Not all regionals are created equal.
Every year when the March Madness bracket is released, there is one portion of the bracket that seems more difficult than the others. This year, the South is the most challenging region. Before this past Sunday, traditional powers North Carolina, Kentucky, and UCLA had never been drawn in the same bracket. Now, they sit as the top three seeds in the South, leaving us with the potential of some monumental matchups in later rounds.
Aside from the top heavy nature of this bracket, the South also has possibly the tournament’s most under seeded team in Wichita State, a ten seed. Their first round matchup with Dayton is sure to be a proverbial fist fight for the chance to face Kentucky next. Also popping up in this region are former upset makers Winthrop and Middle Tennessee. The surprise team in this region is the Northern Kentucky Norse, who are making their first ever NCAA Tournament trip in their first year of eligibility. Their prize for this accomplishment is a date with the Kentucky Wildcats.
First Weekend Madness
The first four days of the NCAA Tournament are always filled with excitement, and usually with multiple things that make you go, WOW. The opening rounds of the tournament puts the “madness” in March Madness.
South Region: Best Game – (7) Dayton Flyers vs (10) Wichita State Shockers
Dayton finished second in the Atlantic 10 this season, and is making their fourth straight trip to the big dance. Archie Miller is one of the hottest young coaches in the sport, and has built a formidable program in Dayton. The Flyers are led by senior guard Charles Cooke and his 16 points a game.
The Shockers have ascended in similar fashion to the Flyers in recent years. Greg Marshall has led this program to six straight tournament bids, and have won at least a game the last five years. The Shockers are a balanced squad, with five players scoring between 9 and 12 points per game.
Best Player Matchup – Moses Kingsley (Arkansas) vs Angel Delgado (Seton Hall)
The 8/9 pairing is always one that should breed a close game with two evenly matched teams, and the post play in this tilt should be fun to watch. Moses Kingsley is the prototypical big man for Arkansas’, “40 minutes of Hell” style of play. Long, athletic and extremely active. He has seven double-doubles this season and is averaging 2.6 blocks per game. Improved perimeter play for his side has led to a dip in Kingsley’s scoring numbers from last season. However, his importance has not diminished as his 1168 points, 757 rebounds, and 171 career blocks shows how he can impact the game from both ends of the floor.
Kinglsey will need to be at his best to handle 6’10” junior Angel Delgado of Seton Hall. The Pirates big man is averaging a double-double this year with 15 points and 13 rebounds per game. He is an extremely skilled low post scorer and a deceptively good passer as well. Each team has solid perimeter scoring to complement their talented big men, so in such an evenly matched game, the winner in the post battle could lead his team to victory.
Upset City Possibilities
The 5 vs 12 seed pairing is known for producing upsets, and 12 seed Middle Tennessee is a trendy pick to get past 5 seed Minnesota. The Blue Raiders upset Michigan State last year as a 15 seed, and added transfer JaCorey Williams and his 17 points per this season. Giddy Potts returns to March Madness looking to build on his underdog success.
The 13 seed Winthrop Eagles are one of four programs that have won 10 or more conference tournament titles in the last 20 years. The other three are Gonzaga (15), Duke (11), and Kentucky (10). They face fourth seeded Butler who had their own runs as a Cinderella before joining the Big East a few seasons ago.
Kansas State won its First Four game on Tuesday over Wake Forest, and now moves on to face the 6 seed Cincinnati. The Wildcats put up 95 points in Dayton, and since expanding to 68 teams one of the winners from the First Four has usually found a way to win a second game. The Bearcats finished 16-2 in the AAC, right behind SMU. Both programs are known for their tough minded play, but if Kansas State can keep its hot shooting going they could advance.
South Region: Players to Watch
Justin Jackson (North Carolina) – The ACC’s player of the Year has exploded this season. After two solid yet underwhelming seasons, Jackson has set career highs in point (18.1) and rebounds (4.6) per game as well as raising his three point percentage to 38%. He has a silky smooth offensive game. He can go off at any time, as evident by his sixteen games over 20 points.
DeAaron Fox (Kentucky) – Fellow Freshman Malik Monk’s scoring prowess gets most of the press. However, it is Fox that is the engine for the Wildcats. He is as skilled a guard as there is in the nation when it comes to driving to the lane. He has a wide array of finishes when inside the paint. When he draws the defense his vision and passing opens up shots for his teammates.
T.J. Leaf (UCLA) – The Bruins are most known for their backcourt of star freshman Lonzo Ball and coach’s son Bryce Alford. Interestingly enough, it is actually freshman forward T.J. Leaf that leads this team in scoring. He has been efficient all season, with only three games where he didn’t score in double figures. His athleticism and midrange touch have allowed him to become a force inside for UCLA.
Keon Johnson (Winthrop) – If Keon Johnson stood at 6 feet tall, he’d be playing in a power 5 conference. Listed at 5’7”, he believes and plays like the biggest, baddest dude on the court. The lightning quick guard took the Big South Conference by storm, averaging 22.5 points per game. Guard play is critical in March, and Johnson will be the key if Winthrop wants to pull off an upset or two.
Nate Mason (Minnesota) – The Gophers have been most people’s pick to be the 5 seed that gets upset. If Nate Mason has anything to say about it, that won’t happen. The junior guard is averaging 19 points per over his last ten games, and Minnesota is 8-2 in that span. He not only leads the team in scoring, but also dishes out five assists a game.
The firepower amongst the top three seeds in the South region makes it hard not to look ahead. Five different teams in this region have been to a Final Four in the past decade. There is a possible Wichita State and Kentucky rematch in the 2nd round, as these two team’s last meeting in March was a two point thriller. The Wildcats have already faced UCLA and UNC this season, and both those games were track meets resulting in each team scoring above 90 points. The potential for either of those rematches would make for must see TV. The possibility of UNC versus UCLA or Kentucky for a trip to the Final Four is what March is all about.