We started our March Madness region previews of the 2018 NCAA Tournament with what this writer believed to be the weakest overall of the four, the West. Gonzaga is the pick to emerge from that region and make a second straight Final Four.
Who will the Zags meet on March 31 at the Alamodome? That would be the South champion, and it looks to be the deepest region. ACC regular-season and tournament champion Virginia was given the No. 1 overall seed in the Big Dance, is the South No. 1 and a +125 favorite in it. However, the selection committee appears to have punished the Wahoos with a stacked group.
NCAA Tournament March Madness Preview: Top Overall Seed Virginia Punished By South Region Placement?
One would think being the No. 1 overall seed would be a huge benefit, but in 14 years since the selection committee began specifying the overall No. 1, that team has reached the Final Four only half the time. Last year’s overall No. 1, Villanova, was bounced in the second round. The year before, Kansas made it to the Elite Eight. The last overall No. 1 to win it all was Louisville in 2013. It should be noted that xix of the last 10 NCAA champions were rated No. 1 in KenPom like Virginia is.
If the NCAA Tournament were simply about winning with defense, then UVA would have a few championships under Coach Tony Bennett – his “Pack Line” defense was historically good this season. The Cavs allowed just 53.4 points per game, tops in the nation, and not a single team reached 70 points.
The reason Virginia hasn’t reached a Final Four under Bennett, however, is the Wahoos never seem to have enough offense and have been upset by opponents seeded at least three spots lower in three of their past five appearances. In the two exceptions, Virginia was routed by Florida: in the 2012 first round and again in the 2017 second round. UVA didn’t top 45 points in either game.
The legacy of @DeandreAyton continues as he is the 1st player in @pac12 history to be named Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year AND Pac-12 Tournament Most Outstanding Player in the SAME season. #APlayersProgram pic.twitter.com/HE8vRus4nu
— Arizona Basketball (@APlayersProgram) March 11, 2018
Likely awaiting Virginia in the Sweet 16 is either No. 4 Arizona or No. 5 Kentucky – both, unlike Virginia, loaded with future NBA players. How is Arizona (+500 to win region) a fourth seed when it won the Pac-12 regular-season and conference titles? And it has the most dominating player in college basketball in freshman Deandre Ayton, the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. Did the committee punish the Wildcats for those allegations surrounding the program and Coach Sean Miller? Either Miller or Bennett is likely the best active coach to not reach a Final Four yet.
Kentucky (+800), meanwhile, seems to be coming together in March, which is a staple of John Calipari’s teams. It’s his least-experienced club ever, and the Cats looked lost in mid-February when they lost four straight games for the first time under Coach Cal. However, Kentucky has been beaten only once since on the way to the SEC Tournament title. What Calipari needed was one of his freshmen to emerge as the “alpha male” (like an Anthony Davis) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander did that in the SEC Tournament.
Let’s just say Virginia does reach the Elite Eight. No. 2 seed Cincinnati (+300) could be waiting, and the Bearcats are essentially a defensive clone of Virginia but more athletic. Cincinnati has eight games in which it has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points, second-most in Division I behind UVA. The Bearcats average 19.4 points per game off turnovers, most in the AAC. UC is ranked as the No. 4 team nationally by KenPom.
We haven’t even mentioned SEC regular-season co-champion and No. 3 seed Tennessee (+600). This year’s team was only the fourth in school history to reach 25 wins and the first since 2009-10. The Vols have a terrific 1-2 punch in SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. UT is another great defensive team, ranked fifth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom.
That the South winner takes the NCAA Tournament is a +250 favorite. I’m taking Arizona to beat Cincinnati for the region but not to win it all simply because the South will be such a defensive blood-bath. I’m liking going against UVA even more with the news Tuesday freshman power forward De’Andre Hunter will miss the NCAA Tournament because of a broken left wrist. He was the ACC Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds, and, naturally, playing strong defense.
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