Contact CU Independent Sports Editor Sam Routhier at Samuel.firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @samrouthier.
This year’s South region in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament features a lot more than just your hometown University of Colorado Buffaloes. From the tournament’s overall top seed Kansas to the best First Four game ever — Vanderbilt and Wichita State’s battle for the 11 seed — the South will produce some high-octane matchups from day one through next month’s Final Four in April.
The Favorite: No.1 Kansas Jayhawks (30-4, 15-3, first in Big-12)
Head coach Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks enter this year’s NCAA Tournament as the top overall seed after a 2015-16 season where no one team distinguished itself at the top for any significant period of time.
The Jayhawks earned the honor in part through an 81-71 victory in the Big 12 Tournament final over West Virginia this past Saturday, adding the Big 12 Conference tournament trophy to their 2015-16 regular season Big 12 Championship, the Jayhawks’ 12th consecutive conference season title.
Sophomore guard Devonte’ Graham distinguished himself in the conference final against the Mountaineers with 27 points, shooting 5-of-6 on 3-pointers and a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line. Alongside senior forward Perry Ellis, who led the team in scoring this season, and junior guard Wayne Selden Jr., Graham will look to keep up the Jayhawks’ high-scoring ways. The team averaged 81.6 points per game this season, which ranked 16th in all of Division I.
But Kansas will have to prove itself early and often in the NCAA Tournament if it hopes to represent the South region in Houston. Ohio Valley Conference Champions Austin Peay State University will provide little resistance, but the winner of the 8/9 seed game between Pac-12 stalwart Colorado and AAC Tournament champion Connecticut will give the Jayhawks an early test against two talented teams. From there it only gets more difficult for the Jayhawks, as likely Sweet 16 opponent Maryland was a popular choice to have great success in the preseason, and the Terps’ sophomore guard Melo Trimble is one of the nation’s premier players.
Second seed Villanova was the Big East regular season champion, and most recently fell to Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament Championship game. The Wildcats spent time as the nation’s top ranked team this season, and boast a talented defense that currently ranks 20th in the country in points per game allowed with 63.7.
Despite a solid season, the Wildcats were uneven this season in losses to Providence, Xavier, Oklahoma and Virginia. Their failure to play well in games against equally talented opponents may not bode well in an NCAA Tournament setting, and their poor performance as a No. 1 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, when they lost to eighth seed NC State in the Round of 32 is not a promising memory for those trying to justify a deep run for the Wildcats.
Aforementioned Maryland, the region’s fifth seed, is joined by Pac-12 powerhouses fourth seed Cal and sixth seed Arizona as tough outs for any team hoping to advance out of the conference.
The Terrapins will lean on Trimble, which may not be a bad idea considering some of the performances he put together against some top teams this season. Trimble had 23 points and 12 assists in a loss to North Carolina in December, and more recently 24 points and seven rebounds in a late January loss at Michigan State. Obviously it doesn’t matter how well Trimble plays if the team loses, and he is capable of posting duds as well, like his 11 points on 2-of-15 shooting in the Terps’ Big 10 Tournament loss to Michigan State. But if Trimble can be a dynamic top option for Maryland, there may be some surprises in store for teams that face this talented group.
The region’s fourth seed, California, also has the chance to excel in the South. With freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, both forwards who are projected to be lottery picks in this year’s NBA Draft, the Golden Bears have a deep well of talent that matches any team in the country. Beyond their youth, Cal also boasts veteran leadership in senior guard Tyrone Wallace, the team’s top scorer, and junior guard Jordan Matthews. Altogether, the Golden Bears nearly advanced to the final of the Pac-12 Tournament before a last-second layup from Utah guard Lorenzo Bonam forced overtime in a game the Utes would ultimately win, 82-78. They’ve got the talent to make a run in this tournament, but the road there is not easy.
Prediction: Kansas moves on
Overall, the South region should produce a team, Kansas or otherwise, capable of cutting down the net in Houston next month. Even teams like Hawaii and Wichita State — whose defense is top-ranked in the nation — that ended up further down the bracket could be potential upsets. At the end of the day, Kansas landed at No. 1 overall with a talented and experienced roster molded into an elite unit by Self. The Jayhawks may not have produced much success the past few times they’ve arrived at the dance, but this year is as likely as any to be the one with a Rock Chalk bracket that points straight to Houston.
Vanderbilt and Wichita State open up the South region’s competition with the play-in game for the 11th seed at 7:10 p.m. on Tuesday, March 15. The game, which will be played in Dayton, Ohio, will be broadcast on truTV.