2021 NCAA Tournament: South Region preview, picks, upsets and more

Duane Washington leads a dangerous Ohio State in the South Region of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s South Region at the 2021 NCAA Tournament is headlined by No. 1 seed Baylor, who is coming off a disappointing loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 semis.

At 22-2, the Bears began their 2020-21 campaign with a resounding 18 straight victories, which helped them maintain a No. 2 ranking in the AP poll before eventually losing to Kansas in late February.

Scott Drew’s bunch have been the 1b to Gonzaga’s 1a for much of the season, but their recent struggles have upended their betting market as of late, as they’re now 5:1 to win the National Championship.

Still, the Bears have the second-best odds to cut down the nets and appear a strong favorite to make it out of the South at -135 (DraftKings).

A first-round date with No. 16 Hartford will be a nice tune-up for what should be a compelling second-round showdown against either No. 8 North Carolina or No. 9 Wisconsin.

So without further ado, here’s our South Region preview —  starting with the aforementioned 8/9 matchup.

 

No. 8 North Carolina (-1.5) vs No. 9 Wisconsin

Friday, March 19, 7:10 p.m. ET

The Tarheels come into this contest 18-10, as Roy Williams’ group endured a slow start to their 2020-21 season, losing four of their first nine.

Since then, the Heels have turned it around admirably, finishing 10-6 in the ACC with wins over Florida State and Virginia Tech.

They’ve been great on the defensive end (14th in defensive efficiency), and feature a strong frontcourt spearheaded by 6-foot-10 sophomore Armando Bacot (12.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg).

Senior Garrison Brooks (6-foot-10) and freshmen Day’Ron Sharpe (6-foot-11) boast tremendous size as well, pounding teams both on the glass and in the paint.

I’m not sure the Badgers have the size or physicality to hang with the Heels for 40 minutes, which is why I’m taking Carolina in this matchup.

Wisconsin will have to depend on senior point guard D’Mitrik Trice for much of their scoring production, which won’t be enough to elevate the Badgers on Friday.

The Pick: UNC -1.5

 

No. 5 Villanova (-6.5) vs No. 12 Winthrop

Friday, March 19, 7:10 p.m. ET

Another trendy upset pick sees the 12th-seeded Winthrop Eagles looking to continue their fairytale season versus a stumbling Villanova team.

The Eagles coasted to a Big South title, with their lone blemish being a two-point defeat to UNC Asheville back in January.

Nova, now without co-Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie, has been a completely different team with him out of the lineup, as they’ve lost both games since his season-ending knee injury.

This bodes well for Winthrop, as they’re 22nd in the country in turnovers forced, and like to get out in transition, something the Wildcats struggle with.

I think Nova’s pedigree will ultimately be the deciding factor down the stretch, but I think the Eagles will do more than enough to cover the 6.5 in what should be a very close contest.

The Pick: Winthrop +6.5 

 

No. 4 Purdue (-7.5) vs No. 13 North Texas

Friday, March 19, 7:25 p.m. ET

The Mean Green come into this meeting having won four games in four days during last week’s Conference USA tournament, narrowly escaping Western Kentucky in the final —  61-57 (OT).

This one should be a rockfight, as both teams like to play at a snail’s pace. UNT ranks 350th in the country in adjusted tempo, while the Boilermakers are not far ahead at 274th.

Another thing trending in UNT’s favor is their experience in tough games, as their early season schedule featured the likes of Arkansas (3 seed), West Virginia (3 seed), Loyola-Chicago (8 seed), and Mississippi State (NIT).

Despite their 0-4 record in these games, they were highly competitive in all four, and I think that will continue on Friday against a defensive-minded Purdue team.

I expect this game to be somewhere in the high 50’s to low 60’s, with the Boilermakers eventually hanging on late.

The Pick: North Texas +7.5

 

No. 6 Texas Tech (-4) vs No. 11 Utah State

Friday, March 19, 1:45 p.m. ET

This will be an intriguing 6/11 matchup, as this number has already shrunk in Utah State’s favor since the line opened on Sunday (opened at -5.5).

The Red Raiders now come into this meeting just four point favorites, a situation that has bewildered Chris Beard’s group this season, as they’re a meager 9-14 ATS as a favorite.

However, I’m going to back Texas Tech in this spot, as I think they’re one of the few lower seeded teams that can make a legitimate Final Four run.

Sophomore guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (12.7 ppg) will be the x-factor for the Raiders, providing backcourt battery mate Mac McClung (15.7 ppg) with much-needed relief on the offensive end.

Tech has been at their best when everyone is contributing and they’re not relying too heavily on McClung, who’s gone into do-it-yourself mode far too often this season.

Kevin McCullar (10.1 ppg), Kyler Edwards (10.0 ppg), and Marcus Santos-Silva (8.5 ppg) must step up as well, especially if they are to beat No. 3 Arkansas in the second round.

Moreover, Utah State doesn’t move the needle much on offense (112th in offensive efficiency), which will rear its ugly head against Tech’s stout defensive unit (24th in defensive efficiency).

They haven’t really beat anyone, either — just 2-5 against Quad I opponents.

I’ll take the more battle-tested team in this meeting between two defensive juggernauts, and wouldn’t be surprised if Texas Tech finds themselves in a Sweet 16 matchup with No. 2 Ohio State next weekend.

The Pick: Texas Tech -4

 

No. 3 Arkansas (-8.5) vs No. 14 Colgate

Friday, March 19, 12:45 p.m. ET

Expect fireworks when No. 3 Arkansas faces off against 14-seeded Colgate on Friday, as this contest features the highest total of any game in the first round at 161.5.

Finishing 14-1 on the year, the Raiders cruised to a Patriot League title despite a condensed 15 game conference-only schedule.

They’re a difficult team to assess given the small sample size, however, their ninth overall NET ranking gives you a glimpse of how dangerous this 14-seed can be. 

With three guys shooting over 40% from deep, Colgate can out-shoot the Hogs on any given night, which could scare the Razorback faithful in a one-and-done situation.

It’s no secret that both teams will try to get up and down the court (17th and 20th in tempo) and score a bunch of points (second and seventh in total offense), so in this sort of track meet I turn my attention to the turnover battle, where Colgate has the fifth-lowest turnover rate in the country.

If the Raiders can limit their turnovers and slow down Arkansas’ transition offense, they should be able to hang around long enough to cover the 8.5, and possibly even stun the Hogs on Friday.

The Pick: Colgate +8.5

 

No. 7 Florida (PK) vs No. 10 Virginia Tech

Friday, March 19, 12:15 p.m. ET

In the first game of the first round, there’s very little to get excited for in this 7/10 matchup.

Both the Gators and Hokies have been mostly uninspiring this season, meandering their way to middling tournament seeds.

VT has only played three games since February 7, while the Gators haven’t defeated a tournament team since late-January.

All this surmounts to an all but certain second-round departure for either team, as neither should pose much of a threat to the No. 2 seed — Ohio State.

Regardless, someone has to win, leaning me towards the higher-seeded Gators despite the fishy betting line.

Every advanced metric will tell you Florida is the better team, as they have better offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, in addition to a higher KenPom and NET ranking.

They may not have the best player on the floor in Keve Aluma (15.6 ppg), but they do have the better backcourt in Tre Mann (16.0 ppg), Tyree Appleby (11.4 ppg), and Noah Locke (10.4 ppg).

It’s hard to find much to be excited about, but I think head coach Mike White’s experience in the big dance will propel Florida to a Sunday meeting with Ohio State.

The Pick: Florida PK

 

No. 2 Ohio State (-16) vs No. 15 Oral Roberts

Friday, March 19, 3 p.m. ET

The aforementioned Buckeyes are on the heels of a Big Ten championship defeat to Illinois this past Sunday, erasing a 17-point deficit before falling in overtime, 91-88.

Ohio State has been one of the most battle-tested teams in all of college basketball, as their 9-6 Quad I record serves as a friendly reminder of how strong the Big Ten is this season.

Despite their nine losses, the Bucks remain my pick to make it out of the South Region, with their Final Four quest beginning Friday afternoon against Oral Roberts.

The Golden Eagles are headlined by the country’s leading scorer — Max Abmas (24.2 ppg) — who led Oral Roberts to a surprise Summit League title over North Dakota State 10 days ago.

Although they’ve been a nice story, I fully expect Ohio State to take care of business on Friday, as the duo of Duane Washington Jr. (16.3 ppg) and E.J. Liddel (15.9 ppg) is one of the best 1-2 punches in the country.

Their side of the bracket is very favorable, and at +400 to make the Final Four, the Buckeyes are one of my favorite futures in this year’s tournament.

The Pick: Ohio State -16

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