SOUTH REGION PREVIEW
The college basketball world is Florida's oyster. After completely owning the SEC (undefeated in the regular season, winner of the conference tournament), the Gators "host" a regional that includes a number of higher seeds that enter the tournament on a downslide. Kansas, the two seed, is missing Joel Embiid and lost three of its last five games. Syracuse did not lose until Feb. 19, then proceeded to lose five of its last seven games. While Florida might seem like a shoe-in to the Final Four, there is danger lurking below some of the top seeds (which is generally where a Gator resides).
No. 1 Florida - Coach Billy Donovan has crafted the ultimate team of role players and savvy veterans. The problem is that, like Wichita State, the Gators may not have been very well tested by the stinky SEC (which only placed three teams in the Big Dance, including First Four participant Tennessee). The team did have some challenges in the non-conference (wins over Kansas and Memphis, losses to Wisconsin and Connecticut). Donovan employs the trap excellently, and the team will not be beaten on the boards with Dorian Finney-Smith and Patric Young in the frontcourt. Young, forward Casey Prather (team-leading 14.3 points) and Scottie Wilbekin have all played in 12 NCAA tournament games over their Gator careers.
No. 2 Kansas - Few collegiate athletes have entered the arena with more hype than freshman forward Andrew Wiggins. While he may not have fulfilled his destiny as the next LeBron James, he did lead the Jayhawks to their 10th consecutive Big 12 regular season title. The team will be without Embiid (11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.6 blocks) for at least the first weekend with a back injury that cost him the last four games. The team will need to rely on Tarik Black to hold down the paint defensively. Perhaps Wiggins turns on the "Derrick Rose" switch and dominates, but this may be another Jayhawk team that comes up short.
No. 3 Syracuse - Could it be that something as simple as the loss of center Dajuan Coleman to a leg injury in early January that led to the Orange flopping down the stretch? Syracuse blitzed through the non-conference schedule behind its fearsome zone and timely scoring from smooth forward C.J. Fair and freshman point guard Tyler Ennis. The team extended its winning streak to Feb. 15 before collapsing. The zone will continue to provide issues for opponents, but it hasn't seemed as effective without the second generation Coleman. If Fair and Ennis aren't effective offensively, we could have a repeat of 2005 when the fourth-seeded Orange lost to Vermont in the first round.
No. 4 UCLA - Anyone who saw UCLA beat Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament final saw a team that was operating on all cylinders. Coach Steve Alford's team is geared toward offense and point forward Kyle Anderson runs the show. The 6-foot-9 sophomore leads the team with 8.8 rebounds and 6.6 assists to go with 14.9 points. Fellow sophomore Jordan Adams is a nice scorer, and the Bruins have plenty of size to throw at opponents with the Wear twins (David and Travis) and Tony Parker. If Alford is going to return the Bruins to past glories, he will need to have his team push the pace and not get caught up in the team's defensive deficiencies.
No. 11 Dayton - Things couldn't have broken better for the Flyers. After a four-game losing streak in January, Dayton took flight by winning nine of its last 10 games in the A-10 regular season. The Flyers' opponent, Ohio State, only won once away from home after Feb. 4 and eked out its last three wins by a combined eight points. Add the fact that UD's leading scorer, Jordan Siebert (12.5 points), transferred from the Buckeyes two years ago, and you could have the recipe for a first-round upset and a team that could either Syracuse or Western Michigan problems in the Round of 32.
No. 13 Tulsa - The Golden Hurricane may have overextended themselves in the non-conference, or they may have been just getting battle-tested. Coach Danny Manning led his charges to losses against Wichita State, Creighton and Oklahoma before coming alive in Conference USA play and winning their last 11 games. Sophomore guard Jordan Woodard continued to blossom and provided 15.7 points and 5.8 rebounds. If Tulsa can slow the high-octane UCLA offense (against which they will have a decided size disadvantage), then the winning streak could continue for Danny and the Miracles.
No. 3 Syracuse- This one is a proverbial layup. While the team has been to at least the Sweet 16 in four of the last five seasons, there is something rotten with the Orange. In the losses down the stretch against teams like Boston College, Georgia Tech and First Four participant North Carolina State, the offense was stagnant and the defense was porous. The loss against Virginia on March 1 was particularly noteworthy because the Virginia bigs found plenty of room to operate in the paint. Talent alone should get the Orange past Western Michigan in the opener, but Syracuse should count itself lucky to get much further.
ROUND OF 64 UPSET
No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over No. 5 VCU - The Rams advanced from the First Four to the Final Four three years ago. They have won their opener the last two years, but have not made it any further. For Stephen F. Austin to advance, the Lumberjacks will have to take care of the ball and control the tempo. Defense and rebounding are the Southland Conference's strengths with junior forward Jacob Parker (14.2 points, 7.1 rebounds) leading the way. In addition, the team has not lost since before Thanksgiving, so the Rams could be this year's turkey.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Andrew Wiggins, forward, Kansas - Before the season, Wiggins was the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, but he started slowly and did not dominate like the hype predicted. (Lesson one: never listen to hype.) With Embiid out, Wiggins has taken over for the Jayhawks with 31.0 points in his last three games, including 41 points in the season finale against West Virginia. The problem is that Kansas lost two of those games. With a national audience picking his game apart, will Wiggins rise to the challenge to glory (and himself to Milwaukee or Philadelphia next season)? Or will he bow out quietly like his predecessor in hype, Harrison Barnes, did two years ago?
SWEET 16 PICKS
No. 1 Florida - The Gators are simply too talented, deep and well-coached not to make the Sweet 16. While Colorado or Pittsburgh could pose a problem or two, neither has enough size to combat the Gators.
No. 4 UCLA - The Bruins have not made the Sweet 16 since 2008 when they made their third straight Final Four. A potential Round of 32 game against VCU would see plenty of action, but expect the offensively gifted UCLA squad to advance.
No. 6 Ohio State - LaQuinton Ross has had a late-season scoring surge to help the low-scoring Buckeyes get back on track after a disastrous January. The team has advanced to at least the Sweet 16 in each of Aaron Craft's first three season as a Buckeye, and Ohio State should have enough balance to beat Dayton and potentially Syracuse.
No. 7 New Mexico - New Mexico lost to Kansas (with Embiid, who had 18 points) on Dec. 14 in Kansas City (in what was called a neutral court game). With Embiid out, Cameron Bairstow (20.3 points) and Alex Kirk (13.6 points, 8.7 rebounds) will control the paint and end the collegiate career of Wiggins.
FINAL FOUR PICK
No. 4. UCLA - Maybe it is the afterglow of watching the Bruins beat Arizona for the Pac-12 tournament championship, but the team is one of the few that has the size to battle with Florida. Granted, before beating the Wildcats on Saturday, UCLA had lost all of its major challenges (to Duke, Arizona in regular season and even Missouri), but the team seems to be rolling at the right time. Anderson is a matchup nightmare as a 6-9 point forward and Adams is a fearless scorer. If Alford can wring anything out of talented freshman Zach LaVine, who faded badly in Pac-12 play, the Bruins could be a surprise team in Arlington.