Baniewicz Bracketology: The Sizzling South
March Madness is fully underway today, but what can we expect moving forward? Let's head to the South Region and start digging for answers.
With play already underway, I won't pretend games didn't happen. The best part of the tournament is the 67 games played, so there's still a whole lot of unknown.
Most experts have this region as a one-boat regatta, with Billy Donovan steering the wheel. If there's anything we know about the tournament, nothing is crystal clear. Often the safest teams end up ruining the most brackets.
Step into the Coliseum and have a look at the gladiators.
Andrew Wiggins might be the first player selected in the NBA draft when his season is over, which makes the Kansas Jayhawks a team to be reckoned with. The loss of fellow freshman sensation Joel Embiid certainly hurts the Jayhawks down low, but Wiggins has stepped up since the injury. He's averaging 31 ppg over his last three games, and he knows that NBA scouts will be salivating all over the floor if he keeps it up. They shouldn't be challenged until the Sweet 16, where they will most likely meet our next contender.
Their best basketball is in the rear-view window as of right now, but Syracuse started the season with 25 straight wins. Starting the season that hot is no easy task, but many experts are jumping off the boat after the Orange lost five of their last seven. Carrying momentum into the tournament is important, and 'Cuse has none of that. They do have a legendary coach in Jim Boeheim and a bunch of NBA talent though, which could be trouble if they put it together. Their zone defense can be downright annoying if executed properly, but it's all about which Syracuse shows up.
Sometimes you have to save the best for last. The Florida Gators are by far the best team in this region, and they're the hottest team in the country heading into the tournament (no disrespect to Wichita State). The Gators are on a 26-game winning streak that started all the way back on Dec. 10, which coincidentally was a game against the Kansas Jayhawks. Pair the nation's third-best scoring defense (57.9 ppg) with three senior leaders and you get a very hot pick to win it all.
Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, and Patric Young have had four years with Billy Donovan, and they're savvy players. The Gators will dominate you on the glass and force turnovers then kill you with athleticism. If you're finding a reason to talk yourself out of Florida, stop. Donovan's squad is frighteningly similarly built to his back-to-back National Champions, so don't sleep on them for one second.
If you're wondering where the No. 4 seed UCLA Bruins might be, the answer is not in the next round.
Where else could we start but with the NCAA Tournament's first upset? The Dayton Flyers defeated in-state giants Ohio State to start off the round of 64 in style. Vee Sanford's last-second layup punched the Flyer's ticket to the next round in dramatic fashion, but they don't want to go home yet. They shoot over 46% from the field on the season and forced Ohio State into 14 turnovers. Syracuse lost to worse teams than Dayton, so a Sweet 16 berth isn't out of the question.
Shaka Smart and the VCU Rams made a name ruining people's brackets, and they're back in the dance again. They'll most likely have to go without sharp-shooting sixth-man Melvin Johnson, who suffered a knee injury in the A-10 tournament against George Washington. Johnson was third on the team in scoring and their best three-point shooter, but Smart's crew will persevere. The Rams lead the nation in steals per game and can pester you to death. Florida doesn't shoot that well from deep, and VCU loves an up-and-down game, so if the Rams can get to the Sweet 16 again there is a chance for havoc.
The Rams will have to get past one of the best named teams in the tourney to get there though. The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks went 31-2 this season, which will force a lot of upset picks in the brackets. They pass the ball incredibly well and display fantastic efficiency on both sides of the ball, but they haven't played a ranked opponent all year. The Lumberjacks win the award for best name in the South, but the Rams will be too much to handle on this big of a stage.
The Pitt Panthers beat up on Colorado in their first round matchup, but it would be a real surprise if they knocked off Florida in the next round. A very similar situation can be found for the winner of New Mexico/Stanford, who has to face an athletically superior Kansas squad in the next round.
Call me a gambling man, but the Tulsa Golden Hurricane were the first upset I penciled in. They're coached by Kansas legend Danny Manning, who spent time coaching with Bill Self as well, and they have nothing to lose. Tulsa started the season 1-6, then went 20-6 to finish the season and win the Conference USA Tournament. They hit the glass and try to beat you with gritty ball, so if UCLA thinks it's in the bag they're in for a rude surprise. I might be crazy, but I love the Golden Hurricane. Their awesome name doesn't hurt either.
It's beyond fitting that the first final score of the round of 64 was an upset. Thank you, Dayton. Will chaos prevail in the South or will there be a return to order?
Final Four Bound: The Florida Gators
There's a reason the Gators were assigned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. They're really good. Many experts are penciling Louisville and Michigan State in their National Championship because of the coaching prowess of Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo, but what about Billy Donovan?
Donovan is the only coach to win consecutive NCAA Championships in the past two decades combined. Donovan's '06 and '07 teams were the first to do it since Coach K led Duke to back-to-back titles in '90 and '91. So why doesn't he get mentioned in the conversation of elite coaches?
The Gators have three senior leaders, they're incredibly well coached, and they haven't seen a win they didn't like since the month of December. Pair that with a shaky Syracuse squad and a young Kansas troupe and you get an easy path to the Final Four.
It might be boring to see the No. 1 overall seed run the table, but we might just have to deal with it this year if the Gators keep this up.