It’s always risky to judge the relative strengths of the four regions, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a region with more depth, talent and personality than the South. And we’ve got one of the “pods” here in Buffalo, at First Niagara Center.
Florida, Kansas and Syracuse, the top three seeds, were all ranked No. 1 in the nation at some point this season. Florida is the top overall seed in the tournament. The Orange were 25-0 a month ago. If not for an injury to 7-foot Joel Embiid, Kansas might be a No. 1 seed.
Injuries are always a factor come tourney time. A couple of bad backs could determine which South representative winds up in Dallas – excuse me, “North Texas” – at the Final Four early next month.
Freshman Embiid has a stress fracture in his back and might not play in Kansas’ second-round game in St. Louis. There are hoop experts who believe Embiid will be the first pick in this year’s NBA draft – if it’s not teammate Andrew Wiggins (right).
Meanwhile, Syracuse has an ailing back of its own to fret about.
Jerami Grant, a 6-8 sophomore forward, missed a couple of games with back trouble during SU’s staggering, 2-5 finish. Surely, nervous SU fans will recall that it was an injury to center Orinze Onuaku that severely compromised the Orange’s chances to make the Final Four in 2010, when they also began in Buffalo.
The South has the nation’s two hottest teams. Florida, which rode four senior starters to an unbeaten SEC season, has won 26 in a row. Stephen F. Austin, the unbeaten Southland champion, puts a 28-game winning streak on the line against VCU in San Diego.
It’s a great coaching region. Kansas’ Bill Self, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Florida’s Billy Donovan have all won the national title.
Ohio State’s Thad Matta and VCU’s Shaka Smart have been to the Final Four. Tulsa’s Danny Manning and Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins are first-time NCAA tourney coaches who were stars as players.
Here’s a look at the bracket. Remember, by “sleeper” I refer to a team seeded fifth or lower that has a chance to make a Final Four run:
Game to Watch: Kansas-Eastern Kentucky. If Embiid isn’t around to challenge shots, this could be a show. Eastern Kentucky is an experienced, offensively skilled bunch. The 15th-seeded Colonels are 11th in the nation in field-goal percentage and 26th in scoring (79 ppg). Kansas is sixth in FG percentage and 20th in scoring.
Eastern ran up those stats in the Ohio Valley, but if they can play a fast tempo with Kansas, they can keep it close.
Upset City: Tulsa over UCLA. Steve Alford did a nice job in his first year with the Bruins, but his teams have a way of faltering in the NCAAs. Alford has lost twice as a third seed – with Iowa against Northwestern State in 2006 and last year with New Mexico vs. Harvard. UCLA is capable of losing as a “4” against a young, hot Golden Hurricane team that has won 11 in a row.
Sleeper: VCU. Who better than the Rams, who made a run to the Final Four in 2011 under Smart and won a game in the last two tournaments?
VCU, playing its “Havoc” defense with a veteran squad, led the nation in steals for the third year in a row.