The NCAA Tournament field is set and the top four seeds are Kansas, North Carolina, Virginia and Oregon, which came as a shock to many who thought Michigan State had done enough to warrant a spot on the first line. We can, and will, debate over the next week which of the NCAA Tournament teams were criminally over- or under-seeded. We can, and will, talk about which sleepers are going deep and which Cinderella teams will dance their way to the second weekend. We’ll debate how in the world teams like Tulsa and Syracuse got in and lament the loss of getting one last look at Monmouth’s bench.
For now, as you glance over your bracket for the first of what will surely be one thousand times before the round of 64 games tip off on Thursday, let’s look at which of the No. 1 seeds has the toughest road to the Final Four, and which of the regions by that measure is the toughest. Because isn’t that really the true measure of how difficult a region is? If the top seeds are the committee’s pick to make the Final Four—their bracket is always chalk—then the difficulty of a region rests squarely on the number of teams that can take the 1 seeds out.
Let’s look, then, at the field of 68 within the frame of those top seeds. Which is the toughest NCAA Tournament region, or, put another way, which No. 1 seed has the toughest road to the Final Four?
Top Four Seeds: 1. North Carolina, 2. Xavier, 3. West Virginia, 4. Kentucky
Average RPI/SOS of top 4 seeds: 8.5 average RPI, 34.25 average Strength of Schedule
Average RPI/SOS of top 8 seeds: 22.1 RPI, 37.4 SOS
The top four seeds had an average RPI in the middle of the pack but the easiest strength of schedule of any of the other regions. As we extend down the bracket, this averages out to be the easiest region in terms of RPI and SOS based on the top eight seeds. There are some big names, but compared to the other regions, it may not be the deepest in terms of teams that can challenge for the Final Four.
Upset Alert: The toughest team for North Carolina may not even be one of the top eight seeds, as Providence could have the best talent on the floor of any team in the East, if not the deepest. If Carolina gets past the USC-Providence winner, they will get the likely victor of Indiana and Kentucky. Xavier will have fits to get out of the bottom of the region, as West Virginia could have been a 2-seed, but has to settle for being the 3 in the East.
Chances of Sweet 16 Chalk: The top four seeds should advance, though Indiana and Kentucky will be heated. Notre Dame could upset WVU if they can beat the Mountaineer pressure. Still, if there’s a chalk bracket to pick, this might be it.
Chances of the No. 1 reaching the Final Four: High. North Carolina was the second overall seed, but given the depth in the South, they may have the best chance of any top seed to make it to Houston.
Top Four Seeds: 1. Virginia, 2. Michigan State, 3. Utah, 4. Iowa State
Average RPI/SOS of top 4 seeds: 11 average RPI, 24 average SOS
Average RPI/SOS of top 8 seeds: 16.6 RPI, 32.1 SOS
The Midwest has the lowest RPI of the top four seeds, but the best RPI when pulled out to the top 8 seeds. Michigan State could have been, and probably should have been a one seed, and if they face Virginia in the Elite Eight, they might as well be, given the game will be played in Chicago.
Upset Alert: This region looks like it could be ripe for an upset or two. Seton Hall has played inspired ball, but what will the time off do for them? And what will the altitude and travel to Denver do as well? Gonzaga is no slouch, so look for a potential upset there. Of course, Seton Hall just knocked off two teams in Xavier and Villanova that could have both been on the 1 line had they won, so Seton Hall has a team that can go deep in this tournament for sure. In other words, who knows? Honestly, that’s the fun of this. Who freaking knows?
Chances of Sweet 16 Chalk: Maybe? Virginia should advance to the second weekend and Michigan State should be able to handle Syracuse or Dayton. Utah is very solid, but they would face the winner of Seton Hall and Gonzaga if they beat Fresno State. And Iowa State might be a vulnerable 4 seed. They did have an RPI of 21 and SOS of 12, but Purdue was right there with an RPI of 14 (though a strength of schedule of 45). That’s the game to watch.
Chances of the No. 1 reaching the Final Four: It’s hard to say Virginia has a great chance to make it, given the selection committee has them set to play Michigan State far closer to the Spartans’ home than their own. Still, as good as Utah is, it’s going to be hard to realistically pick against one of the top 2 seeds in the Midwest.
Top Four Seeds: 1. Kansas, 2. Villanova, 3. Miami, 4. California
Average RPI/SOS of top 4 seeds: 7.25 average RPI, 16 average SOS
Average RPI/SOS of top 8 seeds: 16.6 RPI, 32.25 SOS
The toughest RPI and SOS in the top four seeds by far in the tournament. The numbers look worse for the top eight seeds, thanks in part to Arizona’s embarrassingly poor schedule, but Kansas, Villanova, Miami, Cal and Maryland are all top 16 RPI teams. This is the toughest region on paper, and probably the toughest on the court, too.
And still, it’s hard to imagine Kansas not advancing out. The top overall seed, Kansas, will go to Louisville instead of Chicago for the regional, but according to Google Maps, the distance between each is nearly identical (552 miles to Chicago’s arena and 547 miles to Louisville, with the driving time within 10 minutes of each other.)
Villanova was one win away from a 1 seed in the East and a trip to Brooklyn and Philly. Now they will have to travel to Louisville, if they can get past the Iowa-Temple winner. One win from the easiest road of any team to the Final Four and that loss to Seton Hall has them on the road in hostile territory against the best team in the tournament, if they can even make it that far. It’s a disaster for Jay Wright’s squad, any way you look at it.
Upset Alert: Kansas is very good and despite Connecticut’s recent run, they should cruise to the second weekend. The rest of the region is wide freaking open. Cal can beat Maryland or lose to Hawaii. South Dakota State is either going to get run out by the Terps or beat them in a squeaker…or anything in between. Villanova could face city-rival Temple, or they could both lose to an Iowa team that a month ago had Final Four aspirations. And Arizona and Miami could be a regional final and will be a second round game.
Chances of Sweet 16 Chalk: Impossible. Which is probably why it will happen.
Chances of the No. 1 reaching the Final Four: High. Despite the depth in this region and the fact Cal and Maryland may have better talent than Kansas, the Jayhawks are the best team. Villanova is good, and if they were in Philly you could pencil them into the Final Four. Now, it’s hard to see them beating Miami if the Hurricanes advance. Kansas should get to Houston.
Top Four Seeds: 1. Oregon, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Texas A&M, 4. Duke
Average RPI/SOS of top 4 seeds: 11.25 average RPI, 26 average SOS
Average RPI/SOS of top 8 seeds: 18.6 RPI, 23.6 SOS
Compared to the other regions, this is the weakest at the top. The 5-8 seeds give the West some respectability compared to the other regions, but Texas A&M and Duke on the 3 and 4 lines seems curious.
Answer this: A&M and Kentucky had the same record overall (26-8) and the same SEC record at 13-5. Kentucky beat A&M in the conference title game, granted in overtime, but the Wildcats had an RPI of 12 and SOS of 35 while the Aggies had an RPI of 18 and a SOS of 77.
How is A&M a 3 seed and Kentucky a 4?
Upset Alert: Duke could get back to the Final Four or could lose in the first round, and I don’t even think Coach K knows which will happen with this team. Oregon State and VCU will be a tough game, though if the Beavers advance they could give Oklahoma fits. Texas and Texas A&M is intriguing in the second round, if either team even gets there. And Baylor and Yale is screaming for a 5-12 upset special.
Oregon and Oklahoma should be safe into the second weekend, but everyone else should be on upset alert. A weak region always means the potential for upsets is high.
Chances of Sweet 16 Chalk: Pretty good. I know, I just said look for upsets—but honestly, do you want to pick any of these other teams to beat A&M or Duke? Seth Davis from CBS has A&M in the Final Four! And while some think Oregon snuck on the 1 line late, they have an RPI and SOS of 2. That’s good.
Chances of the No. 1 reaching the Final Four: High. Oregon will be in Spokane against the winner of St. Joe’s and Cincinnati and then in Anaheim for Duke or Baylor, presumably, before a potential match-up with Oklahoma or A&M. There are some good teams in this region, sure, but Oregon may be the favorite, not just because of seeding.
The Toughest Road…
So here’s the thing: The South is clearly the toughest region, and yet it may not have the most upsets. As deep as that region is, it’s hard to imagine a team like Colorado beating Kansas, and Maryland advancing to the Sweet 16 isn’t that big of an upset. Kansas is better than anyone else in that region, which means the likelihood of a 1 seed getting upset may be higher in the other parts of the bracket.
While the South may be the toughest, if you’re looking for a chalk walk, Virginia should be the most nervous, Carolina has some storied programs and insane future NBA talent to contend with and Oregon is part of the wild West with maybe the player of the year on the 2 seed.
In other words, this is a wide open tournament with no absolutely dominant team, which is probably the best reason of any to pick chalk for the Final Four.