Yes, we don’t have March Madness, but because of great minds like Joe Lunardi at ESPN, we can have a glimpse at what the bracket may have looked like. In the latest State News series, we analyze and project what the NCAA tournament may have looked like, round by round, region by region.
Here is our projection of the South Region first round.
#1 Baylor vs. #16 Winthrop
Preview: What a story Baylor has been this season. After an early loss to Washington, the Bears rattled off a 23-game winning streak that included victories against the likes of Villanova, Butler and Kansas. Baylor spent much of the season as the AP No. 1 ranked team, getting 16 and 13.9 points per game from guards Jared Butler and MaCio Teague, respectively. Regardless of late season slip-ups against Kansas and West Virginia, the Bears are still a team no one wants to face come tournament time.
The Big South was able to complete their conference tournament before the world was flipped upside down, and the Winthrop Eagles punched their ticket to the dance by taking down Hampton in the championship game. As a team, they are scoring 81.3 points per game, good for seventh in the entire country. If they’ll have any hopes of taking down Baylor, they’re going to need every point they can get, as the Bears are ranked seventh in the nation, allowing just 60.1 points per game.
Prediction: I’m all for a good David vs. Goliath upset, but I just don’t see it happening here. Scott Drew will have his team ready to play. Baylor 75 – Winthrop 57.
#8 St. Mary’s vs. #9 Rutgers
Preview: Since 2008, there have only been two teams who can claim to have won the WCC tournament: Gonzaga and St. Mary’s. The Gaels took home the crown in 2019, but weren’t much of a factor this season, going 0-3 against the Bulldogs. Still, a 26-8 record along with wins against Wisconsin and BYU was good enough to get them a shot for their one shining moment. If they want any shot of getting that far, Jordan Ford is going to have to elevate his game while getting some help from his teammates. Ford is averaging 21.9 points per game while shooting 41.1% from three.
It was probably refreshing for Rutgers fans to see their basketball team have some success this season after enduring yet another worthless football campaign. They get a favorable first round matchup in St. Mary’s here, but are going to need all pieces of the puzzle to contribute if they want to advance. Their leading scorer, Ron Harper Jr., is only averaging 12.1 points per game.
Prediction: This game has the all the makings of a weird ending. Harper Jr. gets going in the second half and hits a game-winning floater to put the Scarlet Knights in the Round of 32. Rutgers 62 – St. Mary’s 61.
#5 Ohio State vs. #12 Stephen F. Austin
Preview: The Buckeyes had a solid start to the season, winning 11 of their first 12 games. After that, OSU played at a .500 level within the crowded Big Ten conference. Can C.J. Walker and Kaleb Wesson help rekindle the fire the scarlet and gray had in November? Anything can happen in March.
The highlight of the season for SFA came on Nov. 26, when they took down No. 1 Duke 85-83 in OT. The Lumberjacks didn’t slow down following the statement victory, winning 23-of-25 games to close out the season. Guard Kevon Harris has led the way all year, averaging 17.5 points per game on 46.8% shooting.
Prediction: They beat Duke, right? This SFA team reminds me of Loyola-Chicago in 2018, a team coming out of nowhere and surprising some people. Give me the Lumberjacks because, well, why not? Stephen F. Austin 67 – Ohio State 61.
#4 Louisville vs. #13 Vermont
Preview: I don’t know what to make of Louisville. They had a hot start to the season and took down teams such as Duke and Michigan, but also went 0-2 against Florida State and lost to Georgia Tech and Clemson. Jordan Nwora is the only player on the team averaging double digits in points per game, so that will have to change if the Cardinals are going to make a run.
Vermont doesn’t have a stellar resume, and only played one game against a ranked opponent this season, losing to No. 7 Virginia earlier in the year. However, they are averaging 59.5 points allowed per game, good for fourth in the country.
Prediction: Nwora has a monster game and puts the South Region on notice. The Cardinals win easily. Louisville 71 – Vermont 56.
#6 Virginia vs. #11 Cincinnati
Preview: The defending national champions hit a road block in the middle of the season with losses to South Carolina, Boston College and Syracuse. They would ultimately bounce back, however, ending the season on an eight game winning streak. While there is no real major offensive threat on this team, the Virginia brand of defensive basketball lives on, as the Cavaliers are ranked first in the nation, averaging 52.4 points allowed per game.
The Bearcats flew under the radar all season, finishing tied for first place in the AAC with Houston and Tulsa. They boast a balanced scoring attack, with four players averaging double figures in points per game, led by Jarron Cumberland with 15.5.
Prediction: This won’t be a UMBC-level upset, but it will be an upset nonetheless. The Bearcats prevail in a low scoring game. Cincinnati 54 – Virginia 51.
#3 Michigan State vs. #14 Bradley
Preview: The preseason No. 1 team got off to a slow start as they tried to adjust to life without Josh Langford, but coach Tom Izzo got the Spartans back on track as the season progressed. The dynamic duo of Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman Sr. should be able to wreak havoc in a relatively weak region.
Bradley finished behind Northern Iowa and Loyola-Chicago in the regular season MVC standings, but went on an impressive run in the conference tournament to earn an automatic bid. Darrell Brown and Elijah Childs, averaging 15.5 and 14.8 points per game respectively, will need to find another level if they want to help the Braves pull off the upset.
Prediction: January. February. Izzo. Michigan State 73 – Bradley 57.
#7 Illinois vs. #10 USC
Preview: The third Big Ten team in the South Region makes an appearance as a 7-seed, as Illinois burst onto the scene this year behind the stellar play of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. Having those two players representing the Fighting Illini will be enough for this team to compete with anyone in the tournament.
USC is another one of those teams where you don’t really know what you’re going to get on a nightly basis. The Trojans played four games against ranked opponents this season, all resulting in losses. Potential lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu has been remarkable all season, and his play could be the difference between a win and a loss.
Prediction: This one will go right down to the end and become an instant March Madness classic. Illinois 75 - USC 74.
#2 Creighton vs. #15 Arkansas-Little Rock
Preview: Creighton seemingly came out of nowhere this season and kept improving as the year continued on. Ty-Shon Alexander and Marcus Zegarowski both averaged more than 16 points per game and the Bluejays had four players shooting at least 35% from three. They’re not an easy team to defend.
The Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans finished as regular season champions of the Sun Belt conference, but didn’t really play anybody of note. Markquis Nowell quietly had a very good season, averaging 17.2 points per game and shooting just under 40% from three. He could make life for Creighton difficult in this matchup.
Prediction: Fellow State News sportswriter Sean Reider is very high on the Bluejays. For that reason alone, I’m rolling with Creighton. Creighton 76 – Little Rock 59.
Second Round Matchups
#1 Baylor vs. #9 Rutgers.
#12 Stephen F. Austin vs. #4 Louisville.
#11 Cincinnati vs. #3 Michigan State.
#7 Illinois vs. #2 Creighton.