Top-ranked Villanova, 3rd-ranked Purdue, and 8th-ranked Auburn all got upset yesterday at home. Villanova lost to a 12-13 St. John’s team that, granted, just beat Duke on Saturday, but still isn’t that great of a team. Auburn lost to an emerging Texas A&M team which has underperformed much of the year but is getting it together now and still has talent. Purdue lost to #14 Ohio State who has been on both ends of the spectrum when it has come to upsets. They have upset the Boilermakers as well as 4th ranked Michigan State earlier in the year, back when they were #2. Regardless, Purdue blew a 53-45 lead in that game, and fell to the Buckeyes 64-63 with 2.8 seconds left. Between that and all the other upsets encountered with these Top 10 teams this year, this is the most vulnerable group of potential 1 and 2 seeds we’ve seen. This is not to say this is the year a 1 will fall to a 16, but there is certainly a chance that some of these teams may not sniff the Sweet 16 due to their flaws.
#10- Kansas Jayhawks
Bill Self’s crew has stayed afloat at #10 in what has been a more well-rounded Big 12 this season. However, this team has notable flaws. The first of which is that they have been more vulnerable to losing at home this season. It was next to impossible to win at Allen Fieldhouse for the past 5 seasons. Even if a road team contended and played tough, they would still walk away with a loss. Well, that is not the case with this year’s Kansas team. They have lost to two Pac-12 teams, Arizona State and Washington, as well as to two Big 12 teams, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, at home this season. None of these teams are bad teams, especially the Red Raiders who are currently #7. However, none of those teams are powerhouses that you can say would beat them more often than not at Allen Fieldhouse. Oklahoma State is 14-10 and Washington and Arizona State are both 17-6. 17-6 is a nice mark up to this point, but both are also inexperienced basketball programs that shouldn’t be able to win in that building. Both teams did so early in the season, and you wonder if Kansas maybe played down to them not expecting the performances they got. The other major problem with this Kansas team has been their defense. Kansas, whether they are a 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, has always had great team defense. Because their team is smaller and more guard-driven, with featured players like Devonte Graham, Lagerald Vick, and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, their team defense has not been as good. This isn’t to say it’s a complete issue, as it is still 123rd in the nation at 70.1 points per game. However, Kansas teams that have had Top 30 defenses have been the ones more successful in the NCAA tournament, and this team has been vulnerable to more losses because of their defense. College basketball is still guard-driven, like the NBA has turned into, but you still need some sense of size. And with only a couple good big men, Kansas’s defense has taken a toll this year, leaving them more vulnerable than ever to top offensive teams, like many in their conference. Between that and their home losses, Kansas may be vulnerable in the tournament playing exclusively at neutral sites and against bigger teams.
#9: Duke Blue Devils
I mentioned in this week’s Stock Watch article that Duke, as talented as a team as they have been, have been prone to the random upsets. Unlike Kansas, their losses have been mostly on the road, but are still to teams they have no business losing to with that much talent. Duke has the most NBA ready team in all of college hoops, with talented players such as Marvin Bagley, Gary Trent Jr., Trevon Duval, Wendell Carter, and Grayson Allen. That being said, their defense hasn’t played great (178th in nation, 72.4 points per game) and they have been vulnerable to random losses, like to St. John’s this past Saturday and Boston College earlier in the season. Duke was like this last year too, and despite everybody buying the hype after they won the ACC tournament, they lost to South Carolina badly in the second round of the NCAA tournament. This team, despite having far more talent, could fall into that category too. That being said, Duke usually does well years after they get upset. The other thing that may factor into Duke struggling in the tournament is players thinking about their NBA careers. I don’t think that will necessarily hurt them in the early rounds unless there are good matchups. However, I do believe that, like Kentucky teams in the past, could hurt them in later rounds against more experienced teams. Overall, I don’t think Duke will be super vulnerable, but those factors can still lead them to a surprise exit.
#8- Auburn Tigers
One of Wednesday’s Top 10 victims, the Auburn Tigers likely will fall out of the Top 10 in the next ranking after losing to Texas A&M at home. Auburn is a very talented offensive team, with good shooting percentages across the board (FG%, 3-point percentage, and FT%) leading to the 7th best offensive team in the nation at 85.8 points per game. So what to nit-pick about this Auburn team? For one, this is tournament inexperience. Similarly to me liking Texas Tech, they are also inexperienced in the tournament. Auburn has always been known for their football program rather than basketball, hence they haven’t made the tournament since 2003. If they aren’t ready for the moment, psychologically that could hurt their team. That being said, there are breakthrough teams in the tournament quite often, and a lot of that is spawned by good coaching, which Auburn has this season with Bruce Pearl. The other thing that could hurt them is two things. One of which is they only have one player, Jared Harper, with a decent assist total and assist-to-turnover ratio (5.9 APG, 3.2 A/TO). Only one other player has two assists and nobody else has an assist-to-turnover ratio above 2. What I am getting at is how Auburn could rely more on creating their own shots rather than great ball movement, which could hurt them against top tournament teams or great defensive teams. The other thing is their defense being shaky too, ranking 199th at 72.9 points per game. If they face another top offensive team or a more balanced team, they may lose a high-scoring affair. Overall, these factors, as talented of a team I think Auburn is, could lead them to be upset-prone in this tournament, even in the first round due to lack of experience.
#7- Texas Tech Red Raiders
I’ve been mentioning in my previous articles how I believe Texas Tech has the best chance to be a breakthrough team in this tournament. They have an offense that is just outside the top 100 and a defense that is #7 in the entire nation. However, they still have weaknesses too. Like Auburn, Texas Tech is more on the inexperienced side in the NCAA tournament. They did make it in 2016, but were one-and-done against Butler. But before that, they haven’t made it since 2007. Some of their impact players from that 2016 team are there, such as leading scorer Keenan Evans. But it has been freshman players such as Jarrett Culver that has taken them to higher levels rather than just a tournament 8 seed that wasn’t going anywhere. However, there is one other flaw to this team that could hurt them in a close game or trying to hold a lead late in the game. Free throw shooting is not great with this Texas Tech team. They have one member of their starting lineup, Keenan Evans, shooting over 80% from the line. Their other two players that they have shooting 80% are on the bench, and may not be in late in the game in a close game. Free throws have plagued tournament teams in the past, and it just may bite Texas Tech if it comes to a close game. I do believe they are a very balanced team that can dominate lower seeds and teams in the extreme (all offense or all defense), but if it comes to later rounds or even 5-4 matchups, this team could be more vulnerable if they can’t shoot from the line late in the game.
#6: Cincinnati Bearcats
This Bearcats team has a lot to like. They have balance. They have experience, especially on defense where they are #2 in the nation only to Virginia. So if there are a few things to nit-pick about the Bearcats, it would be these. For one thing, they haven’t beat a ranked team all year at the time they played them. Houston has been ranked at times, and SMU has been ranked at times, but not at the time the Bearcats played them. To translate, the Bearcats have played a very easy schedule, beating a lot of mid-major conference teams and a lot of lower level power 5 teams. So playing against tougher competition in the round of 32 could plague the Bearcats. In this stretch of 7 soon to be 8 NCAA tournament appearances, this team has also made the Sweet 16 just once, and never made it to the Elite 8 or Final Four in this decade. And playing against 5 and 6 seeds that may be more experienced or talented could hurt this Cincinnati team. Like Texas Tech, they also have trouble shooting free throws. They only have one player shooting above 80%, and that player, Mamoudou Diarra, has played in just 7 games this season. They have several guys in the 70 percent range, which could be worse, but still isn’t spectacular. And with the Bearcats, that has hurt them in past tournaments with this core, as they have lost many close games. Even though this Cincinnati core has been better overall and I think they have a better chance than past Bearcats teams, they are no lock for the sweet 16 for these reasons.
#5- Xavier Musketeers
The second safest team on this list, and a team that is always good in the tournament, is this Xavier Musketeers team. Despite losing Miles Davis, they went to the Elite 8 last year, beating 3-seeded Florida State and 2-seeded Arizona. This team is more deep than it has ever been even in comparison to last year, with 8 players averaging over 7 points per game. They have beaten many ranked teams this year. They have one of the most underrated head coaches in college basketball. So finding a flaw in this team is hard. If I had to nit-pick at one, it would be their 3-point percentage. Trevon Bluiett and Kaiser Gates are both above 40%, but beyond that they have a bunch of low 3-point shooting percentages. J.P. Macura and Karem Kanter are shooting in the 34% range. Naji Marshall is shooting 35.7% and Quentin Goodin is shooting 28.6%. There are also two players who have never shot a 3-pointer all year, so it’s likely not part of their identity. Therefore, if there is a team with a smart coach or an exceptional inside defense that will gameplan to force Xavier to shoot the 3 ball, they could be more vulnerable. Beyond that case, it will be very tough to beat this Xavier team.
#4- Michigan State Spartans
This team is the safest bet in the country among these top seeds. They have Tom Izzo, a Hall of Fame coach, with several talented players. They have talented and semi-experienced players (not freshmen like Duke or Kentucky). They are one of two teams (Purdue the other) that is Top 30 in both offense and defense, with the 20th best offense in the nation (83.7 points per game) and 26th best defense (65.3 points allowed per game). They shoot 3’s well. They shoot free throws well. They have tremendous assist-to-turnover ratio. And they have depth and star players. The one thing I will pick at with them is mental stability. They made the Final Four as a 7 seed in 2015. However, only three players on this roster were on that team. Many, however, were on the teams that got upset by Middle Tennessee in 2016 and lost in the second round last year. Often times, we see Tom Izzo bounce back from that kind of situation, but what if it doesn’t. What if this team is naturally jittery in this tournament? There is always that team in both college and professional sports that just constantly chokes in the postseason. I don’t think this team will be that way with Tom Izzo as coach, but the player’s psychological mindset is still the player’s mindset, and if they can’t handle the pressure, you can see a shocking exit from this talented Spartan team.
#3- Purdue Boilermakers
The other team that is Top 30 in both offense and defense, the Purdue Boilermakers have been a strong force this entire season, despite losing their best player last season in Caleb Swanigan. Like Michigan State, Purdue has good ratings on all shooting statistics, leading to an offense that is 25th in the nation at 83.2 points per game. Their defense, as it has always been in the Swanigan years as well, is fantastic, 18th in the nation at 64.2 points per game. So if there is one thing I can say is a flaw for Purdue, it may be depth. This is not something that I think will keep them out of later rounds. I think, like Michigan State and Xavier, they will definitely make the Sweet 16, barring any injuries. However, they rely so much on their starting lineup and don’t have great guys off the bench that can produce if somebody is off. Their starting lineup is fantastic featuring Carsen Edwards, Isaac Haas, and Vincent Edwards. Dakota Mathias is averaging 12.2 points per game as a 4th option. However, get out of the starting lineup, and the next highest scorer is Matt Haarms at 5.4 points per game. That is concerning against other top teams if they have scoring droughts like they did at the end of the game against Ohio State, right near the end of the 4th quarter after they were up 8. They didn’t have those key offensive guys that could keep scoring the way Edwards and Haas could, and Ohio State went on a 14-5 run to get themselves back in the game and eventually won by one. That will matter in this tournament, which will feature 6 and 7 seeds that could be very good from deeper conferences, and even 1 vs. 4 or 2 vs. 3 matchup in the Sweet 16. So if they can’t get their bench resolved, Purdue could get knocked out before the Elite 8. It still will be tough, as they are the second most balanced team. However, if 2 of their starters are off, it could be a concerning situation for the Boilermakers.
#2: Virginia Cavaliers
Great defense. No offense. Same identity for the Virginia Cavaliers again, who besides 2016 have always gone out in the second round. Their consistently top-ranked defense under Tony Bennett has always gotten them higher seeds. But their offense, every year, seems to be hovering around the 50 or 60 worst offensive teams in the ENTIRE NATION. That is never a team I can trust in the NCAA tournament. This is a team that scored 39 points in their loss to Florida last year. They have won many games this season scoring under 60 points. That just won’t cut it come tournament time. Simple as that. It’s the same old Cavaliers that will just lose to a more well-rounded, balanced, and deeper team in the second round. And I’m not saying they will lose to a 16 seed, but if there is any 1 seed ever that may lose to one, I would put my money on this Virginia team. You need to score to win, and having two guys only scoring over double digits in points per game will not cut it. Are they efficient free throw shooters? Sure. Are they efficient 3-point shooters. Some players are. But efficient doesn’t always mean productive. I have always hated this identity, and despite it working in the regular season, I think this offense will make Virginia as vulnerable as any Top 10 team come time the ACC tournament and eventually the NCAA tournament.
#1- Villanova Wildcats
The 2016 National Champions are back in power as a consistent #1 ranking week in and week out. But once again, a loss to St. John’s Wednesday night proves one thing. The mental state of Villanova may still be a bit off. Yeah, they won a championship in 2016 where a lot of people, including myself, thought they would be out in the first two rounds. But what about the rest of the last 3 years? There was an upset loss to UConn. There was crying flute girl. There was last year’s Wisconsin magic, showing why they were painfully ranked too low in that tournament. Regardless, Villanova has been a phased team, and it’s because of the same thing I mentioned with Duke, a history of being vulnerable in the tournament due to random upsets. Even going back to 2010, they lost to a #10 seeded St. Mary’s team as a 2 seed. Another flaw with Villanova is their team defense wasn’t as good last year. They have lost several players from that championship team since then and this identity has been more of an offensive identity. Their defense is still not bad, #125 in the nation at 70.2 points per game. But it has been a Top 50 defense in recent years, especially in their championship year where it was Top 20. Trying to win with defensive identity like they have in the past may be less common than it was in previous years. They’ve had more games this year where they have allowed 80 points, including 101 in a loss against Butler. This defensive team is not the same even with the offense being more dynamic. Losing guys like Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacano, and Kris Jenkins has caused Jay Wright to be experimenting with a team defensive identity, which he still hasn’t found on a consistent basis. And between that and their usual mental woes, with the exception of 2016, this Villanova Wildcat team can be vulnerable in the right matchup.