It’s not the sexiest bracket, and out of all of the regions, it might have the fewest national championship contenders.
But it becomes clear by just looking at the bracket that the South is going to be a whole lot of fun.
Bear witness: This bracket is built well from top to bottom, with consistent contender Kansas, tournament vet Florida, mid-major power VCU and wild card Minnesota filling some of the roles that every March Madness lover wants to see.
Players? The South has some of the best. Consider it an NBA Draft preview, with UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad, Kansas’ Ben McLemore, Georgetown’s Otto Porter and Michigan’s Trey Burke.
But don’t count out some of the mid-major darlings. Some will circle Nate Wolters as the second coming of Jimmer Fredette with his ability to hit all kinds of shots. And Shaka Smart and his VCU Rams have a habit of crashing the second weekend and beyond.
The top seed in the region is as tough as they come. Kansas does a lot of things well: Defensively, it’s one of the best behind big man Jeff Withey. But it also average more than 75 points per game with an elite player in McLemore. The Jayhawks are certainly hoping to get back to the championship after falling last year.
But they are not the only one vying for a national title. Look for Georgetown, which tied for the Big East regular-season title, to put some of its recent NCAA tourney woes behind it. With Porter, the Hoyas have a top-notch player surrounded by a cast of capable defenders. They seem as well-built for March as any program.
Don’t sleep on Michigan, led by Burke. The Wolverines were once the top-ranked team in the country. The same could be said of Florida and UCLA — two former top-5 teams that could be considered underrated.
For upsets, look no further. Minnesota may finally reach its potential in March, and either Villanova or North Carolina could have a run in the mix.
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Western Kentucky
Records • Kansas 29-5; Western Kentucky 20-15
Conferences • Kansas, Big 12; Western Kentucky, Sun Belt
Outlook • Aside from a midseason slide, Kansas looks solid again. Likely NBA lottery pick Ben McLemore is complemented by shot-blocker and inside guy Jeff Withey. The Hilltoppers’ hopes rest on T.J. Price and George Fant, two players who led the team to an amazing Sun Belt Tournament run this year.
No. 2 Georgetown vs. No. 15 Fla. Gulf Coast
Records • Georgetown 25-6; Florida Gulf Coast 24-10
Conferences • Georgetown, Big 12; Florida Gulf Coast, Atlantic Sun
Outlook • The highlight of the Eagles’ résumé is a victory over Miami. Sherwood Brown and Bernard Thompson will be in the hunt for another big win. But the Hoyas, despite a spotty tournament history recently, boast one of this year’s best defenses. With that and national POY candidate Otto Porter, the team is tough.
No. 3 Florida vs. No. 14 Northwestern State
Records • Florida 26-7; Northwestern State 23-8
Conferences • Florida, SEC; Northwestern State, Southland
Outlook • Balance has defined the Gators this year, helping them win the SEC regular-season championship with four players averaging double-digit scoring. The Demons hope they can become giant killers on the strength of being the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense behind best player DeQuan Hicks.
No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 13 South Dakota State
Records • Michigan 26-7; South Dakota State 25-9
Conferences • Michigan, Big Ten; South Dakota State, Summit League
Outlook • Those who love individual matchups should love this game. Nate Wolters versus Trey Burke may be the best pairing of scoring guards in the first round. Michigan has the upper hand, forged in the red-hot Big Ten this year. But the Jackrabbits played tough opponents, beating New Mexico.
No. 5 VCU vs. No. 12 Akron
Records • Virginia Commonwealth 26-8; Akron 26-6
Conferences • VCU, Atlantic 10; Akron, Mid-American
Outlook • When you think of March Madness, you think of VCU. Shaka Smart’s crew pressures and creates turnovers better than any team in the country, and the program has deep tourney experience. Zeke Marshall carries the torch for the Zips, but a suspension to point guard Alex Abreu hurts a lot.
No. 6 UCLA vs. No. 11 Minnesota
Records • UCLA 25-9; Minnesota 20-12
Conferences • UCLA, Pac-12; Minnesota, Big Ten
Outlook • The Bruins arguably boast the most talent of any team in the nation, starting with Shabazz Muhammad. But an injury to Jordan Adams has led to some concern for UCLA’s ability to make a run. The Gophers could be a tough matchup with their athleticism, but they have been incredibly inconsistent this season.
No. 7 San Diego State vs. No. 10 Oklahoma
Records • San Diego State 22-10; Oklahoma 20-11
Conferences • San Diego State, Mountain West; Oklahoma, Big 12
Outlook • Steve Alford and Lon Kruger resume their old feud. Jamaal Franklin is the top scoring option for the Aztecs and one of the tougher defensive matchups. The Sooners will put a lot of the load on senior forward Romero Osby, a tough scorer and rebounder who has led the team all season.
No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Villanova
Records • North Carolina 24-10; Villanova 20-13
Conferences • North Carolina, ACC; Villanova, Big East
Outlook • James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock helped turn around UNC’s season, resulting in a run to the ACC final. The Wildcats were arguably the nation’s most two-sided team by knocking off the Big East’s best. And how about coaching experience? Roy Williams versus Jay Wright is a good one.
A guard some deem college basketball’s best, Michigan’s Trey Burke is one of the top scorers in the nation. He averages 19.2 ppg for the Wolverines and is a fearsome penetrator who also is a great assist-man.
Every year, it seems, Kansas brings a balanced squad to the tourney. With one of the best inside-outside combos in Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore, the Jayhawks seem like a solid bet to win the region.
Hold out hope for Havoc: Virginia Commonwealth always seems to roll into the later rounds, so major conference teams beware. The headliner is the Rams’ defensive pressure that made them the No. 1 team in steals this year.
Player you don’t know
Remember this name: Nate Wolters. If you haven’t seen the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, the 6-foot-4 point guard will pop out early as the guy with all the points, the top scorer in the region.
Best time for a fast break
Need a break from the madness? The Florida vs. Northwestern State game might be a good opportunity. The Demons are paper tigers — they haven’t beaten anyone close to the par of the Gators.
South Regional schedule
P Second round
Thursday, at Auburn Hills, Mich.
• No. 4 Michgan vs. No. 12 South Dakota State, 5:15 p.m., Ch. 2
• No. 5 VCU vs. No. 12 Akron, 30 min. following, Ch. 2
Friday, at Philadelphia
• No. 2 Georgetown vs. No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast, 4:50 p.m., TBS
• No. 7 San Diego State vs. No. 10 Oklahoma, 30 min. following, TBS
Friday, at Kansas City, Mo.
• No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Villanova, 5:20 p.m., TNT
• No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Western Kentucky, 30 min. following, TNT
Friday, at Austin, Texas
• No. 3 Florida vs. No. 14 Northwestern State, 5:27 p.m., truTV
• No. 6 UCLA vs. No. 11 Minnesota, 30 min. following, truTV