As was already alluded to in our preview podcast, the South Region seems to be another great example of some strange seeding distribution. Michigan falling from #1 ranking earlier in the year to a four seed? Florida as a 3 with great balance cruising through the SEC and barely stumbling against Ole Miss in the tournament finals. The top four seeds were all talked about as potential champs at various times this season. So the South seems the most difficult to pick a representative to Atlanta with five top seeds that would surprise no one were they to reach the final four.
At the top we have Kansas, sporting perhaps a 'better' (though probably not tougher) team than the one that made it to the final game last year. The have another seemingly certain top 5 NBA draft pick in Ben McLemore, who leads the team in scoring. Elijah Johnson hasn't stepped up as many might have thought, but paired with Releford they make a solid defensive backcourt - with one of the best shot-blockers in the country anchoring the D in Jeff Withey. After a 3 game swoon where they lost to lowly TCU, Kansas has regained their form in winning the Big 12 (again) and the conf. tourney. Georgetown is a strong #2 seed led by super soph Otto Porter - himself among the tiny handful of legit national POY candidates. They play rugged defense (surprise!) giving up only 56 a game and they can win when they score only 37. (yes seriously that happened if you missed it) There's lots to like about #3 Florida and #4 Michigan - both capable of winning it all - and Shaka Smart has turned out another great team at VCU who won't have to win the play in game to make some noise this year. It's unfortunate that the Rams will have to face the Wolverines (yes I'm assuming here) in what would arguably be the best opening weekend game of the tournament.
But most of our readers care about this bracket because that's where Carolina has landed (along with UNC's Junior Varsity team from Los Angeles). The Heels were playing better than an 8 seed at the end of the year - but that argument only really works for the eyeball test. On paper they don't have enough hard currency to be bumped higher. What UNC fans should feel bitter about is getting a second round matchup against Kansas within spitting distance of the Jayhawk campus. (again I am assuming they will top a mercurial Villanova team) Even my Duke heart is rooting for this just to see the story - rather than putting the Heels through solely as an attempt the reverse jinx. Perry Ellis has added some scoring punch off the bench down low, but Kansas doesn't have a bullying presence to punish the smaller Heels lineup. But they do have the athletes to match Carolina, and the home court advantage might likely be the difference.
Best first round matchup: 8 vs 9 is always an easy one to pick here, and that should be a good game. But I'm most interested in UCLA vs Minnesota. Two teams with real athletes that have looked great at times but have also looked awful. Like so many fans I often fall prey to advancing my bracket based on the pick-the-team-that-played-your-team-tough algorithm, but Minnesota's disastrous end to the season is making me second guess that theory.
Dark Horse: I really like VCU, but I think their path to the Final Four is too difficult. I guess it seems unfair to take a #3 as a dark horse, but I'll go with Florida. They have the front-court/back-court balance to give teams problems, and I like how they match up with every other contender in the region.
The "Who' Award (team you haven't heard of): Normally Florida Gulf Coast (playing in only its sixth season in Div I) would work, but having played Duke and beaten Miami - ACC fans have heard the name all year. The generically named Northwestern State is the clear choice here. The Demons hail from the Southland conference and boast the highest scoring average in D-1 at 81 ppg.
All-Atlas Squad (guys who can carry a team): Otto Porter (Gtown..16ppg, 7rpg, 3apg); Trey Burke (Michigan...19ppg, 7apg); Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA...18ppg, 5rpg)); Romero Osby (OK...16ppg, 7 rpg) Nate Wolters (S Dakota State...23ppg, 6rpg, 6apg))
Upset Special: Much as I like Michigan, I think they are vulnerable. They don't have the size to punish the Jackrabbits, who have that dangerous Giant Killer profile: experienced team, picked to win their league (which they did), led by a potentially transcendent player in 22.5ppg scorer Nate Wolters.
Best Potential Second-Round Matchup: UNC vs Kansas is a great national story, but as already alluded to the VCU Michigan game would be awesome.
Coach Most Likely to Find Second Career as Snake Oil Salesman: Jay Wright at Villanova has never done anything that can justify why I dislike him so much, but I do. I just do. Maybe it's the teeth...
Best Mascot: Rather than just the most bizarre mascot - which would go to S. Dakota's Jackrabbits - I have to go with the Golden Gophers, which sounds both majestic and silly.
Worst Mascot: Western Kentucky's Hilltoppers. I'm sure there is a good story regarding the red flag waving logo, but it's so lame that I'm feeling too lazy to Google it.
Digger Phelps Team (names most likely to be mispronounced):
With the influx of international players this list gets harder and harder to pair down each year. Honestly you could make a top 5 picking only names from Nova
or Western Kentucky
. Naadir Tharpe (Kansas); Deji Ibitayo (Akron); Mouphtaou Yarou (Nova); Sooren Derboghosian (UCLA)
God Shammgodd Award (best name): Larry Drew II - I don't know why a Duke fan just loves this name, but I do?
The Home Cooking Award (beneficial geographic placement): Kansas as #1 seed deserves what they got (sorry UNC fans) but Michigan should have a big advantage playing in Auburn Hills.
The Cold Wendy's Fries in the Lobby of the Comfort Inn Award (the reverse): San Diego State gets to fly cross country to Philly to face Georgetown an hour away from their campus. (though UNC could easily cry foul as well)
The PittCincyWakeBigTen Award (perennial underperformer to avoid picking for a deep run): I love me some Trey Burke (and as Duke fan there are few teams that are more nightmarish matchups than the Wolverines), but I don't love Michigan's draw. Despite the Home Cooking, they have 4 very, very tough games just to make it to the final four.