South Region Headed by Number One Seed Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt in Sunday’s SEC championship game, but the NCAA selection committee was undeterred. They made Kentucky (32-2) the overall number one seed in this year’s tournament. The only debate was whether to place Kentucky in the South or Midwest regions. Geographically, the Wildcats are about equidistant from regional sites Atlanta and St. Louis. In the end, committee chairman Jeff Hathaway explained, “We believe their true region was the South, and as the true number one seed, we wanted to put them in their true region.”
Once that was decided, the placement of two seed Duke into the South was essentially a slam dunk. It was 20 years ago that Duke beat Kentucky to claim the East Regional championship and earn a trip to the Final Four. The game is thought by many to be the greatest game in the history of college basketball, certainly the greatest in the history of the NCAA Tournament, and the game winning shot from Christian Laettner is known simply as “the shot”. Could it happen again? Stranger things have happened, and if it does, Kentucky will be favored to avenge that 1992 loss.
Teams of local interest in the South include Big XII members Baylor (27-2) as the three seed and eight seed Iowa State (22-10). The Bears’ seven losses are to four Big XII opponents all of which made the tournament including three to Missouri and two to Kansas, both two seeds. Baylor’s last NCAA appearance was two years ago, when they set a school record with 28 wins and lost to eventual champion Duke. Two wins in Albuquerque will re-set the school record for wins and likely bring them face to face with Duke again in the Regional Semi-Final.
Indiana (25-8), the other team to beat Kentucky this year, is the four seed. Seeds five through eight in order are: Wichita State (27-5), UNLV (26-8), Notre Dame (22-11) and Iowa State. The ninth through 12th seeds are defending champion Connecticut (20-11), Xavier (21-12), Colorado (23-11) and Virginia Commonwealth (28-6). The bottom four seeds include New Mexico State (13), South Dakota State (14) and Lehigh (15). Western Kentucky and Mississippi Valley State play in Dayton Tuesday in a play-in game to be the 16 seed and meet Kentucky in the first round.
This is Kentucky’s 52nd appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the 11th time as a number one seed. Head Coach John Calipari has one of the best starting fives in the history of Kentucky basketball. He feels like Sunday’s loss to Vanderbilt may be a blessing, in that it reduced the pressure of the team’s long winning streak. He said on ESPN, “The 21 game whatever it was, the streak, that’s done now. We’re gonna be in a dog fight. We’re going to be in a dog fight in the first game, second game if we can advance.”
Anthony Davis is the most problematic player for Kentucky’s opponents to defend. He averages a double-double, 14.3 points and 10 rebounds per game, both of which lead the team. Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist also average more than 10 points per game. Marquis Teague leads the team in assists.
Kentucky enjoys a locational advantage as one of the spoils of being the victors of the number one overall seed. They open Thursday in Louisville. Assuming they dispense the winner of the play-in game and Iowa State – Connecticut, which is undoubtedly the toughest 8-9 matchup in the tournament, Kentucky moves on to Atlanta for the regional semi-finals. Even the Final Four is located in solid SEC country – New Orleans.
Duke did well geographically too. They open this weekend in Greensboro, North Carolina. To get to Atlanta, they need to beat Lehigh and the winner of Notre Dame and Xavier. The Blue Devils are led by guards Austin Rivers (15.4 PPG) and Seth Curry (13.4 PPG), both sons of former NBA players (Doc Rivers and Del Curry). Mason Plumlee (10.9 points and 9.1 rebounds per game) is the big man in the middle.
Baylor will be in Albuquerque to play their opener against South Dakota State. A win there and another over the winner of UNLV and Colorado will punch the Bears’ ticket to Atlanta. Indiana has a rougher road on paper. They are in Portland, Oregon to face New Mexico State. With a win, they’ll face the winner of Wichita State and last year’s surprise Final Four team – Virginia Commonwealth. If there is a “deep” sleeper in this region, it is the winner of this game.
The South region has two teams that were in last year’s Final Four, defending champion Connecticut and Cinderella VCU. In actuality, both are fortunate to be in the tournament this year. Kentucky should dominate as they have dominated this entire season, though they will likely have a tough test this weekend in Connecticut, a team with the talent to be much better than a nine seed. It may be a “dog fight”, but in the end, this Kentucky team should prevail not only in Louisville and Atlanta, but in New Orleans too.