NCAA tournament preview: South Regional boasts North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA

A look at the NCAA tournament’s South Regional:

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FRIDAY: GREENVILLE, S.C.

1 North Carolina (27-7, at-large)

vs. 16 Texas Southern (23-11, Southwestern Athletic Conference champion)

Texas Southern Coach Mike Davis, who was Bobby Knight’s successor at Indiana, may be scowling more than usual as the Tar Heels run roughshod over his outmanned squad.

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8 Arkansas (25-9, at-large)

vs. 9 Seton Hall (21-11, at-large)

If Seton Hall, which is No. 38 nationally in defensive efficiency, can replicate its effort in a two-point loss to Villanova on Friday, this could be another 9-over-8 result, as has become common.

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THURSDAY: MILWAUKEE

5 Minnesota (24-9, at-large)

vs. 12 Middle Tennessee State (30-4, Conference USA champion)

Minnesota is vulnerable to a quick exit after senior guard Akeem Springs, a team captain, was lost for the season last week with an Achilles’ injury.

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4 Butler (23-8, at-large)

vs. 13 Winthrop (26-6, Big South champion)

Both teams average in the high 70s, so the scorekeeper will be busy. The Bulldogs could hurdle their norm against a porous defense.

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FRIDAY: SACRAMENTO

6 Cincinnati (29-5, at-large)

vs. 11 play-in winner

(see matchup below)

The grind-it-out Bearcats lost just once to a non-tournament foe and thrice to opponents not from Southern Methodist. But the play-in survivor often benefits from a game under its belt.

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3 UCLA (29-4, at-large)

vs. 14 Kent State (22-13, Mid-American Conference champion)

X-rays on Lonzo Ball’s thumb were negative, so the Bruins should thumb the Golden Flashes right out of the tournament even though the underdogs are on a 9-1 roll.

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FRIDAY: INDIANAPOLIS

7 Dayton (24-7, at-large)

vs. 10 Wichita State (30-4, Missouri Valley Conference champion)

Fiery Coach Gregg Marshall will use Wichita State’s low seed to ignite his Shockers. Archie Miller must rally the Flyers after a shocking one-and-done as top seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament.

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2 Kentucky (29-5, Southeastern Conference champion)

vs. 15 Northern Kentucky (24-10, Horizon League champion)

Some teams lack tournament experience. Then there is NKU, which just became eligible for the NCAAs, so the Wildcats can play Name That Score.

PLAY-IN GAME FOR NO. 11 :: TUESDAY :: DAYTON, OHIO

Wake Forest (19-13, at-large)

vs. Kansas State (20-12, at-large)

This boils down to Wake Forest’s eighth-ranked offense (for efficiency), featuring 19-points-per-game scorer John Collins, against the Wildcats’ No. 27 defense.

NCAA March Madness bracket »

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Top seeds

[1 NORTH CAROLINA]

It’s no secret that the Tar Heels are efficient offensively, given their No. 4 national ranking. But a 25th rating on defense makes North Carolina a legitimate top seed.

[2 KENTUCKY]

In what has been characterized as a down season, the Wildcats still land a No. 2 seed. Kentucky lacks the size of recent editions and will rely on finesse more than brute strength.

[3 UCLA]

No team in Division I averages more points than the Bruins, who have a half-dozen scorers averaging in the double digits. The formerly suspect defense has upgraded to mediocre.

[4 BUTLER]

The Bulldogs dealt No. 1-ranked Villanova two of its three defeats this season. Back in November, they tripped up then-No. 8 (albeit beat-up) Arizona.

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Cinderella search

Middle Tennessee State, which ambushed Michigan State in the tournament a year ago, takes aim at another Big Ten team — injury-troubled Minnesota. A nice ranking parlay: 55th in offensive and 47th in defensive efficiency.

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Top players

Lonzo Ball, guard, UCLA

The freshman elevated the Bruins’ offense from very good to out of this world. Just don’t show his awkward — if effective — shooting form at clinics.

Justin Jackson, forward-guard, North Carolina

In a lineup loaded with scorers, he is the most prolific, at 18.1 points per game. The junior enhanced his NBA prospects by returning to Chapel Hill.

Malik Monk, guard, Kentucky

The Wildcats, with limited size, were forced to become backcourt-oriented, and this freshman helped the conversion by averaging 20.5 points per game.

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Rim shots

• Kentucky has reached 56 tournaments and has logged 177 NCAA games. For its opponent, Northern Kentucky: none and none.

• It’s not easy for a so-called mid-major school to qualify for repeated appearances. Wichita State has earned six consecutive invitations or automatic berths.

• Of the eight schools in the bottom half of the bracket, three are from Ohio — and none has “Ohio” in its name (Cincinnati, Dayton, Kent State).

• A Cincinnati-Wake Forest meeting could provide the biggest size mismatch of the tourney — for coaches. Cincinnati boss Mick Cronin is 5 feet 7; Wake Forest’s is Danny Manning 6-10.

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