If you like coach redemption stories, this region has a couple.
Team to beat
North Carolina is the obvious choice as the top seed in the region plus two wins over Duke. But we’ll go with Kentucky, which has the same 27-6 record and beat the Tar Heels by eight in December. The Wildcats aren’t just a team of one-and-dones. Two of their four players averaging double figures are veterans — sophomore forward PJ Washington (who withdrew from the draft last year) and forward Reid Travis (a grad transfer from Stanford). A deep frontcourt might be enough to take John Calipari to the school’s 18th Final Four (and first since 2015).
Magee for 3
A year after Loyola-Chicago gave us Sister Jean, Southern Conference champ Wofford provides this year’s antiseptic folk hero. Senior Fletcher Magee, who took three mission trips to the Dominican Republic while attending Orlando’s First Academy, is the catalyst of one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country. Magee (20.4 ppg) enters the tourney with 502 career 3-pointers, two shy of the NCAA mark held by Oakland’s Travis Bader. He also has made 90 of 98 free throws this season for the 29-4 Terriers.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson have a lot in common. Both were disgraced in their former jobs; Pearl lost his job at Tennessee for multiple off-court transgressions (including lying to the NCAA about a cookout with recruits), and the NCAA gave Sampson a five-year show cause penalty for making impermissible recruiting phone calls at Indiana. Both have found their way back into the tournament with top-five seeds, and both have teams capable of making a deep run.
If you prefer a more wholesome coach to follow, don’t forget Georgia State’s Ron Hunter. The last time his Panthers were in as a 14 seed, he was forced to roll around on a stool as he recovered from a torn Achilles … which he suffered celebrating his team’s Sun Belt Conference title. Hunter kept coaching and famously fell off the stool after his son hit the game winner to upset Baylor. Don’t expect a stool this time, but maybe Hunter can deliver another dramatic run.
It’s been more than two months since 12-seed New Mexico State has dropped a game. The Aggies are tested (they nearly upset Kansas in December) and have only lost 10 times in Chris Jans’ two seasons as head coach. They have a geographic edge, too, playing in somewhat-nearby Salt Lake City instead of having to fly across the country, as opponent Auburn must. If you’re looking for the annual 12-over-5 upset, this seems like a good option.