Duke’s win over North Carolina in the finals of the ACC tournament wasn’t enough to land the Blue Devils a No. 1 seed or prevent the Tar Heels from entering the NCAA tournament with that honor.
UNC is the No. 1 seed in the South Region, which also features a couple of other historic programs in Kentucky and UCLA, who earned the region’s No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, respectively.
It won’t be an easy road for the Tar Heels to reach the Final Four, but they’re certainly highly regarded going into the tourney. What else should we make of the South Region? Let’s take a look.
Player to watch: Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA
For the second year in a row, basketball fans won’t be able to watch the potential No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft play in the NCAA Tournament. Just as Ben Simmons’ LSU team missed the dance last season, Markelle Fultz’s Washington squad failed to land an invitation this season.
That could be good news for UCLA po0int guard Lonzo Ball, who also is in the conversation for the draft’s top pick. Fultz likely will be the top guy come June, but Ball could make whichever NBA team picks first think long and hard about the selection by carrying the Bruins deep into the tournament. The 6-foot-6 UCLA freshman is an unselfish playmaker who seems to make everyone around him better.
Best opening-round game: No. 5 Minnesota vs. No. 12 Middle Tennessee State
Middle Tennessee State isn’t going to sneak up on anyone like it did to Michigan State last year, when the Blue Raiders knocked off the Spartans in the opening round as a No. 15 seed. But that shouldn’t concern Kermit Davis’ team, which is a popular Cinderella pick capable of reaching the Sweet 16. Middle Tennessee State has even more talent this season than it did last season.
The Blue Raiders’ tourney journey begins with an opening-round game against Minnesota, which won just eight games last season and is playing in its first tournament since the 2013-14 campaign. The Golden Gophers rank No. 33 in the nation, according to KenPom.com, while the Blue Raiders rank No. 48, so this is a fairly even matchup on paper. Vegas seems to agree, as Minnesota opened as 1-point favorites, according to OddShark.com.
Best chance for an upset: No. 13 Winthrop over No. 4 Butler
According to seeding, No. 12 Middle Tennessee State over No. 5 Minnesota and No. 10 Wichita State over No. 7 Dayton both are viable picks. The problem, however, is that neither of those outcomes really would be an upset, especially in the case of Wichita State, which opened as a 6-point favorite over Dayton, according to OddsShark.com.
So, that brings us to Winthrop, which is a heavy underdog (Butler opened as a 12-point favorite), and understandably so. Butler has made noise in the tournament before — usually as an underdog — and the Bulldogs enter as the nation’s No. 26 team, according to KenPom.com, ranking in the top 50 in both adjusted offensive efficiency (17th) and adjusted defensive efficiency (49th). But Winthrop has a unique player in senior point guard Keon Johnson, who is capable of going off despite his 5-foot-7 frame.
Region winner: Kentucky
North Carolina is the popular pick, and Kentucky already has the deck stacked against it. In fact, you could argue the Wildcats have one of the worst draws — if not the worst draw — of the entire tournament given how difficult even their early-round matchups could be.
But John Calipari still is one of the best coaches in college basketball. And with a roster loaded with several NBA hopefuls, including Malik Monk, who can take a game over at any minute, Kentucky can beat any team in the country. Plus, you never know how the bracket is going to shake out, so Kentucky’s road could wind up being easier than anticipated based on whatever else happens in the region.
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images