When it comes to the NCAA Tournament the reality is the end outcome of the tournament typically has very little to do with who was the best team in the field that season. That becomes even more evident when you realize the last year when two one seeds made it to the Final Four was all the way back in 2009, with 2008 being the only season since the expansion to 64 teams when every top seed made it to the national semis.
So what does that mean? First you have to realize that year in and year out teams happen to get hot at the right time, playing better in March and early April than they did the entire season. The second thing you have to realize is that matchups make or break teams success, with some very good teams getting knocked out early simply because they didn't matchup well with an early opponent. The end result, as well taking into consideration the rejuvenated sense of belonging felt by teams told all season they couldn't compete with the top schools, leads to a typically chaotic and random finish to most seasons.
If this wasn't obvious already the last few years have been a huge reminder. First we had the Butler Bulldogs out of the Horizon Conference making it to back to back national championships. Then just last season we had a title game between a seven and an eight seed, with Connecticut edging Kentucky by six. That same Connecticut team had finished the regular season by losing to Louisville by 33 points.
So with that being taken into consideration, today we will take a look at who has the easiest (and hardest) path to the Final Four out of the seven Big Ten teams that made it into the field.
Hardest: Purdue, Maryland, Indiana (Midwest)
This is just cruel all around for almost half of the Big Ten, but particularly cruel for the Boilermakers and Terrapins. Purdue draws arguably the hardest draw from the conference simply because they will have to knock off Kentucky in Louisville if they want to make it past the first weekend. Their reward would be a more manageable Sweet 16 opponent, likely Maryland or West Virginia, but then there's still Kansas, Notre Dame and Wichita State lingering in the bottom half of the region. The Boilermakers ended up a few slots higher than most penned them at and usually you'd think that'd be a good thing, but climbing up to a ninth seed actually made things considerably tougher on Matt Painter and company.
Of course the Terrapins got more of the same, though their position at the four spot is decidedly more favorable. While there's some murmuring that they shouldn't have been seeded in the Midwest (which is probably true), they still have what should be an easily winnable opener versus Valparaiso on Friday, followed by likely facing West Virginia on Sunday. The Mountaineers have a very efficient offense and would likely engage in an up-tempo game with the Terps, but West Virginia has also slipped a bit down the stretch, finishing the season losing six of their last eleven games. Of course those five wins include games over Kansas, Oklahoma State and Texas...so that's not exactly what I'd call an easy outing for Maryland. To make things more difficult is they would then likely draw the best team in the field in the Sweet 16 (Kentucky) and then still have an Elite 8 showdown with most likely either Kansas or Notre Dame. That's three games in a row that are going to be massive challenges for Maryland. At least their inclusion in the Big Ten should help them as they'll have to play in Big Ten country (Ohio) if they want to advance to the Final Four.
That leaves Indiana, the last team in the region from the Big Ten. Their draw is a Wichita State team that hasn't been as good as they were recently, but still are one of the top mid-majors in the country. Wu Shock has only four losses on the seasons, three of which came by a combined ten points. That doesn't fare well for an imploding Indiana program, especially with a potential ongoing distraction as social media blew up yesterday with more Tom Crean rumors. If Indiana can knock off one of the top mid-majors in the nation they'll likely draw Kansas, then Notre Dame and finally Kentucky if everything goes according to plan. Ouch.
Middle of the Pack: Wisconsin, Ohio State
I should preface this by saying that I think that both Wisconsin and Ohio State could very well be fine out in the West Region. The problem with both teams, though, is that there's one tricky enough game that could complicate things. First we have an Ohio State team that has shown this season that they can be very good or painstakingly average. The Buckeyes flamed out in their first game last year, losing to Dayton at the buzzer, and I don't think many people would be that surprised if they couldn't knock off Virginia Commonwealth in their opening game. That being said, D'Angelo Russell is the real deal and when he's on he can take this team deep into the tournament if he gets a little bit of help from his supporting cast. The only problem is Russell's supporting cast has been an inconsistent mess, with little to no production in the frontcourt and even more problems created by the late season struggles from Marc Loving. I still think the Buckeyes can compete with and beat six of the other seven teams in the lower half of the West, but they'll draw Arizona out in Portland this weekend if they can beat VCU. Arizona had stretches were they appeared to be a one seed and the Wildcats will be a tough match for a team that has somewhat devolved into a one man show.
As for the Badgers, we all know a one seed won't lose to a sixteen seed so we can skip that topic. Facing Oregon or Oklahoma State in the Round of 32 is probably the second most likely 8/9 over a 1 upset, with Villanova the most likely to fall early, but the Badgers have played too good this year to think they would flame out before at least the second week of the tournament. What will be interesting is seeing if they can beat North Carolina if they meet. On one hand the Tar Heels aren't always the best of the best, evident by eleven losses this season, but ten of those eleven came against tournament teams (three of which came to one seeds). Don't overlook their losses, either, as North Carolina has also beat Virginia, Louisville and Ohio State while only losing to Notre Dame twice by nine points and came close to beating Duke in both outings. Even if the Badgers get past North Carolina they could be playing Arizona out west in California. That of course followed by a potential, but unlikely, Elite 8 matchup against the Buckeyes that would favor Wisconsin quite a bit considering what transpired last time the two teams met in Columbus.
Easiest (tie): Michigan State and Iowa
The Spartans and the Hawkeyes probably have the easiest draw to the Final Four, though I'm not entirely sure if either team will get there. While the opposition is easier than the other five teams face, that doesn't mean both of these teams will have an easier time (i.e. Wisconsin faces harder opposition but is the more talented team).
Starting in the East is Michigan State and anyone that watches the Big Ten knows that Tom Izzo is capable of creating magic this time of year. The Spartans have a few issues they need to remedy, mainly inconsistency from their front court, streaky perimeter shooting and free throws, but when the Spartans can at least lessen the blow of these flaws they are a dangerous team. That was evident on a national stage last weekend when the Spartans forced overtime versus Wisconsin in a game they probably should have won since the Badgers only tied it in the closing seconds thanks to the officials missing a Wiscy player stepping out of bounds. If the Spartans can edge out a so-so Georgia program they'll get Virginia, a team likely snubbed from a one seed thanks to State losing on Sunday. While Virginia is a rough draw for a two seed, State also beat them last year (when they were a one seed) in the Sweet 16. And as good as the Cavaliers have been, their brand of basketball leads to low scoring, slow basketball that means the Spartans should be able to hang around. A Michigan State team that can get hot from outside at times and has guys like Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson playing under Tom Izzo makes them a reasonable pick for an upset.
So what will happen if they can reach the Sweet 16? Well first they'll have one of the easiest Sweet 16 opponents, likely drawing Providence or Oklahoma unless one of the play-in teams (Boise State/Dayton) can make a surprising run. Then you have a top half of the bracket highlighted by the weakest one seed (Villanova) that is also the most likely to not make it to the second week of the postseason. When all is said and done if the Spartans can get past Virginia their most difficult potential matchup in the East would be Louisville, which pales from the likes of a Kentucky, Kansas or Arizona.
Of course I think Iowa has the easiest path to the Sweet 16, with a decent opponent in Davidson and then mid-major powerhouse Gonzaga likely looming in the Round of 32. That Gonzaga game could be tricky as it'll be in Seattle, but the Bulldogs have also failed to make it to the Sweet 16 the last five seasons and have only done so once in the last eight seasons. It's obviously not the easiest game, especially for Iowa, but it's easier than Kansas (Indiana), Virginia (Michigan State) and Arizona (Ohio State). If the Hawkeyes get to the second week they'll likely face an Iowa State team that they can run with and would have the rivalry impact added to the mix. There are, however, two reasons why I don't think Iowa has the easiest path to Indianapolis. The first being the main one, they're still Iowa. They've had flashes this season but I just don't like their prospects as I don't see Iowa piecing together enough consistent performances to make a deep run in the tournament (hell, I think they could underwhelm and be done on Friday if they're not careful). The second reason? Well if they can get to the Elite 8 they'll most likely run into Duke and well...yeah, I'm not taking Iowa there.
For what it's worth, Vegas odds!
|Team||Odds to Win Region||Odds to Win National Title|
|Michigan State||12/1 (sixth)||60/1|
|Ohio State||20/1 (fifth)||100/1|