2018 NCAA Tournament: 40 Teams Could Make the Final Four (part 1)

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 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. Just this weekend seven Top 25 teams lost to unranked opponents. Seven! It doesn’t even register anymore because it’s become 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, Michigan State, Duke, and Xavier. Or none of them. Who knows. But let’s take a look at what’s possible.

The Upper Tier

1. Villanova

2. Michigan State

3. Virginia

4. Purdue

5. Xavier

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.

These five above all have a shot to finish with five or fewer losses. And each has a strong case to be a Final Four team.

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.

Purdue shoots the three really well, doesn’t turn the ball over, and if all else fails they can dump it into Haas who is like a 7’2” Ivan Drago.

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 five teams. Otherwise, it’s not 40 teams that can get there, it’s five. Article done. Move on.

And what’s the fun in that? So let’s begin.

Villanova

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 has magically looked like a No. 1 seed for the last 10 days (they casually beat Duke then Villanova in back-to-back games), but what if they see Alabama or Oklahoma on that No. 8 line, and instead of St. John’s Shamorie Ponds dropping 26, it’s Trae Young or 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.

Michigan State

The Spartans are the hardest team to make an argument against.

They start four sophomores and one freshman, but in today’s college basketball world that’s not necessarily that young of a team. I guess the best ammo against the Spartans would be lack of experience getting to the later rounds of the tournament, the pressure of likely being the No. 1 overall seed and having all of ESPN pick them to win it all, and then maybe if the media goes in full attack mode again on Tom Izzo, there could be the distraction card.

Virginia

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.

Purdue

The Boilermakers lost their two biggest tests in the Big 10. I feel confident about them reaching the Sweet 16 but what about playing a No. 5 seed or a top team in the Elite Eight?

Xavier

Two examples of teams with elite backcourts lighting up Xavier. First was Arizona State (102-86) second was Villanova (89-65). Let’s say they’re a No. 2 and get a 7th seeded Kentucky in the second round. Do they have enough to handle the Wildcats’ athleticism?

Talent + Pedigree + Inconsistency 

6. Duke

7. Kansas

8. Arizona

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.

Duke

Lost three of their last four, including that bizarre St. John’s loss. The Blue Devils haven’t figured out how to defend, 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).

Kansas

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 is 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?”

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 is still making adjustments could be seen as a good thing. This team spent over half the year thinking they’d add star-freshman Billy Preston, now they’re making tweaks to the starting lineup/rotation. And, even with all of that, they’re still 19-6, Top 15 KenPom. Just a week or two ago, Joe Lunardi had them as a No. 1 seed.

So maybe that’s the positive spin. The Jayhawks haven’t peaked yet and they’re still hanging with the top tier teams. Maybe they find their full stride in the tournament? Maybe?

Arizona

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).

Only losses – @ Colorado (classic high altitude loss), @ Washington (Washington should be a tournament team, they destroyed Kansas in Kansas City), and then last week lost at home against UCLA.

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.

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.

I thought I’d be able to do this all in one post. Boy was I wrong. Haven’t even got into current Top 10 teams like Cincinnati, Texas Tech, and Auburn. Haven’t mentioned the Blue Bloods of Kentucky, North Carolina, and UCLA. Or how about conference leaders like Ohio State and Gonzaga. We’ve got a lot of ground left to cover, look for Part 2 sometime next week. 

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