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March 13, 2012
Tournament Preview
Kentucky in the South

by Drew Cannon


The South is the region of storylines. Among others, we have a potential 20th anniversary Duke-Kentucky Elite Eight rematch (and a possible matchup between Kentucky and Mississippi Valley State head coach Sean Woods, a Wildcat hero from that particular game), a potential Indiana-Kentucky "Game of the Year 2011-12" rematch in the Sweet 16, one of the most dangerous 15-seeds in recent memory (Lehigh) playing one of the most beatable 2-seeds (Duke), Nate Wolters, Tu Holloway, VCU in their victory lap, perhaps the best mid-major team in the country (Wichita State), and a potential round of 32 matchup (Kentucky-Connecticut) between preseason Top-5 teams boasting as many as five lottery picks and double-digit future NBA players.

And we're about to learn whether a suddenly less invincible-appearing Kentucky team is really any less invincible at all.

All times Eastern.

(16) Mississippi Valley State/Western Kentucky vs. (1) Kentucy (Louisville: Thursday, 6:50 on TBS)
This will be an unusually interesting 1-vs.-16 matchup, but not because the game should be particularly close. Emotions will most certainly be running high in the arena. Either Mississippi Valley State will pit head coach Sean Woods against his alma mater, or Western Kentucky will be able to pack quite a few fans into the nearby Louisville venue -- WKU boasts a student population over 20,000. Just remember, these aren't your older brother's Hilltoppers. They went 15-18 (7-9 in the Sun Belt) and a win over MVSU would be their first over a 2012 tournament team. Also, Kentucky's awesome.

(9) Connecticut vs. (8) Iowa State (Louisville: Thursday, 9:20 on TBS)
When NCAA tournament season begins, people love hop aboard the bandwagon for lower-seeded but overtalented teams in hopes that they will fulfill their preseason promise. And I agree with this philosophy, to a point. I certainly think that Connecticut 2012 is more likely than the overwhelming majority of 9-seeds to, say, make the Final Four. That said, teams that pull off the hype-mediocrity-fulfillment success story tend to demonstrate more evidence of the fulfillment section before their first tournament game. (Think 2010 Michigan State.) Depending on your point of view, UConn's best win is either at Notre Dame or against Florida State in the Bahamas. That's not to say that the Huskies can't win this game, or even that they can't beat Kentucky -- it's just to say that, well, maybe this team didn't figure everything out in the last few days.

(12) VCU vs. (5) Wichita State (Portland: Thursday, 7:15. on CBS)
VCU's Havoc defense is its calling card. This year, the Rams led the nation by forcing turnovers on over 27 percent of their opponents' possessions, and freshman reserve Briante Weber (one of three freshmen, along with Kentucky's Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, to make a conference All-Defensive team) led the nation with a seven percent steal rate. Everyone remembers star wing Bradford Burgess from last year, and big man Juvonte Reddic has really come into his own this year. But Wichita State is legitimately one of the best teams in the country, and I'd be surprised if their poise and experience (fifth most nationally, according to kenpom) weren't enough to hold off the Rams' attack.

(13) New Mexico State vs. (4) Indiana (Portland: Thursday, 9:45 on CBS)
The Aggies were never supposed to be here. Conference-mate Nevada ran their winning streak to 16 games at one point, and finished the WAC season with just a single loss. That said, New Mexico State is a surprisingly impressive replacement. Star player Wendell McKines sat out the 2011 season with an injury redshirt, and that turned out to be a blessing in disguise: Utah State was not to be stopped in-conference last year, and McKines's year off gave the rest of the Aggies time to get better. Unfortunately for New Mexico State, Indiana's Victor Oladipo is exactly the type of powerful, athletic defender who can give McKines trouble. They'll have a tough time making their way past the Hoosiers.

(11) Colorado vs. (6) UNLV (Albuquerque: Thursday, 9:57 on truTV)
This year has one of the weakest crops of 6-seeds in years, as our own Kevin Pelton showed yesterday. (Don't the 6-seeds look closer to the 14-seeds than any other group? Crazy.) UNLV certainly isn't a bad team, and they have a strong argument as the best 6 in the field, but they have definitely limped to the finish line. Also, I'm not sure how bad the Pac-12 really was this year. Colorado has someone we're positive can rebound (Andre Roberson), someone we're positive can protect the rim (Roberson again), someone we're positive can shoot (Spencer Dinwiddie), and a few guys who can put the ball in the basket. I'm leaning UNLV at this point, but the Buffaloes play pretty strong interior defense, and the Rebels' guards are only really scary when they're Runnin' (hey-oh!). If Colorado can control the pace the way they have been, this will be a tough game for UNLV to pull out.

(14) South Dakota State vs. (3) Baylor (Albuquerque: Thursday, 7:27 on truTV)
Their name hasn't carried the same weight since they lost to Kansas and Missouri and Kansas and Missouri and Missouri (and beat Kansas in between!), but is there a lineup in the country as legitimately fear-inducing 1 through 5 as Baylor's? (OK, Kentucky, North Carolina, Missouri, I'll accept Syracuse. But still.) At any time, each of Perry Jones, Quincy Miller, Quincy Acy, Brady Heslip, and Pierre Jackson can beat you by themselves. That's even more true of South Dakota State's number one option, Nate Wolters, who somehow paired a 38 percent assist rate with an 11 percent turnover rate and still finished in the Top 10 nationally in scoring. I do think, though, that people are getting caught up in Wolters' admitted awesomeness and forgetting that the Jackrabbits have had a tough time defending teams as athletic as Georgia, Oral Roberts,and Nebraska this year, much less the Bears.

(10) Xavier vs. (7) Notre Dame (Greensboro: Friday, 9:45 on CBS)
For all the hemming and hawing about Tu Holloway's shaky season, his rate stats are jarringly similar to his numbers from 2011. Granted, he's taken a noticeably, if not dramatically, smaller role in the offense. But he didn't go from "clutch giant-killer" to "solid player" since the brawl. He's played really well even since then. Holloway will be able to push Eric Atkins around a little bit, and Kenny Frease should be able to push Jack Cooley around a little bit, as well. The Irish are the better team, but I like the matchup for Xavier. Toss-up, but my gut says the Musketeers.

(15) Lehigh vs. (2) Duke (Greensboro: Friday, 7:15 on CBS)
This Lehigh team is the highest-ranked 15-seed, according to kenpom (86), since Winthrop in 2006. That Winthrop squad lost by two points to Tennessee. Here's the list of every 2-seed since 2006 ranked lower than Duke according to Pomeroy: 2010 Villanova, 2006 Ohio State, 2006 Tennessee. We discussed the Vols' first-round fate above; Ohio State beat a No. 132-ranked Davidson team by eight; Villanova went into overtime against Robert Morris. One of Duke's most vital assets, Ryan Kelly, may not be playing due to injury. C.J. McCollum, one of the most effective offensive players in the country, will be guarded by the Blue Devils' much-maligned perimeter defenders. I'm not sayin'. I'm just sayin'.

Third Round and Beyond
It's not too tough to argue Baylor, Kentucky, Wichita, and Duke into the Sweet 16 (in that order), but there are certainly teams capable of knocking off all four of them in their paths. There really isn't anyone in either half bracket who should be putting fear into the hearts of Kentucky or Baylor fans, though. And that's how I'd look at this Final Four pick -- Kentucky if you want to play it safe, Baylor if you want to play the sleeper.

Drew Cannon is a college student and a regular contributor to Basketball Prospectus. Click here to see Drew's other articles. Follow him on Twitter at @DrewCannon1.

Drew Cannon is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Drew by clicking here or click here to see Drew's other articles.

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