March Madness: 16 things to know about the South Region, plus who wins

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Sixteen things to know about the South Region, plus who wins.

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Rating the region: Strongest of the four, at least at the top. The South features two of Ken Pomeroy’s top four teams (North Carolina and Kentucky) and a third in his top 10 (Wichita State, incomprehensibly seeded 10th in the region with a Pomeroy Rating of No. 8 nationally). Then there is UCLA, which spent several weeks ranked No. 1 in the nation. For fans of tradition, the top three seeds have combined for 24 national championships (five for UNC, eight for UK, 11 for UCLA).

Contenders to cut down the nets in Memphis: North Carolina, UCLA, Wichita State, Kentucky, Cincinnati.

Pretenders who will be bounced early despite favorable seeds: Minnesota. The fifth-seeded Gophers had a remarkable turnaround, bouncing from 23 losses last year to 24 victories this year and vaulting Richard Pitino from hot seat to Big Ten Coach of the Year. But they drew the best of the 12 seeds in Middle Tennessee. The Gophers also lost 3-point specialist Akeem Springs for the rest of the season during the Big Ten tournament.

[Pat Forde’s regional breakdowns: South | Midwest | East | West]

Cinderellas: Middle Tennessee (30-4) knows how to take down the Big Ten, having shocked Michigan State last year as a 15 seed. Led by forward JaCorey Williams and the delightfully named guard Giddy Potts, the Blue Raiders have more NCAA tournament experience than Minnesota after last year’s takedown of a Big Ten team, and a second-round game presumably against fourth-seeded Butler is winnable as well.

Lonzo Ball (L) and UCLA could play Kentucky for the second time this season in the Sweet 16. (Getty)
Lonzo Ball (L) and UCLA could play Kentucky for the second time this season in the Sweet 16. (Getty)

Team that doesn’t belong: Kansas State (20-13) owes its tournament existence to Baylor. The Wildcats beat the Bears twice, most recently in the Big 12 tournament, to squeak into the field of 68 and a play-in game against Wake Forest. And yeah, they the Wildcats won that game on Tuesday. That still doesn’t mean they belong. K-State was 8-10 in the Big 12, making it the only at-large selection in the past two years to make the tournament with a losing conference record.

Chances of a 1-16 shocker: It’s never happened, of course, and I wouldn’t expend much time expecting history to be made in this region. Top seed North Carolina is projected to beat No. 16 Texas Southern by 23, according to Ken Pomeroy. Though it should be noted that Texas Southern coach Mike Davis once perpetrated an upset of the NCAA tournament overall No. 1 seed – Duke in 2002. Of course, Davis was coaching an Indiana team then that had a little more talent than his current Tigers.

Best potential round-of-32 game: Kentucky-Wichita State would be a worthy Sweet 16 or even regional final game. The fact that the two could square off in the second round – for the second time in the past four tourneys – is grossly unfair to both. (Wichita State’s seeding is the single biggest issue with the NCAA selection committee, which otherwise did an outstanding job.) In 2014, Kentucky was the lower seed and Wichita was an unbeaten No. 1, and the Wildcats won on their way to the national championship game. The Shockers have the toughness and coaching to make Kentucky grind in a way it hasn’t had to for much of the Southeastern Conference season.

Best potential Sweet 16 game: Winner of Wichita State-Kentucky against UCLA. If you like glamour matchups – and we certainly know CBS does – then the Wildcats vs. the Bruins would be the dream draw. They played earlier this season, with UCLA winning 97-92 in Rupp Arena. From up-tempo offense to NBA draft picks to blueblood heritage, that matchup would have it all. And if you need one more storyline, John Calipari’s return to Memphis for that game would have some juice.

Best potential regional final game: North Carolina-UCLA. We know UNC-Kentucky would be a ton of fun – they played a 103-100 track meet in Las Vegas in December, with Malik Monk scoring 47 points to key the Kentucky victory. But the Bruins are even better offensively than the Wildcats, and Lonzo Ball and Justin Jackson freelancing in the open court against each other would be a blast. Just in case, the NCAA record for most points in a regional final is 232: UNLV 131, Loyola Marymount 101 in 1990. That’s probably still safe, but the Tar Heels and Bruins could light it up.

Best coach: North Carolina’s Roy Williams has won two national titles and been to eight Final Fours, which is fourth-most in NCAA history. His 70 NCAA tournament wins is second-most among active coaches, trailing only Mike Krzyzewski. Williams hasn’t lost a first-round game since 1999.

Underrated coach: Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin has taken the Bearcats to seven straight NCAA tournaments (although he missed much of 2014-15 recovering from an aneurysm). Cincy’s 29 victories this season is the most for the program since a school-record 31 in 2002.

Best player: UCLA’s multipurpose guard Lonzo Ball should be one of the top two or three players picked in the NBA draft. Court vision and passing are his greatest gifts (he averages 7.7 assists per game), but the 6-foot-6 Ball also boards (6.1 rebounds), defends (1.9 steals) and shoots remarkable percentages given his jump-shot mechanics (72 percent from 2-point range and 41 percent beyond the arc). Most important, the Bruins took a major step forward competitively when Ball arrived.

Best player you never heard of: Kent State senior forward Jimmy Hall leads the Golden Flashes in scoring (18.9 per game), rebounding (10.5), assists (2.6) and blocks (1.4). Other than that, he’s not getting much done. The strongman from New York upped his production to 24 points, 10.5 boards, 3.3 assists and 2.5 blocks in leading Kent to the Mid-American Conference tourney championship.

X-Factor: Kentucky senior guard Dominique Hawkins has spent most of his four years as a Wildcat watching his more heralded teammates play. But over the course of UK’s current 11-game winning streak he’s become a vital contributor. A guy with a career scoring average of 2.1 points per game has pumped that up to 8.4 this March, hitting timely 3-pointers to complement his eternally aggressive defense. The Kentucky native may write a stirring final chapter to his career.

Welcome March sight: Northern Kentucky, in its first year of eligibility for the NCAA tournament, earning a bid and crashing the party. And now the Norse will play its first-ever tourney game against Kentucky – a thankless task but an exciting opportunity for a team that starts three native Kentuckians who absolutely were never recruited by UK.

Best part of this bracket: In a region rife with mascots that are bizarre (Wichita State’s Wu Shock), boring (so many animal costumes) or nonsensical (the Kent State Golden Flashes are represented by a guy in an eagle suit), the saving grace is Blue III. He’s the Butler Bulldog, the only live mascot in the South Region, and he’s bounced back well from a torn ACL in September. Basketball players only wish they could come back that quickly.

Pat’s pick: North Carolina.

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