half arrives, and there's likely a reason for that. The folks in charge know there's not much separating these defensive-oriented teams and that it could be a finish worth watching. Utah State averages 73.3 points per game, and Texas Tech averages 73.
They aren't total mirror images, though. Utah State is led by a 7-footer in Neemias Queta and Texas Tech is led by 6-foot-2 guard Mac McClung. One can almost imagine the officials going to the monitor to review how much time should be left on the clock after Queta blocks a McClung lay-up with the game tied at 67 in the closing seconds of regulation.
Top potential matchup
(1) Baylor vs. (8) North Carolina: This isn't just a potential matchup, it's a likely matchup. If it happens, it could be the absolute must-watch of the second round. North Carolina's frontcourt is one of the biggest and best in the nation, but Baylor's backcourt is almost certainly the best in the country. So which will prevail? A mere glance at seeding says the Bears are clearly better. However, UNC has shown glimpses of brilliance recently that suggest it has the ammo to make a run. The Bears have also been somewhat vulnerable since returning from a 21-day COVID-19 pause in late February.
The question will be whether UNC's trio of freshmen guards consisting of Caleb Love, Kerwin Walton and RJ Davis can rise to the occasion and compete with Baylor's veteran group of Jared Butler MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell.
Upset lock of the region
(12) Winthrop over (5) Villanova: Facing a 23-1 Winthrop team is just a recipe for disaster as Villanova tries to find its way without star guard Collin Gillespie. Winthrop only played one other NCAA Tournament this season -- knocking off UNC-Greensboro on Dec. 1 -- but this veteran-laden squad hit its stride in the Southern Conference Tournament with three victories by 20 or more points. On the other hand, Villanova is 0-2 since Gillespie tore his MCL, and there is little sign the Wildcats have the depth to make a run without him. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Jermaine Samuels and Justin Moore are all great players, but Gillespie was the key to the engine.
Cinderella team that will surprise
(15) Oral Roberts: No draw is necessarily favorable when you're a No. 15 seed, but it stinks for Oral Roberts that it got pitted against an Ohio State team that can comfortably match its frenetic offense. Both of these squads are fueled by high-scoring systems, and neither regularly uses anyone taller than 6-foot-8. So if they are going to play similar styles, that favors the more-talented Buckeyes.
But don't be at all surprised if you flip to this game and see Oral Roberts hanging around late. The Eagles boast the nation's leading scorer in Max Abmas and have enough other weapons to keep the Buckeyes from honing in on Abmas exclusively. Oral Roberts also played five NCAA Tournament teams from major conferences during nonconference play and nearly beat a couple of them. So this won't be a cakewalk for Ohio State, and if the Buckeyes come out sluggish, Oral Roberts is fully capable of becoming a Cinderella team.
Team that will make a far-too-early exit
(9) Wisconsin: Wisconsin won eight straight games before COVID-19 ended its 2019-20 season. The Badgers were firing on all cylinders, and with basically everyone of consequence back this season, it seemed they were poised for a special campaign. Things went well to start the season as the Badgers stayed in the top-15 for the first nine weeks of the AP Top 25. But after losing six of its past eight games, Wisconsin is limping into the NCAA Tournament. We'll see what this veteran group can figure out, but recent results suggest a first-round exit is likely, and that would be a shame for a roster that began the season with such high hopes.
Six players to watch
1. Max Abmas, Oral Roberts: Abmas overtook Iowa star Luka Garza for the title of nation's leading scorer late in the season after averaging 29.1 points per game over the Eagles' final nine contests entering the NCAA Tournament. The 6-foot-1 sophomore is a true volume shooter and the type of player who can take over game if he gets hot. He is the textbook definition of a potential NCAA Tournament darling.
2. Keve Aluma, Virginia Tech: How does one go from averaging 6.9 points per game at Wofford to averaging 15.6 points in the ACC? That's just wild, but it's the story of Aluma, who followed second-year Virginia Tech coach Mike Young from Wofford and sat out last season. Not only did Aluma take the ACC by storm, he actually got better in the second half of the season during what should have been a taxing transition to a higher level of play. Aluma averaged 20.7 points per game over Virginia Tech's last six games in the regular season and registered a double-double in four of those games while also demonstrating a comfort from 3-point range that was previously missing.
3. Javion Hamlet, North Texas: The redshirt senior has bounced around a bit during his college career, but North Texas sure is glad that he found a home in Conference USA. Hamlet averaged 18.5 points, 7 assists and 6.5 rebounds during the Mean Green's four-game run through the league tournament. He's on a serious heater at the moment and seems hell-bent on leading North Texas to its first-ever victory in the Big Dance.
4. Trevion Williams, Purdue: Williams often got overlooked in a Big Ten full of great big men. Actually, the same could be said for Purdue as a whole as the Boilermakers quietly finished fourth in the league standings. But the improvement of Williams as a junior is a major factor in why Purdue returned to form after a down season in 2019-20. The 6-foot-10 center surpassed 20 points on eight occasions this season and often looked totally dominant.
5. Mac McClung, Texas Tech: The Georgetown transfer made a splash during his first Big 12 season as he demonstrated that his team-leading production in the Big East translated to what many regard as a tougher conference. McClung struggled a bit in Texas Tech's last four games, but he's got the potential to explode for a flurry of buckets at any moment and craves the basketball in late-game situations. Maybe McClung will be a hero, or maybe he'll struggle mightily. Either way, it's always a show with him, and it will be fun to see him on the NCAA Tournament stage for the first time.
6. Moses Moody, Arkansas: Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham and Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs will likely be the freshmen getting the most attention entering the NCAA Tournament. But Moody is wholly capable of stealing the spotlight. The 6-foot-6 wing leads the Razorbacks in scoring and can get buckets from all three levels. He's also great at getting to the free-throw line and is a versatile defender. He's like Cunningham in some ways, only a bit smaller and less hyped.
South Region winner
(2) Ohio State: Barring a meeting with Williams and Purdue in the Elite Eight, it doesn't look like there will be a dominant big man standing in Ohio State's way. That should allow this undersized group of feisty Buckeyes to thrive in the South Region. Though it came up just short in the Big Ten Tournament final, coach Chris Holtmann's squad found its groove again last week and appears to be playing a bit better than Baylor heading into the NCAA Tournament. The Big Ten seems destined to get at least one team to the Final Four after a banner year for the conference, and suggesting that the Buckeyes will do it at Baylor's expense should not be interpreted as a bold take.
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