South Regional breakdown: No. 1 overall seed Florida seems poised for big things

Casey Prather (left), Scottie Wilbekin and the Gators appear ready to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Paul Abell/Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 1-ranked Florida Gators won’t need to board a plane for their first stop in the NCAA Tournament.

For the second time in four years, the Gators open the Tournament in the Sunshine State. The No. 1 overall seed and top seed in the South Region, the Gators face the winner of Tuesday’s play-in game between Albany and Mount St. Mary’s on Thursday at the Amway Center in Orlando.

Behind Florida in the South Region are Kansas as the No. 2 seed, Syracuse at No. 3 and UCLA as the No. 4 seed.

THE NO. 1 SEED

Florida opened the season ranked No. 10 but slipped to No. 19 early in the season after losses at Wisconsin and Connecticut. That was in November. Over the past four months, the Gators steamrolled through the Southeastern Conference, becoming the first team in SEC history to go 18-0 in conference play.

The top-ranked Gators (32-2) capped their historic run through the conference Sunday with a 61-60 win over Kentucky in the SEC Tournament championship, their 26th consecutive win. Florida is led by seniors Patric Young, Will Yeguete, Casey Prather and Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Year, and the long-range shooting of sophomore guard Michael Frazier III.

THE BEST BETS

UCLA: The No. 4-seed Bruins (26-8) upset Arizona to win the Pac-12 Tournament and are playing at a high level in Coach Steve Alford’s first season at UCLA.

UCLA is coming off an upset of Arizona to win the Pac-12 Tournament.

Kansas: KU is dangerous when the tandem of freshman Andrew Wiggins and center Joel Embiid are on the court together, but Embiid is slowed by a bad back and his status for the NCAA Tournament remains uncertain.

THE SLEEPER

Stephen F. Austin: Florida doesn’t even have the longest winning streak in this region. That distinction belongs to No. 12-seed Stephen F. Austin, which has won 28 consecutive games. The Southland Conference champions are 31-2 and move the ball extremely well, averaging 16.6 assists (eighth in the country).

Stephen F. Austin has won 28 consecutive games.

THE BEST OPENING-ROUND GAME

Final Four . . . for four

No. 5 Virginia Commonwealth vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin: The 5-vs.-12 matchup always has been one of the tournament’s upset specials and the VCU Rams, a Cinderella team during head coach Shaka Smart’s tenure, better be ready for the Lumberjacks, who are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.

THE UPSET WAITING TO HAPPEN

No. 14 Western Michigan over No. 3 Syracuse: The Orange once was ranked No. 1 but has fallen down the polls with five losses over the past month. The Broncos have a good inside-outside game with guard Doug Brown (19.0 ppg) and 6-foot-11 big man Shayne Whittington (16.1 ppg).

THE MATCHUP WE MOST WANT TO SEE

No. 1 Florida vs. No. 2 Kansas: The Gators hosted Kansas early in the season and came away with a victory thanks to a 21-0 run in the first half. Wiggins was only a few games into his first season and has improved as the season progressed. If the top two seeds advance, a rematch in Memphis would be an intriguing one.

THE PLAYERS TO WATCH

Andrew Wiggins, SF, Kansas, Fresh.: The South Region includes Wiggins, considered a candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft should he leave school after his freshman season, so he’s worth watching.

Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins is one of the main draws of the South Region.

Scottie Wilbekin, PG, Florida, Sr.: While he doesn’t receive as much attention as Wiggins, Wilbekin has turned into perhaps the finest point guard in America. Wilbekin is an excellent on-ball defender and showed off his 3-point shooting in Florida’s run to the SEC Tournament title.

THE PICK

Florida: The Gators have advanced to the Elite Eight three consecutive years and the senior class of Young, Yeguete, Prather and Wilbekin is hungry to finally taste a trip to the Final Four. The way this season has gone for the Gators, no one should be surprised if they are at Jerry World playing for the national title.