Rating the region: This is the toughest of the four regions, with three blueblood programs in the top four seeds (North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas) and the team that tied for the nation’s best record at 31-3 (Houston). Then seeds 5-8 all come in hot, having captured their conference tournaments.
Contenders to cut down the nets: North Carolina and Kentucky will be strongly favored to reach the regional final. But the committee dealt Kansas a potentially huge break as a No. 4 seed by putting the Jayhawks in fan-friendly Kansas City. Auburn is on an eight-game winning streak. Iowa State could be a dangerous No. 6 seed.
Pretenders who will be bounced early despite high seeds: Although No. 5 Auburn is on a roll, the Tigers are facing a team that is twice as hot — New Mexico State has won 19 in a row. While Kansas got the aforementioned fortuitous draw, the depleted Jayhawks could be challenged to get out of the first weekend. They’re low on athletic bodies.
Cinderellas: New Mexico State has won 30 games and last lost on Jan. 3. The Aggies really might be the deepest team ever, with 13 players averaging double-digit minutes and 10 different players leading them in scoring in at least one game. NMSU has been to seven of the last nine tournaments, but this might be its best team in a long time. And don’t disregard Northeastern, which won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, is well coached by Bill Coen and has a big interior body in Anthony Green to combat Kansas’ patented inside-out offensive attack.
Team that doesn’t belong: Ohio State left its best basketball behind in 2018, staggering through the Big Ten schedule at 8-12 and struggling badly to score. The Buckeyes beat Indiana in the first round of the Big Ten tourney to lock up a bid, but they’re not likely to add much to this tournament.
Chances of a 1-16 upset: Iona has won 10 in a row, but it is the champion of what could be the worst Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference ever. The Gaels started the season 1-0, then didn’t again have a winning record until March 10. At 17-15, they have no chance against the Tar Heels.
Best potential round-of-32 game: An Iowa State-Houston game would be fun, but the potential contract involved in a Kentucky-Wofford matchup would be better. Let’s just say they don’t recruit from the same talent pools.
Best potential Sweet 16 game: North Carolina and Roy Williams vs. his old team, Kansas, in Kansas City? Yes, please. It’s a wildly unfair scenario for Williams and the Tar Heels, but it’s a great storyline.
Best potential regional final game: Kentucky and North Carolina played a thriller in the 2017 regional final, with Luke Maye hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer for the win on the Heels’ march to their most recent title. In 2011, the Cats and Heels also clashed in a regional final with Kentucky coming out on top. UK already owns a win over UNC this season, back in December.
Best coach: Roy Williams has three championship rings and has been to nine Final Fours. At age 68, his teams are as consistently good as ever.
Underrated coach: Ron Hunter has No. 14 Georgia State in the Dance for the second year in a row and the third in the last five seasons. He has six seasons with at least 24 wins in his time at IUPUI and Georgia State.
Best player: Kansas forward Dedric Lawson is averaging a double-double (19.1 points, 10.3 rebounds) while spending much of the season playing out of position. Lawson at times single-handedly has held down the middle after the loss of Silvio De Sousa (suspended) and Udoka Azubuike (injured).
Best player you’ve never heard of: Wofford guard Fletcher Magee is America’s most prolific 3-point shooter, swishing more than 300 in his career and a nation-leading 151 this season. He’s a career 43 percent shooter from outside the arc, a catch-and-shoot specialist who at times doesn’t even appear to look at the rim before letting it fly.
X-Factor: If North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky all advance to Kansas City, the brawl for tickets among three large and loyal fan bases will be epic. The building seats 18,972, and the scalpers would win big.
Welcome March sight: A No. 7 seed next to Wofford’s name. That’s the highest a Southern Conference team has been seeded in 40 years, and it’s a just reward for dominating a good league and winning both the regular season and conference tourney titles. The Terriers might even have deserved a No. 6.
Best part of this bracket: You have to get pretty deep down the seedings to find anyone who can claim the moral high ground. From North Carolina (massive academic scandal) to Kentucky (John Calipari has had two Final Fours vacated) to Houston (Kelvin Sampson got a five-year NCAA show-cause penalty) to Kansas (currently under investigation) to Auburn (Bruce Pearl’s show-cause was three years), there are a lot of sinners and winners in this region.
Pat’s pick: North Carolina.
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