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South Region preview: Can Kansas challenge Florida without Joel Embiid?

Sam Cooper
The Dagger
Kentucky head coach John Calipari speaks as Florida forward Will Yeguete (15) and Scottie Wilbekin (5) walk on the court during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Championship round of the Southeastern Conference men's tournament, Sunday, March 16, 2014, in Atlanta
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Kentucky head coach John Calipari speaks as Florida forward Will Yeguete (15) and Scottie Wilbekin (5) walk on the court during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Championship round of the Southeastern Conference men's tournament, Sunday, March 16, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The Dagger previews the South Region of the 2014 NCAA tournament. Read our previews of the East, Midwest and West.

Three who can carry their teams:

*Jordan Adams, G, UCLA

*Andrew Wiggins, G, Kansas

*Cameron Bairstow, F, New Mexico

Most intriguing opening round matchup: No. 6 Ohio State (25-9) vs. No. 11 Dayton (23-10)

There’s a lot to like about the matchup between Ohio State and Dayton – two schools only 70 miles apart from each other in Ohio. The Flyers, one of six teams in the field from the A-10, are led by junior guard Jordan Sibert, an Ohio State transfer who averages 12.5 points per game and shoots nearly 44 percent from three. Sibert was the No. 39 overall prospect in the country when the Cincinnati native signed with the Buckeyes out of high school, but transferred to Dayton to play for head coach Archie Miller, a former Ohio State assistant. In addition to Sibert, Devin Oliver, Dyshawn Pierre and Vee Sanford are all capable of leading the team in scoring. The Flyers recovered from a four-game losing streak in January to win nine of their last ten regular season games.

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Ohio State had a season peaks and valleys, but Thad Matta’s squad rebounded from a four-game Big Ten losing streak to win seven of its final ten conference games including impressive wins over Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State. The Buckeyes put on a good showing in the Big Ten tournament this week with an impressive win over Nebraska and a three-point loss to Michigan. The usual suspects are still there. Pesky senior point guard Aaron Craft runs the offense and was the Big Ten defensive player of the year again, while LaQuinton Ross and senior Lenzelle Smith Jr. provide the majority of the scoring.

Best potential round of 32 game: No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 7 New Mexico

I don’t have many gripes with how the bracket played out this year, but New Mexico being a No. 7 seed is far too low for the Mountain West tournament champions. A Kansas squad, who are likely to be without probable NBA lottery pick Joel Embiid, might find that out the hard way. Without Embiid, the Lobos and their low post duo of 6-foot-9, 250-pound Cameron Bairstow and 7-foot, 250-pound Alex Kirk will be a challenge for the shorthanded Jayhawks. Provided the Lobos (who have never advanced to the Sweet 16) knock off Stanford and Kansas handles Eastern Kentucky in the first round, this matchup will be a doozy. Embiid and Kansas handled the Lobos 80-63 back in December, but the circumstances will be different this time around. The result could be too.

Ripe for an upset: No. 3 Syracuse

Syracuse won so many close games over the course of the season en route to a 25-0 record on February 15. 'Cuse had barely beaten teams like St. Francis (NY), Miami (FL), Boston College, Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Maryland before the late-season spiral that knocked the Orange from the nation’s No. 1 team to a No. 3 seed in the tournament. It only seemed like a matter of time before Jim Boeheim’s team would lose, but nobody expected the Orange to lose five of its last seven games down the stretch. That spiral included losses to Boston College (8-24) and Georgia Tech (16-17) before eventually falling to North Carolina State for the second time in a month in the ACC tournament.

The Orange drew Mid-American champion Western Michigan in the first round, and the Broncos should not be overlooked. Sure, they’ve never faced a Syracuse zone defense in the MAC, but the Broncos have two seniors who can score the basketball in a number of ways. 6-foot-4 guard David Brown averaged 19.4 points per game and scored in double figures in every game this season, including 32 points on just 16 shots in the MAC title game. Accompanying Brown is 6-foot-11, 245-pound Shayne Whittington, a versatile big man who averages 16.3 points per game and 9.1 rebounds per game while shooting 52.6 percent from the field. Whittington, along with sophomore forward Connar Tava (12 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 60.4 FG%), could help the Broncos conquer the zone with some mid-range jump shots. 

Bound for the Final Four: No. 1 Florida

The tournament’s top overall seed can beat you in so many ways. The Gators can bang inside with Patric Young and Dorian Finney-Smith. Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, and Michael Frazier II are all deadly from beyond the arc, each shooting over 40 percent from three for the season. On top of that, Billy Donovan’s team applies immense defensive pressure, giving up only 58.5 points per game – sixth best in the nation. Four other coaches in the region – Shaka Smart, Thad Matta, Jim Boeheim and Bill Self – have Final Four experience, so it won’t be a cakewalk for the Gators, but they are clearly the region’s best team.

Possible Dark Horse: No. 12 Stephen F. Austin

Which team (besides Wichita State) in the NCAA tournament is currently on the longest winning streak? Hint: it's not Florida. It's Southland Conference champion Stephen F. Austin, who have not lost since November 23. The Lumberjacks have won 28 consecutive games heading into a first round matchup with Virginia Commonwealth. Now the Lumberjacks probably won't be making the Final Four, but they are a pesky squad whose fundamentally sound style and cohesion could pose problems. The Lumberjacks have started the same five players for every game this year, three of whom average 13 points or more per game, while senior sixth man Deshaunt Walker averages 12 per game. If there's one under the radar team in this region who could fit the Cinderella role, it's the Lumberjacks. 

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