Which 1 Seed Has the Toughest Path in This Year's Big Dance?
When filling out your brackets, it's not always about choosing the best teams, but selecting teams with the easiest paths to the Final Four. This is especially true of the 1 seeds, as they're the most likely to make it deep in the NCAA Tournament.
So let's take a look at that very aspect of this year's bracket: which top seeds have the hardest and easiest paths in the big dance?
I'll start with what I consider the easiest path, based on our nERD metric, and work my way to the hardest. nERD is a predictive statistic that shows how well a team would fare against an average opponent on a neutral court. For example, if Duke's nERD is 12.4 and UCLA's nERD is 6.5, we would expect Duke to win by 5.9 points on a neutral court.
First off, let's look at the average nERD for the top-four seeds in each region to see which brackets are most top heavy:
|Region||Top 4||2 Through 4|
From the table, you can see that Kentucky faces the easiest path in the Midwest based on the top-four seeds, and that Wisconsin has the most challenging, by a somewhat wide margin. More on that in a bit with their specific paths.
Kentucky Wildcats, Midwest Region
2, 3, and 4 Seeds: Kansas, Notre Dame, Maryland
Last month, we noted that the 34-0 Kentucky Wildcats (23.0 nERD) may be the best team since the turn of the century. The tournament will tell whether that remains the case, but at first glance, Kentucky has the easiest region as a whole.
In terms of the top seeds in their region and the top half of the bracket, I'll go straight to the second-round matchup (the real second round) against either Cincinnati (8.76 nERD) or Purdue (9.39 nERD), neither of which should give Kentucky a game.
In the top half of their bracket, the Wildcats have potential matchups with 4 seed Maryland or 5 seed West Virginia. The Mountaineers have been missing two of their better players due to injury. Dez Wells and Melo Trimble of Maryland could present Kentucky's first challenge, as we had the Terps as a 3 seed entering Selection Sunday with a 10.72 nERD, making them slightly underrated.
In the bottom half of the bracket, Kansas (16.08 nERD) got the benefit of winning the Big 12 regular season, the highest rated conference, and playing a very tough schedule, but they actually overachieved this year. Kentucky already crushed them early in the season, and similarly ranked Kansas teams have not performed well in the past under coach Bill Self. Kansas potentially has a very tough matchup against the underseeded Wichita State, a 7 seed (13.31 nERD), in the second-round -- who knows if they'll escape.
Perhaps the toughest test for the Wildcats en route to the Final Four in Indianapolis could be 3 seed Notre Dame (14.85 nERD), who are among the nation's best offensive teams and beat both Duke and North Carolina to win the ACC Tournament. Jerian Grant leads the Irish and is fourth nationally with 7.1 total win shares.
Duke Blue Devils, South Region
2, 3, and 4 Seeds: Gonzaga, Iowa State, Georgetown
The polarizing Duke Blue Devils (I'm sure you'll all be watching I Hate Christian Laettner on ESPN tonight), with an 18.4 nERD, are probably the most controversial 1 seed because they didn't win their conference tournament or even make the finals. However, with a deep team, great schedule and an 18.4 nERD, they certainly have the resume of a top seed.
In the top half of the bracket, Duke should have no problem advancing to the Sweet 16. Skipping to the second round, both San Diego State (9.91 nERD) and St. John's (10.17 nERD) don't pose much threat to the Dukies, as San Diego State has scoring challenges and St. John's starting center is suspended until March 29th. Good luck checking Jahlil Okafor to these two teams...
If Utah advance to the Sweet 16, their 16.75 nERD is easily the highest for a 5 seed in this tournament. Senior guard Delon Wright is a Player of the Year candidate, and is more than capable of carrying the team on his back, as he ranks second nationally with 8.5 Win Shares, per Sports-Reference.com.
The bottom half of the bracket presents some serious challenges from two teams -- 2-seeded Gonzaga and 3-seeded Iowa State. According to Gonzaga's 18.2 nERD, they are the best Gonzaga team we've ever seen. With an experienced backcourt, great defenders, and a huge and deep frontcourt, Gonzaga could give Duke fits and just may come out of the South.
Iowa State (15.11 nERD) has an experienced, high-scoring and fast-paced team that just beat Kansas to win the Big 12 Tournament. Junior Georges Niang has old vet moves, and the team is one of the best offenses in the country, ranking in the 95th percentile.
A potential matchup against either of these teams will be tough for Duke.
Villanova Wildcats, East Region
2, 3, and 4 Seeds: Virginia, Oklahoma, Louisville
Villanova (19.44 nERD) quietly went through the Big East and got a 1 seed. We spoke highly of them a few weeks ago, and they certainly didn't disappoint. Now, how far can they go now that we know who is in their path?
The top half of the bracket for Villanova can best be described as fairly tough. In fact, 2-seeded Virginia (18.39 nERD) may have an easier path in the bottom half of the bracket.
After the traditional cakewalk in the first round, the Wildcats take on either North Carolina State (10.48 nERD) or LSU (9.38 nERD). NC State had the seventh-toughest schedule in the country according to our numbers, and LSU played Kentucky fairly tough this season, too. Both could be tough games for Villanova, but we should expect their super deep team to advance to the Sweet 16.
That however, is where it gets really tough, as 5-seeded Northern Iowa (11.51 nERD) is a team we pegged as a 4 seed. Senior Seth Tuttle is one of the best players in the country, and the experienced backcourt and solid three-point shooting make the Missouri Valley Conference champions very dangerous. That'll be a tough test if Northern Iowa can make it that far.
The always-dangerous Louisville Cardinals (13.79 nERD) are a 4 seed, and take on 13-seeded UC Irvine and 7'6" Mamadou Ndiaye in the other game in the top of the bracket. This should be fun and any of these teams could present challenges for Villanova, although Louisville or Northern Iowa should get their crack at the Wildcats.
If the Wildcats get through a really tough top of the bracket, they'd most likely face Virginia in the Elite Eight, although Michigan State is a dangerous 7 seed (13.68 nERD). Oklahoma is the 3 seed with a 15.9 nERD, which is just outside our top 10.
All in all, Villanova has a really tough tread, but that pales in comparison to what Wisconsin needs to get through in the West.
Wisconsin Badgers, West Region
2, 3, and 4 Seeds: Arizona, Baylor, North Carolina
What was Wisconsin's (20.07 nERD) reward for winning the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament? Well, on the plus side, they got a 1 seed and avoided playing Kentucky until, potentially, the Final Four. However, they may not get the opportunity based on strong top-four seeds, including arguably the best 2 seed in the tournament in Arizona.
Let's start with Arizona, a team I mentioned earlier in the season that looked like a strong Final Four contender. They are indeed the best 2 seed in this tournament, ranking as the best non-Kentucky team in terms of nERD.
Wisconsin couldn't have gotten any unluckier.
And like Villanova and Virginia in the East, it looks like Arizona's bottom half of the bracket may be less challenging than Wisconsin's path in the top half. Where things could get very challenging for the Badgers is a potential Sweet 16 matchup with the 4-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels (16.46 nERD), which, in theory, is more difficult than Arizona's potential Sweet 16 matchup with the 3-seeded Baylor Bears (15.21 nERD). The 'Heels are finding their stroke right now and peaking at the right time, and have a big front line and solid floor general in Marcus Paige. It certainly wouldn't be surprising if they pulled off the upset, especially all the way in Los Angeles, a trek for both teams' fan bases.
In any case, based on our metrics, Wisconsin will have the toughest path to the Final Four.