By: Chris O’Brien
If you spit out your coffee reading that headline, that’s the right reaction.
Because yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but not by much.
Here’s another way to look at it; me saying
40 37 teams could make the Final Four is basically like saying that a 10 seed has a chance to get there.
Is that crazy?
I went back and looked at the Final Fours during the “One-and-done” era. Since 2006, which is right around the time of the NBA’s age restriction, we’ve had these teams ranked outside of a Top 5 seed make it to the Final Four:
- Two 11 seeds – VCU and George Mason
- One 10 seed – Syracuse
- One 9 seed – Wichita State
- Two 8 seeds – Butler, Kentucky
- Two 7 seeds – South Carolina, Michigan State
And those regular seasons seemed tame in comparison to the chaos we’ve witnessed in 2017-18. We had one weekend where seven Top 25 teams lost to unranked opponents. Seven! Upsets didn’t even register anymore because it became so common.
Now, something to remember, March Madness never goes the way we think it will go. It’s like the stock market on steroids. So yeah, all signs may point to double-digit teams making a run for the Final Four, but we may end up with Villanova, Virginia, Kansas, Xavier. Or none of them. Who knows. But let’s take a look at what’s possible.
Note: I’ve updated this series now that the brackets are out. Another reason this is not your normal college basketball year: Oklahoma State, Notre Dame, and Middle Tennessee State were in this original series, they are all headed to the NIT.
Teams that Can Win it All
3. Michigan State
8. North Carolina
While we do get surprises in the Final Four (who could have seen South Carolina last year outside of South Carolina alumni), the NCAA Champion does follow a little bit of a formula.
Sticking with the 2006 “one-and-done” window, only four out of 12 times has the champion finished with more than five losses. Two of those times were Connecticut, one was Florida back in ’06, and then last year’s North Carolina team had seven losses but played in a brutal ACC.
The ones that would fit the five losses or less criteria: Michigan State, Villanova, Virginia, Xavier. Worth keeping in mind when picking your champion. (sidenote – Gonzaga and Cincinnati both have four losses).
Villanova has one of the best point guards in the country (Brunson) and an NBA Lottery swingman in Mikal Bridges.
Michigan State is loaded with talent at every position. Two Lottery Guys in Bridges and Jackson.
Virginia is the best defensive team in the country.
And Xavier went further than any of these teams last year in the NCAA Tournament, they returned their best player (Trevon Bluiett) who is having a strong senior season.
But in order for this article to work, I need to start poking holes in these four teams. Otherwise, it’s not 40 teams that can get there, it’s four. Simple. Article done. Move on.
And what’s the fun in that? So let’s begin.
Can you really win 4+ games played in the 50’s and 60’s? The Cavaliers seem to always fall victim of the NCAA Tournament do-or-die format. What happens when they run into a team who shoots lights out from three? Defense certainly travels, but I don’t know if we’ve had a National Champion who wasn’t elite offensively.
Don’t love that potential matchup against Arizona or Kentucky in the Sweet 16. If we get Virginia vs. Cincinnati in the Elite 8 we may see our first NCAA Tournament game played in the 40’s.
The Wildcats lost, at home, to St. John’s. The Johnnies were 0-11 in the Big East before that win.
Granted, Villanova was down two of their best six players and St. John’s magically looked like a No. 1 seed for a 10 day stretch (they casually beat Duke then Villanova in back-to-back games), but what if they see Alabama in Round 2, and instead of St. John’s Shamorie Ponds dropping 26, it’s Colin Sexton? Could this be a repeat of Wisconsin last year?
With the exception of the championship run, Villanova has been fairly unreliable in the NCAA Tournament.
The Spartans are the hardest team to make an argument against. Only thing I can think of would be lack of upperclassmen.
The Spartans start four sophomores and one freshman, but in today’s college basketball world that’s not necessarily that young of a team. So the inexperience card isn’t that strong.
But MSU has a sneaky tough region for the opening weekend. Especially if they are looking ahead to a potential Duke game. Watch out for Bucknell in the first round. The Bison score 81 ppg and are Top 50 in field goal percentage. Bunch of seniors. Arizona State, if they somehow become what they were pre-Pac12, would also be a tough matchup.
Two examples of teams with elite backcourts lighting up Xavier. First was Arizona State (102-86) second was Villanova (two times).
Xavier looks pretty safe until an Elite 8 matchup with Michigan and North Carolina. However, watch out for Michael Porter Jr. and Missouri in the second round. Matchup problem.
Talent + Pedigree + Inconsistency
These three you just feel confident writing in on the bracket. I feel a lot safer with those historic names come March than say Virginia, Purdue, and Texas Tech.
But once you get past the name on the front of the jerseys, these teams are far from safe picks.
My loyalty to Kansas is no secret, I mean come on, I write the “Bill Self’s Backup” blog. But I’m like the dad coaching his son, I’ll be extra tough on them to try and prove there’s no bias.
This Jayhawks team, at one point, was a 7-seed masquerading as a 2-seed. Yeah, they might extend their Big 12 winning streak to 14 in a row, but as my Dad said last week, “Does it still count if the entire conference finishes 9-9?”
This is what I wrote on February 11th, so literally just a month ago:
KU can’t defend, they’re thin in the frontcourt, they don’t even have a starting lineup figured out, and they don’t get to the foul line. If Svi or Graham have an off-shooting night, there’s little to no proof they have enough scoring to win (or the defense to make up for it). And, unlike Purdue with Haas, this team has not figured out how to dump the ball into Doke, who could be equally dominant. The Jayhawks have a good amount of Top 50 wins but they haven’t beaten a No. 1, No. 2, or No. 3 seed caliber team all season. Haven’t even played one.
Whew. Alright, now that I got that off my chest, let me put the over-optimistic fan hat back on.
Graham is a First Team All-America candidate running the point. Svi can go off for five or six threes. Doke, at certain times, looks like LSU Shaq (free throw shooting and all). Newman can get 20+. Lightfoot is becoming that ultimate glue guy, due for one of those late-game Shane Battier type of charges that you love when he’s on your team getting the call, but absolutely despise on an opponent.
And maybe the fact Bill Self was still making adjustments into March could be seen as a good thing. This team spent over half the year thinking they’d add star-freshman Billy Preston, in the Big 12 Tournament freshman Silvio De Sousa shined proving KU has a backup plan if Doke gets into foul trouble.
So maybe that’s the positive spin. The Jayhawks only started to peak recently. But two things worth pointing out, NC State would be a really tough matchup for KU and there’s still a big question mark surrounding Doke’s health (reports say he will play this weekend, but he did sit out the Big 12 Tourney).
The Blue Devils haven’t figured out how to defend consistently, rely heavily on freshmen, and any time Grayson Allen has an off night, things get ugly.
BUT what team can match Bagley and Carter in the frontcourt? And I know it was way back in November, but when the lights were on, big national TV game in the Champions Classic, there was Duke defeating Michigan State (and Bagley was out most of the game). Coach K has always done well against Izzo, and man those bigs would be a matchup nightmare for KU in a potential Elite 8 game.
Turn on an Arizona game sometime in the next four weeks.
What you’ll see is a squad that looks like the most athletic team in the country.
Ayton is a freak of nature, looks like a college version of David Robinson. Trier and Alkins both look like NBA caliber guards. Ristic is another seven-footer.
In a lot of pre-season polls, this was the No. 1 team in America. Back around Thanksgiving, it looked like we were going to get a Final Four preview in the Battle 4 Atlantis between Arizona and Villanova.
But then they actually played the games; and what a mess it was. Arizona had a disastrous trip, went 0-3, two of those losses coming to NC State and SMU. They fell out of the Top 25.
However, Alkins was out. And if you do a “What happens in the Bahamas stays in the Bahamas” wave of the magic wand, this team has been 20-3 since then with wins over Texas A&M (when they were No. 7), Alabama, and Arizona State (when they were No. 3).
It’s weird, the Wildcats’ post-Bahamas resume is really pretty good. Maybe even Top 10 worthy, and they’ve kind of hovered around that spot ranked No. 10 – 15. But it just feels like they are underachieving, not playing as hard as they could. This clip is worth a watch, it’s Sean Miller almost whining that his guys won’t play for him. Coaches call out their team’s toughness all the time, especially early in the season, but this felt like something different, almost as if there was/is a deeper disconnect that can’t be solved.
Personally, I think this is a year where the Pac-12 might surprise us, everyone’s been down on that conference all year, they may only get four teams in, but then those four go 4-0, maybe two get to the Sweet 16.
Arizona is the weird case where I feel more confident in them the deeper they get in the tourney. They would match up great against any of the No. 1 or No. 2 seeds, in several cases would be the more athletic team on the court.
Another paragraph I wrote in February, attention all Buffalo fans, this could read as foreshadowing:
But I will spend a long time on their first-round game. If effort and intensity are the major flaws, and say they get in as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed, that is a really bad recipe against a top mid-major coming at them full-force. It leads to this weird sentence: I really like Arizona to make the Final Four… if they can make the Sweet 16.
BUT keep in mind, Arizona has so many scandals swirling around. Both Ayton and Miller will face questions. And Trier failed a drug test a few weeks back. Will these be distractions?
When I update this 40 Teams list on Selection Sunday, my guess is North Carolina will jump possibly ten spots. But don’t take my word for it, check out the latest installment of Keith’s Carolina BBQ where the biggest Carolina fan I know gives you four reasons it could happen and one reason it won’t.