IS THIS VIRGINIA’S YEAR TO MAKE THE FINAL FOUR?
Sleepers & Giant Killers
The South region of the 2018 NCAA Tournament has two mid-major teams that nobody in the country would want to see in the first round.
The most interesting Giant Killer in this region might be Loyola-Chicago. The Missouri Valley Conference-winning Ramblers finished the year ranked #31 in RPI, and is a dangerous team given the way they shoot, defend, and rebound. They’ve held opponents to less than 63 points per game this year, and rank among the top 50 teams in the nation in opposing field goal percentages allowed (from inside and outside the arc).
Simply put, they don’t give away points. They even give up the sixth-fewest personal fouls in the nation, meaning you won’t get free points from them at the charity stripe, either. If the Ramblers get past Miami in the first round, they are the type of frisky team that could play their way into the Sweet 16.
Davidson is absolutely going to make life difficult for Kentucky, especially with the dreaded “5-12” curse looming as the backdrop to this game. Bob McKillop’s team won the Atlantic 10 tournament after defeating Rhode Island, who was a ranked team, and Davidson has two wins against Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure — two teams in the big dance — this year.
What makes these Wildcats especially dangerous against the more prominently-known Wildcats is that nearly every player McKillop likes to put on the floor can shoot the three-point shot at a 35% or better rate. While Davidson should be a handful, Kentucky has been scorching hot lately, and Davidson might not be able to stop the runaway freight train that is the other Wildcats team they’re playing.
Best & Most Underrated Players
Virginia’s Devon Hall is a jack-of-all-trades who does a little bit of everything for the Cavaliers, with the knack for doing whatever it is they need most at the most opportune time. He also happened to lead Virginia in three-point shooting percentage (45.2%), and converted the second-most three-point attempts all year.
Senior Gary Clark of Cincinnati was excellent this year, averaging 13 points and over eight rebounds per game. Those might not seem like spectacular numbers, but he had one of the better overall offensive ratings in the nation. You could make the argument that he’s one of the dangerous players in this entire region.
If you’re looking for an underrated player, you should head right back to the alma mater of one Stephen Curry. Davidson’s Peyton Aldridge is the reigning Atlantic 10 player of the year, after leading his Wildcats in scoring, rebounding, and blocks. He’s confounded opposing teams all year, with his ability to score from both the interior and from outside the arc, and set up his teammates for easy buckets when opposing teams try to collapse on him.
Top NBA Prospects
Center DeAndre Ayton from Arizona isn’t just the best NBA prospect in this region; he might be the best NBA prospect in the entire nation. NBA scouts will want to see Ayton dominate his opponents, so that they can feel more comfortable recommending taking him right at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.
Fellow center Mohamed Bamba from Texas looks like a true NBA center in terms of his height (a legit seven feet), and his enormous upside as a defender and the flashes of NBA-caliber low post scoring and rebounding he’s shown make him a tantalizing prospect. He almost certainly will be taken among the top five picks in this upcoming draft.
Kentucky forward Kevin Knox is one of the superb athletes that John Calipari has brought to Lexington, showing the ability to shoot the three and provide a spark that’s rare for a player of his size (6’9 and 210lbs). He still needs to pack on some bulk and further develop his shooting and ball-handling, but he has the raw tools that every NBA team covets.
Knox’ teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is coming into the tournament on a hot streak, after tearing it up in the SEC tournament and winning the tournament MVP award. We know the Wildcats’ offense is at his best when he’s on the floor, and he if can continue to knock down shots like he did in the SEC tournament (he scored 21 points per game on 55% shooting in those three games), his NBA draft stock should soar.
Lonnie Walker IV from Miami is an explosive scorer with plenty of athleticism, but he can also be highly streaky, which is giving some NBA scouts pause as to whether he’s worth an early pick in the first round. The NBA types will be keeping a close eye on Walker during the tournament, looking for him to be able to knock down shots consistently when the lights are shining the brightest. If he does, with his 6-foot-5 frame, he could find himself going among the top half of the first round of the draft.
It’s the same story for the Wahoos: they can stop anyone in the country from scoring on them, but can they muster up enough offense of their own?
Lack of creativity notwithstanding, we’ve got this region going chalk through the first round, although we wouldn’t be surprised to see Loyola-Chicago and/or Davidson could pull off first round upsets. Assuming things go chalk, in the Round of 32, expect Arizona to beat Kentucky in an early heavyweight matchup, as Arizona’s offensive talent thrives when running on the break, and Kentucky has had a suspect transition defense for much of this year. Tennessee’s stifling man-to-man defense could result in Miami’s youthful group committing one too many turnovers, although Jim Larranaga is one of the best X-and-O’s coaches in the nation; still, give the slight edge to the Volunteers.
In the Sweet 16, look for Arizona to send Virginia and head coach Tony Bennett home early, yet again. While Virginia’s defense is incredible, they’re best at stifling opponents on the perimeter, which works well for a Wildcats team that would prefer to beat you on the inside. Coupled with Arizona’s firepower (they average 119.4 points per game), it just seems like a bad match-up for the Cavaliers. On the other side, the Volunteers have a great combination of offense and defense, but Cincinnati has a better one, getting them to the Elite Eight.
However, we again like the Wildcats’ athleticism and depth in the transition offense getting the better of the Cincinnati’s defense, delivering embattled coach Sean Miller his first Final Four appearance.
Final Four Prediction: ARIZONA
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