NCAA Contender Concerns
Selection Sunday is less than two weeks away and some of the top contenders for the NCAA Tournament are clear. Many expect a wide open field this season however and here some possible concerns for 11 teams that have a good shot to wind up seeded in the most favorable spots on the bracket.
Kansas: Bill Self’s past tournament failures
With a long winning steak heading into the final week of the regular season including a late February win at Baylor, Kansas is a near-certain #1 seed and currently in position to be the #1 overall seed in the tournament. The statistics are very compelling with the top rated defense in the country while Silvio De Sousa is set to rejoin the team next week. This team has great size and talent and a quality track record featuring five top 20 caliber wins, four of which have come away from home while being a one-point and a two-point loss away from being 28-1.
It is impossible to ignore Bill Self’s disappointing NCAA Tournament track record however. Kansas did win the 2007-08 championship but they had a favorable path in terms of opponents and locations on that run, including beating a #12 seed in the Sweet 16 and a #10 seed in the Elite 8. Recall they also trailed by nine in the championship game with just over two minutes to go before Memphis collapsed including missing four of its final five free throws while failing to foul up by three in the final seconds of regulation.
Since that championship season Kansas has been a #1 seed six different times while at least a #4 seed in every other year and yet Self and the Jayhawks have been back to the Final Four just twice in those in 11 seasons while failing to escape the opening weekend six different times in Self’s tenure, all as a top four seed. Kansas is a bad free throw shooting team and has limited depth with the roster getting a scare with a possible injury to Udoka Azubuike last weekend. Kansas has the profile of a top contender and this is Self’s best defense since the championship season but we’ve seen plenty of great Jayhawks teams falter in March in recent years as it will be an uncomfortable choice to write Kansas six times in your bracket.
Gonzaga: Not a championship caliber defense
A run to the national title game in the 2016-17 season has legitimized Gonzaga as a program that can win it all and this year’s team could be a #1 seed for the fourth time in the past eight years. Gonzaga has made at least the Sweet 16 each of the past four seasons and this year’s team grades as the top offensive team in the nation. There is great size on the roster and this is an experienced veteran team even with significant turnover from last season’s squad that fell just short of the Final Four.
Gonzaga doesn’t have a ton of weight in its non-conference campaign however as wins over Texas A&M, Washington, Arizona, and North Carolina didn’t pan out to be overly meaningful results despite the past track records of those programs. A one-point overtime win over Oregon is the best non-conference win for the Bulldogs but that result was cancelled out the next day in the Bahamas with an 18-point loss to Michigan.
With BYU and Saint Mary’s expected to also be in the NCAA Tournament field the WCC is as good as it has been in several years but it will still be a big leap in competition for the Bulldogs in March. This is also Mark Few’s worst defensive efficiency team since 2010-11 when Gonzaga earned just a #11 seed and was bounced in the round of 32. The Gonzaga team that lost in the championship to North Carolina graded as the nation’s best defense, this year’s team barely cracks the top 40, a range almost no championship teams emerge from historically.
San Diego State: A long layoff without quality opposition
It took a comeback win in Saturday’s regular season finale for San Diego State to avoid losing for a second time in three games, pulling out a comeback win at Nevada to finish 28-1. Some will argue it was better for the Aztecs to not enter the tournament with the pressure of being undefeated but another issue for San Diego State is that the Mountain West tournament starts this week and there will be at least an 11-day layoff before the Round of 64 game for a team that could still earn a #1 seed if they are victorious this week in Las Vegas.
November wins over BYU, Creighton, and Iowa have put some meat on the great record for San Diego State but from a possible Round of 32 game it will have been three and half months since the Aztecs have faced a top 40 caliber opponent. The Mountain West hasn’t performed very well in recent NCAA Tournaments and this looks like a down year for the conference as whole, grading as the 10th best conference in the nation when as recently as 2012-13 the conference cracked the national top four.
That season produced five NCAA Tournament teams from the conference but those teams collectively wound up 2-5 in the Big Dance despite four of five teams being seeded #8 or better. Last year the conference produced just two teams in the field and both lost badly in the Round of 64 as favorites. This year Utah State has a shot at earning one of the final at-large bids but if the Aztecs roll through the conference tournament it will likely be a one-bid conference. The Aztecs have been a great story but the track record of success for teams from this conference has been poor. This team also often becomes too reliant on low percentage shots from Malachi Flynn while by major conference standards this group is going to have a hard time matching up size-wise against most power conference foes.
Baylor: Rebounding and free throws
The #1 team in the polls most of the season with a 23-game winning streak Baylor could still earn a #1 draw even with losses in two of past three games. Two opportunities for quality wins finish the regular season slate and the Bears will hope to fare well in the Big XII tournament, though they are 0-3 in the past three seasons in the conference tournament.
Baylor has a top 20 offensive and defensive efficiency ranking and as one of the nation’s top defensive teams this team has a championship pedigree even with some offensive lapses at times. Baylor is a bottom four team in the Big XII in two-point scoring and free throw shooting but the deliberate pace and the mix of zone defense can be challenging for opponents, particularly in a short scheduling turnaround in a tournament setting. Scott Drew’s team made the Elite 8 in 2009-10 and 2011-12 but hasn’t advanced past the Sweet 16 since but under Drew the Bears have never drawn better than a #3 seed, which they almost certainly will this season.
Baylor is not a good defensive rebounding team and opponents were handed the perfect formula for beating the Bears by a marginal TCU group last week. Keep pace with Baylor on the boards and turning the game into a free throw shooting contest with Baylor struggling at the line outside of MaCio Teague. Davion Mitchell is a primary ball handler for the Bears despite being a 68 percent free throw shooter and a 31 percent 3-point shooter and without a starter above 6’9” the Bears don’t have as imposing of a front court as they have had in years past.
Dayton: Marginal defense with quality wins absent
On paper there is a lot to like about Dayton sitting at 27-2 with both losses away from home in overtime against high-quality competition. Dayton grades as one of the best offensive teams in the nation including the top 2-point shooting percentage in the nation as the Flyers rarely have scoring droughts. Obi Toppin is a future NBA lottery pick that is capable of being one of the stars of the tournament as well.
The highest rated win for Dayton is against Saint Mary’s however as while the Atlantic 10 has pretty good depth with a handful of decent teams, it ultimately is at risk to be a one-bid league should the Flyers win the conference tournament. Dayton has also been pushed with single-digit wins in six straight road games as the Flyers have had some good fortune to escape unblemished in league play.
Dayton will certainly be the worst defensive team to land in the top three seed lines in the tournament field. If the Flyers can win out they could earn a favorable venue draw with Cleveland a possible landing spot and if they end up in the Midwest the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games are in Indianapolis as the Flyers have a chance to be ahead of every Big Ten team as well as Kentucky, teams that would normally be considered to snag the top billing in Cleveland. Getting the Midwest draw would likely mean being the #2 seed in the Midwest behind Kansas however as if Dayton lands a #1 seed, they would likely land in the New York region for a more daunting path in terms of locations.
Duke: Youth and road woes
The Blue Devils haven’t resembled a #1or a #2 seed lately dropping three of the past four games but wins over Kansas and Michigan State are going to keep Duke in the mix for a great seed should they finish strong. As usual Duke seems likely to land a close-to-home draw in Greensboro, particularly with the other major Tobacco Road power not likely to even be in the field barring a miracle ACC tournament run.
It has been a down year for the ACC but Duke is one of only a handful of teams with a chance to finish as a top 10 offensive and defensive efficiency team and in great contrast to last year’s popular title contender that fizzled in the Elite 8, this year’s team is a good outside shooting team and an improved free throw shooting team. Coach K’s mixed NCAA Tournament track record deserves scrutiny but the program has made the Elite 8 four of the past seven years though Duke hasn’t won a title from outside of a #1 seed since Krzyzewski’s first championship in 1990-91.
Duke is also just not as talented as last year’s team that featured three players drafted in the top 10 of the 2019 NBA Draft. Vernon Carey is considered a borderline lottery pick but the youth of this team has shown up with very marginal results on the road in ACC play including four losses and a few other narrow escapes. New York has been kind to Duke as a Greensboro-New York draw could be very appealing for this group but a strong finish will be needed for Duke to still have a shot at a preferred seeding placement given the recent slide.
Michigan State: Inconsistent performances all season
The preseason #1 didn’t look the part most of the season with nine losses by mid-February after a stretch of losing four of five early in February including two losses in East Lansing. With three straight wins including a huge win at Big Ten leader Maryland last weekend, Michigan State has put itself back in play for a decent seed on Selection Sunday, possibly even a #2 spot even with a high loss count. With some help, Michigan State can still win a share of the Big Ten title though the remaining games with Penn State and Ohio State will be challenging.
Tom Izzo has been to eight Final Fours and most impressively is that the past five trips have come seeded at #5, #2, #5, #7, and a #2 as this team hasn’t needed a favorable path to get the job done. Less important than seeding could be locations for the Spartans as drawing a #2 or #3 seed in Indianapolis would be very appealing if the Spartans finish strong, though there will be great competition for those spots from teams like Maryland, Seton Hall, Dayton, Kentucky, and Louisville.
The Spartans have quietly joined the top 15 of the efficiency rankings on both sides of the ball to sit in rare company and the Spartans are the #1 effective field goal rate team on both sides of the ball in the highly competitive and tightly-packed Big Ten. The conference grind has hurt Michigan State’s record but could have team prepared for a March run but the inconsistency of a team that returned three starters from last year’s Final Four team will make this group difficult to trust. While Izzo’s Final Four appearances stand out, Michigan State has also lost in the opening weekend of the tournament three of the past four years.
Seton Hall: Late season health and not living up to its size
The Pirates don’t have the credentials to earn a #1 seed with seven losses and only a win over Maryland standing out on the non-conference schedule despite what will be a stand-alone Big East title with one more win. Size and experience will make Seton Hall a team that many will pencil into the Final Four even if the Pirates are in a tougher seeding position than most of the other teams on this list. Winning out could put the Pirates as a #2 seed in a favorable venue draw and Myles Powell is the kind of player the team can lean on to carry the load for a big run.
Kevin Willard has done well to put Seton Hall into the NCAA Tournament for now a fifth straight season but trusting him to advance deep into the tournament is difficult with Willard 2-4 in the NCAA Tournament including a blowout loss to Wofford last season in Jacksonville. The only quality non-conference win for Seton Hall last season was also against Maryland and this team has had a few recent ugly spells on offense, notably in the recent losses to Creighton and Providence.
Despite the experience of this team, turnovers can be a problem for this team and this is also a marginal 3-point shooting team, ranking seventh in the Big East at just 32 percent. Seton Hall also routinely struggles to dominate on the glass despite having more height than just about any team in the country. The roster could also enter March at less than full strength with Anthony Nelson and Tyrese Samuel missing recent games and Powell battling knee pain the last few weeks. The potential for a #2 seed could also be erased in the next week as well with two difficult games remaining facing Villanova and Creighton to close the regular season.
Maryland: Poor results outside the Big Ten vs. major conference foes
Somewhat via attrition Maryland looks likely to stand as the Big Ten regular season champions, though the gap with Maryland at #1 down to Ohio State and Michigan at #7 and #8 in the standings is miniscule. Maryland ultimately had one of the weaker Big Ten schedules with only single meetings vs. Penn State, Wisconsin, and Purdue, while they still haven’t faced Michigan who they will end the season against next weekend.
If you are looking for a top 25 win from Maryland in the non-conference schedule, you’ll have to keep looking as only a neutral site win over Marquette is close to that range as the overall record looks inflated. Maryland also won 12 of its 13 Big Ten wins by 12 or fewer points as this team could easily have a few more losses, notably last week’s narrow escape at Minnesota, a game the Terrapins trailed by 17 in and were still down four in the final minute.
Maryland has been patient with Mark Turgeon but in this his ninth season, the program has one Sweet 16 appearance in that span despite a lot of high-profile recruits coming through College Park. This year’s team has three potential NBA players in big roles but Turgeon’s team hasn’t held up against quality major conference foes as his four NCAA Tournament wins in nine seasons have come vs. Valparaiso, South Dakota State, Hawai’i, and Belmont while getting bounced by Big XII, Big East, and SEC teams, the caliber of teams Maryland rarely beats in the non-conference season either. It also needs to be said that despite the strong rating of the Big Ten, not since 1999-2000 has a Big Ten team actually cut down the nets, though in fairness Maryland did so as an ACC team in 2001-02.
Kentucky: Not a typical Calapari Wildcats team
Kentucky has three players that could be drafted in this summer’s NBA draft but almost certainly no lottery picks as this isn’t the usual John Calapari Kentucky team that has more talent than almost every opponent. It shows in the numbers as well as while the Wildcats have rallied to 24-5 and a SEC regular season title, the current numbers grade this unit as Calapari’s worst defensive team since the #4 seeded 2015-16 team that lost in the Round of 32 to Tom Cream and Indiana. Kentucky also hasn’t ranked this low nationally on offense since the 2012-13 NIT season. This year’s team is pretty good at everything but not great at anything even in a year where the SEC ranks as the worst of the major conferences.
The current eight-game winning streak features six wins by single-digits as there have been close calls along the way and Kentucky only had to play LSU and Mississippi State once in the league draw. Kentucky beat Louisville and Texas Tech for impressive non-conference wins but both results required overtime and damaging losses to Evansville and Utah will likely prevent the Wildcats to climbing to the #2 line unless they win out and see some other contenders for those spots stumble.
Given plenty of other teams in the mix for favorable seeds that would like to land in Dayton, Cleveland, or St. Louis it seems likely that the Wildcats could be sent to a far away spot in the opening weekend, especially with the SEC Championship not until the afternoon of Selection Sunday. The only way Kentucky would be able to claim a #2 seed would be with that title, something the committee may simply not have time to adjust for.
Louisville: Reliance on 3-point shooting and struggles vs. top teams.
Chris Mack is clearly a good coach and he has Louisville back in the mix as a contender in just his second season with the Cardinals even after stepping into a difficult situation following the toxic exit of Rick Pitino leaving the program in a tough position for a few years. Mack was a #1 seed and a #2 seed at Xavier however and didn’t win in the Round of 32 either year however and Mack’s postseason debut at Louisville was a bit of a humiliating result with a double-digit loss to Minnesota and Richard Pitino a year ago.
Louisville played one of the weakest non-conference schedules among teams in the mix for top seeds in the field and that metric could keep the Cardinals out of consideration for a top two spot barring titles in both the ACC regular season and the ACC tournament. Louisville has also played one of the weakest ACC paths with the entire resume built on the big win at Duke in January, a game Wendell Moore didn’t play in.
Louisville is ultimately 2-5 vs. top 40 caliber teams this season and without a defense that grades as championship caliber it is very difficult to envision this team running off several high quality wins in a row in March. Louisville is one of the better 3-point shooting teams in the nation with Jordan Nwora a 40 percent shooter beyond the arc but relying on those outside shots in unfamiliar venues can be a risky formula.
This feels like a year where the eventual champion could come from anywhere as top seed lines may not be as strong as usual and there will be contenders lurking all over the board. There are concerns with each of the teams currently in play for #1 and #2 seeds though the past five champions have all been seeded #1 or #2 with 10 of the past 13 champions being a #1 seed. The jockeying for those top four spots in the next two weeks will likely be critical in determining the champion in Atlanta April 6.