Welcome back to the Danger Rankings, where you are free to put your bracket down and let us do the worrying for you. It’s March, and we know there are going to be upsets. It always happens. The question is not if but which higher-seeded teams will be packing their bags during the first weekend of the men’s tournament.
There’s no single reason these upsets happen time and again, but the conditions of the tournament—which, this year, are notably different, with less travel but strict limitations on teams’ activities—always create these types of circumstances. We’re here to examine the top seeds standing on slightly shakier ground when it comes to winning their four-team pod and making the Sweet 16, because it’s simply not enough to be the favorite this time of year.
Before you fill out your brackets, hedge your bets, and/or engender deep emotional attachment to the success of any of these teams, it might be a good idea to at least scroll down.
Virginia (No. 4 seed, West Region)
By now you may know the circumstances, but the Cavaliers—who, technically, remain the defending champions—are skidding into the tournament on thin ice, after a player’s positive COVID-19 test dashed their ACC tourney run. The subsequent hiatus placed most of the team in quarantine and left it unable to practice as a team until Thursday, with the plan being to travel Friday and play Ohio on Saturday. We don’t know which player(s) Virginia will be missing yet, but we do know that lengthy pauses are not helpful to any team from a logistical, conditioning or preparation standpoint.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Virginia isn’t a quality team: The Hoos are much better offensively this year than in the past, and thrive at Tony Bennett’s preferred swampy pace. They’ve beaten pretty much everyone they were supposed to beat this year; Kihei Clark and Jay Huff were part of the 2018–19 title run and the Cavs are well-coached and resilient. They make free throws and threes and take care of the ball. The primary issues with their profile are their occasional over-reliance on Sam Hauser, their defense’s struggle to force turnovers and that their slow pace and low-possession style often generates close results, even against teams with lesser talent. They also shoot a lot of threes, for better or for worse.
Virginia draws a hot Ohio team whose star player, Jason Preston, will be the best guard in the matchup. Preston is a sublime passer who changes speeds well off the dribble, and nearly led the Bobcats to an upset of Illinois in November. Ohio doesn’t have a ton of size, which leaves them particularly vulnerable defending the rim, but the Cavaliers focus on defensive rebounding and milking the shot clock, which comes at the expense of transition play. There’s a real opportunity for this game to go down to the wire, at minimum. And if the COVID-19 hiatus leads to a sluggish showing—particularly if it means a tough shooting night—Virginia’s title defense may be brief.
Kansas (No. 3 seed, West Region)
The Jayhawks are also in an uneasy place as a result of COVID-19 protocol, which forced them to bow out of the Big 12 tournament and puts them in a difficult spot heading into Saturday’s game against Eastern Washington. Based on reports, Kansas enters the weekend without Jalen Wilson, its third-leading scorer and top rebounder. The program is hopeful that David McCormack (its second-leading scorer and only center) and Tristan Enaruna (who’s been out of the rotation since February) will join the team in Indianapolis and be available immediately, but those two players may be entering the game with limited practice time.
Kansas is already in Indianapolis and at least has the ability to practice, but Wilson has been a rotation fixture all year and is a critical floor-spacing piece at forward. His absence likely means the Jayhawks will field smaller lineups, with Christian Braun playing the majority of minutes at power forward. McCormack started the season poorly but has been much better in conference play—and if he’s able to play Saturday, it’ll be his first game minutes since March 4. So, the primary concern here, one way or another, is that the interior play may not be up to snuff.
Eastern Washington may at least be capable of posing a challenge: the Eagles play fast, and play through experienced center Tanner Groves in the half court, who may be capable of causing problems. They scheduled three Pac-12 teams early in the season, losing by just three points to Washington State and Arizona. EWU was 23–8 before COVID-19 ended the 2019–20 season, and graduated just one key player from that team. It’s not ridiculous to think that this might shape up as a close game, particularly with Kansas relying on the inexperienced Bryce Thompson and Dajuan Harris for backcourt minutes of late.
If Kansas wins, it may end up having to face a good USC team anchored by the best interior defender in the tournament in Evan Mobley. The Jayhawks have been a quality defensive team all year, but their offense has consistently troubled them against good competition, shooting just 49.3% on twos and 33.7% on threes as a team. The Trojans are going to funnel everything to the rim and trust Mobley to clean up, and he rarely gets in foul trouble. Kansas has the talent to persevere, but considering all that’s going on, its path to the second weekend is more than a little bit dicey.
Michigan (No. 1 seed, East Region)
While it would be a mistake to take Isaiah Livers’s injury and immediately wipe away all the goodwill his team earned this season, his absence means we can no longer treat Michigan as a set-and-forget No. 1 seed. It’s plenty capable of handling a No. 16 seed. But after watching the Wolverines wobble and ultimately fall to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament, it’s clear that they can’t take any games for granted.
Michigan was driven all year by the synergy between its three best players: Franz Wagner, Hunter Dickinson and Livers. As a trio they’ve provided ample defensive cover and offensive firepower and more or less carried an undersized frontcourt. Dickinson is the interior focal point, Wagner the playmaking cog, and Livers the perimeter threat. In concert, they’ve enabled Mike Smith to focus on playmaking and lessened the load on Eli Brooks. But take away one, and the equation completely changes. Without Livers to draw defensive attention, opponents can double Dickinson and apply higher ball pressure on Wagner. None of Michigan’s bench players can adequately replicate that effect—certainly not to the point where the Wolverines are still a top-10 team on both ends of the floor.
The immediate question is whether what they have is enough to win a couple of games. A second-round matchup against LSU or St. Bonaventure will create challenges. LSU struggles defensively, but plays a fast-paced, athletic game and features two high-level foul-drawers in Cam Thomas and Trendon Watford. Without Livers, Michigan’s depth is more or less shot: Chaundee Brown and Brandon Johns have to play more, and freshman Terrance Williams II scored no points in his 12 minutes against Ohio State. Austin Davis is purely a platoon partner for Dickinson. It’s easy to see a scenario where the Tigers make shots, expose the bench, take their chances and ultimately outrun the Wolverines.
St. Bonaventure is a much more experienced, disciplined opponent, and was the clear best team in the Atlantic 10. Its backcourt, led by Kyle Lofton, is better than Michigan’s, frankly. Center Osun Osunniyi was quietly one of the best shot blockers in the nation this year. Dickinson’s heft will give the slimmer Osunniyi problems deep in the paint, but St. Bonaventure has the size to try and scramble those touches. The Bonnies are good enough to make Michigan uncomfortable. If there’s a No. 1 seed truly in danger this weekend, it’s the Wolverines. Juwan Howard has earned our trust at this point, but without a full deck, whether his team lives up to its seed is a difficult call to make, as far as brackets are concerned.
Texas (No. 3 seed, East Region)
At a glance, Texas to the Sweet 16 may seem like easy money, particularly after it won the Big 12 tournament. Though it doesn’t detract from that accomplishment, the Longhorns were helped by a surprise day off before the conference final, after Kansas dropped out of the field. And if you dig into the situation a little bit, they ended up with a potentially tricky pod.
Texas’s first-round opponent, Abilene Christian, looks like the most dangerous team seeded in the teens. The Wildcats lead the country in defensive turnover rate, their defense is 30th nationally on KenPom, and they make threes and share the ball exceptionally well. They lost to Texas Tech by seven and Arkansas by 13 back in December, so the group has some modicum of meaningful experience playing better teams. It’s not crazy to think Abilene Christian could force the Longhorns’ guards into mistakes, either—Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones have all had their moments this season, but at different times, consistency and turnovers have been problematic for all three. Texas has a much more athletic team, but you can see a scenario where things get tight, or worse.
If the Longhorns win, there’s a good chance they draw BYU, which is one of the only teams to play Gonzaga close this season and boasts a mix of size, experience and shooting. If not, it’ll be the winner of Michigan State and UCLA. The Spartans aren’t as good as they’ve been in past years, with an offense that struggles to do much of anything well, but they picked up their play to end the year, and Tom Izzo teams are hard to fully count out. The Bruins have lost four straight coming into the tournament, and feel less concerning on paper. No matter what, Texas may have its hands full.
Iowa (No. 2 seed, West Region)
If you pore over Iowa’s eight losses, you may notice a prevailing trend: with the exception of Ohio State, the teams that have beaten the Hawkeyes have all featured a center capable of matching up physically with Luka Garza. Kofi Cockburn gave Garza tons of problems in Iowa’s Big Ten tournament loss to Illinois, underscoring that key vulnerability. Garza is going to get his numbers every night, but he takes nearly a third of his team’s shots, and any opponent who can limit his efficiency will at least have a chance to win the game.
This is not to say that Grand Canyon will be the team to do that—Iowa’s defense has improved, and it has the lowest turnover rate and second-most efficient offense in the country—but the Bryce Drew–coached Antelopes do have a very large man up front. Seven-foot, 270-pound Danish center Asbjorn Midtgaard, who transferred in this season from Wichita State, hasn’t faced anyone remotely close to Garza’s quality this season, but he does at least have the strength and size to bother him (and shoots 71% from the field). GCU plays a slow tempo and struggles with turnovers of its own, but it’s a defensive-oriented group who will try to muck up Iowa’s flow.
The scarier proposition for Iowa is a possible second-round matchup with Oregon, which will play VCU in a 7–10 matchup on Saturday night. The Ducks are 20–6 and won the Pac-12 regular-season title, and they’re one of the oldest teams in the field. Unless Dana Altman decides to dust off untested freshman Franck Kepnang for his six fouls, they lack the size to probably battle with Garza. But they do have the shooting to keep up with the Hawkeyes, led by the dangerous Chris Duarte and physical scorer Eugene Omoruyi. Oregon is a much more athletic team, and might be capable of slowing the game down and making Iowa labor in the half court.
The Hawkeyes are fully capable of taking care of business, but they may have the toughest first-weekend pod of any No. 2 seed.
West Virginia (No. 3 seed, Midwest Region)
The Mountaineers enter the tournament having lost two in a row and three of four. The good news is, those are justifiable and came against Oklahoma State and Baylor. West Virginia has one of the best offenses in the country and a player capable of closing games in Miles McBride, but its defense is vulnerable, particularly on the interior, where Derek Culver does the dirty work but doesn’t protect the basket all that well. McBride’s shooting has been cold as of late, potentially abetted by some fatigue, noting that he almost never comes out of games and leads the team in usage and assist rate by a significant margin. Relying that heavily on one player can run you into trouble this time of year.
West Virginia draws Morehead State in the first round, which is not especially fearsome given the Eagles lost by wide margins in all three of their games against high-major opponents this season, and are dependent on a freshman, center Johni Broome, to win the paint battle. But if they win, they could end up facing a tough San Diego State team that surely won’t let the moment slip away. The Aztecs’ two best players, Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel, are seniors, and more of their key pieces are upperclassmen. They’re good enough defensively to slow McBride and make other guys hit shots. There’s no glaring weakness in their statistical profile. I’d be less worried about Syracuse, which made it into the tournament again but hasn’t been a good defensive team, but Jim Boeheim has tripped up good teams in March. The Mountaineers should be favored, but their weaknesses are concerning—particularly that they shoot just 46% on twos as a team.
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