ESPN - The NCAA tournament selection committee deserves praise this season.
No team in the field drew an egregious seed or draw.
John Calipari complained about his path to the Final Four, but an opening slate of Davidson and Buffalo on Kentucky’s way to the Sweet 16 wasn’t exactly a murderers’ row.
Prior to Selection Sunday, Virginia had lost just twice and earned the No. 1 overall seed. A UMBC squad that lost to Albany by 44 points in America East league play deserved one of the four worst seeds in the NCAA tournament. An uncanny upset did not change that.
Arizona (4), Wichita State (4) and Miami (6) all underperformed, per their seeds, but their losses did not confirm any errors in the collective placement of Buffalo (13), Marshall (13) and Loyola-Chicago (11), three teams that advanced via upsets.
But we like to reexamine the field once the Sweet 16 is set. So let’s try this again.
1. Villanova (Reseed: No. 1 overall; previous seed: 1)
Virginia’s historic loss to UMBC in the opening round did not define the early work of the top seeds, most of which dismissed their first- and second-round opponents via lopsided victories. No team displayed more preeminent ease than Villanova, which blitzed Radford in a 26-point win and ruined Alabama in a 23-point victory.
Against Radford, Villanova generated a whopping 1.40 points per possession whenever Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges were on the floor together. Against Alabama, the Wildcats forced five Collin Sexton turnovers and held the Crimson Tide to 0.88 points per possession.
The nation’s most efficient offense is holding opponents to humbling offensive production, and that should scare every team in the field. Villanova currently resembles the 2016 squad that won the national title. Jay Wright’s 2018 group, however, possesses more overall talent.
2. Duke (Reseed: No. 1; previous seed: 2)
The common line about Duke entering the NCAA tournament sounded like this: “If Duke plays to its potential, the Blue Devils will probably win it all.” In its first two games, Duke only encouraged those who picked it to win the national champion.
In the first round against Iona, Trevon Duval and Grayson Allenrecorded a 6-for-8 clip on contested 3-pointers in a 22-point victory. The Blue Devils also made 58.3 percent of their contested 3-pointers in a 25-point win over a Rhode Island squad sporting a top-50 defensive efficiency mark, per ESPN Stats & Information.
They did all of this while holding both opponents to less than a point per possession. A Duke team with this level of talent, this 3-point shooting and this stingy defense could dance all the way to the Final Four in San Antonio at this pace.
3. Clemson (Reseed: 1; previous seed: 5)
The Tigers reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in more than 20 years after Sunday’s 84-53 win over an Auburn team that had claimed a share of the SEC championship. Gabe DeVoe led four double-digit scorers with 22 points. This is an elite defensive squad that recorded a 46-for-80 combined mark inside the arc in wins over New Mexico State and Auburn, a pair of good teams.
Clemson skated by NMSU and embarrassed Auburn. This is a balanced group that has helped Brad Brownell continue his “How you like me now?” tour after he started the season with an uncertain future.
4. West Virginia (Reseed: 1; previous seed: 5)
If we’ve learned anything from Virginia’s quick exit from the NCAA tournament and Syracuse’s unlikely rise, it’s that single-elimination tournament situations can create unthinkable results. West Virginia has been, and will always be, a difficult team to prep for, especially when opponents have not faced the pressure Bob Huggins’ teams apply.
Against Marshall on Sunday, West Virginia forced 18 turnovers, more than the Thundering Herd had committed in their two previous games combined, per ESPN Stats & Info research. Murray State committed turnovers once every four trips up the floor against the Mountaineers in the first round.
They’ve been aggressive, and Jevon Carter is averaging 24.5 PPG in the NCAA tournament. West Virginia is in a good place.
5. Kentucky (Reseed: No. 2; previous seed: 4)
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander never earned the acclaim Collin Sexton and Trae Young enjoyed this season as freshman point guard prospects destined for the next level. But his performance in the NCAA tournament will only elevate the stock of the 6-foot-6 point guard who is the key to Kentucky’s immediate future. He averaged 23.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists in a pair of wins over Davidson and Buffalo. Kentucky outscored both teams 80-50 in the paint.
Gilgeous-Alexander is elevating his play at the right time, as is Kevin Knox, who is contributing to the Wildcats’ dominance in the paint. With higher seeds Virginia and Tennessee already eliminated in the region, Kentucky could reach the Final Four. But it did not have a flawless weekend. Davidson and Buffalo, a pair of double-digit seeds, made 50 percent of their shots inside the arc against the Wildcats.
6. Nevada (Reseed: 2; previous seed: 7)
Folks like to say “defense wins championships,” but that notion was challenged in the opening weekend of this year’s NCAA tournament. Five of the NCAA tournament teams ranked within KenPom.com’s top-12 slots in adjusted defensive efficiency lost.
Nevada, a powerhouse offensive squad that has led the nation in turnover rate and made nearly 40 percent of its 3-pointers this season, beat two of them (Texas and Cincinnati) to advance to the Sweet 16. Cincinnati, No. 2 all season in defensive efficiency behind Virginia, had amassed a 22-point lead over Nevada with 10:50 to play in the game, but Eric Musselman’s squad launched a 32-8 run to complete the most thrilling comeback of the NCAA tournament thus far.
The Wolf Pack also committed just two turnovers against Cincinnati, the lowest tally for an NCAA tournament squad in the past 20 years.
7. Texas A&M (Reseed: No. 2; previous seed: 7)
Last month, Billy Kennedy kicked JJ Caldwell, a former top-100 prospect, off his team. It was just the latest move confirming the folly within a program that in 2017-18 had endured suspensions and discipline issues along with a series of injuries.
Even Kennedy admits his team, which was 6-9 in the SEC before ending the regular season with three straight wins, was a mess. Few trusted the Aggies entering the NCAA tournament. Since then, they’ve outplayed Providence, a squad that roared into the Big East tournament title game, and defeated North Carolina, the defending national champion, by 21 points with four players collecting double figures.
If this is real — this slick, relentless, disciplined approach to the postseason — then Texas A&M could flirt with a trip to San Antonio, just three hours from its campus in College Station, Texas.
8. Texas Tech (Reseed: No. 2; previous seed: 3)
Texas Tech finished 2-5 in its past seven games before the NCAA tournament. During the four-game losing streak that started the slide, Keenan Evans wrestled with a nagging turf toe injury that altered his game. He might not be at 100 percent yet, but he’s playing like a first-team All-American.
Evans averaged 22.5 points (4-for-6 from the 3-point line) in wins over Stephen F. Austin and Florida that sent the Red Raiders to the Sweet 16. Texas Tech also maintained its defensive prowess that was akin to Virginia’s, until the Cavaliers ran into UMBC. The Red Raiders forced nine turnovers in the second half of its win over Stephen F. Austin, and they contested 20 of Florida’s 22 3-pointers on Saturday, per ESPN Stats & Information research.
An effective Evans coupled with this crippling defense makes Texas Tech a threat to any remaining opponent.
9. Purdue (Reseed: No. 3; previous seed: 2)
Isaac Haas couldn’t play against Butler on Sunday because of a fractured elbow. But his absence did not stop the Boilermakers from beating a tough Butler team that had multiple looks down the stretch of a tight game.
Vincent Edwards anchored the team in wins over Cal State Fullerton and Butler. The Boilermakers still boast the talent to keep pace offensively with most teams in the field. It’s the defense that is a magnified concern with Haas potentially sidelined the rest of the way.
With the 7-foot-2 Haas in the paint, Purdue had one of the nation’s top-20 defenses inside the arc. With Haas on the bench, however, Butler made 60 percent of its 2-pointers. Matt Haarms, a 7-3 center, has the size and shot-blocking power to challenge shots around the rim. But Purdue is not the same squad without Haas.
10. Kansas (Reseed: No. 3; previous seed: 1)
Bill Self might be approaching his most impressive postseason feat. The Jayhawks are playing a four-guard lineup that works best when Udoka Azubuike is healthy and avoiding foul trouble. That wasn’t the case Saturday against Seton Hall, as he was hindered by a sprained MCL and drew his fourth foul with 8:53 to play), but Kansas still beat Angel Delgado and Seton Hall with a strong finish.
On a day when Devonte’ Graham finished 1-for-7 from the field, Azubuike played only 22 minutes and still had 10 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals. Azubuike changed the game in limited time. And Kansas continues to find a way in challenging circumstances.
11. Syracuse (Reseed: No. 3; previous seed: 11)
The selection committee had no right to put Syracuse in the NCAA tournament field. The Orange had no meaningful nonconference wins. Their 8-10 ACC record included a pair of wins over Pitt and losses to Wake Forest and Boston College. This was the last at-large admitted to the field.
On Saturday, the Orange knocked off trendy national title pick Michigan State with Frank Howard on the bench for the final six-plus minutes after fouling out and walk-on and former Division III guard Braedon Bayer on the floor late.
Through three NCAA tournament games, the Orange have faced three opponents ranked within the top-20 of adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom.com. None recorded more than 0.93 points per possession. We’ve moved beyond the “lucky” theories with Boeheim’s squad. He’s making the selection committee look smart right now.
12. Gonzaga (Reseed: No. 3; previous seed: 4)
Gonzaga lost a lottery pick in Zach Collins and a veteran center in Przemek Karnowski from a squad that lost to North Carolina in the national title game last year. This current group, however, is more versatile and possesses more depth.
Late in Saturday’s win over Ohio State, Johnathan Williams (19 points, 13 rebounds against UNC Greensboro) wasn’t on the floor because of his problems at the free throw line. But Rui Hachimura dropped 25 points off the bench.
A pair of significant wins is proof of Gonzaga’s staying power not just in this tournament, but as long as coach Mark Few is on the sideline. Still, the Bulldogs needed a pair of late runs to escape UNC Greensboro and Ohio State. Killian Tillie‘s 3-for-12 combined performance in those games didn’t help.
13. Florida State (Reseed: 4; previous seed: 9)
Add this to the list of unexpected feats in the NCAA tournament. Florida State entered the NCAA tournament with a 4-6 record in its past 10 games. And it was down late against 1-seed Xavier before it pulled off the upset with an 18-4 run in the final 5:30 of the game. Huh??!!!
Florida State had the size, length and athleticism to hold All-American candidate Trevon Bluiett to a 2-for-8 clip from the field and bust brackets. Of the brackets on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, 21.6 percent of the participants had picked Xavier to reach the Final Four. Great win for Florida State and even more significant for Leonard Hamilton.
14. Loyola-Chicago (Reseed: No. 4; previous seed: 11)
Yes, this remains a Cinderella story. This 11-seed won at Florida in December, a remarkable victory for the Ramblers. But 10 days later, they lost at Milwaukee — ranked No. 201 on KenPom.com — before they dominated the Missouri Valley Conference, a league without perennial champ Wichita State for the first time since 1949.
The Ramblers’ two NCAA tournament wins came courtesy of two late, winning shots. First, it was Donte Ingram‘s buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Miami in the first round, followed by Clayton Custer‘s luck-of-the-Irish bounce in the final seconds against Tennessee on St. Patrick’s Day in the second round.
Those wild finishes should not diminish their overall achievements. This is a squad that connected on a solid 39 percent of its 3-pointers in its first two games, and played the respectable defense it has manufactured all season in wins over a Miami team with a potential lottery pick (Lonnie Walker IV) and a Tennessee squad that shared the SEC crown with Auburn.
15. Michigan (Reseed: No. 4; previous seed: 3)
Jordan Poole saved Michigan’s season with a buzzer-beater that shocked a Houston team that had played the better game for 39 minutes, 56.4 seconds Saturday. The Wolverines now advance to the Sweet 16 after defeating Houston in a thriller and Montana via a double-digit victory — the Grizzlies scored 47 points — in the opening round.
Moritz Wagner recovered from a 2-for-6 shooting effort (5 points) against Montana to register 12 points (5-for-9 shooting), 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 block in the win over Houston. Yet, the Wolverines squeezed by a dangerous 6-seed on a buzzer-beater, and its best player struggled against a Big Sky champion. It’s not close to the dominant efforts from higher seeds on this list, but it’s also short of Michigan’s potential.
16. Kansas State (Reseed 4; previous seed: 9)
Kansas State did what Virginia couldn’t do in its 50-43 win over UMBC on Sunday, the ugliest game of the weekend. The Wildcats finished 1-for-12 from the 3-point line and committed 18 turnovers. Yes, they won without Dean Wade, but UMBC failed to score in a significant, 10-minute stretch in the second half and Kansas State could not capitalize.
But the Wildcats dominated Creighton in the opening round, also without Wade, who is dealing with a foot injury. If Kansas State duplicates Sunday’s effort, however, when it faces Kentucky in the Sweet 16, Bruce Weber’s team will lose by 20-plus.