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March 17, 2015

March Madness 2015: Breaking down the South Region

Iowa State advances, Davidson pulls upset, and Utah makes unexpected run

I may be the only college basketball fan in the country that doesn’t possess a ridiculously strong opinion on Mike Krzyzewski and Duke basketball. Normally, you either worship the Blue Devils (a small, but vocal minority) or despise them (everyone else). Sunday night on ESPN, a “30 for 30” aired that entirely centered on how hated one of the program’s all-time greats still is to this day, mostly for simply being a talented basketball player! Despite Tony Romo and Jason Garrett’s best efforts, Duke hoops never elicited strong feelings from me in either direction. 

Duke is the top seed in the South Region and attempting to return to the Final Four for the first time since cutting down the nets in 2010 (Side note: If Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave drops, it’s the greatest single play of all-time, right?). Jahlil Okafor scoring in the post has been a flat circle throughout his stellar freshman season, and fellow youngins Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow have helped lead the Blue Devils to a 29-4 record. Can they win four games and return to Indianapolis, site of their last national title?

(By the way, all of these predictions are going to be incorrect. Fair warning.)

What to watch for in the South


No. 10 Davidson over No. 7 Iowa -- When attempting to identify potential first-round upsets, I found that the left side of the bracket is much more appealing than the right. Bob McKillop is an experienced tourney coach and his team executes flawlessly on offense, so why not back them? Forget about the game for a minute, though. The real question is when did institutions of higher learning decide to start tweeting like NBA teams?


No. 5 Utah -- According to Ken Pomeroy, the Utes are the eighth-best team in the country and they’re led by a star player in Delon Wright (Dorell’s younger brother) who does pretty much everything. I would be interested to watch freshman big man Jakob Poeltl face Okafor in the Sweet Sixteen.


No. 3 Iowa State -- This region has the potential to be total chaos once the venue changes to Houston in the later rounds. In my uninformed opinion, Duke is the most vulnerable of the one seeds because of their lackluster defense. Gonzaga is the next-best team, but I’m sick of waiting for them to break through. That leaves Iowa State, who won their three thrilling Big 12 Tournament games by a combined eight points. Fred Hoiberg seems like a charismatic guy and exceedingly competent head coach, so I feel comfortable throwing my support behind his team.

And now to see just how Iowa State got to the Final Four, here's a game-by-game breakdown of the South Region:

• First Four •

No. 16 North Florida (23-11) vs. No. 16 Robert Morris (19-14)

I wonder if former Penn guard Andy Toole would’ve been the best hire for his alma mater, but the job went to former Cornell and Boston College coach Steve Donahue. The last two years, the Atlantic Sun champion (Mercer, Florida Gulf Coast) won the opening round game against tougher opponents than Bob Morris. I’ll say the trend continues.

WINNER: North Florida

• Second Round •

No. 1 Duke (29-4) vs. No. 16 North Florida

Who am I to argue with history?


No. 8 San Diego State (26-8) vs. No. 9 St. John’s (21-11)

Anytime you can back someone that admitted to being a poor conference tournament coach, you got to do it. This is the NCAA Tournament, after all. Steve Fisher’s team kept Temple out of the Big Dance by losing to Wyoming in the Mountain West title game, and Philly product Rysheed Jordan sends him home here.

WINNER: St. John’s

No. 5 Utah (24-8) vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin (29-4)

The Fighting Jeremiah Trotter’s are a popular upset pick, and they’re fueled by a high-octane offense. As mentioned above, I really like Utah’s chances to advance deep in the tourney.


No. 4 Georgetown (21-10) vs. No. 13 Eastern Washington (26-8)

Against my better judgment, I’m backing JT3 as a high seed here. Making the pick even scarier is that the game will take place in Portland. The Hoyas have to travel cross-country while Rip City is a tidy two-hour drive away from Eastern Washington’s campus.

WINNER: Georgetown

No. 6 SMU (27-6) vs. No. 11 UCLA (20-13)

One of these teams might be a little underseeded while the other should be playing in the NIT. Easy choice.


No. 3 Iowa State (25-8) vs. No. 14 UAB (19-15)

I’d pick in Iowa State in a football game, too.

WINNER: Iowa State

No. 7 Iowa (21-11) vs. No. 10 Davidson (24-7)

To be completely honest, Davidson didn’t impress me all that much in the two games I watched them play this year. Again, that sample absolutely qualifies me as an expert. Still, I’ll go with them because you need to pick at least one upset.

WINNER: Davidson

No. 2 Gonzaga (32-2) vs. No. 15 North Dakota State (23-9)

North Dakota State is an amazing athletic program, but I can’t picture them taking down the Zags. As Lee Corso often famously says on College Gameday, “Closer than the expert thinks.”

WINNER: Gonzaga

• Third Round •

No. 1 Duke vs. No. 8 St. John’s

This game would be a rematch of Coach K’s 1,000th career win at MSG from earlier this year. I feel like the result will be the same.


No. 4 Georgetown vs. No. 5 Utah

Two big, physically imposing teams meet up in this one. If you flipped the seeds on Selection Sunday, I don’t think anybody would’ve been surprised.


No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 6 SMU

Larry Brown was Hoiberg’s first NBA coach with the Indiana Pacers in 1995. He only played a total of 85 minutes that season, because Brown hates playing rookies (Ask Darko). SMU was very impressive in defeating UConn for the AAC title in a de facto road game, but I think they fall just short here.

WINNER: Iowa State

No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 10 Davidson

Two of the nation’s most successful mid-major programs meet up here. Unfortunately for McKillop and co., they don’t have any size. Gonzaga, equipped with the likes of Sabonis’ son, will destroy the Wildcats on the boards.

WINNER: Gonzaga

• Sweet 16 •

No. 1 Duke vs. No. 5 Utah

There’s a historical precedent for this game. In 2011, top-seeded Duke came into the Sweet Sixteen with a freshman stud (Kyrie Irving) riding high. They lost to an athletic Pac-12 team with a star player (Derrick Williams) rising to the occasion. I’ll say history repeats itself.


No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 3 Iowa State

This is where I believe Gonzaga’s weak conference slate will come back to bite them. In a close game, take the team that’s more battle-tested.

WINNER: Iowa State

• Elite Eight •

No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 5 Utah

If the region came to this (and it certainly won’t), I would literally have no feel for this game (of course, it’s not like I have a feel for any of these games). There’s something about The Mayor…