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The South Region features some of the most talented teams in college basketball, a team that was formerly No. 1 in the country and a couple of the hottest teams in the country. North Carolina came into the year as the overwhelming favorite to win it all, while Gonzaga and Syracuse are playing very well lately. Oklahoma and Arizona State both have All-Americans on their roster, while the SEC and Horizon League regular-season champions are also represented, as well as the Atlantic-10 Tournament winner.
Favorite: North Carolina. The Tar Heels remain the most talented team in the country and have the personnel best-suited to win the national championship. However, they struggle defensively at times and All-American point guard Ty Lawson has an injured toe. Still, Lawson and Wayne Ellington form an outstanding backcourt duo, and Tyler Hansbrough is an All-American up front. Danny Green is a versatile player on the wing and Deon Thompson is a budding star.
Contenders: Oklahoma, Gonzaga. Oklahoma was near the top of the rankings all season long, before struggling down the stretch. However, Blake Griffin is back and fully healthy and is the best player in the country. He is a dominant force and can carry the Sooners, while Willie Warren is developing into a star on the perimeter. Taylor Griffin is an underappreciated option in the frontcourt. Austin Johnson runs the show and is a key for the Sooners. Gonzaga excels at both ends of the floor and has the weapons to play with anyone in the country. The perimeter is led by Matt Bouldin, one of the most underrated players in the nation, and Jeremy Pargo, who regressed this season but is still outstanding. Steven Gray and Micah Downs can shoot it. Jojsh Heytvelt is back to being his dominant self down low, but Austin Daye struggled late and needs to get much tougher up front.
Sleepers: Arizona State, Clemson. Arizona State has been an enigma all season long. The Sun Devils swept UCLA but were swept by Washington State and lost by double-digits to Stanford at home. ASU is home to one of the nation’s best inside-outside duos, though, in All-American James Harden and inside force Jeff Pendergraph. Harden is a fantastic all-around player. Forward Rihards Kuksiks is an inside-outside option and Derek Glasser is a solid distributor. This team also players great defense. Clemson is in the midst of its typical late-season swoon, but don’t count them out. The Tigers still have plenty of weapons, and are only a month removed from obliterating Duke by 27. Trevor Booker has developed into one of the best big men in the country this season, and K.C. Rivers is the go-to-guy on the perimeter with his scoring ability. Terrence Oglesby is an excellent albeit streaky three-point shooter, while Demontez Stitt is quick and has solid playmaking ability.
Non-BCS Teams to Watch: Butler, Temple. Butler should have received a higher seed than a No. 8, based on its season performance. However, the Bulldogs are capable of playing with anyone in the nation, and could even scare North Carolina if they beat LSU. They don’t rely on their backcourt like last season; their frontcourt leads the way this season with Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward up front. Shelvin Mack and Willie Veasley anchor the backcourt. This team needs to hit its outside shots to win, though. Temple struggled in mid-February, but bounced back to win the Atlantic-10 Tournament title in impressive fashion. The Owls made a similar run last season. Dionte Christmas is one of the best shooters and scorers in the country, while Lavoy Allen is a double-double threat every night down low. Ryan Brooks is a good three-point shooter who provides balance for the Owls.
Upset Pick: Western Kentucky over Illinois. Yes, Western Kentucky made a run to the Sweet Sixteen, but no, the Hilltoppers are not the same team. Courtney Lee and Ty Brazelton are gone, but A.J. Slaughter and Orlando Mendez-Valdez lead a cast of three-point shooters. Illinois has struggled offensively all season long, and will likely be without point guard Chester Frazier. He spearheads the Illini’s defense, and without him, they might struggle to contain WKU defensively and keep up with the Hilltoppers ay the other end.
Top Five Players (only one per team):
1. Blake Griffin, Oklahoma
2. James Harden, Arizona State
3. Ty Lawson, North Carolina
3a. Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina
4. Marcus Thornton, LSU
5. Jonny Flynn, Syracuse
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