Analysis | These are the NCAA men’s tournament’s most vulnerable top seeds

Analysis | These are the NCAA men’s tournament’s most vulnerable top seeds

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

March Madness is renowned for its shocking twists — and for highly ranked teams getting knocked out of the men’s basketball tournament before the first weekend of games concludes. This year should be no different. Many of the highest seeded squads are teeming with vulnerabilities that make them susceptible to early exits.

A team that we’re identifying as vulnerable won’t necessarily flame out in the first round or even the first weekend. But such a team probably won’t perform better than an average team on the same seed line. In other words, be careful pushing these teams further than the Sweet 16.

Let’s start with No. 1 Purdue in the East region. Purdue is 29-4 with an impressive list of wins against Arizona, Tennessee, Marquette, Gonzaga, Alabama, Illinois and Wisconsin. Massive senior center Zach Edey, a unanimous first-team all-American for the second straight season, is averaging 24.4 points and 11.7 rebounds per game for Coach Matt Painter, who has Purdue in the hunt for a top seed seemingly every spring.

However, Painter’s tournament track record leaves a lot to be desired. Among 268 coaches who coached in March Madness from 2011 to 2023, Painter has the second-lowest performance in the NCAA tournament compared to what we would expect for his team’s seeding. For example, a No. 1 seed typically wins three games in the tournament, but Painter’s Boilermakers became just the second No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16 seed last year. Even if you take that historic loss to Fairleigh Dickinson away, Painter only rises to 246th, still winning two fewer games than expected based on seeding alone.

Looking at Purdue’s adjusted efficiencies heading into the tournament also paints a pessimistic outlook. The 10 most similar efficiency profiles to Purdue since 2008, per analyst Bart Torvik’s data, include a collection of teams that averaged 1.4 wins in the tournament. Just two of those 10 teams, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh in 2009, advanced past the Sweet 16. Six of the 10 most similar teams failed to survive the first weekend of games. The team most similar to Purdue in Torvik’s data is actually last year’s Purdue team, an ominous sign.

That doesn’t mean Purdue is destined to lose early. It just means you’re taking an awfully big leap of faith if you put your trust in this year to be different.

Here is one other vulnerable team, seeded at No. 4 or higher, in each of the remaining regions. And for more advice, see also my annual Perfect Bracket; the most likely first-round upsets; the best bets to win it all that you can trust; and 10 tips to help you fill out your bracket.

No. 3 Illinois, East Region

The Fighting Illini don’t always put up enough of a fight on defense to be considered elite. Coach Brad Underwood’s team surrenders 101.6 points per 100 possessions per game after adjusting for strength of schedule, per analyst Ken Pomeroy’s data. That’s above average, but still porous enough to rank 93rd in the country, well beyond the threshold we’ve seen for other teams making a deep run.

Illinois is probably most vulnerable to a team with guards who are good ballhandlers and adept at running the pick-and-roll, a play type Illinois struggles with. Morehead State’s Jordan Lathon could be that guard: He averages over a point per possession as the ballhandler on pick-and-rolls this season, per Synergy Sports. (Yes, No. 14 seed Morehead State faces Illinois in the opening round.) Illinois also struggles to defend spot-up shooters (ranking in the 22nd percentile, per Synergy Sports) and opposing teams in transition (23rd percentile). Morehead State ranks in the 93rd percentile in spot-up shooting.

No. 6 BYU and No. 11 Duquesne, potential round-of-32 opponents for Illinois, are also efficient out of the pick and roll and in transition, making Illinois’s path to the Sweet 16 a difficult one.

No. 3 Kentucky, South Region

Kentucky is another team that struggles on defense compared to other title contenders (108th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy’s data). The Wildcats also rely on a fast pace for both offense and defense. That’s not inherently bad, but Kentucky’s first opponent, No. 14 seed Oakland, loves to slow down the pace on offense, perhaps leaving Kentucky with fewer possessions than it’s accustomed to. Fewer possessions means fewer opportunities for Kentucky to use its deadly three-point shooting (averaging about 41 percent, tops in the country) to pull away and end the drama.

And waiting in the wings for the Kentucky-Oakland winner is the winner of North Carolina State and Texas Tech, two more teams that prefer a slow pace.

Taking a look at teams with similar offensive and defensive metrics for shooting efficiency, offensive rebounding, turnover rates and getting to the free throw line (also known as the four factors) shows this Kentucky squad should be expected to win two games in the tournament. That would get them to the Sweet 16 before being sent home to watch the tournament like the rest of us.

No. 4 Alabama, West Region

The Crimson Tide was rolling early in the season but then started to falter, and enters the tournament with four losses in its last six games. The challenge will be playing at a high tempo while leaning heavily on three-point attempts, especially against No. 13 seed College of Charleston, Alabama’s first-round opponent. Charleston’s defense is good at chasing opponents off the three-point line and not giving many unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts, instead encouraging midrange jumpers that tend to be less efficient

In addition, Alabama’s four factors profile lumps them in with teams that had trouble surviving the first weekend of games. Of the 10 most similar tournament teams since 2008, six failed to advance further than the round of 32 and none made it to the Final Four.

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