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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Pat Forde

South Region Breakdown: Top Two Seeds Houston and Marquette Have Strong Cases For Final Four

March Madness is upon us, and the release of Sunday’s 2024 men’s NCAA tournament field of 68 means it’s time to start analyzing seedings, matchups and potential Cinderellas.

Who’s making it out of Dallas in the South Region? Here’s our preview and prediction.

[ 2024 March Madness: Latest News & Analysis ]

State of the No. 1 seed: Houston Cougars

The Cougars were absolutely rolling until they hit a brick wall named the Iowa State Cyclones in the Big 12 tournament final. Losing that game by 28 points doesn’t seem like a very good way to enter the NCAA tourney. Prior to that, Houston had won 11 straight in the deepest conference in America, most of them with relative ease. The Cougars should be built for success in this tournament with excellent guards and vicious defense. If there is a concern, it’s lackluster scoring inside the arc (just 48.4% accuracy on two-point shots) and sketchy foul shooting (69.4%).

Related: March Madness: Forty Things to Watch in the 2024 NCAA Men’s Tournament

Toughest draw: No. 7 Florida Gators

After advancing to the SEC tournament title game, the Gators were probably hoping for something better than a No. 7 seed. Their first-round game is against either the Boise State Broncos or Colorado Buffaloes, both of which had an argument to be seeded higher. If Florida gets past that round, the No. 2 seed Marquette Golden Eagles will be waiting for it. And to make matters worse, the Gators must regroup quickly from the brutal broken leg suffered Sunday by 7-footer Micah Handlogten, who has been a reliable rebounder this season.

Related: West Region Breakdown: North Carolina Earns Last No. 1 Seed But Has Hard Path

Team that could bust your bracket: No. 12 James Madison Dukes

The Dukes could create some first-weekend chaos as a No. 12 seed. James Madison has the nation’s longest active winning streak at 13 games and began the season with a win at the Michigan State Spartans. They have a plus-7.8% accuracy differential from the three-point line, making 36.4% of their threes and allowing just 28.6%. Their first-round opponent, the Wisconsin Badgers, is coming off of an exhausting Big Ten tourney run that concluded Sunday and included an overtime game Saturday, while JMU concluded its tournament Friday. If James Madison beats Wisconsin, we could have Dukes-on-Duke crime in the second round against the No. 4 seed Blue Devils.

Related: Midwest Region Breakdown: Can Purdue Finally Break Through?

Player to watch: Tyler Kolek, Marquette Golden Eagles

There are a lot of great guards in this region, from Jamal Shead and L.J. Cryer at Houston to Wade Taylor IV at Texas A&M to Jeremy Roach at Duke to Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham at Kentucky to KJ Simpson at Colorado. But the most intriguing one is Marquette point guard Tyler Kolek. He didn’t play in the Big East tournament due to an oblique injury, and Marquette’s justifiably high hopes for the Big Dance will hinge on his health. Kolek is the best passer in the tournament, averaging 7.6 assists, but he also can score (15 points per game) and rebound (4.7).

Related: East Region Breakdown: Auburn Could Stand in UConn’s Way

Most intriguing matchup: No. 3 Kentucky Wildcats vs. No. 14 Oakland Grizzlies

The No. 3 seed Wildcats and No. 14 Grizzlies will shoot a million threes, run the floor and only occasionally guard each other. This has the makings of the highest-scoring game of the first round. If Oakland gets hot from the outside and doesn’t give up too many lob dunks to the taller Wildcats, the Grizzlies can make this stressful for Kentucky. John Calipari hasn’t gotten out of the first weekend since 2019.

Marquette guard Stevie Mitchell and the Golden Eagles look as strong as their No. 2 seed suggests.

Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

Regional finalists: Houston vs. Marquette

Both could face challenges in the second and third rounds, so nothing is guaranteed. But this is one region that looks like the top two seeds are legitimately the best teams.

Pick to win the region: Houston

Houston will win a game against Marquette that could feature a whole lot of deflections and forced turnovers. These are two of the most disruptive defensive teams in the nation.

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