By Ryan Mayer
The time is here. The NCAA Selection Committee has given us their opinion on the 68 best teams in the country and the bracket is in your hands. As you contemplate your upset picks and which teams to trust, you’ll probably flip flop a couple of times. To help, we’re going to break down each region for you one by one in our 2016 Bracket Breakdown series.
We’ll start in the South, with the number one overall seed Kansas Jayhawks being put into a tough region. The number of high profile teams is staggering. You’ve got eight of the top 25 teams in Ken Pom ratings in this region (#1 Kansas, #5 Villanova, #12 Wichita State, #13 Miami (FL), #16 Arizona, #21 California, #23 Maryland, and #25 UConn). That’s insane. It looks as if the Jayhawks have been given the toughest road by far for getting to the Final Four. Don’t fret Jayhawks fans, there’s still plenty of reason to believe that Bill Self and company can make it to Houston. Let’s dive in.
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Despite the perceived difficulty of this bracket, the Jayhawks are still the best team in the region. Unlike his teams of years past, this year’s version of the Jayhawks seem to be much more of a balanced, team-oriented squad than some of the star-laden ones he’s previously taken to the Big Dance. It also helps that the main contributors are mainly upperclassmen. Frank Mason, Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden Jr, Landen Lucas and Branne Greene are all juniors or seniors. Devonte Graham as a sophomore has also really stepped up sitting fourth on the team in scoring.
Kansas can light up from three point land. They’re just 60th in the country in 3 point attempts per game at 8.3, but they’re second in the nation in three point field goal percentage at 42.6%. That’s a good sign on two levels. One, they don’t need to make a ton of threes to win. This time of year, the teams that rely on the three point ball are often the first to go out as that can be very inconsistent come tournament time playing in unfamiliar arenas with short periods between games on the first weekend. Kansas can bang down low and attack the basket as well as anyone, in addition to being able to step out and knock it down. Two, when they do take threes, they make a high percentage.
Finally, the defense. Kansas allows its opponents to score just about 68 points per game and average nearly seven steals a night (6.8). If you’re an advanced stats person, they’re 5th in the country in defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pom. Combine that with the 8th most efficient offense and a group of tournament tested, experienced veterans, the Jayhawks look like they can handle what seems to be the toughest region.
Upset Alert: Arizona
This is tough for me because I really like Sean Miller’s squad. They’ve got size (Caleb Tarczewski/Dusan Ristic), experience at the point (Gabe York) and a match-up problem (Ryan Anderson). Here’s the problem. They get the winner of a First Four contest between Wichita State and Vanderbilt. If you’ve read my potential bracket busters piece you know what I think about the Shockers. Vandy has just as much of a chance of making a run because of the talent. Yes, they looked horrible against a bad Tennessee team, but Wade Baldwin is an NBA talent, Damian Jones is a force down low, Luke Kornet is a problem for big men with his outside shooting and Jeff Roberson is a physical defender who makes it tough on anybody he guards.
There have been times Arizona has looked great this year, but also times where they’ve been very beatable (losing to Colorado and Utah back-to-back). At home, the ‘Cats were nearly perfect (17-1), but on the road and in neutral site games they were just 8-7. Spoiler alert, NCAA games aren’t played in home arenas.
Another thing to keep in mind, at least one First Four team each year has advanced to the Round of 32. Each of the last two years, it came from the 11-seed game and that’s exactly where Wichita State and Vanderbilt find themselves. Now, you may be saying “yeah there’s another 11-seed play-in game on the other side with Michigan and Tulsa.” Okay, true, but neither of those teams are as well liked by the metrics as these two teams. Wichita State is 12th in Ken Pom, Vanderbilt is 26th while Michigan (56) and Tulsa (58) aren’t even in the Top 50. For reference, Arizona is 16th.
There’s plenty to like about Arizona, but they seem to be the most likely upset in this region. You could also talk me into Hawaii over Cal, but other than that, this region seems very chalky.
Surprise Sweet 16 team: Vanderbilt/Wichita State
It should come as no surprise to you then that one of these teams would be the pick for a surprise team to make it out of the first weekend. For all of the reasons previously listed, these two squads seem to be the most likely of the low seeds in this region to emerge from the first weekend.
Dark Horse Regional Champ: Miami (FL)
With how stacked this region seems to be, it’s easy to overlook Miami. Getting caught up in the starry names at Maryland or Cal, or looking at the experienced squads in Villanova or Kansas, you forget the Hurricanes. Beware. This team is fully capable of coming out of the region and booking a trip to Houston.
The ‘Canes are led by a senior back court of Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez, have a man child down low in Tonye Jekiri and an athletic wing man in Davon Reed. What’s most impressive about this team is its balance. Four players in double figures, nine guys who average 12+ minutes per game. They come at you in waves. Plenty of size (Jekiri, Murphy, Uceda), back court depth (Rodriguez, McClellan, Ja’Quan Newton, James Palmer) and an experienced coach in Jim Larranaga. Remember, Larranaga led George Mason on a Cinderella run to the Final Four back in 2006.
It’s easy to forget that Miami is in this region, but they could remind you just as forcefully come game time.
In the end, I still see Kansas emerging from this region. The Jayhawks’ balance and experience will play well in the tournament and despite a tough draw, Bill Self’s crew should emerge to punch a ticket to Houston.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.