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NCAA men’s basketball: What to watch in all four regions

EAST REGION

Must-watch player: Terrence Shannon Jr., G, Illinois

The Big Ten tournament MVP was scorching in his last three games in Minneapolis with a combined 104 points, including a tourney-record 40 points in a 98-87 semifinal win vs. Nebraska. Shannon, an electrifying 6-6 senior, is averaging 32 points in his past four games. Legal troubles earlier in the season led to a six-game suspension for Shannon, but the Illini offense turned into the best in the country since his return. Shannon is a tough guard with his ability to score downhill, with pull-up jumpers from midrange or shots beyond the arc. He's the highest-rated player in 2024 NBA draft projections as a potential lottery pick.

Must-watch matchup: No. 8 Florida Atlantic vs. No. 9 Northwestern

The Owls were the biggest surprise team in last year's NCAA tournament after reaching the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. They were ranked as high as No. 7 nationally in December but fell out of the top 25. Losing four league games had FAU finishing behind South Florida for the American Conference title. One of the most exciting backcourt battles in the first round this year will be Northwestern's Boo Buie vs. FAU's Johnell Davis. The Wildcats are at a disadvantage because of injuries to starters Ty Berry and Matthew Nicholson.

SOUTH REGION

Must-watch player: Wade Taylor IV, G, Texas A&M

Just call Taylor the Kentucky killer. The explosive scoring 6-foot junior had back-to-back 30-point games to lead the Aggies to the SEC tournament title, including 32 points to eliminate the Wildcats in the semifinals. He also had 31 points with six three-pointers and 11-for-12 free throws in a 97-92 overtime win against Kentucky during the regular season. Taylor has seven 30-point performances this season, which included a career-high 41 points vs. Arkansas. Texas A&M isn't only a one-man show. Taylor and senior guard Tyrece Radford combine to average 35 points per game.

Must-watch matchup: No. 5 Wisconsin vs. No. 12 James Madison

The Badgers have to feel fortunate to earn a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament after they lost eight of 11 games to end the regular season. The impressive run to the Big Ten tournament final before losing 93-87 to Illinois surely impressed the tourney selection committee. Wisconsin was ranked sixth in the country before the midseason slide. Could Greg Gard's team return to early-season form? James Madison isn't exactly the ideal first-round matchup. The Dukes, who beat Michigan State 79-76 in their season opener, are riding a 13-game win streak.

MIDWEST REGION

Must-watch player: Dalton Knecht, G, Tennessee

Sure, Zach Edey and Purdue are is in this region as a No. 1 seed. But the Vols' Knecht is being considered a top-10 NBA draft pick. The 6-6 Northern Colorado transfer was named SEC player of the year and earned first-team All-America honors. He was a former junior college star on nobody's radar a year ago. Knecht scored a season-high 40 points vs. Kentucky in the regular-season finale. His previous game highs were 39 points vs. Auburn and Florida, 37 points vs. North Carolina and 36 points vs. Georgia.

Must-watch matchup: No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 13 Samford

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Jayhawks were the preseason No. 1 ranked team in the country and started 13-1. Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar Jr. were playing like All-Americas, but they both ended the regular season banged up. Kansas recently lost by 30 points to Houston without McCullar, who is nursing a knee injury. Cincinnati beat Kansas by 20 points in the Big 12 tournament without Dickinson (shoulder) as well. Bill Self's team is vulnerable to an early upset vs. Samford led by big man Achor Achor.

WEST REGION

Must-watch player: Caleb Love, G, Arizona

Love finished as NCAA runner-up with North Carolina two seasons ago, which included his 28-point game vs. Duke in the Final Four. He could get another shot to win it all. The 6-4 senior was named the final Pac-12 player of the year. The Wildcats were in line for a No. 1 NCAA seed before losing two of their last three games. Love had only eight points on 3-for-21 shooting in those losses to USC and Oregon, so don't be surprised if he catches fire again in the Big Dance.

Must-watch matchup: No. 6 Clemson vs. No. 11 New Mexico

This is more of a must-watch for Minnesota fans. Ben Johnson's team didn't go dancing. So, why not check out former Gophers coach Richard Pitino with his new squad pull off a first-round upset? The Lobos are also led by former U guard Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jaelen House, who combined for 49 points in a 68-61 win vs. last year's NCAA runner-up San Diego State in the Mountain West tourney final. Clemson, led by 6-10 All-ACC big man P.J. Hall, won't be a pushover having beaten North Carolina this season.