The tour of NCAA Tournament quadrants continues with the South region today. Who you got?
At least early on, the South region has the potential to be very chalky. The 6/11 matchup is extremely close by the KenPom ratings with the 11-seed Wichita State at ninth overall and the 6-seed Arizona at 16th. After that? There are 30 spots separating the 26th rated 9-seed UConn and 56th rated 8-seed Colorado. 2-seed Villanova and 3-seed Miami (FL) are over 100 spots better than their opening opponents, while 5-seed Maryland and 7-seed Iowa are over 50 spots better.
It could get really close and really good after that, though. Every game in the Round of 64 has a team in the KenPom top 23 in it, and the 6/11 game has two of them. If the better teams all win out in the other seven matchups, the South region will instantly become the most compelling basketball-wise, if not Cinderella storybook-wise.
Who You Gonna Trust?
Bill Self's Kansas has flamed out in the first weekend as a 2-seed in each of the last two tournaments, but he's never gone out that early in three straight years before. In six past appearances as a 1-seed, Self has failed to make the Sweet 16 just once and failed to make the Elite Eight just one other time.
The 2-seed Villanova's Jay Wright is on much shakier ground as a tournament coach. He hasn't made the second weekend of the tournament since 2009 despite having a 2-seed or better three times since then. He made the Sweet 16 four times in five years from 2005-09 but it's been nothing but early exits since.
The 3-seed Miami is Jim Larranaga's team, and he's best known for taking George Mason to the Final Four in 2006. He's coached in 15 postseason tournaments across a career at Bowling Green, Mason, and Miami, but he's won more than one game just three times. Notably, two of those three times were in Coral Gables. He made the Sweet 16 in 2013, and he took his team to the NIT finals last year.
The Cal Golden Bears are the 4-seed under former Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin. Martin won the CIT in 2010 with Missouri State and made the Sweet 16 with the Vols in 2014. He's bowed out in the first game of a postseason tournament just once in five tries, when UT lost in the NIT first round in 2013.
Self has been pretty solid as a 1-seed, and he's got the No. 1 overall team in the tournament according to the selection committee. Larranaga has prospered at Miami, while Martin seems likely to avoid a Round of 64 upset at least. Wright has not been a good tournament coach for a while and may be headed for an early exit.
I will point out that Arizona's Sean Miller has been a tournament ace for much of his career. His first two NCAA Tournament squads at Xavier, which were a 14-seed and 9-seed, respectively, lost early. Since then he's made the second weekend of the Big Dance with all six of the teams he's taken there, including all four past Arizona teams. Only his 2012 NIT Wildcat team disappointed, losing in the first round there.
Miller's first opponent, Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, famously made the Final Four back in 2013. Looking just at Marshall's time at WSU, as his prior program Winthrop was never going to make deep tourney runs out of the Big South, he's actually been inconsistent in the postseason. He lost early in the CBI and NIT in his second and third years in Wichita before winning the NIT in his fourth. Then he lost in the first round of the NCAAs before going to the Final Four with his subsequent team. A second round exit followed despite having an undefeated team in 2014, but the 2015 team rebounded with a Sweet 16 appearance.
Best and Worst Draws
I'm going to go with 4-seed Cal for the best draw, even though Hawaii is clearly the best of the 13-seeds. The Golden Bears still have 40 spots in the KenPom ratings on the Rainbow Warriors, so that combined with the fact that Martin is good at winning initial tournament games means they can probably get through the Round of 64.
Cal's next game would come against either 5-seed Maryland or 12-seed South Dakota State, who are each only the third best teams on their lines. Further, UMD head coach Mark Turgeon has made it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament just once in six tries, and it was his first one all the way back a decade ago in 2006. Getting the best 1-seed in Kansas next isn't great, but the Jayhawks easily could have their hands full with the best 9-seed in UConn in the Round of 32. Anyway, Cal's path to the Sweet 16 is actually pretty sweet.
It's boring to say it, but 1-seed Kansas has a pretty cushy draw too. 9-seed UConn and 13-seed Hawaii are the only other teams in KU's half of the region to be the best on their seed lines, and the Nos. 2 through 6 strongest teams in the region by KenPom rating are in the bottom half of the quadrant (Villanova, Wichita State, Miami, Arizona, and Iowa). That means Kansas can possibly play only one of those teams. Not bad.
I have to go with 2-seed Villanova for worst draw. Not only has Jay Wright not been great in March Madness of late, he's got an unfavorable path ahead of him. In the bottom half of the region, 6-seed Arizona, 7-seed Iowa, and 11-seed Wichita State are the best of their respective lines. Also, 3-seed Miami is the second best of its line. Aside from the fact that one of Zona and WSU have to lose their game with each other, those teams aren't likely to go down early as 14-seed Buffalo and 10-seed Temple are the lowest rated of their seed lines. If Nova emerges from there in the Elite Eight, it's going to be one battle tested team.
A Plausible Outcome
The top three seeds in Kansas, Villanova, and Miami all breeze through their opening games against overmatched teams. 4-seed Cal holds off an upset minded 13-seed Hawaii team, but 5-seed Maryland, which faded down the stretch, gets upended by 12-seed South Dakota State. The chalk holds up for a little while again as 6-seed Arizona edges 11-seed Wichita State and 7-seed Iowa dispatches 10-seed Temple. In an upset by seeding only—and even then, not really—9-seed UConn dismisses 8-seed Colorado without much trouble.
Kansas needs all 40 minutes to do it, but the Jayhawks barely squeak past UConn in the next round. Cal then puts away South Dakota State to keep the top half orderly. Order in the bottom half falls apart, though. Arizona beats Miami, while Iowa rides a second half surge past Villanova.
KU ends up beating Cal in a game marked by excellent guard play from experienced players on both sides, while Arizona surpasses Iowa. In the regional final, Kansas's superior roster wins out, but it's not easy.