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2024 Bracket Analysis: South Region

Jamal Shead, Houston 

The Top Seed: Houston Cougars

Moving from the friendly confines of the American Athletic Conference to arguably the toughest league in college basketball? No problem for the Houston Cougars, who secured their second consecutive No. 1 seed after going 30-4 overall and 15-3 in the new-look Big 12. It's clear Kelvin Sampson has built a winning formula here - the Cougars are a physical, hard-nosed team that makes their opponents work for every inch on the hardwood, and they do just enough offensively to outlast whoever they face. It's not necessarily a beautiful brand of basketball, but it's hard to argue with the results, and Houston is going to be a tough out for anybody on this side of the bracket. It helps that guards Jamal Shead and L.J. Cryer have given them a different look offensively, offering more playmaking and shooting than they've had in recent years. Cryer in particular was quite the get for Sampson and staff - not only does he open up the floor with his three-point shot, the experience in the NCAA Tournament he gained at Baylor will be indispensable this March. Considering the other veteran-laden teams in this region, namely Marquette and Wisconsin, that type of experience could be the edge this team needs to get Sampson and company back to the Final Four after a two-year hiatus.

Welcome Back to the Dance: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Building a winning basketball at a football school is always a daunting proposition, so it's no surprise that it took Fred Hoiberg a half-decade to get things rolling in Lincoln. But after four years of struggles, the Cornhuskers proved themselves to be one of the best in the Big Ten, locking down their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014. It's an exceptionally fun Nebraska team, too - Keisei Tominaga is already a cult hero, and he has a chance to become a household name this March. The Japanese guard is one of the most fearless shooters you'll find anywhere in college basketball, and it wouldn't surprise to see him take over a game or two on the big stage. Add in swingman Brice Williams and steady forwards Rienk Mast and Juwan Gary, this is a balanced 'Husker offense that has fueled them to several major wins on the campaign. Texas A&M does offer a difficult matchup as a 9, as the Aggies are playing their best basketball of the season, but I don't think Nebraska came all this way to go one-and-done. I like them to overtake the Aggies, and if Tominaga can get hot, this is the type of team that could the top-seeded Cougars earlier than might be expected.

Don't Forget About: Duke Blue Devils

A disappointing loss to North Carolina in the regular season finale followed up by a loss in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament to NC State left Duke sitting on the four-line as they prepare for the 2024 NCAA Tournament. Despite the frustrating ending, this is a team with the ceiling of a Final Four contender - if they can string together more consistent basketball. For all the controversy surrounding Kyle Filipowski, the sophomore is one of the game's premier players, and head coach Jon Scheyer has surrounded him with capable playmakers, including Tyrese Proctor, Jeremy Roach, and Jared McCain. Yet, the same question remains that has haunted the Blue Devils all season long: can they figure out a way to close out games? Amazingly, despite eight losses, Duke did not lose a single game by double-digits, and their last three losses over the final month were by a combined 14 points. This is an exceptional basketball team for 35-36 minutes, it's those final few minutes that will make the difference come March. It makes Duke an unfamiliar wild card as they prep for their second NCAA Tournament under Scheyer. Whether they are upset by Vermont in the first round, or get hot and find themselves in Phoenix, just about nothing would surprise me from this team at the end of the day.

The Cinderella Possibility: NC State Wolfpack

A power program from the ACC may not fit the typical bill of a "Cinderella" but if there's one team seeded higher than ten I think could cause serious damage in the South Region, it's NC State, even more so than mid-major darlings James Madison and Vermont. Head coach Kevin Keatts looked like he was going to be entering the 2024-25 season on a hot seat, but instead ripped off a miraculous ACC Tournament run that culminated in the Wolfpack shocking in-state rival UNC in the Championship Game. It's certainly not the first time we've seen a power conference team get hot at the right time and find a way into the field, but it becomes amazing considering the circumstances. NC State finished the regular season sub-.500 in a mediocre ACC and took their lumps in the non-conference slate. Yet, at no point in their ACC Title run did it feel fluky, as they come out and looked like the superior team in each and every win. Clearly, it's a time that believes, and they have a great understanding of their identity. They'll pound the rock to the gigantic D.J. Burns underneath, but guards D.J. Horne, Jayden Taylor, and Casey Morsell can all open things up and make this offense quite imposing. Interestingly enough, it's a team with ample NCAA Tournament experience - Burns played in one at Winthrop, Horne at Arizona State, and Morsell at Virginia. I don't think they'll be intimidated by this stage in the slightest.

Buy Stock Now: Florida Gators

Not since Billy Donovan was on the sidelines in Gainesville have we seen a deep run from the Florida Gators, but I suspect that could change this year. Second-year head coach Todd Golden has revitalized the program, winning 24 games and taking them to the SEC Championship Game. He did so behind an explosive offense, one spearheaded by four elite guards: Walter Clayton Jr., Zyon Pullin, Will Richard, and Riley Kugel. That foursome has the Gators looking to play at a frenetic pace - they are going to look to run at every opportunity and get up as many shots as possible. Now, they'll still need to maintain a presence in the post to have a chance at a deep Tournament run, and those chances took a hit with the scary injury in the SEC Tournament to big man Micah Handlogten. As much as it hurts to Handlogten, a key rebounder and defender on the block, you do wonder if it's the type of moment that can galvanize this team and help them reach another gear this deep into the season. That may not have happened in the SEC Championship Game, but Handlogten will be in Indianapolis to cheer on his teammates, and this could be the beginning of a special March story. Florida should be favored against whoever wins the "First Four" matchup in the South, whether that ends up being Boise State or Colorado, but don't count out Florida's chances against Marquette, either. Tyler Kolek's status remains completely up-in-the-air as we enter March, and you do wonder how Shaka Smart's team is going to handle the tempo. Either way, that has a chance to be one of the best second round matchups on the docket this time around.

Picking the South

First Round

1 Houston Cougars over 16 Longwood Lancers -- Houston's not likely to be a team that's going to run up the score against a 16-seed, but it's also not the type of game Kelvin Sampson loses, either. They should move on to the second round without much drama here.

8 Nebraska Cornhuskers over 9 Texas A&M Aggies -- Buzz Williams and the Aggies are finally starting to look like the team that begin the year in the Top 25 preseason, but Nebraska is the better team, top-to-bottom.

5 Wisconsin Badgers over 12 James Madison Dukes -- Did Wisconsin turn a corner during the Big Ten Tournament? After a hideous February, the Badgers are playing superb basketball, and an experienced roster like this should keep on chugging.

4 Duke Blue Devils over 13 Vermont Catamounts -- I've picked Vermont in upset bids countless times over the years, and not once have they pulled it off. Frankly, this pick is more out of spite than anything else.

6 Texas Tech Red Raiders over 11 NC State Wolfpack -- While I may see NC State as a "Cinderella" possibility, Texas Tech is a strong six seed. They have a lot of experience on this roster and the brand of defense they play makes them an incredibly tough out.

3 Kentucky Wildcats over 14 Oakland Golden Grizzlies -- Greg Kampe finally delivered Oakland their long-awaited NCAA Tournament berth, but I suspect it will be a short stay. They simply don't have the offensive weapons to match Kentucky for 40 minutes.

7 Florida Gators over 10 Boise State Broncos (First Four winner) -- The coach's son, Max Rice, gives Boise State quite the weapon to work with, but Florida is just too much in this one.

2 Marquette Golden Eagles over 15 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers -- Even with Tyler Kolek's status uncertain, Marquette is too good of a basketball team for their season to finish at the hands of 15-seed Western Kentucky.

Second Round

1 Houston Cougars over 8 Nebraska Cornhuskers -- This could be a very good game, but the suffocating Cougars contain Keisei Tominaga and pound Nebraska on the glass.

4 Duke Blue Devils over 5 Wisconsin Badgers -- A rematch of the 2015 National Championship Game, with the end result the same. A.J. Storr gives Wisconsin a threat to lead their offensive effort, but the Blue Devils just have so many options.

3 Kentucky Wildcats over 6 Texas Tech Red Raiders -- This is the type of game that makes picking Kentucky this year so difficult. Is the offense going to show up against a well-coached Texas Tech team? I'll say yes, but this a tough matchup for them.

7 Florida Gators over 2 Marquette Golden Eagles -- Interesting tidbit: not since taking VCU to the Final Four in his first NCAA Tournament trip has Shaka Smart gotten to the event's second weekend. Unfortunately, I suspect that trend to continue, as the Gators overwhelm an undermanned Golden Eagles team.

Sweet 16

4 Duke Blue Devils over 1 Houston Cougars -- This is the type of game where Jon Scheyer can prove himself as a head coach. He has the talent advantage, but does he draw up a gameplan to overcome the pesky Cougars? I think he can, but Duke's late-game woes make this pick awfully risky.

3 Kentucky Wildcats over 7 Florida Gators -- What an SEC matchup in the Sweet 16, featuring six elite guards. Although, I suspect it's going to end up being the chess match down low that ends up deciding this contest, where the Wildcats hold the edge. 

Elite Eight

3 Kentucky Wildcats over 4 Duke Blue Devils -- Am I crazy? The last time I picked Kentucky to go to the Final Four was two years ago, when their loss to St. Peter's burned my bracket on the event's first night. This team inspires even less confidence, as about as inconsistent and streaky of a John Calipari-coached team as I can remember. And yet, with Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard leading the way, they have an incredibly high ceiling, and I'm not in love with the top two seeds in this region. Calipari is going to get another one, and this team might be the one to do it. 

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