NCAA Tournament Preview: South Region

NCAA Tournament Preview: South Region

This article is part of our NCAA Tournament Preview series.

East Region
West Region
Midwest Region
South Region

The South region has the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Alabama Crimson Tide.  Alabama's selection as the top seed in the country is not controversial given its resume, though the program has been steeped in controversy ever since reserve forward Darius Miles was indicted on a capital murder charge.  Potential National Player of the Year candidate Brandon Miller initially was indicated to have some sort of involvement, but ultimately was not charged with any crime.  His lawyers have continued to deny any wrongdoing on Miller's part.  The tragic story has not had much of an impact on the court for the Tide, who won both the regular season and tournament titles for the SEC.  Meanwhile, Arizona is the No. 2 seed in the South after dispatching UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament Final.  The Wildcats are seeking their first trip to the Final Four since 2001.  The No. 3 and No. 4 seeds feature recent champions; No. 3 seed Baylor won it all in 2021, while No. 4 seed Virginia cut down the nets in 2019.

The middle seeds feature programs who could so some damage, though.  San Diego State at No. 5 is particularly intriguing; the Aztecs are experienced, have been to the Big Dance for three-straight seasons, in addition to winning both the regular season and tournament crowns in the Mountain West.

The double-digit upstarts are plentiful in the South.  Utah State is a familiar foe for

East Region
West Region
Midwest Region
South Region

The South region has the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Alabama Crimson Tide.  Alabama's selection as the top seed in the country is not controversial given its resume, though the program has been steeped in controversy ever since reserve forward Darius Miles was indicted on a capital murder charge.  Potential National Player of the Year candidate Brandon Miller initially was indicated to have some sort of involvement, but ultimately was not charged with any crime.  His lawyers have continued to deny any wrongdoing on Miller's part.  The tragic story has not had much of an impact on the court for the Tide, who won both the regular season and tournament titles for the SEC.  Meanwhile, Arizona is the No. 2 seed in the South after dispatching UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament Final.  The Wildcats are seeking their first trip to the Final Four since 2001.  The No. 3 and No. 4 seeds feature recent champions; No. 3 seed Baylor won it all in 2021, while No. 4 seed Virginia cut down the nets in 2019.

The middle seeds feature programs who could so some damage, though.  San Diego State at No. 5 is particularly intriguing; the Aztecs are experienced, have been to the Big Dance for three-straight seasons, in addition to winning both the regular season and tournament crowns in the Mountain West.

The double-digit upstarts are plentiful in the South.  Utah State is a familiar foe for the Aztecs coming from the Mountain West, though the Aztecs did beat them three times during the year.  No. 11 NC State was contending for the ACC regular season crown for the better part of the season.  No. 12 Charleston lost just three times this season en route to a 31-3 record.  No. 13 Furman hits the tourney for the first time since 1980, but really could have been invited last season as well.  No. 14 UC Santa Barbara may be a chic upset pick; the Gauchos enter the NCAA Tournament on a seven-game winning streak.

Let's take a closer look at the players, coaches and matchups that will ultimately decide the fate of the South region.

THE FAVORITES

No. 1 Alabama – Alabama rolled through the SEC this season, going 16-2 in conference play and then winning every conference tournament game by double figures.  The Tide is led by freshman sensation Brandon Miller, who averaged 19.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per contest.  Miller also shot better than 40-percent from three-point land.  Alabama is tops in the nation in rebounds per game, and fifth in scoring.

No. 2 Arizona – The Wildcats lost just six games on the season -- one on a half-court heave versus rival Arizona State late in the season.  Arizona is another high-octane offensive squad, finishing third in the nation in scoring and second in assists.  Arizona can certainly contend with Alabama's rebounding prowess, with seven-footer Oumar Ballo and 6-11 Azuolas TubelisKerr Kriisa, Pelle Larsson and Texas transfer Courtney Ramey give the Wildcats outstanding, unselfish guard play as well.

No. 3 Baylor – The Bears more than held their own in an ultra-competitive Big 12, though faltered a tad down the stretch of the season.  Baylor lost four of its final six games and has been bitten by the injury bug of late.  Baylor's best player, freshman Keyonte George, has been battling an ankle injury suffered late in the season.  That has left upperclassmen Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer to attempt to fill the void.  The Bears stand in stark contrast to the top two teams in this region; Baylor struggles to rebound.  Baylor will hope George can get healthy quickly and allow the team to regain the form that found it victorious against Kansas and Texas earlier this season.

No. 4 Virginia – The Cavaliers were co-champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference during the regular season and lost the championship game of the ACC Tournament to Duke.  As is customary for a Virginia squad, the Cavaliers have a superb defensive squad, allowing just 60.3 points per contest (No. 5 in the country).  The Cavaliers are an extremely experienced squad, starting four seniors and a junior for the majority of the season, but they did recently lose frontcourt staple Ben Vander Plas to a broken hand.

CINDERELLA WATCH

No. 10 Utah State – The Aggies went from bubble squad to nearly winning the Mountain West automatic bid, ultimately succumbing to San Diego State in the conference tournament final.  The Aggies had two separate winning streaks of at least seven games this season.  Utah State has five players averaging in double-figures this season, led by junior guard Steven Ashworth.

No. 14 UC Santa Barbara – The Gauchos won the Big West for the second time in three seasons, led this time around by Ajay Mitchell (16.8 ppg, 3.7 apg).  The sophomore led the Gauchos in points, assists and field-goal percentage.  UCSB takes care of the ball and does most of its damage around the rim.

BIGGEST BUST

No. 4 Virginia – The Cavaliers have always played a slow, grind-out style of offense to complement their defense, but in years' past have had some serious shot-makers to call upon when needed.  This iteration has struggled mightily to score the ball this season.  Virginia averaged just 67.8 points per clash this season, which was 253rd in the country.  Surely some of that is due to style and tempo, but the offensive struggles were obvious in the ACC Final versus Duke.  The Hoos shot a putrid 33.3 percent from the field, including an abysmal 23.5 percent from three-point land en route to just 49 points for the game.  The injury to Ben Vander Plas hurts the Cavaliers even more; a broken hand will sideline the 6-8 forward for the remainder of the campaign.

FIRST-ROUND UPSET

No. 13 Furman vs. No. 4 Virginia – Which brings us to the upset special for the South region. For the record, I almost don't consider 12-5 trap games as upsets anymore, or the 11-6 games for that matter.  This game is a supreme clash of styles.  As referenced above, Virginia wants to slow the game down, limit possessions and wear down the opposition with suffocating defense.  The Paladins, meanwhile, averaged over 80 points per game and 16.4 assists per contest as a unit, both top-15 in the entire country.  The Paladins have four players averaging double-digits in scoring, three players averaging at least three assists per contest and senior forward Jalen Slawson stuffs the stat sheet, as he was top-5 in the Southern Conference in points, rebounds, blocks and steals.  If Virginia falls behind early, the Cavaliers may struggle to score enough to keep pace with Furman, even with an outstanding defensive effort.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Brandon Miller, F, Alabama – This region starts and ends with Miller.  He will end up as the top freshman in the land, perhaps the top player in the entire nation, and has been arguably the top story in the country this season both on and off the court.  He notched eight double-doubles, scored 36 points against Gonzaga and poured in a season-high 41 points in an OT triumph over South Carolina.  As long as Miller stays out of foul trouble and does not turn the ball over too many times, he will barely come off the court during the tourney.  His combination of athleticism and skill makes him a must-watch each and every time he steps on the hardwood.

SWEET 16 PICKS

No. 1 Alabama – The Tide is simply too much for any No. 16 seed to handle. A second-round matchup with either Maryland or West Virginia is no cakewalk, but neither the Terps nor the Mountaineers have the size or offensive prowess to hang with Alabama.  The Tide should roll into the Sweet 16.

No. 5 San Diego State – Normally the 12-5 matchup is my kryptonite, and it is a shame No. 12 Charleston has to face the Aztecs in this clash.  The Aztecs have won 10 of 11 contests heading into the tournament, while Charleston has won 10-straight contests.  Charleston is ferocious on the glass and can score in bunches, but the Cougars haven't seen a complete squad like the Aztecs this season -- as illustrated by an 0-1 record in Quad 1 games (though they did win both Quad 2 opportunities).  Meanwhile, I like Furman to upset Virginia, but the magic ends against a deep, poised, veteran SDSU squad.

No. 11 North Carolina State – Let the madness begin!  It is always a good idea to pick at least one double-digit seed to advance to the Sweet 16.  I know I've talked a lot about rebounding in this article, but the way for underdogs to advance in the tourney is usually via guard-play, and the Wolfpack has that in spades.  Terquavion Smith and Jarkel Joiner both average over 17 points per clash, and Casey Morsell can also score when necessary, as he's cashed 77 three-pointers at a success rate of 40.7 percent.  Round 1 opponent Creighton has been hot and cold this season, and a potential matchup with a banged-up Baylor squad bodes well for NC State.  Plus, it's no fun to pick all the favorites anyway.

No. 2 Arizona – The Wildcats have an impressive combination of size and offensive polish.  Neither Princeton nor Mizzou will not be able to contend with the twin towers of Ballo and Tubelis (though note that it was reported Sunday that Ballo will play through the tournament with a broken hand).  Utah State would be the squad Arizona wouldn't want to see, as the Aggies can throw a couple of seven-footers at the Wildcats.  Still, the big men for the Wildcats are more skilled, and throw in the dishing and scoring of the aforementioned, Kriisa, Larsson and Ramey. The Wildcats should still find their way to the second weekend of games.

FINAL FOUR PICK

No. 1 Alabama – Arizona is a well-rounded, polished squad that seems to be peaking at the right time.  However, Alabama has been the most consistent top-tier school in the nation this season.  Brandon Miller has a strong case for National Player of the Year and is likely going to be the third overall pick in the NBA Draft. Alabama, as a team, punishes the opposition on the glass and dominated the third-toughest conference in the country (per KenPom).  The Tide have veteran guards who will not get rattled in crunch time, with veteran Jahvon Quinerly just rounding into form.  As long as Miller is on the court, though, the Tide can beat anyone.  Alabama has the height to contend with Arizona, and ultimately should be cutting down the nets and headed to Houston for the Final Four.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jesse Siegel
Siegel covers college football, college basketball and minor league baseball for RotoWire. He was named College Sports Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.
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