Kansas was one of the best teams in the country for much of the season, using the inside-out combo of Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore to post big numbers on the scoreboard and run many opponents off the floor. The Jayhawks might be the most surprising of the No. 1 seeds, though, because they also suffered maybe the season’s most inexplicable loss at TCU in February and just last week got blown out at Baylor.
This South region is wide open.
Michigan’s Trey Burke and Georgetown’s Otto Porter are both strong National Player of the Year candidates and capable of pushing their teams on prolonged tournament runs. Porter and the No. 2 seed Hoyas have lost just twice since Jan. 19 and finished the regular season playing like a potential No. 1 seed. Same for No. 3 seed Florida, which always excels at this time of year and probably only slipped to No. 3 after a second-half collapse in the SEC tournament championship game.
There’s depth, too. VCU looms as a dangerous No. 5 seed when the Rams get their preferred tempo but drew a 26-win Akron team in the first round. Kansas could play a peaking North Carolina team as early as next weekend, and UCLA, San Diego State and Minnesota each have quality wins and enough talent to be considered credible threats.
Withey gives Kansas the region’s best big man, but there’s debate about the region’s best player and a handful of teams with big-stage experience. Past Kansas-Western Kentucky on Friday, there’s not a gimme game out there. Bring on the best weekend of the year. Best second-round matchup: Michigan vs. South Dakota State. The Wolverines are just 6-6 over their last 12 games, are playing like the young team they are and aren’t playing much defense at all. A year after bowing out in the first round to Ohio, the Wolverines catch another dangerous mid-major in the Jackrabbits, who have seniors and enough shooters to keep up in what should be a fast-paced game.
Early upset: No. 11 Minnesota over No. 6 UCLA. The Gophers limped to the finish in the rugged Big Ten, but they’re a senior-laden team that’s thrilled to be back in the NCAA tournament. UCLA finished the regular season strong but lost freshman Jordan Adams, its second-leading scorer, to a broken foot in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. Look for Minnesota to rely on its experience and advance to play Florida next Sunday.
Cinderella story: No. 12 seed Akron won 19 straight games from late December to early March, then in a span of five days lost its streak, lost its first-ever national ranking, then lost point guard Alex Abreu after he was arrested on drug trafficking charges. The Zips rebounded to win the Mid-American Conference tournament and have a high-major front line led by 7-foot senior Zeke Marshall and 6-7 fireplug Demetrius Treadwell. VCU will force Akron into mistakes with its pressure, but the Zips play good enough defense to win a game, and then another.
Best player: Otto Porter, 6-8 sophomore forward, Georgetown. Porter has done a little bit of everything for the Hoyas and has done it well, averaging better than 16 points and 7 rebounds a game while shooting 43 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. He’s one of many very good defensive players coach John Thompson III has, too, and Porter’s versatility and ability to take over games allows Georgetown to play at its preferred tempo and frustrate opponents.
Best player you don’t know: Nate Wolters, 6-4 senior guard, South Dakota State. Wolters averages 22.7 points per game and has scored more than 2,300 in his career — and that’s while facing double teams in just about every game. He also averages 5.6 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game and would probably drive the team bus if asked, too. Sharp-shooting seniors on one last March ride can be very, very dangerous.
Most underrated coach: Billy Donovan, Florida. He has a couple national championship rings tucked away at home, but he not only coaches in football country and in a football conference, he plays second fiddle in that conference to John Calipari. Donovan’s teams win big with consistency and win in March, having missed the Final Four in each of the last two seasons only by late rallies in the Elite Eight.
Fact only we can give you: VCU coach Shaka Smart is a former Akron assistant, and Akron coach Keith Dambrot considers Smart his best friend. Last week, Smart sent Akron’s players a video message of encouragement as they tried to rebound from the loss of Abreu. In the message, Smart mentioned Akron had the talent to make an NCAA tournament run. The selection committee has quite the sense of humor.
Headed to Atlanta: Florida. Kansas is capable of being great but has proven capable of suffering unforeseen upsets, too. Georgetown and Porter will be a tough out, too, but the Gators have the right combination of NCAA tournament experience, balance and athleticism to navigate a relatively easy path to Atlanta. After coming just minutes from the Final Four in each of the last two years, this is the year the Gators get there.