When the NCAA men’s basketball bracket is unveiled on Sunday afternoon, a few coaches may have a hard time hiding their smiles.
Maybe they landed in a region with a wobbly No. 1 seed with a history of March meltdowns. Or maybe they drew an opening-round opponent who lost a key player to injury and limped to the finish line.
The purpose of this now-annual column is to identify those opponents NCAA tournament teams should want to draw before the bracket comes out. These are teams that for whatever reason don’t appear to be as strong as ones projected to receive similar seeds.
Last year, this column identified three teams that lost to double-digit seeds, though admittedly Purdue reached the Sweet 16 before 15th-seeded St. Peter’s torpedoed its season. We’ll hope for similar success this time around.
Purdue’s presence on this list has little to do with the program’s tortured NCAA tournament history. The Boilermakers are here because there are some real red flags with how they’ve finished an otherwise fantastic regular season.
Four of Purdue’s five losses this season have come since Feb. 4. Even in their two most recent wins, the Boilermakers had to rally late to edge Wisconsin and then squandered a 24-point second-half lead at home against Illinois.
Purdue has shot less than 30 percent from behind the arc during that stretch and has been turnover-prone in stretches. Teams with big, athletic perimeter defenders have been able to disrupt Purdue’s offense, pressure its smaller guards and make it tougher for national player of the year favorite Zach Edey to receive an entry pass.
One concern is that freshman guards Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith appear to be tiring after both playing more than 70 percent of Purdue’s available minutes this season. As The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn recently noted, no team since 2015 has made the Final Four with two freshmen carrying that heavy a load. In fact, only three total freshmen have reached the Final Four since 2015 playing that percentage of minutes.
Does this mean Purdue cannot get to Houston? Of course not. This is a team that edged Marquette and wrecked Duke and Gonzaga in non-league play. This is a team that steamrolled its Big Ten opponents in January. But the Boilermakers haven’t finished the regular season as consistently as the other potential No. 1 seeds and appear to be vulnerable against an unfavorable matchup.
With every first-round flop or early round loss, Rick Barnes reminds everyone why it’s difficult to trust his teams in the NCAA tournament. He consistently underperforms when it matters most no matter how big a talent edge he has.
He couldn’t get past the second round with Kevin Durant.
He has lost all five times he has coached in the 8-9 game.
His last seven Texas teams didn’t advance to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.
Three of his four NCAA tournament teams at Tennessee have lost to double-digit seeds.
Barnes may yet reverse that trend and make a second Final Four, but this doesn’t seem likely to be the year. While Tennessee’s long, physical defense might be the nation’s best, its offense was a concern even before losing starting point guard Zakai Zeigler to an ACL tear in a victory over Arkansas last week.
Without Zeigler, Tennessee misses its best shot creator, a 5-foot-9 sophomore who averaged 10.7 points and 5.4 assists while also ferociously defending the ball. His absence was especially damaging late in Saturday’s loss at desperate Auburn when the Vols missed all seven of their shots in the final 6:13 and also mixed in a pair of ill-timed turnovers.
Tennessee isn’t hopeless without Zeigler. That defense will keep the Vols competitive against most opponents. But lacking a true point guard is a big concern late in close NCAA tournament games, as is the presence of a coach who seems to have the reverse Midas touch in March.
Iowa State Cyclones
Only a year ago, Iowa State advanced to the Sweet 16 despite closing the regular season with seven losses in its final 11 games. Maybe the Cyclones have a similar run in them this year. Or maybe they’re a team that peaked two months too early.
In between routing Kansas in Ames on Feb. 4 and throttling Baylor in Waco last Saturday, Iowa State went into free fall. The Cyclones dropped six of seven games, their lone win coming at home against a TCU team that was without star guard Mike Miles.
Defense remained a strength for Iowa State. Its offense, however, went from erratic to putrid. Top scorers Jaren Holmes and Gabe Kalscheur were inefficient in the face of increased defensive attention. They often seemed to be complementary scorers forced into a larger role than they could handle because the Cyclones didn’t have other options.
Iowa State’s woes seemed to deepen last week when head coach T.J. Otzelberger dismissed starting guard Caleb Grill from the team last week for “failing to meet program standards.” Grill was the Cyclones’ third leading scorer and top 3-point shooter.
Then out of nowhere came Saturday’s win at Baylor, which Iowa State led nearly from start to finish. Holmes and Kalscheur were solid, Eastern Kentucky transfer Tre King delivered a season-high 13 points and the Cyclones’ defense was formidable as ever.
Was that win an anomaly? The guess here is that Iowa State is still vulnerable to a first-round exit, but just like last year the Cyclones are capable of proving skeptics wrong.
Since entering February tied for first place in the Big East and ranked 17th in the AP Top 25, Providence has steadily regressed. The Friars have dropped five of nine games, the last two of which coming at home, where they previously had been invincible.
The culprit has been a defense that has gone from concerning to flat-out broken. Providence’s guards can’t stay in front of their man off the dribble and the Friars’ frontcourt doesn’t supply much rim protection.
Check out these appalling numbers from Providence’s three most recent losses, courtesy of Bill Koch of the Providence Journal:
Seton Hall averaged 1.39 points per possession this afternoon.
Xavier was at 1.32. UConn was at 1.36. That's three of the last four for Providence.
Friars drop all the way to 44 in KenPom -- down 13 spots. Defense now outside the top 100. #pcbb
— Bill Koch (@BillKoch25) March 4, 2023
And this video clip, which exemplifies the Friars’ haphazard effort and lack of attention to detail:
— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) March 4, 2023
It was one thing when UConn and Xavier scorched Providence. It was another when previously struggling Seton Hall did it without standout point guard Kadary Richmond. Either the Friars will have to improve in a hurry defensively, or their postseason will be brief.