Three of the greatest college basketball programs in history highlight the field in this year's South Region. North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA have combined for a stunning 25 National Championships and are the top three seeds in this bracket. Not only do these programs have the pedigree of proven long-term winners. But they also feature star-studded rosters and at least five players that are likely to be among the Top 20 NBA draft picks this summer.
The idea of North Carolina taking on either Kentucky or UCLA in the regional final has basketball fans salivating. However, there are no easy roads this time of the year. And there are several potential pitfalls awaiting each of those powerhouses over the next week-and-a-half.
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The South Region semifinals and finals will take place on Thursday, March 24, and Saturday, March 26, at FedEx Forum in Memphis. Here are Doc's Sports March Madness bracket predictions for the South Region:
No. 1 Seed: North Carolina Tar Heels (+120 to win South Region)
The Tar Heels were mere seconds away from winning the national title last year. And now the core of that team is back for one more go-round. The Heels were the best team in the best conference for the majority of the regular season. And now they will see if they can raise their level one more notch to make a big postseason run. The Heels have shown an ability to dominate other top-level teams, and they've scored double-digit wins against Wisconsin, Florida State, Virginia, Miami and Louisville already this season. Joel Berry is a seasoned point guard and forward Justin Jackson is a legit go-to guy. UNC's senior frontcourt of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are a handful, and Roy Williams has a variety of talented youngsters to go to off the bench. UNC can beat teams inside and out and are capable of overwhelming any team in the field on any given night.
North Carolina Tournament Predictions: UNC caught a great draw in this region. They should cruise to the Sweet 16, and there they will likely face solid, but limited, opponents in Minnesota or Butler. UNC's toughest test will probably come in the Elite Eight, where high-level opponents UCLA or Kentucky will be waiting. UNC even caught a break being matched up with the Midwest winner in the Final Four. I see a clear path for this team to the finals, and I think they have to be considered the favorite to win the National Championship.
No. 2 Seed: Kentucky Wildcats (+175 to win South Region)
This isn't the best team that John Calipari has had in Lexington this decade. But it is still pretty damn good. They won the SEC regular season and tournament titles going away. And their stellar backcourt of freshmen De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, supplemented by sophomore Isaiah Briscoe, is as good as any in the country. Kentucky's big men aren't particularly skilled. But they are large, and, boy, are there a lot of them. Despite their overall numbers, this team can go through some lulls offensively. And they don't have many reliable outside shooters.
Kentucky Tournament Predictions: The Wildcats should be able to survive either potential second-round opponent, Dayton or Wichita State. They've already beat UNC once and would have revenge against UCLA if they got another shot at them in the Sweet 16. So there is no reason to think that they can't win this region. However, I don't think that they will. I can't see the Wildcats beating both the Bruins and Tar Heels in back-to-back games. So their best hope is that one - or both - of those teams gets taken out beforehand.
No. 3 Seed: UCLA Bruins (+500)
The Bruins are the most talented offensive team in the field. So that is going to make them a sexy pick to cut down the nets in Phoenix, or at least make the Final Four. Freshman Lonzo Ball is Jason Kidd incarnate. Bryce Alford is a deadeye and explosive shooter. T.J. Leaf is a one-and-done pro and the team's leading scorer. And upperclassmen Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh can team up for 25-30 points a night without breaking much of a sweat. As with most uber-talented offensive teams, UCLA's weakness can be its defense. Welsh isn't much of an inside force. And the Bruins can get a little lax on defense assuming that they can simply outscore any opponent. Maybe they can. This team became just the second Pac-12 team in six year to win at Arizona, and in the nonconference they went to Lexington and beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena. If they can win there they can beat anyone, anywhere, any time.
UCLA Tournament Predictions: I think that the Bruins are on a collision course with UNC in the regional final. However, they will face a potential roadblock in the second round in Cincinnati. If they can gut out a win there it will be round two with Kentucky. Again, it wouldn't stun me if UCLA were to make it out of this bracket. However, I don't think they can topple Kentucky and North Carolina in back-to-back games unless they really ratchet up their defense. Don't get caught trusting these guys too much.
No. 4 Seed: Butler Bulldogs (+1000)
This Butler team has been underrated most of this season. They actually swept the season series with No. 1 Villanova and were quietly the second-best team in a rock-solid Big East. The Bulldogs have a lot of experience and excellent chemistry for a squad that relies on three key transfers - Tyler Lewis, Avery Woodson and Kethan Savage. Kelan Martin can score inside and out, and freshman Kamar Baldwin has the makings of a star. Butler can get worn down on the interior and doesn't have much in the way of post offense. But they won't beat themselves; this is a team that will have to get knocked out.
Butler Tournament Predictions: I think that Butler is going to survive the opening weekend with relative ease. And with time to prepare they aren't going to be scared of a Sweet 16 date with North Carolina. Again, if they can beat Villanova they can beat North Carolina. I just don't think that they will.
No. 5 Seed: Minnesota Golden Gophers (+3500)
Look, I respect what Minnesota has done this year. They have vastly exceeded expectations, and Dickie Pitino looks like he may have turned a corner after several unimpressive seasons. But you can glean all you need to know about what people think of the Gophers' chances by looking at their A) odds to win this bracket and B) spread in the first-round matchup with 12-seed Middle Tennessee . First the good. And that is their solid backcourt of Nate Mason, Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer. Also, Illinois State Reggie Lynch is a beast in the post. The bad is that Minnesota doesn't shoot the ball very well. And I don't know that Mason is a guy that strikes fear in opponents in crunch time.
Minnesota Tournament Predictions: I think anything positive this week is gravy for the Gophers. They are already in the crosshairs by drawing the dreaded 5-12 matchup, which are always rife with upsets. And I think that getting past a very talented Middle Tennessee State squad would be a great victory. But I don't see them surviving the opening weekend.
No. 6 Seed: Cincinnati Bearcats (+1500)
This seed doesn't fully reflect it, but the Bearcats are no joke. These guys suffered March heartbreak last year, losing their conference tournament game in quadruple overtime and their NCAA Tournament game in the final seconds. Mick Cronin's squad is hell bent on making up for it this time around. Cincinnati is one of the best defensive teams in the nation. And veteran guards Troy Caupain and Kevin Johnson are capable of stepping up and hitting big shots in the final minutes. This is the seventh straight year that Cincinnati has gone dancing. That experience will be crucial and should give this veteran team the confidence it needs to make some noise. Statistically this is the best offensive team that Mick Cronin has had at UC. But they need their big guns to come through and absolutely need some bench contributions.
Cincinnati Tournament Predictions: The Bearcats will have to take on a play-in winner and will likely be a small favorite against either Kansas State or Wake Forest. Cincinnati is just 1-4 straight up in their last five tournament games. And three of the losses were by four points or less. I just have a feeling that these guys are bound to get a break one way or another. They are more than capable of taking out UCLA in the second round and busting a lot of brackets.
Best first-round match up: No. 7 Dayton (+1) vs. No. 10 Wichita State
These are two of the best mid-major teams in the country. Wichita State absolutely demolished the Missouri Valley this season and is riding a 15-game winning streak into The Big Dance. Not bad for a rebuilding year, and Gregg Marshall has taken the Shockers to the Sweet 16 in three of the last four seasons. Dayton stumbles into the tournament off back-to-back losses. But they had gone 12-1 in their previous 13 games, and three of the four senior starters on this squad played in the Sweet 16 two seasons ago. These are two tough, hard-nosed defensive teams that will throw blows in the post. They are both extremely well-coached, experienced and capable of executing at a high level.
Best potential second-round match up: No. 3 UCLA vs. No. 6 Cincinnati
This is exactly the type of opponent that should scare the hell out of Bruins backers. Cincinnati is one of the best defensive teams in the country. UCLA is one of the best offensive teams in the country. Something's gotta give. But the Bearcats are capable of slowing this game down and frustrating the Bruins. Does this UCLA team have the patience and mental toughness to gut their way through? Cincinnati went to Iowa State - another one of the top scoring teams in America - and ground the Cyclones down in a 55-54 overtime win. Could they do the same to Lonzo Ball and Co.?
Upset Alert (first round): No. 5 Minnesota (Pk) vs. No. 12 Middle Tennessee State
This one is pretty obvious. In fact, 70 percent of the wagers on this game are coming down on the side of the Blue Raiders. MTSU's stunning take down of Michigan State in last year's tournamentis still fresh in everyone's mind. The inside-out duo of Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw are as good as anything Minnesota faced in the Big Ten this year and have already led the Blue Raiders to 30 wins this season. Minnesota is young and a little banged up. And after winning just eight games last year, you have to worry that Minnesota is just happy to be here.
Upset Alert (second round): No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 7 Dayton/No. 10 Wichita State
Whoever survives the Dayton-Wichita State slugfest is going to have absolutely no fear of the Wildcats. Wichita State pummels teams on the interior, and they will go right after Kentucky's young big men. Dayton is a methodical team, capable of lulling teams to sleep with long, drawn-out possessions and precise execution. Both the Flyers and Wichita State have upperclassmen guards, and in the case of Dayton a guy in Scoochie Smith that already has some NCAA Tournament scalps to his name. Statistically it is likely that only six of the eight top seeds (No. 1's and No. 2's) will survive the opening weekend. Kentucky is just as likely as anyone to face an early exit from this dance.
Dark Horse team: No. 4 Butler
I'm just going to keep saying it: if Butler can sweep Villanova - that means they went into Philly and took down the best team in the country - they are capable of beating anyone. There is no telling what is going to happen at the bottom of the bracket with Kentucky and UCLA, two teams with big bullseyes on them that are leaning on a lot of freshmen and young players. So if Butler can take out North Carolina in the Sweet 16, there is no telling how far this squad can go. Make shots and get stops; that's a recipe for success in March. And Butler can do both.
Team That Makes Me Nervous: No. 3 UCLA
It is tough to know what to do with UCLA. I know they have the talent to make a run to the Final Four. When these guys get out running they are as good as you will ever see at the college level. But I can't help but have some nagging doubts about them. Can they get stops? Will their lack of experience catch up with them? With all the hype around potential lottery picks Ball and Leaf, how is the chemistry in this locker room? UCLA can take a flamethrower to this whole region and gun their way to Phoenix. Or they could flame out in the second round against feisty Cincinnati or get taken down in a second game against Kentucky. It's going to be fun to watch either way. But dangerous to get money involved in.
2017 South Region Predictions: North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA would all be deserving Final Four participants. And a regional final featuring UNC against one of the other two could give us the best game of the entire tournament. It is very easy to get seduced into thinking that's what will happen just because that is what the basketball-loving world wants to happen. But there are potential landmines all over this bracket. Cincinnati could take out UCLA. Kentucky might not survive opening weekend. And Butler could stun UNC. However, I think that North Carolina has as clear of a path as any of the No. 1 seeds in the tournament. And I've seen enough from them this season and in recent tournaments to know that they are not to be underestimated this time of the year. I think the Heels survive and play their way to Phoenix.
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and he is on an unbelievable run right now, nearly doubling his clients' bankrolls in the last four weeks while earning $9,200 in profit! Robert has banked 10 straight winning college basketball regular seasons and he will have his 8-Unit NCAA Tournament Game of the Year available this week. There is no better moneymaker in the nation and Robert is looking forward to another amazing March Madness. Click here to get two days of college basketball picks for free - no hassle and no credit card needed.
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