NCAA Tournament Preview: South Region
The South Region is like an NBA Draft preview tournament. Its star power really rises above the rest of the brackets, including super freshman Ben McLemore of Kansas and national player of the year frontrunners Trey Burke of Michigan and Otto Porter of Georgetown. Don’t forget James Michael-McAdoo of North Carolina, Shabazz Muhammad of UCLA and Nate Wolters of South Dakota State. It’s basically a who’s-who of college basketball, and the team play isn’t too bad, either. The South Region features regular-season conference champions Kansas (co-champ of the Big 12), Florida (SEC), Georgetown (co-champs of the Big East), UCLA (Pac-12), Akron (MAC) and South Dakota State (co-champ of the Summit League), as well as VCU of the Atlantic 10, which made a run to the 2011 Final Four as one of the most unlikely brackbusters of all time. Oh, and how about the region’s legendary coaches? Three coaches in this region have won five of the past eight national championships (KU’s Bill Self, 2008; UNC’s Roy Williams, 2005, 2009; Florida’s Billy Donovan, 2006, ’07).
Why No. 1 Kansas will make the Final Four
Coach Bill Self knows how to light a fire under his squad. He showed that earlier in the season when the Jayhawks stumbled to three straight losses, including a stunner at cellar-dweller TCU in one of the biggest upsets in Big 12 history. Self called out his team afterward by saying, “It was the worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor. Since Dr. (James) Naismith was there. I think he had some bad teams and lost to the YMCA the first couple years.” The Jayhawks lost the next game at Oklahoma, but won 10 of the next 11 and won the Big 12 Tournament over rival Kansas State.
Of course, Self was grossly exaggerating about his team’s struggles. Kansas locks down on defense led by 7-foot senior Jeff Withey, who ranks third in the nation in blocks at 3.8 per game. It leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense by allowing opponents to shoot just 36 percent. And 6-5 freshman Ben McLemore can score in bunches — he has three 30-point games this season, the only freshman in Kansas history to do so. 6-4 senior Elijah Johnson can get hot, too. He went off for 39 points Feb. 25 in an overtime win at Iowa State. Off the bench, 5-11 sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe is always a 3-point threat (he’s made nine of his last 17 attempts), and 6-8 freshman Perry Ellis has scored in double figures in three of the last four games, including 23 against Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament.
Looking ahead, if the Jayhawks get No. 8 seed North Carolina in the third round, Self’s teams have eliminated former KU coach Roy Williams and the Tar Heels twice in the NCAAs — in 2008 on the way to the national title and last season in the Elite Eight. If the Jayhawks pass that test, they likely would meet VCU or Michigan in Arlington. But their biggest test likely comes in the regional final against Georgetown or Florida. Kansas is 6-1 on neutral courts this season, though, and likely won’t back down.
Why the Jayhawks will fall short
They don’t really have a true point guard. Johnson does the best he can, but he really has more of a scorer’s mentality and is prone to turnovers (4.8 assists to 3.1 turnovers per game). Kansas tends to struggle when he forces the issue offensively on an off night from the field. During the team’s three-game losing streak, he shot just 9-of-37 (24.3 percent) from the field, and in Kansas’ blowout loss at Baylor, shot just 3-of-13. Much like Tyshawn Taylor last season, you take the good with the bad with Johnson. The team has been able to overcome turning the ball over 13.7 times a game thus far, but will better tournament teams jump at the chance to collect those kind of gifts?
McLemore is one of the nation’s top scorers, no doubt, but still is more of a shooter and fast-break scorer than a go-to guy in the halfcourt. He’s also been somewhat inconsistent shooting the ball, which could prove harmful in the one-and-done format. Kansas has seen a lot of ups this year, but also has looked uncharacteristically vulnerable. Its 33-game home winning streak ended Feb. 2 against Oklahoma State, seven games after the Jayhawks survived the Big 12 opener against Iowa State. Kansas needed a big 3-pointer from McLemore to even force overtime in that one. Johnson’s shooting line? 3-for-14.
Best non-No. 1 seed
Florida is a puzzling team, but when its on, its on. There’s no denying that. The 3-seed Gators are 0-6 in games decided by six points or less, but also sort of play up or down to their competition. Ten of their 14 SEC wins were by 20 points or more and they went 4-1 against teams ranked in the top 25. They haven’t won a game by less than 10 points. Florida finished the season 5-4, including a loss against Mississippi in the SEC title game, so it has some work to do if it hopes to get to Atlanta. But Erik Murphy and company are one of the top shooting teams in the country, coming in at 48.1 percent overall (12th) and 38 percent from 3-point range (28th). In their past five losses, the Gators have relied too much on the long-range shot, shooting just 40-of-122 (32.8 percent), including an 11-of-31 performance in the SEC title game. The NCAAs are the ultimate test, and Florida’s true character will be revealed. I expect a solid run for the Gators, who start three seniors and two juniors.
Sweet 16 sleeper
VCU, a 5-seed, is the popular choice, and also the most likely. But I’ll go with 8-seed North Carolina. At several points this season, it looked like the Tar Heels wouldn’t make the NCAAs. They started 6-5 in the ACC, but recovered to win eight of their next 10 games, nearly taking the tournament title from Miami. North Carolina has recently been playing with a starting lineup that includes 6-5 sophomore guard P.J. Hairston. At 6-9, James Michael McAdoo is the lone big man in the lineup for coach Williams. Hairston is nearly unstoppable when he has it going, as he can hurt opponents from the perimeter and off the dribble. With a freshman, two sophomores, a junior and a senior starting, the Tar Heels don’t have the experience as a team such as Kansas. But they have it going and will pose a challenge if they can get past 9-seed Villanova in Kansas City.
Final Four sleeper
Michigan struggled down the stretch, going 5-5, but when the young Wolverines hit shots, they can outscore nearly everyone in the country. With Trey Burke leading the show, 4-seed Michigan could make its first Final Four run since 1993. They’ll likely have to meet Kansas in the Sweet 16 (if they can get past the “Havoc” pressure of VCU in the third round), but have shown they can compete with top teams on neutral sites (wins over Pittsburgh and Kansas State in the NIT Season Tip-Off). Rebounding and defense could be issues that hinder the Wolverines, but when the effort is there, they really aren’t too bad on the defensive side of the ball. They have a lot of scoring options, but not a whole lot of NCAA experience after losing in the first round against Ohio last year. Michigan starts two freshmen, a sophomore, a junior and a senior.
Top first-round matchup
It will be fun to watch Michigan’s Burke go against Wolters of 13-seed South Dakota State on Thursday night. Wolters, a 6-4 senior, dropped 53 points on IPFW on Feb. 7 and is the nation’s fourth-leading scorer at 22.7 points per game after posting three games with 30-plus. Meanwhile, Burke torments defenses with his floor vision and quickness, and you’d better guard him on the perimeter. He averages 19.2 points per game and his 6.7 assists rank 11th in the country. The Jackrabbits took down New Mexico at the Pit on Dec. 22 and at one point won eight straight games in the Summit League. They dominated the conference tournament, winning their three games by an average of 12.7 points.
Top potential matchup
Florida and Georgetown can meet in the Sweet 16 to finish what they started Nov. 9 aboard aircraft carrier USS Bataan in Jacksonville. The Gators led that game 27-23 at halftime before moisture on the playing surface forced its cancellation. The class of the Big East against the class of the SEC. Otto Porter versus Erik Murphy. Yes, please.
An honorable mention here goes to Kansas-North Carolina in the third round, as former Jayhawks coach Roy Williams would go against his predecessor for the third time in the tournament. High drama.
Top potential one-on-one matchup
Seeing Georgetown’s Porter go against McLemore of Kansas for a spot in the Final Four would be must-see TV. Porter can do it all. At times he can work his way to the rim while other times he spots up for open 3-pointers. Seeing McLemore perform on the biggest stage would go lengths in confirming his NBA readiness. The chances of that happening might be slim, though, with the amount of talent both teams would have to eliminate.
There are a lot to choose from in the South Region, as 10 of the 16 coaches have made at least one Final Four. But Bill Self of Kansas got his 500th win this season and his teams always have the ability to make the national semifinals. His teams have made at least the Elite Eight seven times and the Sweet 16 nine times.
Lon Kruger has now led five programs to the NCAA Tournament, including a Final Four appearance with Florida in 1994 and a Sweet 16 berth with UNLV in 2007. He’s done a great job with Oklahoma in his second season, going 11-7 in the Big 12 to finish in a tie for fourth place in the regular season, tallying wins over Oklahoma State, Kansas and Iowa State. The Sooners were just 15-16 overall last season and 5-13 in the Big 12.
Top 5 NBA prospects
1. Ben McLemore, Kansas
McLemore was a four-star recruit coming out of Oak Hill Academy via St. Louis, and let’s just say he hasn’t disappointed. The freshman leads the Jayhawks in scoring at 16.4 points per game and has stepped up with big shot after big shot this season as Kansas locked up another No. 1 seed. He shoots better than 50 percent from the field and is able to find seams in the defense for shots or layups/dunks. Sometimes McLemore’s shot selection results in a down game, but for a freshman shooting 43.7 percent from the arc, you can’t ask for much more.
2. Otto Porter, Georgetown
The 6-8 sophomore has really blossomed into one of the nation’s top players. He’s been given more of an opportunity to contribute in coach John Thompson III’s system, especially after second-leading scorer Greg Whittington was ruled ineligible in mid-January. Porter responded by increasing his scoring average to 19.9 points per game from 12.8 and being more assertive on offense, something Thompson has had to push him toward. Porter has increased his versatility by improving his shooting range as well, converting 42.7 percent from beyond the arc compared to just 22.6 as a freshman. He can push the ball on the fastbreak and rebound and defend with the best of them, averaging 7.4 boards and 1.9 steals per game.
3. Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA
What makes Muhammad stand out in this class is his motion without the ball. The freshman floats around the halfcourt, constantly searching for an open seam in the defense. And his basketball intelligence usually allows him to pop into the best spot for a good look at the basket in the form of a mid-range jumper or post turnaround. Muhammad led the Bruins in scoring at 17.8 points per game, and also collected 5.3 rebounds. He also can shoot the 3 with a quick release (40 percent this season). He’s effective but not overly athletic on the fastbreak, often times settling for difficult layups. He’s also just a 70.6 percent free-throw shooter, and might fit better as a small forward despite being just 6-6.
4. Trey Burke, Michigan
He’s quick, has great basketball intelligence and can shoot it. What more can you want in a point guard? Well, his 5-11 height leaves some doubt whether he can become a star on the next level. But he has an uncanny ability to get layups underneath taller defenders on the fastbreak or off screens in the halfcourt. His passing ability has only increased in his sophomore season, and often times threads the needle between the defense to get his teammates easy buckets.
5. James McAdoo, North Carolina
We all know the 6-9 sophomore has a great deal of athleticism — he often shows up on highlight reels because of his dunks on the fastbreak or off alley-oops. He leads the Tar Heels with 14.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game. He’s got quick hands on the defensive end and is good at flashing into the lane for an easy basket if the defense falls asleep. He’s improved his scoring average by 8.3 points, but still needs to work on cutting down on turnovers (2.3 per game) and his free-throw percentage (57.3).