SOUTH REGION SWEET 16 PREVIEW
The South Region heads to Atlanta for the Sweet 16, with top-seed Kentucky still the favorite to move onto New Orleans. The Wildcats crushed play-in winner Western Kentucky by 15 points, then went bigger and beat Iowa State by 16 in the next round. Meanwhile, Indiana cruised in its first game over New Mexico State and squeezed by last year's Cinderella, VCU, in a very close game to set up a rematch with Kentucky. The bottom of the bracket included one of this year's shocking moments when No. 15 Lehigh took down No. 2 Duke, only the sixth time in NCAA Tournament history that a seed that low won a game. However, Lehigh's road ended there, as it lost by 12 to Sweet 16 participant Xavier, who took down the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in its first game. The final spot in the Sweet 16 is filled by Baylor, which won its first two games by a combined 25 points, beating No. 14 South Dakota State and No. 11 Colorado to reach Atlanta. With Kentucky eyeing revenge against Indiana, will any of these teams have enough to keep the Wildcats from reaching the Final Four? Let's look at what's ahead.
No. 4 Indiana vs. No. 1 Kentucky
Key Matchup: Kentucky's Terrence Jones against Indiana's Christian Watford. We've all seen the highlight of Watford's remarkable game-winner against the Wildcats on Dec. 10, but what people forget is that Watford led all players in scoring that day with 20 points while Jones and teammate Anthony Davis combined for just 10. This is a much different Kentucky squad, though slowing down Watford will still be the key. Davis is arguably the best defender in the country, but it likely will be Jones who tries to slow Watford, leaving Davis to deal with another talented freshman, Cody Zeller. Jones turned the ball over six times during the teams' first meeting and struggled to find any sort of offensive rhythm, whereas Watford clearly had his way against Big Blue. If Jones, who is averaging 15.0 points and 10.5 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament, can keep close to Watford, the Wildcats should be able to make their way through to the Elite Eight.
Kentucky will Win IF: they can limit the Hoosiers front court. Watford and Zeller have both been solid so far in the NCAA Tournament, and while Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey have been good contributors, limiting the big men will have a huge impact toward the Wildcats walking away with a victory. Indiana was 11-2 this season when Watford scored at least 15 points (losing at Michigan State and to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament), so Jones and Davis will have to do their best to contain the junior forward. Kentucky has a number of players who can score, such as Doron Lamb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, so if Jones and Davis focus on the defensive side of the ball, they'll find themselves heading to the Elite Eight.
Indiana will Win IF: it continues to make shots. The Hoosiers were the eighth-best shooting team in the country this season and the second best from three-point land. Meanwhile, Kentucky led the nation in blocked shots, highlighted by Davis' 4.6 per game average. Indiana shot nearly 60 percent from the field and 54 percent from three-point range against New Mexico State and then 52 percent and 46 percent against a very good VCU squad to reach the Sweet 16. If the Hoosiers can keep up the good shooting against another talented defensive team, they'll be in a great position to upset the Wildcats again.
Player to Watch: Kentucky's Anthony Davis. The probable National Player of the Year is a much different player than when these two teams first faced off in early December. He has recorded a double-double in seven of the last nine games and is averaging 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 4.5 blocked shots during the NCAA Tournament. He'll have his hands full matching up against either Watford or Zeller, but they'll have a tough time slowing him as well. The Wildcats are undefeated when Davis scores at least 13 points, so if Kentucky can get him going, it should continue to roll.
Prediction: Kentucky was the No. 1 team in the country when it lost to Indiana earlier this season and are the No. 1 team again for this matchup. However, the Wildcats are much better than they were in early December and should be easy favorites in this game. Davis and Jones are peaking at just the right time and while Watford can be a handful, the likes of Kidd-Gilchrist, Lamb and Teague figure to be too much for the Hoosiers to handle. With a number of top teams already bounced from the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky has become a near unanimous national championship favorite and should be able to pass the Hoosiers on its way to New Orleans.
No. 10 Xavier vs. No. 3 Baylor
Key Matchup: Xavier's Tu Holloway vs. Baylor's Brady Heslip. Holloway was a pre-season All-American and had the Musketeers to a ranking as high as No. 8 in the country before the ugly brawl with Cincinnati knocked their season off track. However, he turned it around just in time for the NCAA Tournament and is a trouble spot for Baylor, and especially Heslip. Heslip, though, has been a solid scorer of his own lately. While the Xavier star is averaging 23.0 points per game in the Tournament, Heslip is averaging 22.0, including making 14-of-22 shots from three-point range. Both players can light it up, though Holloway has shown he can shut down opposing guards, such as when he forced Lehigh's C.J. McCollum to miss 17-of-22 shots during their third-round matchup. If Holloway can do the same to Heslip, Xavier could take home the victory; if not, Baylor will advance.
Xavier will Win IF: Kenny Frease can dominate the paint. The 7-footer did just that against Lehigh to the tune of 25 points and 12 rebounds, shooting 11-of-13 from the field. The Baylor front line of Quincy Acy and Perry Jones III is very talented, though they could very well struggle trying to stop such a big load. Holloway will get his shots, but if Frease can get consistent looks near the bucket, the Musketeers will have a great shot of advancing to the Elite Eight.
Baylor will Win IF: its guards can continue to produce. Heslip has been lethal from three-point land lately, and Pierre Jackson has done an excellent job of running the show for the Bears. While Baylor has some great athletes in the frontcourt, it's the guards who make the team roll. If they can keep Tu Holloway from getting hot, while putting in some buckets of their own, Baylor has a great chance to move on.
Player to Watch: Baylor's Perry Jones III. The Bears are simply a different team when Jones is making shots, as evidenced by their back-to-back wins in the Big 12 Tournament when Jones dropped a 31-11 against Kansas State and then an 18-7 against Kansas the day after. He has tremendous upside and likely will be an NBA lottery pick, but he's far from a consistent player, which has limited Baylor somewhat this season. Xavier doesn't have a great defensive matchup for him, so if Jones can get going, Baylor could very well advance to the Elite Eight.
Prediction: Xavier isn't as much of an underdog as you'd expect in a No. 10 vs. No. 3 matchup. The Musketeers were a top-10 team earlier in the season and seem to be putting it all together in the NCAA Tournament. However, Baylor has been ranked consistently this season and has a solid starting five that can compete with almost anyone. Jackson has done a great job of leading the Bears lately, including a 15-point, 10-assist effort against Colorado in the third round. He and Heslip should be enough to overcome anything Holloway can throw at them, bringing the Bears into the Elite Eight.