March Madness: South Region Breakdown

With less than 48 hours remaining until the tip of the greatest event that has ever existed on the perennial sporting calendar, I thought it’d be pertinent to keep this introduction short and sweet. There are hours of game breakdowns to read, coaching pressers to watch, opinions to analyze and data points to interpret. Brackets will be filled out.. then erased.. then scratched out.. then crumpled up and thrown away and started over again. The goal for all us is to have our final product by Thursday at 11:59 AM. It’s certainly a stretch, but with the help of game breakdowns.. and lots of reprints.. it can be done.

Round of 64 Matchups

Patrick Andres, Sports Illustrated

1 Alabama vs. 16 Texas A&M Corpus Christi/SE Missouri State

The only uncertainty hanging in the balance here is whether the no. 1 overall seed Alabama Crimson Tide are going to smoke a team that wears red (SEMO) or a team that wears blue (A&M CC). Alabama seems to be back to their usual, dominant ways after steamrolling their way through the SEC Tournament en route to a regular season/postseason sweep of the conference. Not only is the offense rolling under the guidance of future lottery pick Brandon Miller, the defense is third in the country via Kenpom efficiency metrics and 6th in the country since February 1st according to t-rank. The Tide made their hay blowing out mid-majors in the non-conference, with a particularly impressive performance coming in a 95-59 drubbing of Liberty (48 in KenPom) in early November.

Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Southeast Missouri State are particularly bad matchups for Alabama because of their willingness to get out and run in transition. Neither Brad Korn nor Steve Lutz have shown interest in slowing the tempo, and even if they try to switch it up, Bama will ultimately dictate the pace. On December 13th, Texas A&M Corpus Christi played a 76-possession game against Arizona that resulted in a 99-61 Wildcat victory. I foresee a similar margin of victory for the Crimson Tide here, regardless of which 16-seed escapes the First Four in Dayton. For the sake of this exercise, I’m going to give Texas A&M Corpus Christi the nod to win Tuesday night.

The Pick: Alabama 98, Texas A&M Corpus Christi 65

8 Maryland vs. 9 West Virginia

Eight versus nine seeds on the bracket are typically wishy washy coin flips.. but my goodness, this game might take the cake in that department in recent years. Both teams, particularly the Terrapins, have been incredibly inconsistent this season. At times Maryland has shown the ability to shoot the cover off the ball, while at other times they’ve sunk into a desolate hole offensively. West Virginia has displayed a similar level of streakiness, winning three of their last four games before being emphatically sent packing by Kansas in the Big 12 quarterfinal, 78-61.

I lean towards West Virginia to get the job done here for several reasons. Firstly, the home/road splits for Maryland are stark… they rank 5th in Evan Miya’s home rating, a metric used to incapsulate a team’s success at home compared to an away/neutral setting ( The Terps just aren’t the same away from the Xfinity Center, whereas West Virginia has had marginally more success outside of Morgantown. Secondly, West Virginia’s on-ball pressure, powered by perimeter defensive stopper Kedrian Johnson, should be able to make Maryland PG Jahmir Young uncomfortable. Young, a Senior transfer from Charlotte, averages 16.1 PPG and facilitates the entirety of Maryland’s offense. If West Virginia is able to get up in Young’s grill and make him sweat, they’ll likely stifle the Terps.

At the end of the day, I feel more comfortable backing the more experienced, better coach in this matchup in Bob Huggins. Kevin Willard has done a satisfactory job with Maryland this season, but his NCAA Tournament success is virtually nonexistent at this point in his career. Additionally, West Virginia has simply been playing better basketball than Maryland the last month of the season. It’s a razor-thin margin, but the Mountaineers should be able to pull this one out.

The Pick: West Virginia 67, Maryland 63

Orlando Ramirez, USA Today Sports

5 San Diego State vs. 12 College of Charleston

The Charleston Cougars out of the Colonial Athletic Association enter this field with a gaudy 31-3 record and a ten-game winning streak. Pat Kelsey’s squad is leading the brigade for one of the strongest crops of 12 and 13 seeded mid majors we’ve ever seen in the NCAA Tournament.. and for good reason. The Cougars like to push the pace (29 adjusted tempo nationally via KenPom) and execute flawlessly by spreading the court and moving the basketball in half-court sets. In the CAA, they were able to generate more chances than opponents by getting out and running, as well as getting on the glass. However, San Diego State is a different breed of cat from what the Cougars have seen all season.

San Diego State excels at slowing the tempo and controlling the game on both sides of the basketball. The Aztecs (252 in adjusted tempo nationally via KenPom) are longer, stronger and more athletic at all five positions and will use their size to dictate the pace of this basketball game. Brian Dutcher’s squad will limit transition opportunities and force Charleston to shoot over the top of their pack-line defense. The Cougars are only an average three-point shooting team (33.3% on the season) which will be their undoing offensively.

The biggest concern for San Diego State entering this tournament pertains to their occasionally stagnant half-court offense. It’s no secret that SDSU completely choked in crunch time of their Rd. of 64 battle with Creighton last season, and that was due to their total lack of creativity on offense (here Matt Bradley.. take the ball and do something please). They’ve progressed marginally on that side of the ball with the addition of 5’10 jitterbug guard Darrion Trammell, but at times they still struggle mightily. I think this issue will rear its ugly head later on in the tournament, but not in this game. The Aztecs are simply too big, too strong and too athletic for Charleston. This is, yet again, a tough draw for Pat Kelsey in the tournament.

The Pick: San Diego State 69, College of Charleston 56

4 Virginia vs. 13 Furman

When thinking of vintage Virginia Cavaliers teams under Tony Bennett, this one certainly doesn’t come to mind. UVA is 25th in defensive efficiency nationally via KenPom, which pails in comparison to past teams that completely mastered the pack-line. The Hoos lack the positional size one would expect with a Bennett defense… Armaan Franklin stands 6’4 and Jayden Gardner 6’6. They also lack a bruising, defensive, Jack Salt-like stalwart at center. Kadin Shedrick is a serviceable big, but doesn’t bring nearly the physicality necessary to be considered an enforcer.

Meanwhile, Bob Richey’s Furman Paladins enter this tournament giddy about their draw. The Dins have two legitimate playmakers in senior guard Mike Bothwell (18 PPG) and senior forward Jalen Slawson (15.7 PPG). The dynamism and experience of these two facilitating the offense will cause UVA problems in a low-possession game. I expect Jalen Slawson to be the biggest mismatch for the Cavaliers, who don’t necessarily have a reliable defensive forward to throw at him.

Defensively, the Paladins will need to pressure senior PG Kihei Clark and do their best to thwart the mover-blocker motion that Tony Bennett has utilized heavily over the last several weeks. The injury to Virginia forward Bennett Vander Plas will likely loom large because of his ability to step out and stretch the floor. This smells like a close, low-scoring game where the underdog comes out a winner.

The Pick: Furman 53, Virginia 51

Chris Jones, USA Today Sports

3 Baylor vs. 14 UC Santa Barbara

Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears are entering the dance as one of the more polarizing teams in the country. They rank 2nd in offensive efficiency via KenPom nationally, yet they rank 104th defensively. They’ve been Swiss cheese on defense for much of the season, even getting shredded by less than stellar offenses like Iowa State. The upside for Baylor is astronomically high because of their trio of ultra-dynamic guards. Keyonte George (15.8 PPG), Adam Flagler (15.5 PPG) and LJ Cryer (14.5 PPG) are all top ten in the Big 12 in scoring and can all fire away with lethality from downtown. However, the downside is quite low because of their inability to guard.

Joe Pasternack’s UCSB Gauchos have a chance to play Baylor very close in this game. They certainly pass the “get off the bus” test, with positional size and high major talent across the board. They’re led by a duo of guards in Ajay Mitchell (16.4 PPG) and Josh Pierre-Louis (9.7 PPG), as well as senior forward Miles Norris (14.2 PPG). The Gauchos’ offense is predicated on Ajay Mitchell and JPL slashing to the rim and getting layups/free throws, as well as feeding Cal transfer big man Andre Kelly (9.5 PPG) on the block. While I’m skeptical of Kelly’s potential effectiveness in this game, I think they can exploit the Baylor defense by slashing to the tin.

UCSB should be able to get it done offensively, but the question is whether they’ll be able to limit the explosiveness and scoring of the Baylor guards enough to win. Ultimately, I don’t think they’ll be able to, but I think they’re going to provide a heck of a resistance in the process.

The Pick: Baylor 91, UCSB 86

6 Creighton vs. 11 North Carolina State

Preseason expectations in college basketball are a fickle beast that the media landscape often fails to escape from before it’s too late. In this specific example, I present to you the Creighton Bluejays. Greg McDermott’s squad was a consensus top-10 team before the action tipped in November, but have underachieved their way to 12 losses and a 6-seed entering the Big Dance. Despite all of this, Creighton is still 13th nationally in KenPom and 15th in t-rank. The Jays are rock solid defensively thanks to 7’0 anchor Ryan Kalkbrenner (15.4 PPG), and they’re extremely efficient offensively thanks to the level-headedness of guards Ryan Nembhard (11.9 PPG) and Trey Alexander (13.6 PPG). They might also be the worst possible matchup that NC State could have drawn.

NC State excels by getting out in space and scoring points off turnovers. Kevin Keatts utilizes the speed and athleticism of their turbo guards Terquavion Smith (17.5 PPG) and Jarkel Joiner (17.1 PPG) to pressure ball-handlers and cause opponents to beat themselves. The problem with the Creighton matchup is that the Jays simply do not commit live ball turnovers. Creighton is patient and efficient offensively and won’t allow the Wolfpack to get out ahead of them or take advantage of their mistakes. On the flip-side , the length of Creighton’s guards on defense is going to cause trouble for NC State. I foresee a lot of difficult midrange FGAs for Smith and Joiner, as well as a lot of floaters/difficult attempts over Kalkbrenner at the rim for the Wolfpack. These difficult attempts will compound by becoming misses and allowing for open threes in transition for Creighton.

NC State was able to avoid the First Four in Dayton, but they drew a very dangerous Creighton team. The Jump-Shooting Jays will advance comfortably here, and I certainly won’t be surprised if they advance to the second weekend.

The Pick: Creighton 84, NC State 67

University of Arizona Athletics

2 Arizona vs. 15 Princeton

I’m going to keep this preview very short and very sweet for what should be obvious reasoning… this should be a bloodbath. Princeton is an intricate offensive squad led by 6’8 point forward Tosan Evbuomwan. While the Tigers may be able to score early with cuts and back-screen action, the overwhelming size and athleticism of Arizona will eventually take over.

At some point in the second half, the shots for Princeton will become more and more difficult. Tommy Lloyd’s looming defensive stalwart in the paint, Oumar Ballo, will begin to swat anything and everything away from the tin, and the Tigers will fade into oblivion. The Wildcats will turbo late and win this one in a landslide.

The Pick: Arizona 101, Princeton 77

7 Missouri vs. 10 Utah State

Perhaps the most unpredictable Rd. of 64 matchup in this region comes in Sacramento between Mizzou and Utah State. The contrasting styles.. and resumes.. of the Tigers and the Aggies should indicate a close, entertaining game. The Aggies are absolute marksmen from 3-point range (41.6 percent), thanks in part to the sharpshooting of junior guard Steven Ashworth (16.3 PPG) and senior forward Taylor Funk (13.3 PPG). The Aggies like to play at a slower, half-court pace and set up open looks through an arsenal of play calls from coach Ryan Odom.

The Missouri Tigers, in their first season under head coach Dennis Gates, like to get up and down the court at a frenetic pace. They run, gun, pressure and force turnovers. They’re led by senior guards Kobe Brown (15.8 PPG) and D’Moi Hodge (14.8 PPG). Missouri will look to get up in the shorts of the smaller, slower and less athletic guards of Utah State and make them uncomfortable at every turn.

The resumes paint Utah State as the analytical darling (18 in KenPom), while Mizzou (50 in KenPom) was able to scrounge together much more impressive wins on the court. Ultimately, I lean towards the Tigers to win a close game thanks to their superior speed and athleticism, as well as their experience playing and beating tougher competition throughout the season.

The Pick: Missouri 83, Utah State 80

Projecting the Rest

There’s no point in releasing detailed breakdowns of games that may or may not take place, but that doesn’t mean winners cannot be picked. Here’s how I see the rest of the South Region playing out:

Round of 32

(1) Alabama over (9) West Virginia

(5) San Diego State over (13) Furman

(6) Creighton over (3) Baylor

(2) Arizona over (7) Missouri

Sweet Sixteen

(1) Alabama over (5) San Diego State

(6) Creighton over (2) Arizona

Elite Eight

(1) Alabama over (6) Creighton

Alabama is the heavy favorite to advance to Houston… and for good reason. The Tide are firing on all cylinders and it’s going to take more firepower than what exists in this region to slow them down.

Alex Wilcox