The South Region has undeniable talent, and (spoiler!) also contains my pick for the National Champion. More on that later, but let’s first do a quick rundown of the top matchups in the first round:
Minnesota vs Middle Tennessee
Minnesota had a serviceable year in what can only be called a lackluster season for the Big 10. A win at Purdue earlier in the year and splitting the series versus a ranked Maryland team prove their muster; while the Gophers never truly shone throughout the campaign. A loss to cellar dweller Penn State mid-year highlights a few of the negatives for this team. The team can crash the boards though, behind sophomore forward Jordan Murphy who led the team with 8.8 rebounds per game. If this Richard Pitino led squad can get into a rhythm on offense, and hit the boards as well as they have all year, then they should have no trouble with Middle Tennessee State.
Middle Tennessee is back with a vengeance this year. Their trio of scorers in Giddy Potts, Reggie Upshaw and Arkansas transfer Jacorey Williams bring bombs from all over the court for last year’s Cinderella. Many may sleep on this team as getting more hype than they deserve due to last year’s success, but MTSU brings many dynamic angles to the table to get the job done. Look for a stout defense that admittedly has not been thoroughly tested this year, and a balanced offense that can put points on the board.
My Pick: MTSU 66 Minn 63
Cincinnati vs Kansas State
Cincinnati rolls into Sacramento with disappointment on their brow. After getting blown out by Southern Methodist in their conference championship game and falling to 1-2 against them on the season, this squad is ready to prove their worth in the tournament. They are not fancy. They do not pick their shots. The Bearcats come at you with one of the most ferocious smash mouth defenses in the country. The top-rated squad in steals per game is led by guard Kevin Johnson, and they allow a stingy 60.5 points per game putting them at fourth nationally. Look for all the heart and toughness to show up on Friday. We will all know early on if this game will be a blowout.
Kansas State comes into the tourney thanking every basketball god imaginable for giving them this opportunity. An 8-10 team in conference play that was viewed as on the outside looking in by most analysts, they came into the Big 12 Tournament with a vengeance. Beating Baylor by 6 and then losing to West Virginia by only a single point pushed them over the edge and into the first four portion of the bracket. They subsequently handled Wake Forest, and are looking to prove that all the doubters were wrong from the beginning. Look for that heart on Friday in a team that has very average statistics.
My Pick: Cincinnati 73 Kansas State 55
Dayton vs Wichita State
Dayton finds itself searching for answers after two disappointing losses to end the season. While they hoist the regular season trophy in the A-10, they lost in the first round to middling Davidson. Davidson could not even ride that momentum and were quickly dispatched by URI in the next round. Everyone in Southern Ohio is placing their hope in this veteran squad, but this analyst is skeptical on a middling offense that is shored up by an above average defense.
Wichita State on the other hand comes into the tournament with 15 straight wins. All those wins, with the exception of one, were by more than 15 points. The Shockers do so many things well, with an above average defense that is supported by an elite tier three-point shooting squad. Don’t let them get behind you as well, since they rank 5th nationally on the boards. While they may be seen as “just” the MVC Champions, look out for this balanced team to make a deep run in the tournament.
My Pick: Dayton 65 Wichita State 80
After the first round, things look to shake up in the South Region. I predict a vulnerable UNC having trouble with Butler in the Sweet 16. I also think the only true test for UCLA in this bracket is Kentucky, who they beat earlier this year. The Bruins’ poise and firepower will overwhelm opponents, and I think they have one of the clearest paths to the final four. Look for a no-holds-barred battle with the Midwest Region Champion, with UCLA eventually coming out on top. If they can make it to the National Championship, I can not see a single team beating them.
My Final: Villanova 72 UCLA 75