(1) Xavier (28-5)
Xavier is the worst of the #1 seeds and is also the most likely top seed to be eliminated from this tournament before the regional final – most likely by the winner of the Gonzaga vs Ohio State 4-5 match-up. Xavier is still more likely than either of those teams to make the regional final because the Musketeers have an easier path to the Sweet-16 than either of those potential roadblocks, but if you don’t have Xavier advancing to the Final Four then you might as well pick them to lose in the Sweet-16 if there is value in doing so (I’ll have that update when I send my brackets to my subscribers on Wednesday). Xavier is not a great defensive team (#132 in defensive effective FG%) and they aren’t as likely to get to the foul line as often as they’re used to (#33 in free-throw attempt percentage), as teams that are more reliant on free-throws tend to underperform a bit in the tournament. The Musketeers simply don’t have the statistical profile of a successful NCAA Tournament team and they should be a #4 seed based on my ratings.
(2) North Carolina (25-10)
North Carolina has the most losses ever for a #2 seed but the Heels are certainly worthy of their seeding and are actually better than their mathematical rating. UNC ranks 8th in compensated net points per possession but they have room to improve given that they aren’t likely to continue to have opponents make 38.3% of their 3-point shots against them. A team as talented as the Tarheels should be able to defend the 3-point arc better than that and a lot of that horrible 3-point defense is likely just random. North Carolina’s other weakness is shooting the basketball, as the Heels rank just 111th in the nation in effective field-goal percentage. They are obviously better than that when adjusting for schedule strength but shooting is still a relative weakness and the Heels get a lot of shot swatted back at them, as they rank 305th in shots blocked. The good news is that the Heels rank 2nd in the nation in offensive rebounding at 38.4%, so they tend to get a lot of second chances, but they can be beaten by an elite defensive team that rebounds well.
North Carolina is 4-4 against other teams seeded #3 or better with two of those wins coming against a Duke team that ranks 204th in defensive rebounding – a perfect match-up for the Heels. North Carolina is better than their overall rating because of the negative 3-point variance on defense, but they are also a flawed team. I still like their path to the regional finals, where I think Gonzaga would give them the most trouble should they meet (although I’d favor UNC over #1 seed Xavier).
(3) Michigan (28-7)
Michigan’s stock went up with their Big-10 Tournament win and the Wolverines’ impressive list of marquee wins is balanced out by losses to LSU, Nebraska and Northwestern (by an average of 10.3 points). In other words, Michigan can beat any team when they’re at their best but they’re certainly not immune to losing to a weaker team. A second round loss to Houston actually wouldn’t be that much of an upset, as the Cougars are a dangerous #6 seed with an elite defense and capable shooters. The Wolverines are also a horrible free-throw shooting team, ranking 329th in the nation at 65.7% and their main ball-handler Zavier Simpson makes just 51.9% from the line. Michigan is likely to play a lot of close games after their first game and that free-throw shooting may derail them. I think Michigan is a really good team but I don’t see value in picking them to go too far given that they are now on the public’s radar.
(4) Gonzaga (30-4)
Last year’s national runner-up isn’t quite as good this season but the Bulldogs still rank in the top-25 in both compensated offensive efficiency and compensated defensive efficiency and there is room for improvement defensively given that they should be allowing less than 35.5% 3-pointers – which is randomly high for a team as good in 2-point defense (6th in the nation) and defensive assist rate (37th) as they are. Gonzaga has a good draw, as they will be favored over #5 seed Ohio State, who they’ve already beaten by 27 points this season, and I’d favor them over #1 seed Xavier too – although the X-Men have a better chance to get to the Elite 8 because they have an easier path to the Sweet 16 than Gonzaga does. The only way for most teams to beat Gonzaga is to make a good number of 3-point shots and they allowed 45.2% 3-pointers in their 4 losses this season, which is more random than it is bad. If you are looking for a sleeper team to make the Final Four then Gonzaga should be on your short list of candidates.
(5) Ohio State (24-8)
Ohio State has characteristics of a team that could go deep into the tournament, as the Buckeyes limit variance by not relying on 3-pointers for offense, by not turning the ball over, by not giving opponents many second chances (#35 in defensive rebound percentage) and by defending the paint well. Ohio State is also used to playing at a slower tempo, which is important in the NCAA Tournament, and being good really good in both 2-point offense (55.1% 2-pointers ranks 29th in the nation) and 2-point defense (46.0% ranks 33rd) leads to more consistent play and should serve them well. The only issue for the Buckeyes is their mediocre 3-point defense, which could actually lead to an early upset loss if South Dakota State (39.2% 3-point shooting team) knocks down 45% or more of their 3-point shots, which is not too unreasonable. If Ohio State can avoid that first round upset then the Buckeyes would have to face the tourney’s best #4 seed in Gonzaga. That would be a pretty even contest but the winner of that game has a good chance to beat #1 seed Xavier. I’m not sure yet how far I’ll pick the Buckeyes to go but I would not be surprised if they make a run to the Elite 8.
(6) Houston (26-7)
Houston showed how good they can be by beating Wichita State and nearly upsetting #2 seed Cincinnati in the American Conference Championship game. The Cougars also inexplicably have losses to Drexel, Tulane and Memphis, who are all mediocre at best. Houston is a very good defensive team that ranks 24th in compensated defensive efficiency and they can beat anyone when they’re making their outside shots at a good rate – they made 41% from long range in their home win over Cincy. The Cougars would likely face Michigan should they avoid an upset against San Diego State and I think they can beat the Wolverines if they play their best – although it is still unlikely that they advance to the Sweet 16.
(7) Texas A&M (20-12)
Texas A&M started the season incredibly well with early wins over good teams West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Penn State, and USC and their only non-conference loss was by just 3 points to a very good Arizona team. The Aggies then dropped their first 5 SEC games before rallying to go 9-5 more recently. A&M’s calling card is a very good half-court defense, as the Aggies rank 12th in the nation in effective field-goal percentage by playing sound fundamentally and not taking any chances that might get them out of position (a reason they rank 312th in forcing turnovers). The problem with Texas A&M is that they don’t shoot the ball well from the perimeter (32.8% 3-point shooting). Thankfully, the Aggies rebound a lot of their misses (23rd in offensive rebound percentage), which is a good indicator of tourney success. However, facing a team with a good interior defense is likely to result in a loss since the Aggies are incapable of beating a good team when forced to make outside shots. They should be able to get past Providence but they don’t match up well with likely second round opponent North Carolina, who defends the paint very well.
(8) Missouri (20-12)
Missouri was potentially a dangerous team with #1 recruit Michael Porter Jr. back in action after missing all but 2 minutes of the season until getting some run in their SEC Tournament loss to Georgia. However, #2 scorer Jordan Barnett has been suspended and won’t play so the Tigers may not be any better even if Porter shakes off the rust from his first game back (just 5 of 17 shooting) and plays well. At his best the Tigers might be a point better with Porter Jr in place of Barnett in the lineup but they could be a couple of points worse if Porter plays poorly again. That makes the Tigers tough to handicap, although I do think they match up pretty well against a Florida State team that doesn’t defend the 3-point arc particularly well, as the Tigers knock down 39.2% of their 3-point shots and may not need to test that tough Seminoles’ interior defense too often.
(9) Florida State (20-11)
Florida State is a team that dominated in the paint, as the Seminoles have a good 2-point offense (54.6% is 37th in the nation) and a good 2-point defense (45.5% allowed is 26th) but is a mediocre outside shooting team and gives up a lot of open looks from beyond the arc (254th in 3-point defense). An ideal match up for the Seminoles is a team that depends on interior scoring and is relatively weak in rim protection. That is not first round opponent Missouri, who not only takes a lot of 3-point shots (28th in 3-point attempt percentage) but also makes a good percentage from long range (39.2% is 25th) and defends the interior pretty well (25th in 2-point defense, also at 45.5% allowed). If the Seminoles get past Mizzou they are capable of beating overrated #1 seed Xavier, who they would match up pretty well against.
(10) Providence (21-13)
Providence is a wild card. The Friars beat Villanova once and went to overtime before losing the Big East Championship game to the #1 seeded Wildcats – after having won OT games against #1 seed Xavier and Creighton. Providence actually beat Xavier twice so beating really good teams is in the Friars DNA. However, they also suffered 13 losses and there is nothing distinguishing about their statistical profile that makes me think they can make a run in this tournament.
(11) San Diego State (22-10)
San Diego State is a dangerous team because they’ve been so volatile. When the Aztecs are at their best they are a very good team that can beat Gonzaga (72-70 at home) and beat Nevada twice by a total of 22 points but when they are bad they can lose at home to the Pac-12’s two bad teams (lost by 1 at home to Cal and by 7 on a neutral court to Washington State) while also getting blown out by Arizona State (lost by 22), Fresno State (by 18 points) and Nevada (by 25 points). That 25-point loss to Nevada in the second week of February is actually San Diego State’s last defeat, as the Aztecs have since reeled off 9 consecutive wins to make this tournament, including those two revenge wins over the Wolf Pack, who made the tournament as a 7-seed. Nothing would surprise me with this team, which could get beaten soundly in the first round or make it to the Sweet-16.
(12) South Dakota State (28-6)
South Dakota State is a solid team that doesn’t beat themselves (#1 in the nation in offensive turnover rate), can shoot the ball (39.2% 3-pointers), and has a go-to scorer in Mike Daum, who averaged 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. However, the Jackrabbits will need to make a high percentage of their 3-point shots (around 50%) to have a chance to beat Ohio State in their first game. The Buckeyes’ Keita Bates-Diop is a defensive star that is well suited to handle Daum inside but the Buckeyes’ perimeter defense is suspect (34.6% 3-pointers allowed is pretty mediocre), which opens the door to a scenario in which the Jackrabbits can knock down a lot of 3-pointers. However, it’s still not likely that SDSU can make enough 3’s to win this game and they lost by an average of 22 points in their only two games this season against top-50 teams (by 34 at Kansas and by 10 points at Wichita State).
(13) NC Greensboro (27-7)
NC Greensboro is an interesting upset prospect if they get the right match-up against a team that might be looking past them. The Spartans have good size, play good defense (36th in effective FG% defense), and create turnovers (21st in defensive turnover rate), which are all characteristics of teams that can pull off a first round upset. NCG actually ranks 57th in the nation in my adjusted defensive ratings even after accounting for their relatively weak schedule, but scoring points against an elite defense is likely to be a problem. On the plus side, the Spartans don’t depend on getting to the line to score points (333rd in free-throw attempt rate), which is good because fewer fouls are generally called in the NCAA Tournament and teams that don’t rely on foul shots tend to be relatively better.
NC Greensboro lost by just 12 points at #1 Virginia, 48-60, and won by 6 points at NC State, so they are capable of making things interesting if they face off against a team that is careless with the ball and isn’t too strong defensively.
(14) Montana (26-7)
Montana struggled early in the season against teams of similar talent, losing to UCSB, Stanford, Georgia State, and Washington. However, the Grizzlies also suffered a lot of negative 3-point variance in their non-conference schedule, making just 27% of their 3-point shots while allowing 37% from beyond the arc. Montana is better than their non-conference scores indicate and the Grizz are a good defensive team that forces a good number of turnovers that can lead to easy baskets against a more talented team (they rank 21st in defensive steal percentage). Montana also rebounds well, which is important for big underdogs in the tournament. Michigan is not an ideal first round opponent because the Wolverines take very good care of the ball (#2 in offensive turnover percentage) but an upset is certainly not out of the question.
(15) Lipscomb (23-9)
Lipscomb plays at a fast pace, which makes it more unlikely that they’ll be able to pull off an upset, as the more possessions in a game the more likely the better team will ultimately prevail. The Bisons also rely too much on getting to the foul line (22nd in free-throw attempt rate), which has a negative correlation to NCAA Tournament success, as fewer touch fouls are called. Lipscomb was outscored by an average of 21.8 points in games against good teams Alabama, Texas, Tennessee, and Purdue (all on the road) and it would take a miracle for them to beat a high seed.
(16) Texas Southern (15-19)
Texas Southern was 0-13 in the non-conference portion of their schedule and lost by huge margins in most of those games. No chance for an upset.
(16) NC Central (19-15)
NC Central is the worst team in the Tournament (316th in my ratings) and will probably not even make it into the main draw.
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