Welcome to perhaps the most egalitarian of the regions, at least at the top. Per the Pomeroy ratings, just four teams have a legitimate chance of advancing from the Southwest region to the Final Four. However, that foursome--which squares with the region's top four seeds, though not perfectly within that group--is all good enough to even win the whole NCAA Tournament should they reach Houston. Top seed Kansas is rightly the favorite, but the Jayhawks' road to the Final Four figures to be anything but easy, starting with a difficult game just to get to the Sweet Sixteen.
SOUTHWEST Rd3 Sweet16 Elite8 Final4 Final Champ
1 Kansas 96.9 72.6 52.4 35.0 23.6 12.4
3 Purdue 91.8 68.0 41.8 20.9 12.0 5.1
2 Notre Dame 91.3 66.6 36.2 16.8 9.1 3.5
4 Louisville 87.6 60.8 25.2 13.0 6.8 2.5
9 Illinois 51.7 14.4 7.0 2.9 1.3 0.4
8 UNLV 48.3 12.8 6.0 2.4 1.0 0.3
6 Georgetown 60.9 20.0 8.0 2.4 0.8 0.2
5 Vanderbilt 55.7 21.3 5.6 2.0 0.7 0.2
10 Florida St. 50.8 16.2 5.2 1.4 0.4 0.09
7 Texas A&M 49.2 15.4 4.9 1.2 0.4 0.07
12 Richmond 44.3 14.9 3.4 1.0 0.3 0.06
11 USC 31.6 9.1 3.2 0.8 0.3 0.05
13 Morehead St. 12.4 3.0 0.3 0.04 0.006 0.0005
11 VCU 7.5 1.2 0.2 0.03 0.005 0.0005
14 St. Peter's 8.2 1.7 0.2 0.02 0.003 0.0002
15 Akron 8.7 1.8 0.2 0.02 0.002 0.0001
16 Boston U. 3.1 0.3 0.02 0.002 0.0001 0.000004
This is a log5 table, courtesy of Ken Pomeroy. It's explained here.
(16) Boston University vs. (1) Kansas (Friday in Tulsa, 6:50 p.m. on TBS)
Any first-round opponent that starts with a B is frightening to fans of Kansas, wary of past Bill Self upsets at the hands of Bradley and Bucknell. The Terriers, in the tournament for the first time since 2002, figure to be less threatening. Boston starts just one player taller than 6'6", which makes the prospect of dealing with one of the nation's best frontcourts unlikely. (Everyone knows the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff, but don't forget about energetic reserve Thomas Robinson, a future first-round pick who would be a star most anywhere else in the country.) The Terriers are excellent at defending the first shot, but struggle on the defensive glass, so the Jayhawks figure to pile up second-chance points all day. Boston's best wins of the season came in a sweep over No. 132 Vermont, the America East's top regular-season team. Matched against top-six competition in Villanova and Kentucky, the Terriers lost by an average of 30 points.
(15) Akron vs. (2) Notre Dame (Friday in Chicago, 1:40 p.m. on TBS)
The Zips entered the MAC Tournament as the sixth seed after going 9-7 in conference play, but a handful of lopsided wins and a decent non-conference slate revealed Akron's true strength; log-5 analysis gave the team the second-best chance of winning in Cleveland, which the Zips did in overtime against Kent State, forcing two misses before the buzzer. Led by sure-handed senior Steve McNees, Akron excels at taking care of the basketball and Notre Dame rarely forces turnovers, so the Zips should get up plenty of shots. Where they will have a tough time is keeping the Irish's crisp offense from executing at the other end of the floor. Notre Dame's deadeye shooters have been held under a point per trip just once since the start of February.
(14) St. Peter's vs. (3) Purdue (Friday in Chicago, 7:20 p.m. on TBS)
The Boilermakers shook off the loss of go-to senior forward Robbie Hummel to an ACL tear before the season on the strength of a typically stout defense (ranked eighth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency). The Peacocks are no strangers to tight defense themselves, having ranked 20th--the fourth-best rating among teams from single-bid conferences. Expect points to be at a premium in this matchup, especially for St. Peter's, whose nonexistent offense was responsible for an 11-7 finish in the MAAC regular season. Amazingly, just one Peacock regular (senior post Ryan Bacon) made at least 50 percent of his two-point attempts. At the other end, St. Peter's may be able to deal with the quickness of E'Twaun Moore, but it's tough to see how its undersized frontcourt can handle JaJuan Johnson.
(13) Morehead State vs. (4) Louisville (Thursday in Denver, 1:40 p.m. on TBS)
This is the second NCAA Tournament matchup in three years for the Cardinals and the Eagles, who squared off two years ago after Morehead State won the play-in game for the right to face then top-seeded Louisville. The Eagles hung around for a half before ultimately getting blown out and bring a stronger team into the rematch. In that game, sophomore forward Kenneth Faried made a name for himself. Inarguably the nation's best rebounder--Faried led the country in both offensive and defensive rebound percentage--Faried is also a big-time shot blocker who can finish in the paint despite being undersized. Around him are good athletes who force turnovers and never turn the ball over, an ideal trait against the Cardinals' pressure. Morehead State lost by six at Florida earlier this season, so the notion of playing with an elite team is hardly foreign. This figures to be one of the most exciting opening-round games involving a top-four seed.
(12) Richmond vs. (5) Vanderbilt (Thursday in Denver, approximately 4:10 p.m. on TBS)
Sometimes, bad seeding gives a more interesting matchup than we have a right to expect. Such is the case here. In theory, Richmond ought to be upset about getting seeded behind teams that made it in as at-larges, especially one (Virginia Commonwealth) they beat comfortably at home. The Spiders went 13-3 in their conference, knocked off the A-10's best team (Temple) en route to the tournament title and beat four top-six teams out of conference. This looks more like an 8 or 9 to me. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt probably deserved a 6 or 7 seed after going 9-7 in the SEC. The Commodores have few bad losses but only one especially notable SEC win (home over Kentucky). This game may hinge on the matchup in the middle. Dan Theriot, who operates from the high post, can pull Festus Ezeli out of the paint and help neutralize his shot blocking. If Richmond can contain Ezeli at the other end of the floor, the Spiders have a good shot at pulling off a traditional 5-12 upset.
(11) Winner of USC/VCU vs. (6) Georgetown (Friday in Chicago, approximately 9:50 p.m. on TBS)
Wednesday's play-in game should be fascinating. The Rams have the motivation of everyone in the world save Joe Sheehan thinking they deserved to be in the NIT. The Trojans, meanwhile, get their coach back after a one-game suspension for a drunken altercation with Arizona fans that led to rumors Kevin O'Neill would be fired. Distractions aside, USC is the favorite to reach Chicago thanks to a stingy defense and a strong 6-2 finish to the season that included wins over Arizona and Washington in Seattle. A matchup between the Trojans and the Hoyas would be fascinating because of USC's unorthodox lineup. Much of the game, O'Neill deploys a pair of big men 6'9" or taller (Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic) with three guards 6'0" or smaller (Jio Fontan, Maurice Jones and Donte Smith). That would give Georgetown size advantages on the perimeter but a mismatch at the four spot, where the Hoyas use 6'7" Hollis Thompson. The return of Chris Wright tilts the scales toward Georgetown, which had not lost to any team ranked worse than 38 by Pomeroy (at Temple) while at full strength. Comparing Pomeroy predictions to actual results, it appears Wright's absence hurt the Hoyas by something on the order of 15.2 points per game, believe it or not. When healthy, this is a championship contender.
(10) Florida State vs. (7) Texas A&M (Friday in Chicago, approximately 4:10 p.m. on TBS)
A&M sports a gaudy 24-8 record against tough competition, but the advanced statistics are wary in large part because the Aggies went 8-3 in games decided in overtime or by five points or fewer. A couple of bounces the other direction could have left Texas A&M on the opposite seed line. That makes this more like a matchup of equals that could go either way. With junior Bernard James stepping in for NBA-bound Solomon Alabi alongside the athletic Chris Singleton, Florida State made life very frustrating for opposing teams, ranking second in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. If only the Seminoles had more efficient shooters, they'd be poised for a big run. As it is, they must figure out a way to deal with Aggies forward Khris Middleton, who excels at getting to the paint off the bounce. Can Singleton handle him on the perimeter? If not, Florida State lacks the wing size to deal with Middleton.
(9) Illinois vs. (8) UNLV (Friday in Tulsa, approximately 9:20 p.m. on TBS)
Strictly by the numbers, Illinois is dramatically underseeded as an 9, but don't tell that to Illini fans, who are likely to shake their heads in reply. A season that appeared headed to the Sweet Sixteen abruptly derailed starting with an inexplicable loss to Illinois-Chicago. Really, aside from that loss, Illinois has been predictable. It's lost to top foes (other than Wisconsin on January 2) or on the road and has beaten middle-tier teams (Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan) at home. So it's bad news that the Illini drew far and away the best No. 8 seed in the field, an underappreciated UNLV team that was overshadowed all year by having BYU and San Diego State in its conference. A full five of the Runnin' Rebels eight losses came to those two opponents, and UNLV has some excellent non-conference wins to its credit (home against Wisconsin, neutral vs. Virginia Tech, over Kansas State in Kansas City). Athletic and undersized, the Runnin' Rebels get after it defensively and force plenty of turnovers while turning to Tre'von Willis and Chace Stanback for scoring. Illinois' best chance for winning is hoping Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale dominate UNLV in the paint.
Second Round and Beyond
If Louisville can get past Morehead State, this appears to be a region where it's relatively safe to walk the top four seeds to the Sweet Sixteen--with one notable exception, that being a healthy Georgetown team against Purdue. The Hoyas have a win at Syracuse to their credit, so knocking off the Boilermakers in Chicago is hardly unthinkable. Purdue's advantage is that its weaker unit (offense) is superior to the Hoyas' weakness (defense). Though UNLV is superior to Illinois, the Illini's size means they probably have the better chance of hanging with Kansas' frontcourt in a Sunday matchup. Despite the similar seeds, Louisville would be heavily favored over either Vanderbilt or Richmond.
If the favorites do advance, the regional final could produce some classic matchups. The in-state battle between Notre Dame and Purdue would match strength against strength as the Boilermakers' defense would seek to contain the Irish's potent offense. Historically, the tournament setting has tended to favor offense over defense, but Purdue is good enough to make that game a tossup. On the other side, the Cardinals have enough marquee victories (Notre Dame at MSG, Syracuse and Pitt at home, at Connecticut) that Kansas cannot feel entirely comfortable. By speeding up the game, Louisville can help cover for its glaring lack of size beyond junior Terrence Jennings. Expect the Jayhawks to have a field day on the offensive glass should that matchup come to pass, however.
Kansas is the obvious pick to reach the Final Four from the Southwest, but there are enough interesting teams in the top part of the bracket that there are multiple realistic alternatives should you feel a bit more adventurous in your pool.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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