Not all roads to the Final Four and beyond are paved evenly, and surprisingly enough the bracket’s top overall seed has the most challenging path path to Minneapolis.
In theory, the top seeded teams are rewarded for their regular-season success while lower seeds should need to fight tooth and nail to get past the first round. But even top seeds could struggle given the obstacles placed in their way by the selection committee, especially No. 1 Duke in the East bracket.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t done any favors by the selection committee. Assuming chalk prevails, the Blue Devils would have to face the Hokies, the 15th best team in the country per the consensus ranking of 61 different methods, in the Sweet 16 and then the Spartans, fifth-best team, in the Elite Eight. Virginia, by comparison, only needs to dispatch Kansas State (19th), a first-round upset candidate, and then Tennessee (6th), giving the Cavaliers a much easier time navigating their part of the region to the Final Four. Gonzaga would face Florida State (11th) and then the better team of Michigan (8th) and Texas Tech (9th) while North Carolina, assuming the best-seeded teams win, gets Kansas (14th) and Kentucky (7th). Using the same data and methodology that fuels the perfect bracket, Virginia has a 52-percent chance at reaching the Final Four whereas Duke has a 42-percent chance, followed closely by Gonzaga and North Carolina.
Duke maintains such a high certainty because they are very good. The Blue Devils enter the tournament as the third-best team in the nation, per Pomeroy’s ratings, and feature one of the most-electrifying talents in the game: Zion Williamson.
Williamson, the likely No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft, scored 22.1 points for Duke as a freshman with 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals per contest, oftentimes littering late-night highlight reels with spectacular dunks. Teammate RJ Barret leads the squad with 22.9 points per game, dishing out 4.1 assists per night. The two of them won’t impress you from the three-point line but they make up for that by effortlessly getting to the rim.
After the top seeds, the ordering of teams in terms of Final Four chances follows the seeding until the 3-line — that’s when No. 6 Iowa State makes an appearance after No. 3 Texas Tech (West), No. 3 Purdue (South) and No. 3 Houston (Midwest) but before No. 4 Virginia Tech and No. 3 LSU.
The Cyclones stumbled leading up to the Big 12 tournament (2-6 near the end of conference play) due to injuries suffered by senior Marial Shayok and Lindell Wigginton. Those two made it back in time for the conference tournament and along with Talen Horton-Tucker posted double-digit points per game. Add in point guard Nick Weiler-Babb and a formidable Michael Jacobson in the paint and it is easy to see how Iowa State’s balanced attack in the half court could be a match-up problem for many teams in the tournament. It’s also why they are penciled in to the Sweet 16 in this year’s Perfect Bracket.
Iowa State also loves to run in transition, with almost half its field goal attempts on the break coming at the rim (46 percent per Hoop Vision), where they score on 82 percent of those possessions.
Other interlopers into an otherwise orderly bracket could include No. 7 Wofford, whose four percent chance to represent the Midwest in the Final Four is higher than five other higher-seeded teams, including No. 4 Kansas State.
The Terriers, led by Fletcher Magee, one of the best shooters in the nation, rank second in the country in three-point percentage at 42 percent. He’s scoring over 1.3 points per shot on contested catch-and-shoot attempts, the most of any player in this year’s tournament.
Three double-digit seeds, No. 11 Saint Mary’s (South), No. 10 Florida (West) and No. 11 Ohio State (Midwest) each have a one percent chance of representing their respective regions in the Final Four. If that sounds low, it’s because it is. But those odds are extremely high when you consider those seed lines have made a total of five Final Fours since 1985, the first year the tournament expanded to a 64-team field.