SOUTH REGION PREVIEW
The South region is home to the No. 1 overall seed, the Kentucky Wildcats, SEC regular season champions and tournament runners-up. However, the road to New Orleans isn't an easy one for the Wildcats, who have the last two NCAA Tournament champions, Connecticut and Duke, also in their bracket, not to mention Indiana, one of two teams this season to beat Big Blue. The region is arguably the toughest from top to bottom, with Baylor, Notre Dame, Wichita State and UNLV also joining the traditional powers listed above. Kentucky is certainly the favorite to earn its way to the Final Four but definitely will have to work hard to get there.
No. 1 Kentucky - The Wildcats enter the NCAA Tournament as the top overall seed at 32-2, losing to Indiana before the SEC schedule began and Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament championship. They have several marquee wins over the likes of Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville and Florida and are poised to make a deep run to New Orleans. Coach John Calipari has a young but talented squad, as usual, led by National Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis, who leads the country in blocked shots while also averaging a double-double with 14.3 points and 10.0 rebounds. He is joined by Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague and Darius Miller, all of whom average at least nine points per game. The Wildcats are young, deep and extremely talented, making them the easy choice as the favorite to make the Final Four from the South Region.
No. 2 Duke - The Blue Devils were one stop away from earning a trip to the ACC tournament championship game, but the loss to Florida State in the semifinals did not derail them from earning a No. 2 seed. They will play their first two games in Greensboro, N.C., before heading to Atlanta, both of which will be heavy with the Duke faithful. Austin Rivers leads four Duke players scoring in double-digits. Junior forward Ryan Kelly missed the ACC tournament with a foot injury, and his return should certainly make this strong team even stronger. Duke has lost two of its last three games entering the Tournament and has potential tough matchup in the second round against either Notre Dame or Xavier.
No. 3 Baylor - The Bears have a ton of talent on the roster, though getting all of it to work together effectively has been a bit of a struggle this season against good teams. They notched two solid wins against Kansas State and Kansas in the Big 12 tournament before falling to Missouri in the championship, and they could very well find themselves up against Kentucky for a trip to the Final Four. They have a tough first-round matchup against South Dakota State, though Baylor should be able to take care of business. With potential games against UNLV and then Duke to reach the Elite Eight, Perry Jones III and Pierre Jackson will surely have to step up and lead the Baylor charge.
No. 4 Indiana - The Hoosiers are back in the Tournament for the first time since 2008, putting together an impressive resume this season. Indiana notched big wins over Kentucky, Michigan State and Ohio State and completed its first undefeated nonconference slate in more than two decades. Second in the nation in three-point shooting (43.3 percent), Indiana also ranks in the top-20 in scoring and free-throw percentage. Cody Zeller and Christian Watford provide a strong frontcourt presence for the Hooisers, though they'll have to overcome the loss of guard Verdell Jones III if they are to advance.
No. 13 New Mexico State - The Aggies finished second in the Western Athletic Conference, earning a trip to the Big Dance by winning the conference tournament title. Their next prize is a first-round matchup against Indiana, a team that won three games this year against teams ranked in the top five (Kentucky, Ohio State and Michigan State). So how do the Aggies have a chance against the Hoosiers? For one, they are led by Wendell McKines, who led the WAC in scoring and rebounding this season at 18.8 and 10.8 per game, respectively. Second, the Hoosiers' big wins this season occurred in Bloomington, and the Aggies will get their shot on a neutral court in Portland, Oregon. The Hoosiers are banged up, losing backup point guard Verdell Jones III to a torn ACL, and playing away from home, putting them in a tough position against an Aggies team ready to pounce. If New Mexico State can pull off that upset, it faces one of two mid-major darlings in VCU or Wichita State for a chance at the Sweet 16.
No. 12 VCU - Despite finishing second in the Colonial Athletic Association this season, the Rams snapped Drexel's 19-game winning streak to earn the automatic bid, ultimately keeping the Dragons out of the NCAAs. This isn't last year's Cinderella team, but that doesn't mean they don't have the ability to stir things up again this year. VCU has won 17 of its last 18 games, its lone loss a one-point heartbreaker at George Mason on Feb. 14. Shaka Smart's team is an extremely tough group that pressures the ball for 40 minutes and does all it can to force chaos on which it thrives. Led by Bradford Burgess and Juvonte Reddic, VCU could very well make another Cinderella run if it can get passed a very tough Wichita State team in the first round.
No. 4 Indiana - Nearly everyone is happy to see Indiana basketball back on the map, and this year's team has done a lot to show why it won't be a one-year surprise. With wins over Kentucky, Michigan State and Ohio State under its belt, what could keep the Hoosiers from making a deep run? The answer: Wendell McKines and the Aggies of New Mexico State, who present a very tough first-round matchup. The Hoosiers are dealing with the injury-loss of backup point guard Verdell Jones III but still have talented freshman Cody Zeller to lead the charge. Unfortunately, Zeller likely will be spending his time trying to slow down McKines, who averaged 18.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game this season. The Hoosiers are a talented bunch, but their best wins all came on their home floor, which will be roughly 2,200 miles away come game time.
No. 13. New Mexico State vs. No. 4 Indiana - Indiana has three signature wins this season over top-5 teams but all of them occurred in Bloomington and the team is simply not the same away from home. New Mexico State is led by big-man Wendell McKines, one of 22 players in the nation this season to average a double-double. The Aggies are hot after winning the WAC tournament, and McKines averaged 20.4 points and 12.3 rebounds over the last eight games. Indiana's Cody Zeller has been a big focal point of the Hoosiers offense, but if he tries to slow down McKines, the Hoosiers will be playing right into the Aggies' hands.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Anthony Davis, Forward, Kentucky - Davis was the SEC Player of the Year and is a potential National Player of the Year after averaging 14.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.6 blocked shots (tops in the nation) per game this year. He is dominant down on the block and has started hitting a few more jumpers away from the basket, making his impressive game even more dangerous. He has recorded a double-double in six of the last seven games, including four in a row, and with the Wildcats ready to make a deep tournament run, Davis is easily the best player in the region.
SWEET 16 PICKS
No. 1 Kentucky - A potential third-round matchup against Connecticut could boast five future NBA first-round picks, though the Wildcats will simply have too much for the Huskies to handle.
No. 2 Duke - The Blue Devils aren't quite as good as they have been in previous seasons, but they have one of the best freshmen in the country in Austin Rivers. They should have no problem with Lehigh in the first round and have the talent to get by Xavier or Notre Dame after that.
No. 3 Baylor - The Bears will have to be tough to outlast South Dakota State in their first game, though they have more than enough talent to do so. A matchup against either UNLV or Colorado in the next round is also a winnable game, leaving Baylor with a relatively easy run to the Sweet 16.
No. 5 Wichita State - Despite a 27-5 record out of the Missouri Valley Conference and a top-20 ranking much of the season, the Shockers were disrespected a bit with their No. 5 seeding in the same region as the top overall seed. Wichita State is a talented team, led by 7-footer Garrett Stutz, who averaged 13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds this season. With wins against UNLV and Creighton, the Shockers have shown they can win pretty with a high-scoring offense or ugly with scrappy defense. They have a tough first-round game against 2011 Cinderella Virginia Commonwealth, though this is not the same VCU team as last year, and the Shockers should take care of business before an eventual matchup with Kentucky.
FINAL FOUR PICK
No. 1 Kentucky - The Wildcats are the top team in the nation, led by national player of the year candidate Anthony Davis and potential lottery picks Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee did them no favors bringing Duke, UConn, Baylor, Wichita State and Indiana to their region, but the Wildcats are still the most dominant team and should strongly compete for a national championship in New Orleans. With their first two games in Louisville and then two more in Atlanta, Big Blue Nation could very well be celebrating a title this season, which would be the first for coach John Calipari.