The South region of the NCAA tournament features a Duke squad that most pundits figure should advance to the Final Four. Of course, March Madness has shown repeatedly that no projected result is a given.
The Blue Devils (29-4) are the No. 1 seed in the South despite losing in the semifinals of the ACC tournament to Notre Dame. Duke had previously won 12-straight and will be helped further by playing their first two games in Charlotte, which is just 142 miles from Durham.
The No. 2 seed in the South is Gonzaga, who have shown impressive form this season but have traditionally struggled come tournament time. Iowa State is a dangerous No. 3 seed, while Georgetown could be prone for an upset in the No. 4 spot. Utah is the fifth-seed and has become somewhat of a popular pick to make a surprise run. The Utes struggled at the end of year losing four-of-seven games after a strong start to the season.
Here’s a look at what to expect in what should be a pretty wide open region.
Player to Watch: Jahlil Okafor, C, Duke
The superstar freshman has been a dominant presence in the paint and might be the first overall pick in the next NBA draft. Okafor has been Duke's most reliable big man, averaging 17.7 points and nine rebounds per game. He already has a polished low-post presence and is a force on defense. Okafor will likely play a huge part in determining the Blue Devils’ results.
The Blue Devils are the prohibitive favorites in the South and might have enough fire-power to give Kentucky their best competition in the tournament. Along with Okafor, head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad features senior guard Quinn Cook (15.7 ppg) and freshman guard Tysus Jones (11.6 ppg, 5.8 apg). Justise Winslow is a player to watch, as the freshman has shown recent flashes of his lottery-pick potential.
Duke is Vegas’ pick to win the region at 7/4 odds, followed by Gonzaga (11/4), Iowa State (11/2) and Utah (8/1), according to bovada.lv. Georgetown is a relative longshot at 14/1.
The rest of the odds stack up this way:
San Diego State 25/1
St. John's 33/1
SF Austin 50/1
E. Washington 100/1
North Dakota State 150/1
North Florida 300/1
Robert Morris 300/1
Upset Pick: SMU
SMU have the distinct advantage of being coached by legend Larry Brown. His team plays in an organized, smart fashion and shouldn’t make any game easy for their opponents. Brown will likely have to face another solid coach in Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg in the third round. But don’t be shocked if SMU pulls off some magic and makes a decent run in the tournament.
For a single game upset, consider No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over No. 5 Utah. The Utes are a popular pick for a “sneaky good” team and perhaps they are. But losing four of your last seven games can’t be a good sign. In 2014, 12th-seeded S.F. Austin upended 5th-seeded VCU, so there is a precedent for the Lumberjacks stunning better ranked teams.
Conclusion: Pick Duke
When in doubt, go with the best team. The Blue Devils have so much talent and a legendary coach to help keep them on track. While it seems like the easy pick, it just might be the correct one.