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NCAA Tournament 2018 Preview: Virginia faces tough road in the South

When the South Region is decided on Saturday night in a little less than two weeks, it's likely the team cutting down the nets in Phillips Arena will be headed to the Final Four as one of the favorites to win it all. Because no team, be it Virginia, Cincinnati, Tennessee, Kentucky or Arizona, should be overlooked after escaping what is clearly the toughest region in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. 

The South has the star power, the intrigue of off-court storylines and the No. 1 overall seed. If iron sharpens iron then whoever emerges from this region will be ready to go win the national championship. 

Three initial thoughts 

1. Virginia got the toughest draw of all the one seeds

The Wahoos were the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament but landed in the toughest bracket. The South Region has four major conference tournament champions (Virginia, Cincinnati, Arizona, Kentucky), and while a Virginia-Cincinnati defensive battle in the Elite Eight could be an all-timer, the Wahoos could have one of the toughest Sweet 16 matchups in the entire tournament going up against Arizona or Kentucky. 

2. Nevada is the sleeper to watch

Don't let the low seed fool you, Eric Musselman has a really, really good team this year at Nevada. A top 25 team by several metrics with a top-10 offensive efficiency rating, the Wolf Pack could be a handful if they get rolling. Final Four might be too much to expect, but a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight run is not out of the question. 

3. Arizona is going to be the trendy pick

The whiplash effect from following the drama at Arizona has put the Wildcats directly in the center of college basketball as we enter the postseason. At one point it looked like the trio of Sean Miller, Allonzo Trier and De'Andre Ayton could be done. Then Trier was reinstated, Miller returned to the team and Ayton was cleared by the NCAA of any alleged wrongdoing despite reports of a pay-for-play scheme under fire. Arizona went on to win the Pac-12 regular season and conference tournament title, and early title odds have them among the seven or eight teams most likely to win it all. No team will draw like Arizona: the drama of the FBI investigation into college basketball, the excitement of NBA fans looking for lottery picks and the added intrigue of Sean Miller chasing a Final Four appearance. 

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Bold prediction: Miami makes the Elite Eight

The raw talent and depth of this roster could carry Miami into the second weekend, maybe further. Miami showed during its late-season charge to the 3-seed in the ACC Tournament that if things click the Canes can beat anyone. Jim Larranaga's team is a little banged up almost the entire season, but it's also rounded into a deep team with lots of ways to beat you. 

Best potential matchups 

1. Kentucky-Arizona, 2nd Round 

2. Virginia-Arizona, Sweet 16 

3. Kentucky-Davidson, 1st Round 

Upsets to watch for 

1. Miami/Loyola-Chicago over Tennessee. The Vols have been stellar all year, particularly not he defensive end, but this team is making its first appearance in the tournament since Cuonzo Martin led the team to the Sweet 16 in 2014. I think the Vols will get by Wright State but making it out of the weekend could be tougher than you'd expect for a 3-seed. 

2. Nevada over Cincinnati. The threat that Nevada poses on the offensive end is paired with an opportunity for Cincinnati, a defensive-minded team, to showcase its own scoring prowess. But if this game turns into a high-scoring affair who will be the most comfortable? I think Nevada poses a big-time threat to the Bearcats advancing to the second weekend. 

3. Tony Bennett or Sean Miller over the Final Four drought. One of these two coaches will end the struggle and shed the "honor" of being "one of the best coaches not to make a Final Four."  

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Six best players 

1. De'Andre Ayton, Arizona 

2. Kevin Knox, Kentucky 

3. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kentucky 

4. Devon Hall, Virginia 

5. Grant Williams, Tennessee 

6. Peyton Aldridge, Davidson 

Who I'm picking: Arizona. Given everything on and off the floor that's happened in college basketball this year, no team seems more fit to be on the big stage in San Antonio than Arizona. 

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