Which NCAA Tournament Region is Toughest?
This year's NCAA Tournament hasn't even started yet, but we've already seen plenty of surprises. Between Virginia being selected as the final number one seed, Louisville dropping all the way to a four seed, New Mexico being only a seven seed, and BYU reaching the field of 68, we're seeing why this time of year is full of madness.
As always, the bracket comprises of four regions, each with various types of teams. Naturally, a logical step in analyzing the bracket is to, from a high level, look at the most difficult regions in order to find the highest probabilities for teams to succeed. A hard region could mean a tougher time in advancing, while a cake walk for a top team means a safer bet for your bracket.
Let's take a look, by the numbers, at this year's regions.
The West is a region that seems to have only a few potential Final Four suitors in Arizona, Creighton and Wisconsin. If Doug McDermott gets hot - Stephen Curry or Jimmer Fredette style - Creighton could be a force in the West. But don't forget about Oklahoma State, another team that started the season fast, then faded into mediocrity before finishing strong. Wisconsin is always a solid bet in March, but they aren't the defensive juggernaut they have been in years past. Eighth-seeded Gonzaga has another opportunity to return to their Cinderella glory of years past, as well.
The Top Four:
1. Arizona comes in as the top team in the nERD rankings at 19.41. The Wildcats opened the season 21-0, but come into the tournament having lost two of their last four games. Junior Nick Johnson is a huge reason for the Wildcats' success this season, as he has averaged 16 points, 4 rebounds, and nearly 3 assists per game. The Wildcats are also the third-rated defense according to our metrics, behind only Louisville and San Diego State.
2. Wisconsin, the two seed, is the 11th-ranked team in terms of nERD, a slightly over-seeded squad. The Badgers finished second in the Big Ten this season, eventually losing in the Semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament to Michigan State. They have a glaring rebounding weakness, ranking 261st in the country on the boards, and that has been their downfall in many of their losses. However, this is a very balanced team, with five players averaging at least nine points per game, led by Frank Kaminsky' 13.6.
3. Creighton is the seventh-best team in the nERD rankings at 16.11, and the third-seeded team in the West. The Bluejays bring the nation's leading scorer to the tournament in Doug McDermott, who averages 26.9 points per game. They're a very consistent offensive team also at 23rd in team scoring, 2nd in assists per game, and 4th in team field goal percentage at .499. They have only lost to one non-tournament team this year, a 75-63 loss to Georgetown on March 4th.
4. San Diego State, the 25th-best team according to nERD, is the fourth-seeded squad in the region. But they come in as the nation's top defense according to numberFire metrics, with a remarkable .998 rating. Xavier Thames is the x-factor for the Aztecs, as he comes in averaging nearly 17 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals per game. He is a legitimate game-changer. This is also a terrific rebounding team, ranked 43rd in the country at 37.8 per game.
Dark Horse: Oklahoma State, despite being a nine seed, is actually the fourth-best team in the West region according to numberFire, as they rank 13th overall in nERD at 14.90. Marcus Smart and Markel Brown make up one of the most dangerous backcourt combos in the country, each averaging over 17 points per game. If these two get hot, watch out. This is a team with a lot of firepower, averaging over 80 points per game this season.
The East Region may be the most wide open, with perennial contender Michigan State in the four seed spot, and a dangerous team in Iowa State as a three seed. Either of these teams are more than capable of a Final Four run. Virginia has shown all year that they can play with the big boys, by winning both the ACC regular season crown and the conference tournament.
The Top Four
1. Virginia is the number eight team in the nERD rankings at 15.90, and lead the pack in the East Region. They have a very stout defense, ranking sixth overall. The issue that the Cavaliers may run into is the lack of consistent scoring - they only have two players that average over 8.5 points per game, and that sort of inconsistency could lead to an early exit.
2. Villanova is the top team in the East Region according to nERD, and likely would have ended up with a top seed if not for their disappointing loss to Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament. The Wildcats won the Big East by two games over Creighton, and could be poised for a deep run. They have a lot of firepower on offense, led by James Bell, Darrun Hilliard II, and JayVaughn Pinkston, all of whom average over 14 points per game. This is a very balanced and dangerous team.
3. The Iowa State Cyclones come in as the three seed in the East, and 14th overall in nERD. This is a squad that I was honestly surprised to see as only a three seed. They're coming off a very impressive season, capped by a Big 12 Tournament championship. The Cyclones are sixth in the country in scoring, 23rd in rebounding, 40th in field goal percentage, and lead the nation with 18.5 assists per game. Melvin Ejim leads the charge for Iowa State, averaging 18 points, 8.5 rebounds, and nearly 2 assists per game.
4. Michigan State is the number nine team in nERD, meaning they're clearly under-seeded in this year's tournament. Coach Tom Izzo has once again prepared his team for a deep run in March, which has already started with a Big Ten Tournament championship. Sparty struggled with injuries all season, but they're finally healthy, and enter the tourney with a lot of firepower. This is a fundamentally sound team, with rebounding ability all the way through the lineup. Vegas actually listed them as the favorite to win the tournament despite being a four seed. Watch out for Sparty.
Dark Horse: Providence. The Friars only rank 50th in nERD at 9.36, but they have shown that they can take down goliath this season, knocking off Creighton in the Big East Championship game. Bryce Cotton leads a dangerous offense into the tournament behind his 21 points and six assists per game. They'd have to get past a tough Iowa State team to move deep in the tournament, but this team could be a sleeper.
It's widely assumed that the Midwest Region is the toughest in this year's NCAA tournament. It includes three of last year's Final Four teams, including the only undefeated team in the country, Wichita State (34-0). Michigan won the Big Ten this season, while Duke is always a danger behind the genius mind of Coach K. Can they get past their recent struggles in the tournament, and return to glory? Can Kentucky make a surprise run, despite not having the talent or expectations of years past?
The Top Four
1. Wichita State comes in as the nation's only undefeated team at 34-0, yet rank only 10th in nERD. And many aren't taking them seriously due to their soft schedule. This is not a team to be ignored this March though. They made a run to the Final Four last year, and could certainly do the same this season. They are an elite rebounding team, averaging nearly 39 boards a game. Cleanthony Early leads the way with nearly 16 points and six boards per game for the Shockers. I can tell you that they won't be sneaking up on anyone this year. Despite not playing a single ranked team this season, they're battle tested.
2. Michigan comes in at number 15 in the nERD rankings, coming off a disappointing loss in the Big Ten Championship game against Michigan State. Led by Big Ten player of the year Nik Stauskas and his 17.5 points per game, this is an offense that can explode at any time. They have elite shooters in Stauskas, Caris LaVert, and Glenn Robinson III, and are poised to make a deep run if they can keep their shooting on track. Their downfall is that they are very dependent on the three ball, which could hurt them if they come in to a game cold.
3. Duke is number six in nERD at 16.39, and as always, they come in to the tournament as a very capable squad. They fell to Virginia in the ACC Championship game, but freshman phenom Jabari Parker led the way with 23 points, and has become one of the best players in the country. He is the type of player who can take a team on his back and lead them to the promised land. Duke's glaring weakness is rebounding, as they rank 193rd in the country on the boards.
4. Louisville, despite being selected as a four seed, is the number two team in nERD, ranking third offensively and second defensively. The Cardinals may be the most lethal combination of offense and defense in the entire tournament. The defending champs are once again led by Russ Smith and his 18 points, 3 boards, nearly 5 assists, and 2 steals per game. He is a stat-sheet stuffer, and could be one of the biggest difference makers in this tournament. Louisville may very well come in with a chip on their shoulder after dropping to a four seed as well.
Dark Horse: Kentucky is 17th in nERD, and could be a contender in the Midwest. They beat Louisville earlier in the season, and have played Florida down to the wire twice. As usual, this is a very young Wildcats team, but they have some tremendous talent, led by Julis Randle who averages 15 points and 10 boards per game. Don't sleep on the Wildcats if they can find a way past Wichita State in the second round.
The South Region is home to many perennial contenders, and may prove to be an incredibly tough region to survive. Can Florida continue their winning ways, having not lost a game since three weeks before Christmas? Can Kansas navigate their way through the madness through uncertainly about the availability of their best defender? Syracuse started the season out on fire, but have really struggled - can they reclaim their early-season magic? UCLA's offense is as good as any, but can their defense hold up? New Mexico is a legitimate threat in this region, but can they play David and knock off Goliath, beginning in the third round?
The Top Four
1. Florida leads the South Region as the number one overall seed, rank fourth in nERD, and are a popular pick by many to win the tournament this season. They snuck by Kentucky in the SEC Championship game, and haven't lost a game since falling to Connecticut on December 2nd. This is a team that knows how to win, and is well-coached each year by Billy Donovan. Their starting five has great consistency, with four players averaging at least 11 points per game, but they're not dominant in any one specific area. They are a solid team across the board, which makes them hard to beat.
2. Kansas is the third-ranked team in nERD at 17.41, and the two seed in the South. Freshman sensation Andrew Wiggins leads the team with 17 points and six rebounds per game, but the Jayhawks will be without seven-footer Joel Embiid for the forseeable future, and without him, their interior defense has struggled. They are more than capable of making a run without Embiid, but certainly any team with championship aspirations could use a big man for the tournament. Bill Self always finds a way to get his guys up for a deep run, and this year should be no different, with or without Embiid.
3. Syracuse comes in as the three seed, and is 21st in nERD. 'Cuse started the season a remarkable 25-0, before a disappointing 2-5 finish to the season. C.J. Fair is the x-factor for the Orange, as he plays nearly 38 minutes per game, averaging about 17 points and six rebounds per game. Their zone defense is always a force to be reckoned with, and could make or break their tournament.
4. UCLA has a 15.20 nERD score, which is good for 12th in the country. They come in having knocked off Arizona to take down the Pac-12 Tournament championship. The Bruins, led by Jordan Adams, are one of the elite offenses in the country, scoring nearly 82 points per contest. They also dish the rock extremely well to the tune of 17 assists per game. If their defense can remain solid, we could easily see them in the Final Four.
Dark Horse: New Mexico is 31st in nERD at 11.33, and are a team that can really turn it on at both ends of the floor. They score nearly 75 points per game on 15 assists, and are coming off of an impressive win over San Diego State in the Mountain West Tournament Championship game. Cameron Bairstow is one of the most under-appreciated players in the country, too, averaging 20 points, seven rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game for the Lobos. He's the type of player that could be the difference between a deep run and an early exit.
Which Region is Toughest?
Now we arrive at this year's juggernaut (or is it?) region: The Midwest. The Shockers of Wichita State are the top seeded team, yet they are the third-best team in their own region according to nERD ratings behind Louisville (2nd) and Duke (6th). Michigan (15th) and Kentucky (17th) are two other teams in the Midwest who are in the top 30 in nERD rating.
Based on the numbers, the Midwest is the toughest region with regards to the one to four seeds, with an average nERD of 16.40, followed by the South at 15.85, the West at 15.54, and the East (as expected) at 15.82. These numbers were closer than I had expected, but to quote the outspoken Dennis Green, the regions "Are who we thought they were."