On the surface, the NCAA tournament is a yearly spectacle pitting Division I's finest 68 teams against one another in an effort to showcase the nation's best talent—and make a whole heaping pile of money. And while that's certainly the case for hoopheads who have grown tired of watching national flotsam get pounded, that's mostly secondary to the casual fan at home.
What do they want? Upsets. And plenty of them.
The NCAA tournament is the best singular event in sports because it plays into the "anything can happen" cliche that makes reality television captivating. The NBA plays a far superior brand of basketball. On a nightly basis, you can watch a regular-season game between two NBA also-rans and see the sport played at a higher level than any collegiate contest.
That's not the point. The NCAA tournament is to semi-grown men what the national spelling bee is to really, ridiculously smart teenagers. For most, it will be the pinnacle of their life's work to this point. Others will go on to careers in the NBA or overseas, but I've watched those NCAA commercials—I know that most athletes go professional in something OTHER than sports. (Sorry.)
The building emotion combined with the single-elimination structure is the perfect combination of emotional stakes and potential flukish outcomes. That said, for every thrilling upset we get this March, there will be a team on the other hand watching their dreams flush away.
And because I would like you to win ALL THE MONIES this year on your bracket, here's a look at a few teams in danger of early exits.
No. 2 Villanova (East Region)
Ranked outside the Top 25 to start the season, Villanova has been one of the season's quiet and pleasant surprises. The Wildcats, rarely getting national accolades along the way, went through their regular season with only three losses en route to capturing the first title of the new Big East.
With wins over Kansas and Iowa, Jay Wright's squad easily avoided the "ain't played nobody" logic plaguing Wichita State. Villanova had the 10th-best opponent strength of schedule nationally during the regular season and graded out OK in the non-conference thanks to the aforementioned tilts against the Jayhawks and Hawkeyes along with a loss to Syracuse.
Don't get me wrong: There's plenty to like here. Wright has built a no-star lineup that works on both ends of the floor, hanging inside the Top 20 in offensive and defensive efficiency all year. The Wildcats boast shooters all over the floor, ranking in the 84th percentile in spot-up shooting, per Synergy Sports. Because they're constantly working with two or three ball-handlers, opposing teams constantly have to get back in transition defense or give up an easy layup.
As long as Villanova isn't playing Creighton—the Bluejays won the teams' two matchups by a combined 49 points—things have gone as close to as perfectly as they can this season.
And that's kind of the problem. While the Wildcats are certainly a talented team worthy of their No. 2 seed, underlying numbers suggest they may be due for a regression to the mean. Villanova went 7-0 in games decided by five points or less during the regular season, and that doesn't include an overtime tilt against Marquette.
It's no crime to win those games. All good teams generally come out on top in close games—that's why they're good. But before the Big East tournament, Ken Pomeroy's luck metric measured the Wildcats as the ninth-luckiest team in college basketball. For those who are curious, the luck metric is relatively simple. It measures the deviation of a team's winning percentage against their expected winning percentage, using the correlated gaussian method.
To put it simply: Villanova is roughly three losses worse than its record suggests. And in NCAA tournament terms, that's the difference between being a No. 2 seed and maybe a No. 4. The Wildcats receive the benefit of an easier schedule thanks to that luck factor, but don't think for a second they're guaranteed to see the second week.
No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks (South Region)
Let's transition from number-based reasoning to a more traditional approach. Villanova has underlying luck putting it in danger. Kansas has no such thing. The Jayhawks were actually one of the unluckiest teams among high seeds during the regular season, and their ridiculous non-conference schedule makes them battle-tested.
With a group of young players who have gotten better as the season went along, there are any number of reasons to be encouraged about Kansas' prospects.
Except the big one. Center Joel Embiid missed the entire Big 12 tournament and is expected to be out at least through the first week of the Dance while dealing with a stress fracture in his back. Bleacher Report's Will Carroll noted there should be no concerns from NBA teams at the moment about recurrence, but the Jayhawks should be petrified.
Embiid, while still not playing as many minutes as you'd like, was the defensive anchor in the middle for this team. He averaged 2.6 blocks per game and was 19th in the nation in block percentage before going down. While it's encouraging that Kansas kept its defensive efficiency up—and even improved from a numbers standpoint—with Embiid out of the lineup, those numbers were ultimately skewed.
Exactly one of the Jayhawks' regular-season games without Embiid came against an opponent above-.500—and West Virginia subsequently put up 92 points.
More than anything, though, losing Embiid minimizes Kansas' margin of error on both ends of the floor. The Jayhawks have struggled all season with consistency, losing frustrating road tilts with Colorado, Kansas State and West Virginia.
Andrew Wiggins has flashes of the otherworldly ability others saw in him coming into Lawrence. His 41 points against the Mountaineers were perhaps the only positive Bill Self could take out of that loss. Wiggins also seems to have a proclivity for thriving when his teammates are struggling most, with some of his biggest individual performances coming in defeat.
Good luck finding consistency. For every promising offensive outburst Wiggins has, there's been at least one head-scratching disappearance. You can't mention Wiggins' 41 without highlighting his three against Oklahoma State or seven against Texas.
It's not fair to foist the entire load on Wiggins' shoulders, and that's kind of the point. Without Embiid, Kansas' defense isn't going to be able to save it in the inevitable shaky Wiggins performance.
No. 2 Michigan (Midwest)
First of all, send every bit of praise you have to John Beilein. The Michigan coach deserves every accolade he's received this season. A year after going to the national championship game, I would argue with a straight face Beilein winning the Big Ten regular-season crown this year was a bigger accomplishment from a coaching standpoint.
Last season, there was Trey Burke doing mystifying things with a basketball. There was Tim Hardaway Jr. doing Tim Hardaway Jr. things. There was Mitch McGary, bullying opposing bigs down low and playing himself into lottery contention.
This season? None of those things apply. Burke is off having a shaky season in Utah. Hardaway is becoming the latest Knicks bench player to receive Madison Square Garden's adoration. McGary came back to school but is out for the season and may have ruined his draft stock in the process.
Beilein instead rebuilt his roster in the face of his new best player, Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas. The Wolverines have markedly ratcheted down their tempo, eschewing Burke's open-court magic for Wisconsin-esque ball movement designed to get Stauskas an open jumper. Stauskas responded by making himself an intriguing NBA prospect, averaging 17.5 points per game while stroking at a .445 percent clip from beyond the arc.
They've also gotten some of Hardaway's explosive magic from sophomore Caris LeVert, who was almost entirely anonymous on last year's team. Glenn Robinson III remains the same steady but unspectacular self he was last season. Overall, Michigan has again ranked inside the top-five in offensive efficiency and won the Big Ten regular-season championship by three games.
The Wolverines' issues come on defense. They've flirted with ranking outside the top 100 nationally all season and have a concerning habit of poor help defense. Beilein's system doesn't promote the type of aggression that should lead to those numbers.
Transition defense in particular has been a problem all season. The Wolverines allowed opponents to shoot 51.4 percent from the field in transition, and ranked in the 38th percentile in points per possession before the conference tournament, per Synergy. They've also had problems with discipline coming out of timeouts and have a habit of getting bullied by big men down low.
Defensive prowess was an issue last season, but McGary's breakout helped atone for those issues. He was a double-double machine in March, and it's unlikely anyone on this roster can step up in a similar fashion. If you're looking for a high seed in danger of getting ousted in the first round, Michigan isn't a bad bet.
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