NCAA Tournament bracket picks: South Region
Can the Baylor Bears recover their mojo? Look, this isn’t as drastic as the Monstars stealing the talent of Barkley, Ewing and LJ in the original “Space Jam,” but Baylor lately has not been the devastating defensive team it once was. Many trace it to the program’s three-week COVID pause that consumed most of their February, but in truth it goes back farther than that. Every opponent it has faced since the return has reached at least one point per possession, but so did three of the Bears’ five opponents beforehand, and Oklahoma State only missed by a smidge in their first meeting. This is a program that allowed the opposition only 0.88 points per trip last season, which was fourth in Division I, and that’s how the team began this year. It’s conceivable this group of Baylor players peaked sometime around January of this season. Or it’s possible that facing the same group so often gave Big 12 coaches a chance to adjust. Which won’t be a problem in this tournament, at least for a while.
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Butler, Mitchell and Robinson-Earl all were part of Sporting News’ 15-man All-America team. It was painful to leave off dynamic Arkansas freshman Moses Moody.
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Best first-round game
No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Wisconsin. The Badgers brought back the majority of a roster that shared the 2020 Big Ten championship but seemed to stagnate; they went .500 in league play and lost all nine games against conference opponents who are seeded above them in the NCAA field. They did not get to play in the NCAAs as league champions a year ago, so this is as close as they’ll come to recovering that experience — if they can remember what made them special. They’ll have a difficult challenge against a North Carolina team that responded to a stunning home loss to Marquette with four wins in their next five, as the Tar Heels’ young big men joined with veterans Armando Bacot and Garrison Brooks in what has become the deepest frontcourt in college hoops.
Seeded too high
No. 7 Florida. This line seems too rich for the Gators, whose profile seems almost designed to yield a spot in an 8-9 game. The Gators apparently were rewarded for avoiding Quad 4 opponents (they only faced one) and for an SEC/Big 12 Challenge victory over West Virginia. They finished 14-9, with KenPom rankings on both offense and defense right around 40th. What’s weird, though, is they’ll play a No. 10 seed Virginia Tech team that also looked like it belonged in an 8-9 game. The only difference is that, instead of the winner facing a No. 1 seed in the second round, it’ll almost certainly be seeing No. 2 Ohio State.
Seeded too low
No. 14 Colgate. The committee had little upon which to base its decision with the Raiders, who did not play non-conference games and thus gave everyone very little data by which to judge the team. The NCAA’s own NET rankings placed the Raiders at No. 9 in the nation through some statistical quirk that no one who understands is likely to explain. They also are 84th in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings at KenPom.com, which makes them the 52nd-highest team to make the field, which would make them a 13th seed. It’s unclear what gave North Texas an edge for that spot.
Purdue over Baylor in the Sweet 16. The Boilermakers have a wide variety of ways they can play, including using Trevion Williams as a low-post specialist or 7-4 freshman Zach Edey as a complete change of pace. Freshman wing Jaden Ivey is becoming a game-changing player; since Feb. 1, he has gone for double figures in every game but one. He still is not a consistent shooter, but he’s willing to take big shots — and makes a lot of them.
Best potential game
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 6 Texas Tech in the Sweet 16. It seems like every game the Buckeyes play is a classic, from their late-February shootout with Big Ten regular-season champion Michigan to their conference tournament semifinal against Purdue to the title game loss to Illinois, which needed overtime. It seems like every game Tech plays is a classic, from their one-point December loss to Kansas to their 76-71 comeback against LSU to their one-point Big 12 Tournament loss to Texas. If we get this game, what should we expect but a classic?
Best potential player matchup
Villanova’s Jeremiah Robinson-Earl vs. Purdue’s Trevion Williams, second round. Robinson-Earl has not had quite the season of which he was capable; that he still was voted third-team All-America by Sporting News shows how vast his talent truly is. He is a more mobile big man than Williams, capable of operating as a stretch four as well as working the baseline. Williams is a back-to-the-basket big with a full package of skills, particularly his low-post moves, and also has tremendous vision as a passer. Wildcats coach Jay Wright might want to keep Robinson-Earl away from Williams to avoid foul risk, but he probably would be the most suitable matchup
Get to know
Arkansas freshman wing Moses Moody. The 6-6 Moody conveniently grew up in Little Rock and — unlike many players rated above him in the 2020 recruiting class — performed well above his projections. He was ranked No. 45 in his class by 247Sports, but Moody immediately became indispensable to the Razorbacks, averaging 34 minutes,17.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game and shooting 37.9 percent from long distance. He was named the SEC’s Freshman of the Year and to the league’s bloated (eight-man) all-conference team. He’d have made it if the league had done as it should and picked only five.
Don’t be surprised if . . .
The No. 12 seed Winthrop Eagles are able to knock off Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats, who won two of the four most recent NCAA championships. The Eagles stormed through their schedule with a 23-1 record but were able to play only two non-conference games. One of those was a win over Southern Conference champion UNC-Greensboro, which earned a No. 13 seed in the East Region. The Eagles won their three conference tournament games by an average of 26 points. This kind of dominance is rare in a league like the Big South, but apparently this is a special group. And it will be playing a Villanova team that lost twice after star point guard Collin Gillespie was lost for the foreseeable future with a knee injury.
No. 8 North Carolina. We’ve heard all year about how terrible the ACC is compared to other leagues and especially to its own history. Well, there definitely isn’t a Jordan-Worthy-Perkins in the league, or a Laettner-Hurley-Hill. But no one’s got teams like those any more, rich in top-10 draft picks and experience. What matters is how the ACC compares to the competition. This Carolina team got more from its freshmen (Caleb Love, Day’Ron Sharpe, R.J. Davis and, lately, Walker Kessler) than most. An extended NCAA run would accelerate their development.
Final Four pick
Purdue. It’s a risk to go this deep into the field for a Final Four pick. To get to that stage of the tournament, the Boilers likely will have to face Big East champion Villanova, Big 12 champion Baylor and probably Arkansas, Texas Tech or Big Ten runner-up Ohio State. So, yeah, it will not be easy. They’re young, deep and maybe a year away from fielding a true championship contender. They wouldn’t have been the pick in any other bracket. But the lineup of opponents seems just right for them to get through the requisite four games.