Backing favorites is always a savvy play when it comes to filling out your bracket. After all, the top seeds advance over 70 percent of the time during March Madness. But the big dogs don’t always bark come NCAA tournament time. And The Post has had a pretty good track record over the last several seasons of identifying teams on the top three seed lines that are most likely to bow out early.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: All of the teams we’re about to paint with a big ol’ bull's eye for David’s sling shot are good. Very good, even. And they absolutely deserve their status as NCAA tournament favorites. But in a series of one-game playoffs, it just takes one slip-up to undo all that regular-season glory. And when teams do slip, it’s usually because they’re waving a distinct red flag in their statistical profiles.
Since we began this exercise four years ago, we’ve identified 12 different teams that looked shaky based on their stats. Of those 12, nine lost before their seedings said they should. (No. 1 seeds should reach the Final Four, No. 2s should reach the Elite Eight and No. 3s should reach the Sweet 16.) Last season we pointed to the No. 1 Xavier Musketeers and No. 2 Cincinnati Bearcats. Neither reached the Sweet 16. We also called out the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks, who did reach the Final Four, but only after surviving a scary four-point win against No. 8 Seton Hall in the Round of 32 — a matchup we pointed to as particularly problematic.
But please allow us this disclaimer this season: The teams on the top lines of the 2019 bracket seem especially formidable this season. A lot of the time, we’ll see one of those teams have serious turnover issues, or be grossly overseeded based on their overall efficiency. That’s really not the case this season. So while our official guess is that most or all of the No. 1s, 2s and 3s, will play to seed, if any are to fall early, it’s likely to be one or more of the following teams.
No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers
This has nothing to do with the fact that the Cavaliers were the first No. 1 team to ever lose to a No. 16 seed last season. In fact, we thought Virginia was one of the safest teams in the bracket last year. But that loss demonstrates something that could once again clip the Cavaliers. . . . Okay, I guess it does have something to do with the UMBC loss.
The problem with Virginia is that its pace allows outclassed opponents to stay in the game. The Post’s Neil Greenberg pointed this out ahead of the ACC Tournament and we saw it rear its head when Virginia lost to Florida State. If you’re the superior team — and Virginia’s efficiency differential suggests it is superior team to just about anyone — you want to have as many chances as possible to put up points and separate from your opponent. But Virginia likes to play slow. The Cavaliers are the slowest tempo team in the nation, meaning their games see very few total possessions. That allows luck to play a larger role. And when an underdog shoots uncharacteristically well and the favorite shoots uncharacteristically poorly, then we see stunning results like we did last season.
UMBC hit 12 of 24 three-pointers last season in its upset of Virginia. That’s unusual from a team that averaged 38.2 percent from behind the arc for the season. When the Wahoos went cold from deep (4 of 22) it spelled their doom — there just weren’t enough possessions for the superior team to close the gap.
From a pace perspective, Wisconsin could present a challenging opponent for Virginia because the Badgers, a phenomenal defensive team (No. 3 defensive efficiency in the nation, per Kenpom.com), play at an equally plodding pace. Wisconsin is the best No. 5 seed in the field, playing more like a No. 3, per KenPom’s metrics. Given that lack of a gap in overall talent, Wisconsin could be the team in Virginia’s bracket most likely to trip up the Cavs.
No. 2 Tennessee Volunteers
Rick Barnes’s 22-23 tournament record aside, the red flag here is a more traditional one as it pertains to the types of top seeds that fall early. Underdogs seize on opportunities to create — and cash in on — extra possessions. One way of doing that is through offensive rebounds. Tennessee struggles to close out possessions, ranking 266th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage. That could be a significant issue against a Cincinnati team that seriously struggles to score at times, but is consistently excellent on the offensive glass.
The Bearcats are the No. 4 team in the nation when it comes to offensive rebounding, so while their overall offensive profile is pretty mediocre, this is the one place where they really shine. And it just so happens to be a key weakness for the No. 2 seed in the region.
One other statistic of note: The Vols’ opponents have shot extremely poorly from the foul line this season, with the 12th worst shooting percentage from the stripe, collectively. That could indicate Tennessee has been a little lucky in compiling its otherwise impressive 29-5 record.
Add in the fact that the game will be played in Columbus, Ohio, just about 90 minutes away from Cincy’s campus, and this could be a problematic matchup for an otherwise very good Tennessee team should the Bearcats move on to the second round.
No. 3 LSU Tigers
According to Pomeroy’s metrics, the Tigers play more like a No. 5 seed than a No. 3 based on their overall efficiency. And then there’s the small matter of head coach Will Wade, who has been suspended by the university after his name emerged in an investigation into a recruiting scandal.
Like their SEC brethren in Tennessee, the Tigers fail to clean the glass, ranking just 268th in defensive rebounding percentage. They also do not shoot well from three-point range (275th in the nation). Both of those stats could be an issue against No. 6 Maryland, which ranks 26th in terms of offensive rebounding percentage and 17th in terms of defense inside the arc. If Maryland can survive the Temple/Belmont winner, the Terps are well positioned for an upset that could carry them to the Sweet 16.