Kentucky may be the country's best team, but can they make it out of the most difficult region?
In the Week 18 Top 25, eight teams from the South Region were ranked, including top seed, Kentucky. And that obviously include talented underachievers UConn and Xavier or the mid-majors with plenty of fire power in VCU and South Dakota State. If Kentucky is to make their way back to the Final Four, their path is likely through the defending national champions who knocked off the Wildcats last season, a stellar Missouri Valley team with a 7-footer in the middle and 3-point shooting in Wichita State or the Indiana team that already beat the Wildcats once this season. That's just the path to the Sweet 16- Kentucky will face the likes of sweet-shooting Duke or a Baylor team with just as much frontcourt power as the Wildcats.
Who is the most dangerous mid-major guard in the South region?
Looking across the South region, there are some of the best mid-major guards with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove. There's Bradford Burgess, last season's prime-time performer for VCU, CJ McCollum, the nation's sixth leading scorer at 21.9 points per game, Nate Wolters of South Dakota State right behind McCollum a 21.3 scoring average, Tu Holloway, last season's A-10 Player of the Year heading up Xavier's squad, Joe Ragland, a -50 percent 3-point shooter for Wichita State and last, but not least, the well-rounded point guard of UNLV, Anthony Marshall.
Both Burgess and Holloway were destined for breakout seasons in their senior campaign, but failed to live up to the lofty expectations; their scoring averages fell, shooting percentages plummeted, but both played key roles in their team's late push for the NCAA Tournament.
For Top-20 team, Wichita State, Ragland is fourth in the country is 3-point percentage at exactly 50 percent. His stroke helps spread the floor for 7-foot center Garrett Stutz in the paint and offers a solid kick-out option for Stutz and the penetrating abilities of point guard Toure' Murry.
Anthony Marshall is one of the most under-the-radar prospects despite playing for such a high-profile team in UNLV. He stands 6'3" which helps him finish shots in the lane, hit the glass and see the floor over the smaller guards defending him. His stat-line reads: 12.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals per game. During the Rebels rise through the Top 25 rankings, he averaged 22 points, 7 rebounds and 5.5 assists in mid-season wins over Cal, San Diego State, TCU and New Mexico. He is absolutely a game-changer.
But our top mid-major guard honors comes down to two stars, capable of the ultimate second-round upset. Both Nate Wolters and his Jackrabbits and Lehigh's CJ McCollum face the ultimate task of being matched up against a top-three team in the region, but they possess the star power to at least keep their teams in it.
Wolters, a 6'4" junior, will have his hands full with Baylor's 2-3 and 1-3-1 zone defenses as his shooting slump is quite concerning; after shooting 41 percent from behind the arc as a sophomore, he is shooting just under 25 percent from deep this season, including 2 makes in his last 14 attempts. Where Wolters should be considered a serious threat is his ability to affect all areas of the game, specifically on offense, where he can get into the weak spots of the zone, finish at the rim or get to the foul line or dump the ball off to a teammate (he averages 6.0 assists per game). But with just two rotational players standing at 6'7" or bigger, Wolters and South Dakota State will find it difficult to finish against the length of Baylor, as most teams do.
Junior CJ McCollum, the two-time Patriot League Player of the Year, hopes to put up a better performance than the last time his Mountain Hawks were in the NCAA Tournament two years ago. As a 16-seed matched up with Kansas, McCollum finished with 26 points on just 7-of-21 shooting with five turnovers. This season, McCollum has taken control of the game more by using more of his team's possessions, ranking in the top ten of the national rankings in field-goals attempted, made and free-throws made. But McCollum's defensive game will be counted on heavily to take on the Blue Devils- he ranks second nationally in total steals and averages 2.7 per game. His ability to keep Austin Rivers out of the lane and get a hand out on his jump shot.
What matchup/potential matchup will NBA scouts be watching?
There's no doubt that NBA scouts will be all over the third round matchup between Kentucky and UConn if both advance past their first game. That's a matchup of two of the top players on our big board when Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond take the floor, but we get to see Jeremy Lamb in action as well as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb. This is matchup of seven first-round talents.
The 6'11" Davis from Kentucky swept the awards in conference and seems to be growing as each game passes. His defensive talents are amazing, leading the nation in blocks with 4.6 per game, and finished the year out averaging better than 10 rebounds per game. His offensive game has shown a dramatic turnaround; early in the year, Davis seemed limited to putting home lobs and put-backs, but now he has established himself as a legitimate threat to knock down jumpers and spread the floor with range out to the 3-point line.
The 6'10", 270-pound Drummond is more of a true center and isn't nearly as mobile as the super-athletic Davis, but he is quite agile and athletic for a player of his size, leading scouts to believe he could be a starting center in the NBA in a few years. Because of his sheer size, strength and positioning, Drummond is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country and could prove to be quite a challenge for the lean Davis on the glass. Drummond can also hold his own on the defensive end, averaging 2.7 blocks per game with 7.7 rebounds in 28 of minutes of action.
What team in the South region is most versatile?
Three teams in particular stand-out with their versatility: Kentucky, Baylor and UNLV. Each of these teams have guards that can attack the rim or drain shots from the perimeter with fairly deep range. But each also has a standout frontcourt, capable of scoring in the post, stepping away from the basket and hitting the glass. Kentucky's three forward rotation of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones could all secure a double-double on any given night in a variety of ways with 3-point buckets, low-post scoring or mid-range face-ups. Baylor's tremendously athletic frontline stars Perry Jones and Quincy Miller, two guards in forwards bodies as each stands north of 6'10". UNLV has two UCLA-transfers, Mike Moser and Chace Stanback, playing in the frontcourt. As each stands 6'8" or so at a slender 210 pounds, Moser averaged a double-double on the year, leading the nation in rebounding at one point in time and Stanback's 78 made 3s were second in the conference, shooting 46.4 percent from that range.
All three display the inside and out offensive and defensive game, but Kentucky is the best of the best nationally and their versatility will key a run back to the Final Four again this year.
Which team in the West region will "run" away with the game?
This could be the most exciting region, not in terms of quality of games, but in terms of points being put up on the board. Some of the nation's most up-tempo teams that love to push the ball in transition can be found out West. Five of the top scoring offense will be playing (in order: Iona: 83.2 points per game, LIU: 81.9 points, Missouri: 80.3 points, Davidson: 78.4 points and BYU: 78.2 points). This includes a matchup of the 14-seed play-in game between Iona and BYU and a 4-seed Louisville and 13-seed Davidson. And the teams in this region are also effective with the ball in their hands in terms of points per possession. Missouri tops the country with 1.2 points per possession, but is followed by Florida and Iona (1.16), Davidson (1.13), Murray State (1.12) and Memphis (1.11). Long Beach State, New Mexico and Michigan State all account for 1.10 points per possession.
What the best matchup of offense and defense?
What looks to be the most intriguing matchup in the second-round of play is the stark contrast between 7-seed Florida and 10-seed Virginia. Florida is tied for the fourth highest points per possession rate in the country at 1.16 and Virginia's defense ranks second-best, holding opponents to an average of 0.88 points per possession.
To achieve their lofty ranking, the Gators utilize the 3-point field-goal moreso than any other team- making 328 3s this season (first in the country) and attempting 841 heaves (second in the country). Nearly 40 percent of their total points come from behind the 3-point arc.
However, Tony Bennett's players excel at defending on the perimeter. His Cavalier team has only given up 145 made 3-pointers all year long (18th fewest in the country) and those account for just 29.5 percent of all points scored against Virginia's stifling defense, 11th fewest.
What mid-major can be this year's Butler/VCU?
Prior to the bracket actually being released, the top two picks would have been Mountain West champion New Mexico and Big West champion Long Beach State. However, one of these teams will find their dreams shattered due to the two being matched up in the second-round. While this will create the ultimate "must see game", this certainly diminishes the chances that we will see a mid-major in the Final Four this year.
Long Beach State played anyone and everyone who was willing to get together to play a basketball game in their non-conference game, so don't take the battle-tested 49ers lightly. They have a two-time conference Player of the Year in Casper Ware, an athletically-gifted and super smooth guard in wing Larry Anderson and a versatile big man in TJ Robinson; this trio combines to score 43.4 points, grab 17.5 rebounds, dole out 7.1 assists and account for 4 steals a game. In fact, there may not be a more underrated and productive trio in the Tournament.
New Mexico offers a great challenge to the 49ers as the 5-seed. Steve Alford has a double-double machine in the girthy Drew Gordon in the low blocks who is capable of completely dominating the glass at times. At his disposal, he has a bevy of 3-point shooters to space the floor, highlighted by 44.1 percent shooter Phillip McDonald, 40 percent shooter Tony Snell, a 40 percent shooter in Jamal Fenton and 36 percent Kendall Williams. With these guards, the Lobos rank near the tops of the national rankings in 3-point field-goals made, assists per game and Drew Gordon is the reason why NMU tallied the ninth most defensive rebounds this past season.