The most wonderful time of the year is finally back, and this season it’s made all the more wonderful by the fact that fans will be back in the stands for the first time since 2019. It’s going to be wall-to-wall basketball from noon Thursday to sometime late on Sunday, and we’re going to be here and on Twitter following along with you the whole time. The weekend will end with 16 teams still alive, but it starts with 68. Here’s your roadmap for how they’re getting there in the South region.
The South is arguably the toughest region in the bracket. Six of the top sixteen teams in the Torvik rankings are here, along with 8 top-30 defenses and 6 of the top 20 in WAB. There are some teams that have accomplished some things in this group. That also means these teams have something to prove. Slap a different uniform on a couple of the crews here and they’d slide up a seed line or two. I guess that’s just the nature of the game in a subjective business.
Regardless of where these teams started, only four of them are making it out of this weekend still in play. For them it’s all about the destination; for us, it’s about the journey because I don’t have any attachment to these guys at all. Here are some of the storylines we’re going to get to watch play out in the South.
Can anything derail top seed Arizona?
How about a gruesome injury to freshman sniper Kerr Kriisa?
Krisa hit 78 threes this year and connected at a 35.3% mark from behind the arc. Almost a third of all threes made by Arizona came out of his hands. The Wildcats play fast and fly to the offensive glass, and they’re in a region that lacks defensive rebounding excellence on the high seed lines. There are some underseeded teams here, but the matchups might favor Arizona.
Easiest team to cheer against: #2 Villanova
If there were one team in this region that would inspire me to hit social media with a Kent State-style impromptu rap video, it would definitely be Villanova. As the man said, I don’t like them [guys]. Jay Wright has the media eating out of the palm of his hand despite spending the entirety of every game whining at the officials like a spoiled child. Collin Gillespie is the poster child for guys who play dirt but get called scrappy for reasons I can’t white put my finger on. With every slide-under-a-shooter called a charge and jump stop, pivot twice, drill an elbow into the opponent’s chest without getting called for it sequence I watch, my antipathy for this team grows. I hope they get a flat tire on the way to the gym.
Most fun team to cheer for: #12 UAB
Do you think defense is for suckers? Do you like to chuck it from the cheap seats and let the good Lord decide the outcome? Do you think a missed shot can be the catalyst for a possession rather than the end of it? Boy do I have a team for you! UAB shoots 38.3% from deep - good for 9th in the nation - and hits the offensive boards at a rate just inside the top 40. They don’t shoot a ton of threes, but they pick their spots. A week ago they were drifting towards an early end to their season, then they shot 30-72 (41.6%) from behind the arc in three conference tournament games to win the auto bid.
Houston has made a season out of crushing mid-major teams and I strongly suspect UAB’s season ends with that game. Still, fun team.
Player to watch: “Big Body” David Roddy, Colorado State
Roddy is listed at 6’6”, 255, and I believe it. He’s built like a dude you might run into at the Y who has let his basketball body drift while retaining his basketball skills, but in actuality he’s a picture of what peak male performance looks like. He averages 19.4/7.6/2.8 and is a matchup nightmare. If you guard him with a big, know he shoots over 45% from deep. If you try to put a wing on him to chase him off the line, he’ll use what his mama gave him to go to work in the post, where he shoots 72% at the rim. In KenPom A/B games his ORtg drops from 119 to 115; the dude can get it done against anyone.
Best first round game: #6 Colorado State v. #11 Michigan
Whether or not you think Michigan’s resume merits an at-large bid, they’re here now, and their metrics are excellent. Colorado State is #31 in the KenPom; Michigan is #33. These are two really good offenses that prop up two fairly mediocre defense. Colorado State relies on ball security and excellent shooting from all over the floor. Michigan doesn’t shoot well but crashes the offensive glass. Whichever team figures out a way to slow down the other one just a little bit will probably come out on top. This game tips at 12:15pm on CBS on Thursday; the tournament is serving us up a beauty right off the rip.
Boom or bust team: #5 Houston
The Cougars romped through the AAC and went on to win the conference tournament at a trot. They’ve put together a gaudy 29-5 record and sit 4th in the KenPom behind a suffocating defense and an explosive offense. By metric measures, they’re undeniably underseeded as a 5. However... their best win is their last game, a neutral-site victory over Memphis to win the AAC tournament. After that, it’s maybe Oklahoma State on a neutral floor back in December. Those are their two KenPom tier A wins. They might be the #4 team in the nation. They might be an untested paper tiger. We’ll know in a week.
Underseeded: #3 Tennessee
The Vols are 7th in the KenPom and Torvik and 4th in WAB. They won more KenPom A games in their last three games than Houston did all year, and won a dozen KP A games all season. That was 150% as many as Duke, who won a two seed despite being behind the Vols in every meaningful measure and most meaningless ones. The difference between being a 2 seed and a 3 seed isn’t the end of the world, it’s the fact that the committee so overtly handed Duke and Mike Krzyzewski an underserved 2 seed as a retirement present that makes Tennessee’s 3 seed so galling.
There are going to be some good games out of this region. The Ohio State v. Loyola 7-10 game will feature a team that doesn’t play defense versus a team that doesn’t play offense. Illinois has a chance to make some serious Illinoise if Houston isn’t actually up to taking on high-major opponents. The top six seeds all look like really good teams to me; the only potential for an upset (by seed line) that I see is from Michigan. Having now put that out into the world, I expect chaos to reign here.