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NCAA South: Duke’s demons open up region




Top seeds: 1) Duke, 2) Gonzaga, 3) Iowa State, 4) Georgetown

How the South is won: Given Duke’s recent one-and-done flameouts the last two years, one can make a case this is the most wide-open region. Arguably the best Gonzaga team in Mark Few’s tenure and a resilient Iowa State side can be considered the Blue Devils’ equals at this stage, although Georgetown as a No. 4 seed seems somewhat surprising.

One thing in Duke’s favor is that none of the top four seeds have really made memorable postseason runs in recent years. Gonzaga went into the tournament as a No. 1 seed two years ago and was ousted by Wichita State in the third round, a loss which looked a bit better when the Shockers reached the Final Four. Iowa State was a Sweet 16 team last year.

While Utah slumped near season’s end, the Utes appear to have gotten a reasonable draw as a No. 5 seed. Guard Delon Wright is the type of versatile player who can will a team to a win any time out, and if 7-0 freshman Jakob Poeltl can avoid foul trouble, Utah will have the inside-outside combo to give anyone trouble.

UCLA’s inclusion in the field is somewhat surprising, given that it had just two wins in nine tries against ranked teams this year. But the Bruins looked like an NCAA team in Friday night’s Pac-12 semifinal loss to Arizona.

Upset Watch: Look out for Eastern Washington against Georgetown in the 4-13 game. Eastern is the nation’s second-ranked team offensively, and as Tom Crean’s Indiana team found out in non-conference play, it is capable of beating a big boy.

The 10-12 seeds are also capable of blowing up brackets. Stephen F. Austin, which plays Utah in a 12-5 game, bumped off VCU last march in a second round contest.

Get to Know: A classic one-and-done freshman, Duke’s Jahlil Okakor will be a lottery pick in June. Okafor may be a below-average defender, but he can score and rebound in concert like few in the college game. His post presence makes the Blue Devils a tough cover in the half court.

It only seems like Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos has been there for 10 years. The Zags’ unquestioned floor leader may be the program’s best lead guard since John Stockton.

Utah’s hoops renaissance owes much to 6-foot-5 senior Delon Wright, the program’s first two-time first team all-conference pick in 15 years. Wright routinely stuffs the stat sheet in three categories and provides leadership.

One to see: It’s hard to imagine a matchup of more contrasting styles than San Diego State and St. John’s in the second. West vs. East, old school coach (Steve Fisher) against the still-hip Steve Lavin, great defensive team against a team full of good athletes. This should go down to a last shot.

Rock, Chalk: With depth at every position, Gonzaga has never been better equipped for a Final Four run than it is this March. In a potential regional final with Duke, it has plenty of bigs to battle Okafor and the versatility to play at any pace.

Numbers Inc.:

1 — The first-ever NCAA berth for North Florida.

3 — The number of starters UCLA saw leave for the NBA last spring with eligibility still remaining.

8 — The number of scholarship players Duke had at one point following a spate of injuries and the dismissal of senior guard Rasheed Sulaimon.

10 — Davidson’s seed this year. When Stephen Curry led it to an Elite Eight berth in 2008, it was as a No. 10 seed.

15 — The number of wins by 20 or more points this season for Utah, the most in Division I.

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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