Last week I wrote that Arizona had the easiest path to the Final Four, and therefore had value when looking at future prices. My other horses — SMU, Middle Tennessee State, and Winthrop — were not nearly as successful. With just 16 teams left in the bracket, let’s look at whose road to the title is paved with fresh tarmac and who faces rocky, treacherous terrain.
As predicted, the Cats had little trouble with North Dakota and out-athleted St. Mary’s. As if the Wildcats needed an extra edge, they now face the surprise team of the tournament, no. 11 Xavier. Prior to the tournament, the Musketeers were languishing. With point guard Edmond Sumner on the sideline (season-ending knee injury), they lost six of seven to close Big East play, only beating last-place DePaul. Arizona will have a home court advantage in California, and are miles better than the Musketeers.
The Cats will then face either Gonzaga or West Virginia. Both present a legitimate challenge. However, the Cats lost a close game with the Zags on a neutral court in November without two top players who have since returned:leading scorer Allonzo Trier and assist leader Parker Jackson-Cartwright.
If West Virginia beats the Zags, how will Arizona handle the Bob Huggins’ press? The Cats turn the ball over just 11 times a game, which is among the top 15-percent in the NCAA. They have the ball-handlers and the athleticism to deal with the pressure. And WVU doesn’t win when they don’t force turnovers.
Should Arizona reach the Final Four — which just happens to be in Glendale, about two hours from their campus — they won’t face Duke or Villanova; instead Wisconsin, Florida, Baylor, or South Carolina will be waiting. Wisconsin has veteran experience and Baylor has looked like a top-five team at times this year, but not one of the quartet has the talent of the Wildcats. When you factor in the homecourt advantage, Zona should be at least a four or five-point favorite against any of them.
Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, and UCLA are the most likely title matchups. Those are all brutally tough opponents. But the Cats at least have the easiest road to the championship game.
Their road: smooth concrete
There are those who ask why conference tournaments are important in leagues that receive multiple bids. Check-in with the Bruins for your answer. They have four losses all year, but because Arizona beat them in the Pac-12 Tournament, UCLA was given a three-seed in the South, otherwise known as the bracket of death. For the Bruins to reach the Final Four, they need to beat SEC champ Kentucky (31-5) and likely follow that up by downing North Carolina, a 29-win squad that is the co-betting favorite to win it all. Should the Bruins survive to the Final Four, they may run into the other co-chalk, Kansas, before even reaching the title game.
UCLA might be the most talented (offensive) team in the nation, but the roadblocks to a raising another banner at Pauley Pavilion are myriad and massive.
Their road: rugged mountain pass
I already touched on the fan-support Arizona will have if it makes the Final Four. Kansas will have that same edge in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight playing in Kansas City, MO. The Jayhawks opposition — Purdue, followed by Oregon or Michigan — is nothing to laugh at, but is one of the better draws remaining.
The Boilermakers tend to bully teams; Kansas is really tough to push around. If Purdue doesn’t win the battle of the boards by a big number, where else do they hold an advantage? Answer: nowhere. Their backcourt pales in comparison to Frank Mason and Devonte Graham, and they don’t have anyone who can hold a candle athletically to Josh Jackson.
A full-strength Oregon squad could give the undersized Jayhawks a lot of trouble. But that’s not what Kansas would face in the Elite Eight. The Ducks’ lost top shot blocker and third-leading scorer Chris Boucher (torn ACL) in the Pac-12 Tournament. Without him, they were nearly knocked off by no. 11 Rhode Island, coming back from four down with two minutes to play.
Michigan is an even better matchup for Kansas. Their bigs — Mo Wagner and DJ Wilson — played great against Louisville. But they’re not the type of big-men who dominate the glass, which is where you can expose the Jayhawks. They’re lankier guys who rely more on speed in the post, and Kansas has the athleticism to handle that. At the other end of the floor, the Wolverines will struggle to stop Kansas. Like basically every team in the nation, their backcourt would be overmatched against Mason and Graham, and I don’t see a good defensive matchup for Jackson on their roster.
If Kansas reaches the Final Four, a date with North Carolina, Kentucky, or UCLA would obviously be a big challenge before a potential title matchup with Arizona. But expect the Jayhawks to be among the last four standing.
Their road: variable conditions
Photo Credit: Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire.
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