2017 NCAA tournament: South region sleepers and favorites

Best round of 64 matchup

Dayton-Wichita State

Wichita State is one of the most under-seeded teams in the bracket. Only Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, has a greater average scoring margin in Division I this season. The Shockers also have the fifth-greatest rebounding margin.

Dayton won the Atlantic 10 regular season and has a strong recent track record in the tournament – the Flyers have made the past three tournament fields and compiled a 5-3 record. Outside of their league this season, they beat tournament teams Vanderbilt, Winthrop and East Tennessee State while falling to Northwestern and Saint Mary’s.

As potent as Wichita State has been, it is 0-3 against teams in this season’s bracket.

REGION ANALYSIS: East | South | Midwest | West

NCAA SNUBS: Six teams left out of the tournament

RIGHT AND WRONG: Three hits and misses by the committee

BRACKET CHALLENGE: Make your selections

Potential upset

No. 12 Middle Tennessee vs. No. 5 Minnesota 

UNC Wilmington and Nevada, the 12 seeds in the East and Midwest, will be penciled in to advance on plenty of brackets, but no 12 seed is going to be a bigger darling that Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders have six players who helped them beat No. 2 seed Michigan State in last season’s tournament, not including this season’s leading scorer JaCorey Williams.

Middle Tennessee is one of five 30-win teams in Division I and is 5-0 on neutral courts. Minnesota has played the nation’s 17th-toughest schedule according to the NCAA’s measurement. But in Middle Tennessee it is facing a team that allows 63.1 points per game, the 20th-best mark Division I and the same total as No. 1 overall seed Villanova.

The sleeper

Butler. The Bulldogs are an unusual tournament team in that they enter the event on a two-game losing streak. Disregard that.

Chris Holtmann is doing one of the four best coaching jobs in men’s college basketball this season, and the Bulldogs are 14-4 against teams in the bracket. That includes two of No. 1 overall seed Villanova’s three losses, a win against West No. 2 seed Arizona and South No. 6 seed Cincinnati. Watch out for this team.

The winner

UCLA. The Bruins were criticized for their non-conference schedule, and only four at-large teams in the tournament have a weaker strength of schedule rating, according to kenpom.com.

But the Bruins have other numbers that are unmatched by any time in Division I. They score 1.202 points per possession and have an effective field goal percentage – a shooting accuracy measure that adjusts for the value of 3-point field goals – of 60.4. They also have a team assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.90. All of those marks are the best in the nation.

UCLA has a tough draw in the bottom half of the South bracket, particularly with Kentucky, Cincinnati, Wake Forest and Wichita State lurking. It also has the best player in the region in guard Lonzo Ball, and his surrounding talent can match that of top seed North Carolina or 2 seed Kentucky. UCLA proved the latter on Dec. 3 when it beat the Wildcats on their home floor.

1. North Carolina

Nickname: Tar Heels. Location: Chapel Hill.
Record: 27-7, 14-4. Bid: ACC at-large.
Last appearance: 2016, lost to Villanova in national championship game.
Coach: Roy Williams (70-24 in 26 appearances).
Twitter:@UNC_Basketball

Overview: UNC appears to have the tools to reach the national title game for the second consecutive season, but it is fair to question whether this team can string together enough consecutive strong performances. The Tar Heels have the largest average rebound margin (13.0) in Division I and are fourth in assists per game (18.0). They need ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson to get back on track; he is 20 of 60 shooting (7-for-31 from three-point range) the last four games.

Projected starters: G Joel Berry II, 6-0, Jr. (15.1 ppg, 3.7 apg, 83.0 FT%); F Justin Jackson, 6-8, Jr. (18.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg); F Isaiah Hicks, 6-9, Sr. (11.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 83.1 FT%); F Kennedy Meeks, 6-10, Sr. (12.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg); F/G Theo Pinson, 6-6, Jr. (6.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg).

2. Kentucky

Nickname: Wildcats. Location: Lexington.
Record: 29-5, 16-2. Bid: SEC champ.
Last appearance: 2016, lost to Indiana in Round of 32.
Coach: John Calipari (48-16 in 17 appearances).
Twitter:@KentuckyMBB

Overview: Calipari once again has enough talent to win the championship, but it’s been hard to trust this team because of its overall immaturity and stretches of indifferent defense. Malik Monk, a 41% shooter from 3-point range, is the key to how far Kentucky goes. Prone to scorching hot stretches, he can undoubtedly win a game almost singlehandedly. But he can also go cold. Kentucky could win it all or get bounced in the Sweet 16, and neither would be a huge surprise.

Projected starters: G De’Aaron Fox, 6-3, Fr. (15.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 5.0 apg); G Isaiah Briscoe, 6-3, So. (12.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.4 apg); G Malik Monk, 6-3, Fr. (21.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.4 apg); F Wenyen Gabriel, 6-9, Fr. (5.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg); F Bam Adebayo, 6-10, Fr. (13.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg)

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3. UCLA

Nickname: Bruins. Location: Los Angeles.
Record: 29-4, 15-3. Bid: Pac-12 at-large.
Last appearance: 2015, lost to Gonzaga in Sweet 16.
Coach: Steve Alford (9-9 in nine appearances).
Twitter:@UCLAMBB

Overview: The splashy arrival of Lonzo Ball helped get this proud program back into the national spotlight. The talent infusion that also included T.J. Leaf helped the returning players do their jobs even better. Top reserve Aaron Holiday provides yet another scoring option. There were times when the team appeared disinterested on the defensive end.

Projected starters: G Lonzo Ball, 6-6, Fr. (14.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 7.8 apg, 2.0 spg); G Bryce Alford, 6-3, Sr. (16.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.6 apg, 81.4 FT%, 45.4 3FG%); G Isaac Hamilton, 6-5, Sr. (13.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.9 apg); F TJ Leaf, 6-10, Fr. (16.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 2.5 apg, 63.0 FG%); C Thomas Welsh, 7-0, Jr. (10.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 93.8 FT%)

4. Butler

Nickname: Bulldogs. Location: Indianapolis.
Record: 23-8, 12-6. Bid: Big East at-large.
Last appearance: 2016, lost to Virginia in Round of 32.
Coach: Chris Holtmann (2-2 in two appearances).
Twitter:@ButlerMBB

Overview: In many respects, this is a typical Butler team — well-coached, fundamentally sound on defense and never believing it’s beaten. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs can be prone to lengthy offensive outages. Holtmann’s decision to start bringing leading scorer Kelan Martin (16.1 ppg) as well as Kamar Baldwin (10.1 ppg) off the bench helped snap the team out of a midseason slump.

Projected starters: F Andrew Chrabascz, 6-7, Sr. (11.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.2 apg); F Tyler Wideman, 6-8, Jr. (7.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, .608 fg%); G Kethan Savage, 6-3, Sr. (8.0 ppg, 2.4 rpg); G Avery Woodson, 6-2, Sr. (8.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg); G Tyler Lewis, 5-11, Sr. (6.5 ppg, 4.0 apg).

5. Minnesota

Nickname: Golden Gophers. Location: Minneapolis.
Record: 24-9, 11-7. Bid: Big Ten at-large.
Last appearance: 2013, lost to Florida in Round of 32.
Coach: Richard Pitino (first appearance).
Twitter:@GopherMBB

Overview: But for a five-game losing streak in January, Minnesota has had a sensational season — one that earned fourth-year coach Richard Pitino Big Ten Coach of the Year honors a season after going 8-23 overall. The Golden Gophers are dancing for the first time under Pitino and do so with one of the nation’s most efficient defenses and one of the best shot-blocking teams in the country.

Projected starters: G Nate Mason, 6-2, Jr. (15.5 ppg, 5.1 apg); G Akeem Springs, 6-4, Sr. (9.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg); G Amir Coffey, 6-8, Fr. (12.0 ppg, 3.1 apg); F Jordan Murphy, 6-6, So. (11.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg); C Reggie Lynch, 6-10, Jr. (8.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg).

6. Cincinnati

Nickname: Bearcats. Location: Cincinnati.
Record: 29-5, 16-2. Bid: American Athletic at-large.
Last appearance: 2016, lost to Saint Joseph’s in Round of 64.
Coach: Mick Cronin (4-8 in eight appearances).
Twitter:@GoBearcatsMBB

Overview: This year’s edition of the Bearcats is like the other versions with the usual physical style and tough defense. The difference is an offense with G Troy Caupain as the leading distributor and three strong scorers in the frontcourt. Their efficiency on both ends is illustrated with a strong assist-turnover ratio that is among the best in the country and defense that is near the top in scoring and field-goal percentage. One potential concern is a low free-throw percentage should games be close.

Projected starters: G/F Jacob Evans, 6-6, So. (13.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg); F Kyle Washington, 6-9, Jr. (13.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 40.5 3FG%); F Gary Clark, 6-8, Jr. (10.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg); G Troy Caupain, 6-4, Sr. (9.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.6 apg); Kevin Johnson, 6-3, Sr. (8.5 ppg, 81.6 FT%)

7. Dayton

Nickname: Flyers. Location: Dayton, Ohio.
Record: 24-7, 15-3. Bid: Atlantic 10 at-large.
Last appearance: 2016, lost to Syracuse in Round of 64.
Coach: Archie Miller (5-3 in three appearances).
Twitter:@DaytonMBB

Overview: The Flyers ran through the Atlantic 10, losing only three road games during conference play. They stumbled, however, in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament, falling to Davidson. Senior guard Charles Cooke is one of the main reasons Dayton had the No. 2 offense in the league.

Projected starters: G Scoochie Smith, 6-2, Sr. (13.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.4 apg); G Charles Cooke, 6-5, Sr. (16.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.0 apg); G Darrell Davis, 6-5, Jr. (5.7 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.3 apg); F Kendall Pollard, 6-6, Sr. (14.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg); F Xeyrius Williams, 6-8, So. (8.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg).

8. Arkansas

Nickname: Razorbacks. Location: Fayetteville.
Record: 25-9, 12-6. Bid: SEC at-large.
Last appearance: 2015, lost to North Carolina in Round of 32.
Coach: Mike Anderson (8-7 in seven appearances).
Twitter:@RazorbackMBB

Overview: Though Arkansas has played at a slower pace and forced fewer turnovers (188th nationally at 12.97 per game) than you’d expect for an Anderson-coached team, this group has made up for it with efficient offense and solid three-point shooting (37% as a team). Bringing dynamic guards Daryl Macon and Anton Beard off the bench for a combined 20.9 ppg means opponents rarely get a chance to relax. Still, the Razorbacks didn’t perform well against top opponents inside or outside of the league.

Projected starters: G Jaylen Barford, 6-3, Jr. (12.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.1 apg); G Dusty Hannahs, 6-3, Sr. (14.6 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 1.2 apg); G Manuale Watkins, 6-3, Sr. (6.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.9 apg); F Dustin Thomas, 6-8, Jr. (5.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg); F Moses Kingsley, 6-10, Jr. (12.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg).

9. Seton Hall

Nickname: Pirates. Location: South Orange, N.J.
Record: 21-11, 10-8. Bid: Big East at-large.
Last appearance: 2016, lost to Gonzaga in Round of 64.
Coach: Kevin Willard (0-1 in one appearance).
Twitter:@SetonHallMBB

Overview: The Pirates made a late push to get themselves off the bubble, riding their talented frontcourt and some key contributions from freshman G Myles Powell (10.5 ppg) off the bench. They can be turnover prone at times, but they can usually compensate by dominating the glass.

Projected starters: F Desi Rodriguez, 6-6, Jr. (16.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg); F Angel Delgado, 6-10, Jr. (15.7 ppg, 13.1 rpg, 2.0 apg); G Khadeen Carrington, 6-4, Jr. (17.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.1 apg); G Madison Jones, 6-2, Sr. (5.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 3.3 apg); F Michael Nzei, 6-8, So. (4.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg).

10. Wichita State

Nickname: Shockers. Location: Wichita, Kan.
Record: 30-4 (17-1). Bid: Missouri Valley champ.
Last appearance: 2016, lost to Miami (Fla.) in the Round of 64.
Coach: Gregg Marshall (10-12 in 12 appearances).
Twitter:@GoShockers

Overview: This year’s Shockers are beating opponents by more than 19 points a game, higher than the 2013-14 team that went 34-0 in the regular season. WSU ranks fifth nationally in rebounding margin. Marshall doesn’t have the star power he’s had in the past but uses a deep bench to wear down teams while playing with the toughness that got the Shockers to the Final Four in 2013.

Projected starters: G Conner Frankamp, 6-1, Jr. (8.6 ppg, 44% three-pointers), G Landry Shamet, 6-4, Fr. (11.3 ppg, 3.3 apg), C Shaquille Morris, 6-8, Jr. (9.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg), F Markis McDuffie, 6-8, So. (11.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg), F Zach Brown, 6-6, Jr. (7.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg)

11. Wake Forest

Nickname: Demon Deacons. Location: Winston-Salem, N.C.
Record: 19-13, 9-9. Bid: ACC at-large
Last appearance: 2010, lost to Kentucky in Round of 32.
Coach: Danny Manning (0-1 in one appearance).
Twitter:@TieDyeNation

Overview: The Demon Deacons revolve around center John Collins, who has 16 double-doubles. Wake’s offense is the seventh-most efficient in college basketball, scoring 121.1 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom.com. Bryant Crawford is the first Demon Deacon to average 15 points and five assists since Chris Paul.

Projected starters: G Keyshawn Woods, 6-3, So. (12.8 ppg, 3.5 apg); G Bryant Crawford, 6-3, So. (15.8 ppg, 5.4 apg, 1.5 spg); F John Collins, 6-10, So. (19.1 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg); F Austin Arians, 6-6, Sr. (7.9 ppg, 87.5% FT); F Dinos Mitoglou, 6-10, Jr. (9.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg).

NCAA BRACKET: Full field of 68

11. Kansas State

Nickname: Wildcats. Location: Manhattan.
Record: 20-13, 8-10. Bid: Big 12 at-large.
Last appearance: 2014, lost to Kentucky in Round of 64.
Coach: Bruce Weber (11-10 in 10 appearances).
Twitter:@KStateMBB

Overview: After losing eight of 10 in the middle of the Big 12’s grueling, double round-robin schedule, the Wildcats finished the regular season with a pair of victories. A berth in the NCAAs could end serious questions about Bruce Weber’s job security.

Projected starters: G Kamau Stokes, 6-0, So. (11.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 4.3 apg); G Barry Brown, 6-3, So. (11.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.5 apg); G Wesley Iwundu, 6-7, Sr. (12.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.4 apg); F Dean Wade, 6-10, So. (9.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.9 apg); F D.J. Johnson, 6-9, Sr. (11.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg)

12. Middle Tennessee

Nickname: Blue Raiders. Location: Murfreesboro.
Record: 30-4, 17-1. Bid: C-USA champ.
Last appearance: 2016, lost to Syracuse in Round of 32.
Coach: Kermit Davis (1-4 in four appearances).
Twitter:@MT_MBB

Overview: This season was one of affirmation that the Blue Raiders are one of the top mid-major programs in the country after shocking Michigan State in last year’s tournament. Holdovers F Reggie Upshaw and G Giddy Potts and Arkansas transfer F JaCorey Williams have made them even better. They ran through Conference USA regular season and conference tournament with one blemish — a loss at Texas-El Paso.

Projected starters: F JaCorey Williams, 6-8, Sr. (17.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 54.1 FG%); F Reggie Upshaw, 6-8, Sr. (14.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 52.5 FG%); G Giddy Potts, 6-2, Jr. (15.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 80.6 FT%); G Tyrik Dixon, 6-1, Fr. (5.8 ppg, 3.3 apg); G Edward Simpson, 6-2, Jr. (3.5 ppg, 2.2 apg).

13. Winthrop

Nickname: Eagles. Location: Rock Hill, S.C.
Record: 26-6, 15-3. Bid: Big South champ
Last appearance: 2010, lost to Arkansas-Pine Bluff in opening round.
Coach: Pat Kelsey (first appearance)
Twitter:@Winthrop_MBB

Overview: The Eagles have won 17 of 19 since Jan. 1. Keon Johnson, Big South player of the year, leads an explosive offense that averages almost 80 points. Winthrop has made 304 three-pointers. There’s some strength off the bench, led by Anders Broman (8.3 ppg).

Projected starters: G Keon Johnson, 5-7, Sr. (22.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 86.8 FT%); G Anders Broman, 6-0, So. (5.5 ppg); G/F Xavier Cooks, 6-8, Jr. (16.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 2.8 apg); F Roderick Perkins, 6-5, Sr. (7.5 ppg); C Duby Okeke, 6-8, Jr. (3.9 rpg).

14. Kent State

Nickname: Golden Flashes. Location: Kent, Ohio.
Record: 22-13, 10-8. Bid: Mid-American champ.
Last appearance: 2008, lost to UNLV in Round of 64.
Coach: Rob Senderoff (first appearance).
Twitter: @KentStMBB

Overview: Back in the tournament for the first time in nine years, Kent State rebounds very well — second in the nation in offensive boards. The Golden Flashes lean heavily on senior forward Jimmy Hall and struggle from beyond the arc, shooting just 31.9% on 22.7 attempts per game. Off the bench, 7-footer Adonis De La Rosa could present matchup problems for opponents.

Projected starters: G Jaylin Walker, 6-1, So. (15.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 78.3% FT%); G Deon Edwin, 6-3, Sr. (13.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg 2.4 apg); G Jalen Avery, 6-0, So. (5.3 ppg, 2.3 apg, 41.9 3PT%); F Mitch Peterson, 6-5, Fr. (5.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg); F Jimmy Hall, 6-8, Sr. (18.7 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 51.9 FG%)

15. Northern Kentucky

Nickname: Norse. Location: Newport, Ky.
Record: 24-10, 12-6. Bid: Horizon champ
Last appearance: First appearance.
Coach: John Brannen (first appearance)
Twitter:@NKUNorseMBB

Overview: The Norse are in their first NCAA tournament in their first year of eligibility. Although lacking size, they rank in the top 50 nationally in rebounding margin, a key part of their Horizon League tournament title victory against Milwaukee. The Norse’s go-to player is forward Drew McDonald, who can score either in the paint with quick moves and jump hooks or outside.

Projected starters: F Drew McDonald, 6-7, So. (16.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg), F Jordan Garnett, 6-5, Jr. (4.8 ppg 3.5 rpg), F Carson Williams, 6-5, Fr. (10.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) G Cole Murray, 6-7, Sr. (10.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg), G Lavone Holland II, 6-1, Jr. (14.3 ppg, 4.1 apg)

16. Texas Southern

Nickname: Tigers. Location: Houston.
Record: 23-11, 16-2. Bid: SWAC champ
Last appearance: 2015, lost to Arizona in Round of 64
Coach: Mike Davis, (7-7 in seven appearances).
Twitter:@TXSOTigers

Overview: Under Davis, the former Indiana and UAB coach, Texas Southern has been the class of the Southwest Athletic Conference, winning four regular-season titles in addition to their three tournament championships since 2012. The guard-heavy Tigers’ lineup played their first 16 games on the road before returning home, where they went 10-0.

Projected starters: G Zach Lofton, 6-3, Jr. (17 ppg, 3.9 rpg); G Demontrae Jefferson, 5-7, Fr. (14.9 ppg, 3.3 apg); G Kevin Scott, 6-4, Jr. (9.7 ppg, 4.9 apg); G Jalan McCloud, 5-10, Jr. (8.7 ppg); C Marvin Jones, 7-0, Sr. (8.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg).

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