2018 March Madness Bracket Predictions: South Region
I know that this has a great chance to come back to bite me, but I'm just going to come right out and say it: I don't trust Virginia.
The Virginia Cavaliers are the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament this year. They dominated their way to ACC regular-season and tournament titles, and at 31-2 they have the best mark of any team in the country. Virginia is in the Top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and they really don't have a weakness on either end of the court.
But deep down I think you and I both know that Virginia isn't winning the national title.
First of all, the ACC - despite its nine teams in the field - was not that great this year and by my count was the fourth-best conference in the country. Second of all, Virginia has a pretty tough draw, with dangerous Creighton, Kentucky and Arizona teams standing in their way just to reach the Elite Eight. Third of all, this Virginia team doesn't have any NBA talent on the roster. I know the college and pro games are light years apart. But who was the last National Champion that didn't boast at least one blue chip pro prospect?
So if we start our NCAA Tournament analysis from the premise, "the best team in the country in the regular season is not going to win the title" then it instantly opens up a world of unlimited possibilities and permutations as to how these next three weeks of The Big Dance will play out.
Let the Madness begin.
The South Region semifinals and finals will take place on Thursday, March 22, and Saturday, March 24, in Atlanta. Here are Doc's Sports March Madness bracket predictions for the South Region:
No. 1 Seed: Virginia Cavaliers (+120 to win South Region)
The Cavaliers have relied on their vaunted "Pack Line" Defense to become No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, No. 3 in field goal percentage defense, and No. 5 in 3-point defense. That smothering D has helped the Cavaliers become one of the best bets in basketball as they have gone 21-9 ATS this year. However, that success at the window, their No. 1 ranking, and their stature as the top seed in the field all mean that the Cavs are going to be one of the most overvalued teams in the tournament. I know this team is a popular pick to cut down the nets. But I don't think they can generate enough offense to win six games.
Virginia Tournament Predictions: Tony Bennett has never been to the Final Four. And as much as I like this year's team, I don't think that this is his season. The deeper they go in the tournament the more their lack of top-end talent is going to be exploited.
No. 2 Seed: Cincinnati Bearcats (+175 to win South Region)
Fresh off AAC regular-season and tournament titles, the Bearcats have won seven straight games and are one of the favorites to escape this region. Like top-seeded Virginia, Cincinnati does it with defense. They are No. 2 in points allowed, No. 2 in field goal defense and No. 11 in 3-point defense. Offensively, the Bearcats lean on inside out forward Gary Clark and the guard trio of Jacob Evans, Jarron Cumberland and Cane Broome. But also like UVA, Cincinnati has questions about whether or not they can score enough to make a deep run in this dance. Further, they played just the No. 90-rated schedule in the nation this year (No. 295 nonconference), and they have a lot to prove when it comes to beating top teams in the field.
Cincinnati Tournament Predictions: I really like this Bearcats team. But I can't help but feel like they are ripe for an upset. The Bearcats will be healthy favorites in their second-round matchup. But I don't feel like this team will be able to win three games and make the Elite Eight.
No. 3 Seed: Tennessee Volunteers (+500)
The Volunteers have been one of the best teams in the one of the best conferences in basketball all season long. But you really wouldn't know it from the lack of hype around Rick Barnes' group. An admittedly young team (four sophomore starters), the Vols don't play like it. Forwards Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield are the leaders of a team that defends with much more tenacity than Barnes teams have in the past. This is a very athletic group. But they don't overpower in the post and they do lack natural shooters.
Tennessee Tournament Predictions: I think this team is a year away from making noise in a tournament like this. Barnes isn't a great in-game coach. And after making a deep run in the SEC Tournament, I wonder what this team, with its small bench, has left in the tank. I will be surprised if they survive the opening weekend.
No. 4 Seed: Arizona Wildcats (+1000)
Heading into the year the Wildcats were on the short list of National Championship favorites. Everything has gone sideways since then. Arizona has been embroiled in scandal as a direct result of the FBI's probe into NCAA basketball. But here they are, playing their best basketball at the right time and with everyone laser-focused on the postseason. Arizona has arguably the best player in the country in 7-foot-1 center Deandre Ayton and another future pro in guard Allonzo Trier. Miller has a massive supporting cast to fill around those two, yet the most important player may be disappointing senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
Arizona Tournament Predictions: Sean Miller is another coach that hasn't gotten his team to a Final Four. I have to think that this is the year that either he or Tony Bennett finally breaks through.
No. 5 Seed: Kentucky Wildcats (+3500)
This Kentucky team is one of the youngest to ever make it to the NCAA Tournament. They don't even have a junior or a senior on the roster! It is all freshmen and sophomores! Now, no one feels bad for John Calipari. And all of those freshmen and sophomores were highly-touted recruits. Kentucky has been steadily improving over the last month and comes into The Big Dance with seven wins in eight games, including a sweep through the SEC Tournament last week. Can they shoot the ball as well as they did last week in St. Louis? That's the major question for this group. If they do then they will be as tough of an out as anyone in the field. If they don't then this young team can flame out in the opening weekend.
Kentucky Tournament Predictions: That second-round matchup with Arizona is a killer. If Kentucky can survive then you know Coach Cal will have them ready and unafraid of a date with No. 1 Virginia. Kentucky has Final Four talent. But my prediction is that they won't survive the opening weekend as their lack of experience comes back to haunt them.
No. 6 Seed: Miami Hurricanes (+1500)
Jim Larranaga was able to coax 22 wins out of an extremely young team that lost one of its best players, Bruce Brown, to injury midseason. Youngsters Chris Lykes, Lonnie Walker and Dejan Vasiljevic have shown no fear, though, and closed out the year going 7-3 in their last 10 regular-season games in the ACC. Miami plays at a deliberate pace and is deceptively strong as a defensive team. They key will be whether the youngsters (two freshmen and a sophomore, respectively) can raise their level of play to what the NCAA Tournament demands.
Miami Tournament Predictions: I have minimal expectations for this group. Once they lost Brown, their ceiling significantly lowered. Larranaga is a brilliant tactician. And it wouldn't stun me if they made the Sweet 16. But that's really the ceiling for a group that could also get bounced in the first round.
Best first-round matchup: No. 5 Kentucky ( +1) vs. No. 12 Davidson
This game really is a contrast in styles. Kentucky has one of the most physically-imposing teams in the tournament. But they are short on shooters. Davidson is not overly athletic, but they have a crop of shooters that will go toe-to-toe with anyone in the nation. Davidson will be bombing from deep, while Kentucky is pounding in the post, and the winner may come down to something random like an official's call or a fluke turnover. This is a vintage 5-12 matchup, and Davidson is used to playing the role of upset-minded spoiler.
Best potential second-round matchup: No. 4 Arizona vs. No. 5 Kentucky
Last year this would've made for a great national title game. This year it would be with a Sweet 16 berth on the line. There are several future pros that will be on the court in this one, and it would feature two teams that are playing their best basketball of the year at the right time. Kentucky is fresh off a dominating run en route to the SEC title, while Arizona slapped around the rest of the Pac-12 to win that league tournament. Both teams have size for days. So the winner will likely be the team that makes more shots from deep and from the free throw line. Regardless, everything about this game will be must-see TV.
Upset Alert (first round): No. 6 Miami (-1.5) vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago
The spread on this game alone seems like a massive red flag that something strange is afoot. Miami was the No. 3 seed in the ACC Tournament, for crying out loud, and Loyola-Chicago was in the Horizon League three years ago. Loyola is getting a lot of mileage out of a true road win over Florida in the nonconference portion of the schedule. And the Ramblers do have an exceptional amount of balance on both ends of the court. Loyola has lost only once since Jan. 4 (17-1 overall) and they will come out firing against a young Hurricanes team.
Upset Alert (second round): No. 2 Cincinnati vs. No. 7 Nevada/No. 10 Texas
Nevada is one of the best mid-major teams in the country. They start five players that are all 6-7, can all defend multiple positions, and can all score in a variety of ways. They are a team capable of playing at an extremely high level. As is Texas, which has one of the best freshmen in the country in Mo Bamba. Texas has beaten a lot of good teams this year and has competed in close games with the likes of Duke, Gonzaga, Michigan and Kansas. Texas has had to deal with a load of drama and controversy all season. But neither they, nor Nevada, will be afraid of Cincinnati's seeding in what could be one of the best second-round games of the tournament.
Dark Horse team: No. 4 Arizona Wildcats
This team is gaining momentum and has a decided "us-against-the-world" mentality that can only be a benefit right now. They basically said, "screw it" when they brought Miller back from suspension, brought Trier back from suspension, and decided to play Ayton despite his role in the program's recent scandal. This team is going for broke, and, honestly, I love their approach and their attitude. This team rebounds, defends, has two future NBA players, and is motivated. They have the hallmarks of a team that can make it to the Final Four. But we'll see if they can avoid some of the slip-ups (particularly defensively) that really hurt this team early in the season.
Team That Makes Me Nervous: No. 2 Cincinnati Bearcats
I really like this team. I do. They have more offensive firepower than the grind-it-out Cincinnati teams of the recent past. And they have shown moxie with gutsy wins in Wichita to claim the regular-season title and then to come from behind to win the AAC title. But Cincinnati really didn't play much of a schedule this year. And this team has been such a disappointment in past tournaments (one Sweet 16 in the past 15 years) that it can be tough to trust them. I really do think this team is good enough for a deep charge. But they are a tough bunch to trust until I see it.
2018 South Region Predictions: Virginia really does have the pole position to the Final Four. But that assumes that they will be able to handle the NBA talent that either Arizona or Kentucky throws at them in the Sweet 16. Whomever wins that matchup should dominate whichever teams survives the bottom of the bracket. I have been big fans of Tennessee and Cincinnati all year. And they deserve their seeds. But it wouldn't surprise me if either got upset before they took their shot at Virginia. I'll call for either Virginia or Arizona to survive and make it to San Antonio.
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 has posted 10 of 11 winning seasons. He is looking for a monster March run and will have his 8-Unit NCAA Tournament Game of the Year Thursday after nailing his 8-Unit Conference Tournament GOTY last Friday (Arizona). You can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here .
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