Getting to the Final Four is hard. We know this because a lot of teams haven't gotten there in a while. A program has to win four straight games on neutral-site courts in two different cities against increasingly difficult teams. There are some reprieves, though. First of all, there's no travelling to hostile road environments where Wisconsin might lose to Rutgers. Second, North Carolina State might knock off the No. 1 seed, leaving Michigan State with a watered-down-but-still-tough East Regional field.
Mostly, though, it's hard. It's not the same amount of hard for everyone, though. Due to luck of the draw, random chance, and seeding, some teams have it easier than others. Wisconsin has had the advantage over fellow Big Ten Sweet 16 contender Michigan State so far, but with Arizona looming for the Badgers and Villanova out early on the Spartans' side, the tide is beginning to change. Who has the easiest path starting now?
Wisconsin opponents: vs. North Carolina and Arizona or Xavier
While seemingly every college basketball fan in America is looking forward to a Wisconsin vs. Arizona showdown for the second straight year, we could see some fireworks as early on Thursday when the Badgers take on the Tar Heels in Los Angeles. Even with Kennedy Meeks possibly watching this one from the bench, North Carolina still has the size to deal with Wisconsin's trio of talented big men. The big question will be whether Brice Johnson can at least contain Frank Kaminsky. If the Heels have to double on every possession, it will open up a lot of open shots for Wisconsin.
If they get past North Carolina, the Badgers will face an Arizona team that might have the best starting five in the nation. When you combine the versatile athleticism of Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson with the excellent point guard play of T.J. McConnell, you get a team that nearly impossible to beat. If Wisconsin is able to reach the East Regional finals, it will be the first time in a long time that the team is not favored to win. Kaminsky might still be the best player on the floor in that game, but the next three best players are all Arizona's.
Xavier is still a very talented team that runs a highly efficient offense, but it would be considered a huge break for Wisconsin if their opponent was the Musketeers in Elite Eight play.
Michigan State opponents: vs.Oklahoma and Louisville or North Carolina State
Sure, a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament is nothing to scoff at, but coming into the dance, Oklahoma was considered the third or fourth best team in its own conference. Now that Iowa State, Baylor, and Kansas have all made shockingly early exits, it's up to the Sooners to carry the flag for the Big 12. The experts have caught on and made Oklahomas an underdog to No. 7 seed Michigan State, but that doesn't mean that Lon Kruger's team will go down easily. Buddy Hield is still one of the top players in the country, and he's surrounded by a supporting cast that includes sharpshooter Isaiah Cousins and tenacious rebounder Ryan Spangler. Even after they took down a highly-touted Virginia team, this will be the Spartans' toughest match of the tourney.
If Michigan State can survive the Sooners, its next opponents will be an ACC team with impressive big men. The length the Louisville provides with Montrezl Harrell, Chinanu Onuaku, and Mangok Mathiang makes it a foe that is very difficult to score on. However, if the Spartans can contain star guard Terry Rozier, they stand a chance of shooting their way to victory.
North Carolina State doesn't have as fierce a defense as Louisville's, but with talented guards like Trevor Lacey and Cat Barber in addition to banging big men Abdul-Malik Abu and BeeJay Anya, there is no shortage of ways for the Wolfpack to get the ball in the hoop. While Michigan State might have a tougher time defending North Carolina State, in this possible matchup it would be easier for Branden Dawson to use his quickness against the young Wolf Pack big men.
There are talented opponents on tap for both the Badgers and Spartans, but when you break down the brackets, it's clear that the lower-seeded Michigan State team has an easier path to the Final Four. Oklahoma and the ACC teams aren't slouches, but they also aren't as scary as Arizona. The Wildcats are clearly the biggest title threats of any of the remaining Big Ten opponents, and that makes the West Regional tougher to win. All that work that the Badgers did to earn a No. 1 seed has resulted in an extremely tough possible matchup in the Elite Eight. Hey, at least they're not in Kentucky's bracket.