5 High-Seed NCAA Tournament Teams Most at Risk of Bracket-Ruining Upsets

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistMarch 7, 2019

5 High-Seed NCAA Tournament Teams Most at Risk of Bracket-Ruining Upsets

0 of 5

    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Selection Sunday is rapidly approaching. On March 17, we'll know each of the 68 teams that will vie for the ultimate prize of March Madness.

    Until that point, we have a general idea of which teams will secure the coveted high seeds—and which ones, as a result, we'll be counting on to lead us to bracket glory later this month.

    But the fun of March Madness is the bracket-busting—so long as it doesn't happen to you. There's no such thing as a sure thing, as No. 1 Virginia's loss to No. 16 Cinderella UMBC showed us last year.

    Studying these teams' tendencies and strengths can get us part of the way there, but in a single-elimination tournament, all it takes is a bad half of basketball for a carriage to turn into a pumpkin.

    We're examining which of the projected high seeds are held together by glitter, not glue. These are teams you may pick through the Sweet 16, but if you dare go any further with them, your bracket could pay the price.

    For our purposes, "high seed" is defined as a team expected to earn a seed from No. 1 through No. 4 on Selection Sunday. All seed projections are via ESPN's bracketology tool.

Houston Cougars

1 of 5

    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    There's no question the Houston Cougars could have a successful early tournament run. The Cougars have found themselves as high as No. 8 in the AP Top 25, thanks largely to one of the more efficient defenses in the country (No. 14 in KenPom's rankings).

    But a recent hiccup against UCF (a 69-64 home loss), combined with Purdue and LSU's terrific play as of late, sent the Cougars tumbling out of the Top 10 to No. 12.

    The frustrating thing for Kelvin Sampson's squad is that it can put points on the board. The Cougars average 75.7 points per game (103rd) and have averaged 78 in their last three.

    But Houston's shooting woes are only going to become more pronounced (and more of an inhibition) during the NCAA tournament.

    Houston's field-goal percentage of 44.7 ranks 163rd in the country. In free-throw percentage, it ranks 161st, shooting just 71.1 percent from the line.

    The Cougars won't survive the tournament if they can't put easy points on the board.

    Without improving their shooting, they can't expect to advance, especially given the shooting prowess of some of the other teams they could run into along the way. No. 1 Gonzaga, for instance, puts on a shooting clinic from the field, good for 53.4 percent of shots, tops in the nation. No. 5 Tennessee is right up there, too, at 50 percent. If Houston makes it past the first round, it has to hope to avoid teams that excel at the major deficiency that could send it home early this month. 

Virginia Tech

2 of 5

    Associated Press

    With an elite offense that ranks 10th in KenPom's efficiency rankings, it's no wonder the Virginia Tech Hokies are primed to be a popular bracket pick in March Madness.

    Virginia Tech excels outside, making 39.7 percent of threes (ninth), as well as on free throws (25th). Those easy points are crucial in a single-elimination tournament.

    The Hokies aren't blowing people away in straight-up scoring, however, where their 74.5 points per game run middle-of-the-pack at 128th overall.

    After the No. 20 Hokies shocked No. 3 Duke on Feb. 26, 77-72, people will no doubt rush to take the former far when they're filling out their brackets. But despite projecting as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Hokies have some flaws that could prove difficult to overcome, most notably suspect three-point defense and the inability to close out games. 

    Except for the upset over Duke, the Hokies haven't shown up against tough competition this season. Virginia Tech has faced six ranked opponents and gone 2-5 against them, the most recent loss being a 73-64 overtime decision against Florida State in which the Hokies just ran out of gas. 

    What's more, the surprise win over Duke isn't that surprising for those who follow the Hokies closely. It's the third straight time Virginia Tech has knocked off a Top Five-ranked Duke team, including in 2011 and 2018, per NCAA.com.

    Junior forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. had been on a hot streak, scoring 22 or more in his last four games. But he fouled out against the Seminoles, and his absence showed just how much the Hokies will rely on him to carry them through the tournament. 

    Then there's the three-point defense. The Hokies allow opponents to shoot 33.9 percent from beyond the arc, which ranks 158th in the nation. That won't cut it against some of the best shooters in college basketball later this month. 

    When the tournament arrives, the level of competition will be too much for the Hokies to match up against.

Marquette Golden Eagles

3 of 5

    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Marquette enjoyed a month of glory in the AP poll, ranking No. 10 in four of the past five editions.

    However, the wheels have begun to come off. Marquette fell six spots to No. 16 this week after losses to Villanova and Creighton. (Creighton had lost six straight to Marquette previously.) This despite superstar junior guard Markus Howard's 58 points combined in those two games as he set the program's regular-season scoring record.

    On Wednesday night, the slide continued as the Golden Eagles dropped their third in a row to Seton Hall, 73-64, with Howard largely held in check. If the transcendent Howard can't lead the Golden Eagles to victory, they have a big problem.

    Nonetheless, Marquette still projects as a No. 4 seed in the tournament. 

    Even if Howard turns it on and Marquette course-corrects from its recent skid, it's hard to imagine the Golden Eagles will make it far in the tournament.

    What's more, most teams in the AP Top 25 either excel on both offense and defense or, more commonly, are tops in one and struggle slightly in the other. Marquette, though, is mediocre in both.

    In KenPom's offensive and defensive efficiency rankings, the Golden Eagles find themselves at No. 27 and No. 35, respectively. That kind of middling play on both sides of the ball isn't going to cut it when it comes to the round of 32 and beyond.

    If you remain tempted to favor Marquette in your bracket, it's worth noting the Golden Eagles' odds are currently at +5000 (bet $100 to win $5,000), 14th-best overall, per OddsShark

Michigan State Spartans

4 of 5

    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    The Spartans continue to drop in the AP Top 25 as we approach the end of the regular season.

    This week, they've fallen three spots to land at No. 9 thanks to a loss to Indiana, 63-62. The Spartans have a matchup with No. 7 Michigan on deck to cap their regular season, and they'll have a double bye heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

    If the Spartans can turn things around and beat Michigan while Purdue loses to Northwestern, they'll earn the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, not to mention a likely No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

    So why is Michigan State primed to make you tear up your bracket? After all, Sparty has, for the most part, righted the ship after a three-game skid in late January and early February to Purdue, Indiana and Illinois.

    But anyone who watches Big Ten basketball knows how hard Michigan State has been bitten by the injury bug. The team announced Jan. 30 that junior guard and co-captain Joshua Langford suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Kyle Ahrens is day-to-day with a back injury. And forward Nick Ward continues to nurse a hairline fracture in his left hand suffered against Ohio State on Feb. 17, though he's moving toward a return in time for March Madness.

    Injury woes aside, Michigan State has other problems that will prevent it from advancing in the tourney. The Spartans' turnover rate continues to plague them as it did last season. At 13.1 on average per game, they rank 180th in Division I.

    In a single-elimination tournament, an absence of top talent and an inability to protect the ball can only spell doom.

Virginia Cavaliers

5 of 5

    Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

    Rest assured, Virginia's inclusion on this list isn't an overreaction to the Cavaliers' historic flop to the No. 16 UMBC Retrievers in the first round last year.

    The unfortunate truth for Cavaliers fans is that Tony Bennett's team still has the same problems that led to early tournament exits last season and, in fact, every year since 2014.

    Despite earning no lower than a No. 5 seed every year dating back to 2013-14, the Cavaliers have failed to reach the Final Four. Why is that when they've generally had one of the best, if not the best, scoring defenses in the country?

    One facet of the Cavaliers' game under Bennett that could be holding them back from late-round glory is their pace of play, consistently ranked near the bottom of the NCAA.

    This year, Virginia ranks dead last in Division I in possessions per game, per TeamRankings, at just 62.8. This leads to frequently low-scoring games—the Cavaliers' 71.9 points per game rank 203rd—and makes Bennett's squad beatable in a single-elimination tournament.

    The Cavaliers continue to be popular with Vegas; they have the fourth-best odds to win it all at +950, per OddsShark. But the results never pan out.

    The difference between Virginia and the other teams on this list is that a lot of people will undoubtedly put Virginia in their Final Four, if not count on the Cavaliers to win the whole thing. But both history and the team's play style make that a bracket bust waiting to happen.