March Madness: Ranking the Tournament's Regions
The brackets have been released, so it is time to crunch the numbers and break it all down. One of the first things anybody will notice when the field of 68 is announced is how easy or hard each region appears to be.
As is the case every year, despite the committee's best efforts, not all the regions were created equal. Whether it be due to seeding or aligning for geography, one region may get loaded while another can look like a cakewalk.
Using the average nERD -- an in-house metric which is the number of points a team is expected to beat an average team by on a neutral floor -- of the teams in each region, here is a ranking of the tournament's four regions.
4. East Region
Average nERD: 10.00
Amazingly, the region with the number 1 overall seed and top team according to nERD, the Duke Blue Devils, as well as the Big Ten regular season and tournament champion Michigan State Spartans is the easiest region in the tournament. Now, to be fair, as the best team in the country Duke should have earned the right to have the easiest path to an NCAA title. This may be the case in the earlier rounds of the tournament, but the Blue Devils are in easily the most top-heavy of all the regions.
The East region boasts not only the top 1 seed, but also the top 2 seed and the top 4 seed according to nERD. Michigan State would pose a threat to Duke in the Elite Eight, but that is if they can get passed the 4 seed in their region -- ACC foe Virginia Tech, who already downed the Blue Devils this season, albeit without Duke star Zion Williamson.
Going through the rest of the region by quadrants, the East has the third weakest batch of 5 through 8 seeds, and the weakest group of teams seeded 9 through 12 as well as 13 through 16. The LSU Tigers are the only team in the 1 through 4 group that is not best amongst their peers, but they did win the outright SEC regular season championship. This looks to be a chalky region through the first weekend for the top four teams, but anything can happen after that in the East.
3. Midwest Region
Average nERD: 10.36
The 1 seed in the Midwest -- North Carolina -- rates as the worst of the top seeded teams, even behind Michigan State, which leads to the relative weakness of this region. The other teams in the top quarter of the Midwest, Kentucky, Houston, and Kansas, rank last or second to last on their seed line this season.
That being said, North Carolina and Kentucky are playing some of the best basketball of their seasons and Kentucky was likely an SEC tournament championship away from making a play for a 1 seed. Houston may not have the nERD to hang with the other 3 seeds, but they went 31-3 this season and this roster still has guys who were a buzzer beater away from beating the eventual runner up last season and nearly made the Sweet 16. Kansas is having a rough season for their standards, failing to win the Big 12 for the first time in 14 seasons, but if they get to the Sweet 16, they get to play a de facto home game in Kansas City.
Jumping down further into the bracket, the Midwest has the toughest group of teams seeded 5 through 8 in the tournament, consisting of four conference tournament champions -- including scary mid major squads Wofford and Utah State who went 29-4 and 28-6 respectively. The other two, Auburn and Iowa State, just got done winning major conference tournaments and did so in impressive fashion.
2. West Region
Average nERD: 10.73
The West region across the board ranks as a very good region. Each of their seed quadrants rank as the second best in average nERD. Lead by the 1 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs, the West is full of solid teams that could make a charge towards Minneapolis.
Last season's runner up Michigan grabbed the 2 seed in the West and boasts a savvy group of upperclassmen with tournament experience and success that can get them out of the region. Unfortunately for them, they are staring down potential matchups with mid major darlings -- 6 seed Buffalo and 7 seed Nevada if they make it to the Sweet 16 or Round of 32 respectively.
The teams seeded from 3 through 5 are all teams that were in the thick of their conference races right to the end and could be trouble for the higher seeds. Texas Tech finished the season as Kenpom's top rated defense and has experience from last season's Elite Eight run. ACC tournament runner up Florida State has won 14 of their last 16, with their only losses coming to Duke and UNC. These Seminoles also knocked out the Zags on their way to the Elite Eight last season. Marquette's Markus Howard ended the season fifth in the nation in scoring -- averaging 25 points per game en route to being named Big East Player of the Year and can change the game in an instant, which only matters if they can get passed the 12 seed Murray State and their star lottery pick Ja Morant,
The West has strong teams throughout the bracket that can win on any given night and could make the region lots of fun.
1. South Region
Average nERD: 10.81
Edging out the Midwest is the South region, lead by the Virginia Cavaliers after earning their third 1 seed in four seasons. This group will be looking to overcome years of March heartbreak, which hit an all time low last year when they became the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed. This Virginia squad has the most efficient offense during the Tony Bennett era and is looking to change the narrative when it comes to their tournament success.
What could make the South intriguing is probably the biggest factor in making it the strongest region. While the 1 through 4 seeds rank third and 5 through 8 seeds rank last, the bottom two quadrants are the strongest in the tournament. This could very well point to the South becoming the messy region it was a year ago, when a 9 seed played an 11 seed in the Elite 8. The South boasts the top teams on the 9, 11, and 12 seed lines in Oklahoma, Saint Mary's (CA), and Oregon respectively, which could point to upsets and a possible Cinderella run toward the Final Four. The quadrant 3 teams only rate 1.45 points behind the quadrant 2 teams in average nERD, when that disparity is 3.8 on average in the other three regions.
The South also has the top teams on the 15 and 16 seed lines, while 13 seed UC Irvine could make for an interesting upset candidate against a Kansas State team that may be without their best player Dean Wade and already ranks as our weakest 4 seed.