Regardless of whether you fill out your bracket based on mascots, analytics, gut feeling or favorite coaches, sometimes the path a team has to the Final Four is just as important as how good the team is.
Think about it. If a team has a tough first opponent one of two things can happen: they will either be outplayed and lose, or show their resilience and come out on top. It could also go the other way for top-seeded teams who may not come out to play (remember #15-seed Middle Tennessee State upsetting #2-seed Michigan State in last year’s tourney?). Just a few factors to keep in mind for this year.
Sean Miller might be the best coach never to go to the Final Four, and if the Wildcats reach the last weekend of the tournament, they will be playing at home. After they dispose of overwhelmed North Dakota, Saint Mary’s looms as a tricky opponent that has dropped only four games all season. However, the Gaels have played a weak schedule, and Arizona is battle tested. The Wildcats have the bigs to stop Jock Landale, and St. Mary’s struggles if Landale isn’t leading them.
Possible Sweet 16 opponent Florida State has won three tournament games in 15 years. Arizona won 15 road/neutral games this year, while FSU captured seven games outside of Tallahassee. In the regional final, Arizona will face the weakest number-one seed in Gonzaga. The Zags beat the Cats 69-62 in December. Arizona’s top scorer Allonzo Trier was suspended for that contest. The Wildcats have the clearest path to Phoenix, and will play all of their games within a short flight, or reasonable drive for their large fan base.
As a six seed, you are hoping for two things. First, an opening game against a squad you are better than, and second, an overrated number-three seed for the right to move to the Sweet 16. SMU, one year removed from Larry Brown leading their resurrection, is one of the best defensive and rebounding teams in the NCAA. Neither of SMU’s possible first round matchups, Providence or USC, have any recent tournament success, and will be playing on short rest. Baylor, the Mustangs likely second round opponent, has gone out as a well regarded team in the first round each of the last two years. And this season, the Bears peeked in December or January. SMU could easily find themselves playing Duke with nothing to lose.
If you are a 12 or 13 seed, to make it to the Sweet 16 you need to pull two big upsets, or win a game and get a break. MTSU beat Michigan State last year and now gets untested Minnesota in the first round. The Blue Raiders are both strong on defense, and shoot a high percentage.
Opposite the Middle Tennessee State/Minnesota contest is Winthrop and Butler. The Eagles, winners of the Big South regular and tournament title, have a dynamic scoring guard in 5’7” Keon Johnson, and should be able to score in transition against Butler. The Bulldogs slumped down the stretch losing their final two games, and it is possible the Big 10 and Big East are not all that big (or good). If you want a double-digit seed to reach the Sweet 16, these two are solid candidates.
Photo Credit: By Lance Linn [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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