What’s the wildest dream for your team in this NCAA tournament? What’s the darkest nightmare? We’ll tell you. Here are the best-case and worst-case scenarios for every team in the South Region.
Best case: Humbled and refocused by stunning upset loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final, the Wildcats storm through the tournament in dominant fashion to win the school’s eighth national championship. They throttle Indiana in a Sweet 16 payback game, then unload 20 years of pent-up Christian Laettner angst on Duke in the regional final. After thumping Cinderella Murray State in a national semifinal, Anthony Davis hangs a triple-double (20 points, 10 rebounds, 10 blocks) on Vandy in a payback title-game blowout. Awestruck school children ask their parents how to grow unibrows. John Calipari is given a lifetime contract and a horse farm. In gratitude, he signs 14 more McDonald’s All-Americans. Plans are unveiled to expand Rupp Arena to 70,000. Meanwhile, Louisville loses again in the first round and Rick Pitino leaves for the just-opened UCLA job.
Worst case: SEC tournament loss to Vanderbilt wasn’t a wake-up call after all – it was a warning siren. Young team feeling colossal fan pressure buckles in shocking second-round loss to Connecticut, missing 3-pointers and free throws in bulk. Ballyhooed freshman class burns out: Davis gets pushed around inside, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist continues his late-season fade and point guard Marquis Teague is lured into fatal machismo duel with Shabazz Napier. Faced with another intolerable loss to detested rival Jim Calhoun, Cal takes it out on Terrence Jones, F-bombing him all the way out of the Yum! Center. Everyone goes pro, including two walk-ons who never play. So does Calipari, taking the Wizards’ job. Kentucky fans drain the state’s bourbon reserves after Rick Pitino takes Louisville to another Final Four.
Best case: On the 20th anniversary of his greatest team, Mike Krzyzewski completes an improbable drive for five national titles. The Blue Devils get scalding perimeter shooting, a return to health for Ryan Kelly and inspired play from the Brothers Plumlee to roll into the regional final against Kentucky. In the final seconds of an epic overtime battle, Austin Rivers drives into the lane and throws a one-hand push shot over Anthony Davis and off the glass for two points with 2.1 seconds left. Krzyzewski guards the inbounds pass, which is off-target, and the Blue Devils triumph 103-102. Duke then beats Missouri and Syracuse in New Orleans to capture the championship. Roy Williams cries a dadgum river in Greensboro when North Carolina is stunned by Creighton in the second round, then cries some more when everyone goes pro. Rivers returns to Duke for his sophomore season.
Worst case: Doc Rivers has been around so much that he starts calling out plays from behind Duke’s bench – and, strangely enough, they’re all isolations for his kid. Krzyzewski chafes as Austin Rivers goes 5-of-22 from the field while trying to outshine Tu Holloway in a jarring second-round loss to Xavier. Ryan Kelly never gets back to health. The Brothers Plumlee combine for 10 fouls, nine points and three missed dunks against the Musketeers. Rivers turns pro before even taking off his jersey after the loss. Duke staff becoming accustomed to ugly upset losses in NCAAs – Arizona, Villanova, West Virginia, Texas, LSU – but everyone cries anyway. Then they cry some more when North Carolina wins its third title under Williams and Harrison Barnes says he’s coming back to school again.
Best case: One of the most talented teams in the field actually plays like it, rising to the occasion and rolling to the school’s first Final Four since 1948. Perry Jones III performs like he did in the Big 12 tournament, with assertiveness and confidence. The Bears’ length and athleticism overpowers South Dakota State, UNLV and Duke – the last of those a payback game for a 2010 regional final loss. In a regional final showdown with Kentucky, Brady Heslip hits a last-second “3” to shock the Wildcats and send the Bears to a matching Final Four with the women’s team. After a semifinal loss to Michigan State, Jones and other pro prospects stunningly announce they’re returning to school.
Worst case: Lackadaisical, underperforming Bears who lost seven games to Big 12 opponents show up again in Albuquerque. With coach Scott Drew moving around a lot but failing to instill any urgency, defensively indifferent team gets strafed by South Dakota State shooters in a shocking first-round upset. Back in passive mode, Jones bows out at Baylor with his 11th single-digit scoring game of the season – and still winds up being a top-10 pick. Drew puts his name in the ring at Illinois. And RGIII still isn’t coming back to the football team.
[ Pat Forde: Breakdown of the entire NCAA tournament field ]
Best case: The Hoosiers complete the cleanup of the Kelvin Sampson Chernobyl years by charging to the national championship game. Cody Zeller’s inside play carries Indiana to the Sweet 16, where Christian Watford re-enacts his December heroics by shooting down Kentucky yet again to reach the regional final. Ten years after the Mike Davis-led upset of Duke, Indiana does it again to the Blue Devils to reach the Final Four. Bob Knight gets over himself at last and accepts Tom Crean’s invitation to New Orleans to see Hoosiers play. Once there, Indiana defeats Michigan State before Cody loses to big brother Tyler and North Carolina in the national title game. Suitably motivated, Cody comes back for his sophomore season to join a loaded recruiting class and take a run at the ring. Fans forget they ever lobbied for Brad Stevens to replace Crean. Purdue loses in the first round.
Worst case: Playing a late game out West, discombobulated Indiana doesn’t guard anyone and is exploited by surprisingly athletic New Mexico State, which shocks the Hoosiers in their first game. Zeller doesn’t rebound, Jordan Hulls can’t get off shots and Watford drifts back into Witness Protection mode. Program streak without an NCAA tourney win stretches to five years. Fans go back to wishing for Brad Stevens. Knight continues to be an embittered churl toward his former school. Purdue makes a run.
Best case: Program that has had some good postseason runs – Final Four in 1965, Elite Eight in ’81, Sweet 16 in 2006, NIT title last season – adds another one to the ledger. Riding the hot shooting of Joe Ragland and the interior presence of 7-footer Garrett Stutz, the Shockers beat Shaka Smart and VCU in their first game, then take down Indiana in the round of 32. They cap it off by pushing Kentucky to the brink before losing by a basket. Serial job flirt Gregg Marshall decides he’s not interested in Illinois or any other vacancies. Insufferable Big Brother schools Kansas and Kansas State both are upset in the first round.
Worst case: Players bereft of NCAA experience get stage fright against veteran VCU and become the annual 5-12 upset loser. Ragland can’t shake free on the perimeter. Stutz plays like the occasionally soft 7-footer who shot zero free throws in two Missouri Valley tournament games. Marshall is outcoached by Smart, then looks at a roster loaded with departing seniors and flees for the first available job. Kansas State makes the Sweet 16 and Kansas win the national title, returning Wichita State to Little Brother status for the foreseeable future.
Best case: Team that upset North Carolina shows up for the Big Dance, as the Runnin’ Rebels blast into the Elite Eight before losing valiantly to Kentucky. Mike Moser plays like the guy who destroyed Wyoming twice in March (19.5 points, 13 rebounds), not like the guy who struggled against everyone else down the stretch. After beating Colorado and catching South Dakota State off an upset of Baylor, UNLV faces Duke in the Sweet 16. With Jerry Tarkanian and his former players in Atlanta cheering them on, Rebels get revenge for 1991 Final Four shocker. Moses Scurry, Anderson Hunt and David Butler find a hot tub and celebrate with Richard “The Fixer” Perry.
Worst case: Team that wobbled down the stretch with a 5-5 record and hasn’t won away from Vegas since January shows up for the Big Dance, as the Rebels are ousted immediately by Colorado. Moser plays like the guy who struggled in his last five games against everyone but Wyoming (7.4 points, 5.8 rebounds). Tarkanian and the boys stay away – which, actually, might not be the worst case after all.
7. Notre Dame
Best case: The sultans of slowdown, who won nine consecutive Big East games in one stretch, dictate pace to frustrate Xavier and upset Duke to reach the Sweet 16. Benefitting from a bracket collapse, the Fighting Irish beat interloper South Dakota State there and wander into a regional final for the first time since losing to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in 1979. On ESPN, analyst-jester-homer Digger Phelps sticks matching green highlighters in his ears and dances a jig. The run ends with a loss to Kentucky, but Gunner Kiel’s spring practice debut takes everyone’s mind off it.
Worst case: Team that struggled early and finished poorly shows up for the Big Dance and is run out by Xavier in its first game. Overhyped “Burn” offense foiled by Musketeers guard pressure, and a team that overachieved for one great month exits meekly with its fourth loss in its last six games. On ESPN, analyst-jester-homer Digger Phelps balances a lavender highlighter on his head while saying he could have done better than Mike Brey. In mid-spring practice, Gunner Kiel transfers to Purdue, saying he wants to be closer to home.
8. Iowa State
Best case: With the nation anticipating a Kentucky-Connecticut round of 32 game, underappreciated Cyclones pop the Huskies in the mouth. Versatile forward Royce White has a triple-double and shooter Scott Christopherson does a fine imitation of coach Fred Hoiberg, splashing five 3-pointers. After losing in overtime to top-seeded Kentucky in the round of 32, appreciative Iowans decide “Mayor” is too mundane a nickname for Hoiberg and promote him to “Governor.” Iowa fans object. Iowa State fans respond by asking them how they’re enjoying the NIT.
Worst case: With UConn fully engaged, the Cyclones are overmatched and blown out in the round of 64. Indifferent interior defense is exploited, Chris Allen takes bad shots and turns the ball over, and White’s bulk is neutralized by the Huskies’ thick front line. Hoiberg is demoted to “City Councilman.” Worst of all, fans must go back to living in Ames.
Best case: After a season of searching, Huskies finally locate their inner champion. Jeremy Lamb is Kemba Lite, averaging 25 points per game and dominating the perimeter in concert with Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Alex Oriakhi and Andre Drummond awaken from a long winter’s slumber and start dominating inside. Rejuvenated Jim Calhoun orchestrates an upset of Kentucky in front of 20,000 Big Blue fans, takes out VCU in the Sweet 16 and beats Duke yet again in a late-round NCAA game. Even a Final Four loss to Michigan State doesn’t feel so bad after great March run. All the underclassmen return to school and Calhoun decides he can coach one more year. In an emergency session, ACC votes to rescind Syracuse offer after drug-test revelations and take UConn instead.
Worst case: Huskies never do locate their inner champion, play like a team with a low basketball IQ (and a low APR) and are unceremoniously bounced by Iowa State. Lamb, Napier and Boatright combine to shoot 8-of-33 against the Cyclones, with 10 turnovers. Drummond decides running all the way from one end of the court to the other is simply too much work and malingers around midcourt until being benched. Calhoun and his aching back retire 24 hours later. Syracuse wins the national title on its way to the ACC, which still has zero interest in UConn no matter how much the Huskies beg.
Best case: Somehow, the Musketeers rediscover their pre-Cincinnati brawl identity and swagger past Notre Dame, Duke and Baylor to reach the regional final. Tu “Zip ’Em Up” Holloway and backcourt mate Mark Lyons take good shots, and make them. Seven-footer Kenny Frease makes one of his intermittent appearances, blocking shots and rebounding with aggression. Everyone behaves. Finally unburdened, Xavier plays up to its December top-10 ranking through a close regional-final loss to Kentucky. Meanwhile, Cincinnati is routed in the first round.
Worst case: Program blemished by fallout from the brawl continues to founder, losing to the Fighting Irish and ending the season 13-13 since the Crosstown Punchout. Holloway and Lyons combine to go 7-for-30 from the field against Notre Dame, Frease is a no-show and everyone goes into the offseason wondering what exactly happened to a year of great promise. Meanwhile, Cincinnati continues its post-brawl resurrection by making an improbable march to the Final Four behind brilliant play by sucker-puncher Yancy Gates. Queen City becomes uninhabitable for Xavier fans.
Best case: Blessed with regional proximity, all 17 Buffaloes fans stream down Interstate 25 to Albuquerque to see their hot team take out fading UNLV, then beat South Dakota State in a bracket-collapse game. Team that has won seven consecutive games with fewer than 65 possessions and lost four in a row with 66 or more dictates pace judiciously to win two NCAA tourney games for the first time since 1955. Prompt Sweet 16 eviction by Duke goes unnoticed by Colorado fans, who have turned their attention to spring skiing and the Broncos’ quarterback situation. As an added bonus, Colorado State is the first team out of the field of 64 with a Thursday afternoon loss to Murray State.
Worst case: Group that beat exactly one NCAA tourney team all year – California – gets blitzed by refocused UNLV. Fifteen of the Buffs’ 23 victories came against Pac-12 competition, which is no way to prepare a team for the NCAAs. Team that lost to Maryland, Wyoming and Stanford twice doesn’t match up well with the Rebels and quickly is run out of the tourney. Excellent second-year coach Tad Boyle renounces his Colorado roots and leaves for a program more committed to basketball. Colorado State somehow makes the Sweet 16.
Best case: Shaka the World, Part II. Hot team that has lost just once in the past two months (by a single point) shows the same swagger as the bunch that crashed the 2011 Final Four. The Rams nail timely “3s,” force turnovers in bunches and run away from Wichita State and Indiana to reach the Sweet 16, where they lose honorably to Kentucky. Pep band continues to bring the funk like no other. Precocious coach Shaka Smart once again turns down major-conference job offers – including an earnest attempt by Illinois – to keep building an unlikely winner in Richmond. Top in-state players take notice, start signing with the Rams over Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Worst case: The name on the front of the jerseys is the same, but the players inside them are not. Without Jamie Skeen, Joey Rodriguez and other 2011 heroes, VCU doesn’t have the firepower to hang with Wichita State and loses in the round of 64. Underprepared by an unusually soft Colonial Athletic Association, the Rams are dismissed easily. Smart bails for Illinois and takes funkmaster pep-band director with him. Athletic director Norwood Teague is forced to page through his Villa Seven Rolodex yet again to replace a talented young coach. Top in-state players continue to prefer the ACC to the CAA.
13. New Mexico State
Best case: Team that caught fire in the Western Athletic Conference tournament stays hot all the way into the Sweet 16, upsetting Indiana, then beating No. 12 seed VCU in a bracket-collapse round of 32 matchup. Undersized double-double machine Wendell McKines is the revelation of the tournament. Hernst LaRoche of Montreal provides some French-Canadian flair at the point. Marvin Menzies, long considered little more than a roll-the-balls-out recruiting specialist, suddenly becomes a coaching oracle. Menzies resists the temptation of bigger jobs to stay in Las Cruces. Meanwhile, New Mexico is bum-rushed in the first round.
Worst case: Menzies tries rolling the balls out and just letting his guys play against Indiana and the Aggies get crushed by 30. McKines is dwarfed inside by Cody Zeller. LaRoche is le miserable with the ball, turning it over five times. Well-versed in the difficulties of getting players to come to Las Cruces, Menzies jumps for another job. New Mexico roars to the Final Four for the first time, taking away NMSU’s bragging rights as the only school in the state to do it (in 1970).
14. South Dakota State
Best case: The Jackrabbits’ first-ever trip to the Big Dance unfolds like a dream. With point guard Nate Wolters leading the way, a highly skilled team shoots Baylor out of the tournament, then catches 11th-seeded Colorado in the second round. Suddenly, South Dakota State is in the Sweet 16 playing Duke – borderline fiction for a school that didn’t play Division I basketball until 2006, then promptly recorded five consecutive losing seasons. The Other SDSU goes down fighting to the Blue Devils, but not until coach Scott Nagy’s electric blue blazer becomes a spring fashion sensation. (If Adidas did suit coats, they would look like Nagy’s.)
Worst case: Much like a jackrabbit crossing a highway in front of a semi, South Dakota State is easy roadkill in Albuquerque. Crippled by stage fright and crushed by Baylor’s size and athleticism, the Bugs Bunnies cannot contend and are blown out quickly. Any team that can lose by 19 to North Dakota is in deep against a team of a future pros, so after 40 minutes in Bracketville, it’s back to the far less cosmopolitan locale of Brookings, S.D.
Best case: Brett Reed’s team makes the most of its moment on the big stage and does the Patriot League proud, pushing Duke inside the final five minutes before relenting. The nation gets a glimpse of the criminally underappreciated C.J. McCollum, and the junior guard responds with a brilliant 30-point performance against the Blue Devils. As an added bonus, America also learns where Lehigh is located (Bethlehem, Pa.).
Worst case: America learns that Lehigh has an ugly color scheme (brown and white), a vague and uninspiring nickname (Mountain Hawks, which replaced Engineers in the ‘90s) and not nearly enough help for McCollum. Duke traps to force the ball out of McCollum’s hands repeatedly, and his teammates cannot make the Blue Devils pay for it in a 35-point loss. Lehigh shuffles quietly back to Bethlehem, and McCollum forgoes his final season of eligibility for the NBA draft.
16. Western Kentucky
Best case: Fresh off one of the most absurd comebacks in NCAA tournament history in the First Four, the Hilltoppers just keep astounding. I mean, why not? A team that was 5-11 when it fired its coach and 9-16 when it named interim Ray Harper the full-time replacement has no business even being in the tournament, much less coming from 16 down in the final five minutes to win a game. So with absolutely nothing to lose, Western falls behind by 30 Thursday night against Kentucky and begins digging out. By the final minutes, the lead is down to five and 20,000 Big Blue fans are suicidal in the Yum! Center, horrified at the thought of the worst loss in NCAA tourney history. For a moment, utterly anonymous Ray Harper is the king of March. Kentucky rights the ship in the end, but Western had its run. In Harper, the school finally has a coach who doesn’t want a bigger job and isn’t so inept he needs to be fired. The rest of the Sun Belt takes cover.
Worst case: Having shot every last round of ammo to come back multiple times in the Sun Belt tournament and in the First Four against Mississippi Valley State, Western’s pea shooter comes up empty and, let’s face it, Kentucky is not going to commit a lose-your-mind collapse. In fact, the Wildcats are ready from the tip. Anthony Davis dunks a lob on the first possession, Terrence Jones hits a 3-pointer on the second, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist makes a steal and slam on the third, then runs over the Hilltopper blob on the sideline. It’s over in minutes. There will be no comeback. The miracle season is over.
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