Selection Sunday is fast approaching. It has been a little while since we made our Final Four predictions, and there have been some changes in most prediction brackets. Teams like Kentucky and Duke tend to stay pretty solid in the public eye, and even the lineups for the first round have remained intact on most brackets. But with 68 teams on their way to the tournament, there naturally remains some room for speculation. This time around, let’s do a breakdown of the year’s top contenders for the Elite Eight.
Forget everything you read in our Final Four predictions, as not all of those teams will be making our Elite Eight this time around. For our current purposes, we will simply be looking at the most likely teams to finish the regular season with high rankings and what might happen if they go head-to-head with one another. Some of these teams were originally predicted to play on different regional brackets, but we’ll be going by the most recent stats and predictions for this breakdown.
Midwest – Kentucky v. Wisconsin
Kentucky is still undefeated, and it’s looking like they’re going to finish the regular season with zero losses. Needless to say, there’s been quite a bit of buzz about them. After all, the last team to cap a season without losing once was the Indiana Hoosiers, and that was in 1976. There’s no doubt that the Wildcats are taking a number one seed this year, so at this point the question is whether or not they’ll manage to continue their current trend going into the tournament.
Their own coach has expressed skepticism. It isn’t like they haven’t had a few stumbles. They had a rocky start against the Columbia Lions back in December. The same goes for their game against the Buffalo Bulls back in November. More recently, they just barely managed to nab a win against the Georgia Bulldogs. While Kentucky’s defense has been impeccable this year, it’s been far from flawless.
Wisconsin may not be undefeated, but they’re close. They’ve only lost two games, and their most recent loss against the Maryland Terrapins at the end of February was a close one. They slacked a bit on defense, and gave up six points that meant a lot for the Terrapins and created a major upset for Badgers fans. That said, one slip-up is hardly indicative of a trend. Wisconsin still has potential Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky.
The main problem is that the most recent loss does hint at a potential weakness in Wisconsin’s current playing style. Melo Trimble and Dez Wells, both guards for the Terrapins, were major influences on the Badgers’ loss. A team with stronger defense might’ve been able to overcome Wisconsin’s weak first half. Wisconsin almost did it themselves, nearly overcoming a huge scoring lead by Maryland to get the game as close as it was. It isn’t surprising, considering the strength of their offense. But the fact of the matter is that when their offense falters, their defense isn’t always there to take up the slack.
If Kentucky and Wisconsin wind up going head-to-head in the Midwest Regionals this year, it seems highly unlikely that the Wisconsin will be going home with a win. Neither team is infallible, although both teams are close. But when it comes right down to it, the Wildcats have proven more effective at overcoming gaps in their impeccable defense than the Badgers have proven at overcoming struggles with their offense. Of course, they’ve also both had last-minute bursts of energy, as demonstrated by the Kentucky/Georgia and Wisconsin/Maryland games. Bear in mind that Kentucky only just barely beat Wisconsin in the Final Four last year, and it seems that anything could happen.
South – Duke v. Gonzaga
Duke has been going pretty strong, despite three losses in January. Needless to say, Duke fans are about as confident as they are every year that the Blue Devils are on their way to the Final Four. Jahlil Okafor continues to amaze, and his recent injury gave the spot light to freshman Grayson Allen in a game which proved that even Duke’s benchwarmers know what they’re doing on the court. In other words, Duke has been doing exactly what fans have come to expect of them in terms of offense.
If Duke has one potential blind spot, it’s their defense. The Blue Devils have been strengthening their skills on this front, especially in recent games against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons and the Syracuse Orange. Those January losses might not weigh into the equation at all, especially the incredibly close loss against Notre Dame which was settled during a future game in which the Blue Devils beat the Fighting Irish by thirty points.
Gonzaga only has a couple of very close losses to answer for, with wins dominating the board against almost every other team. They’re currently ranked seventh in NCAA men’s basketball, which means that they’d have a guaranteed spot in the Elite Eight if it were up to rankings alone. It wouldn’t be their first time, either. They made it to the Elite Eight way back in 1999, which was instrumental in putting them on the map.
The problem is that 1999 was quite some time ago, and they haven’t made it that far since. While many believe that this will be the year they turn things around, there are usually quite a few people who believe the same thing every year and continue to be met with disappointment. There have been a number of occasions on which they didn’t even make it to the Sweet Sixteen. On one hand, they’ve got no less than four star players right now with killer scoring averages. On the other hand, one of those players is Kevin Pangos, who was performing well back in 2013 when the Bulldogs disappointed fans with a lackluster performance early in the tournament.
Assuming that both Duke and Gonzaga make it to the Elite Eight, the chances are all too likely that the Blue Devils will wipe the floor with the Bulldogs. It’s unfortunate for Gonzaga, as they would probably be a much better team if they were able to train against teams in a more competitive conference. Given such an opportunity, they might have even made it to our Final Four predictions. It just isn’t something that seems set to happen at any point in the near future. Coach Mark Few might get them to the Elite Eight once again, and some of his better players might make the NBA draft shortly thereafter, but that’s about as far as Gonzaga is going to get this year.
East – Virginia v. Kansas
Virginia is currently projected to gain a top seed, and there’s really no reason to say that it won’t happen. Whether or not they make it to the Elite Eight should depend largely on the tournament itself, and the Cavaliers have had some games over the past few months that make a good case for their chances. During a game against the Florida State Seminoles, London Perrantes had to sit out due to a broken nose. Yet the team still rallied and managed a big win in which the Seminoles did not score for more than ten minutes at the end of the game.
Of course, Virginia’s defensive skills are hardly news, and they’re a large part of the reason that many expect them to make it far this year. Having players like Malcolm Brogdon and Darion Atkins on the team doesn’t hurt, either; both know how to make big plays when the chips are down. And the chips have been down for some time, especially with Justin Anderson out for so long. It seems like his broken finger had only just healed before he was in the headlines again for an appendectomy. While top Cavaliers like Atkins have shown that the team can take a hit like this every once in a while, it’s hard not to wonder how much stamina the team has in them before they get tired of relying so heavily on a handful of star players.
Kansas was mentioned in our Final Four predictions as a team that could create problems for Kentucky if seeded in the Midwest, but it now looks as if the seeding might be a little different. Brannen Greene and Jamari Traylor had some off moments during the game against West Virginia that solidified the Jayhawks’ eleventh consecutive conference title, but they still stand just behind Perry Ellis as major components of the team’s winning ability. In short, Kansas has a strong offense. It certainly isn’t the best in the NCAA right now (a sentiment that is especially true of their defense), but it gets them where they need to be.
Some believe that the Jayhawks might be in trouble if they lose forward Cliff Alexander, who is currently the subject of investigation due to potential benefits received by an NBA agent. Since the NBA clearly has an interest in the young forward, he’ll be fine either way. But Kansas, who had some pretty big losses earlier in the season, might not be able to say the same. Then again, they’ve been playing a lot better since then, and it’s hard to credit much of that to a player with Alexander’s stats. He’s good, but he’s hardly been carrying the team this season. They’ve already won games without him, and they’ll likely continue to do so.
A match-up between Virginia and Kansas in the Elite Eight might be difficult to call. Kansas has more losses on the board, and even Virginia’s one loss to Duke was nearly avoided until late in the game. It might come down to the fact that the Cavaliers have a better defense. If they can gain a strong lead over the Jayhawks early in the game, then they’ll probably finish in their usual manner of running the shot clock. It’s something of a dirty strategy, but it’s enough to solidify Virginia’s placement in the Final Four if they wind up in the Elite Eight against an arguably weak defense like the one Kansas has been playing.
West – Villanova v. Arizona
Villanova showed up as a frontrunner in our Final Four predictions and, much like Kansas, their prospects have changed a little. Except instead of simply being projected for a different regional bracket, ‘Nova tore up the Big East to the extent that they’re actually headed for a top seed. This means that they no longer have to worry about Virginia if they plan to make it to the Final Four. No matter who they play in the Elite Eight, they’ll be bringing along current Player of the Year candidate Darrun Hilliard. Not only can he push a strong offense when he needs to, but he’s a strong defensive player as well. That sort of balance can be hard to come by, and Hilliard’s versatility may prove vital in making it through the tournament to reach the Elite Eight.
While Villanova may lead the league in terms of scoring average, they are not without their faults. Forget about the fact that they only have two losses (with the one against the Georgetown Hoyas exposing some faults in their defense) and focus on the fact that they very nearly had a third. They may have beaten the Creighton Bluejays twice this season, but their most recent win was nothing compared to their first. Dylan Ennis was vital to the Wildcats’ win against Creighton, a currently low-ranked team with only four wins in their conference. Between Georgetown and Creighton, ‘Nova has shown that they can fumble from time to time no matter how well their season appears to be going.
Arizona has only had three losses in the regular season so far, and none of them was by more than four points. Their wins, however, have been astounding. Many of them have been with leads of as many as twenty or thirty points, with some occasionally closer games against decent teams like Gonzaga back in December. Point guard T.J. McConnell is in the running to become the Pac-12 Player of the Year, but he’s not the only talented member of the team. Players like Gave York and Brandon Ashley know what they’re doing when it comes to offense, and York is especially keen on defense as well. Arizona can easily make a run through the bracket to wind up getting at least as far as the Elite Eight.
Even with players like those mentioned above, not to mention Stanley Johnson, Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona still has some potentially tough competitors to face before they can secure a spot in the Elite Eight. A few prediction brackets have them in the Sweet Sixteen against either the SMU Mustangs, the BYU Cougars, the Fighting Irish, the Iowa State Cyclones or the Aggies. Literally any one of these teams could present an issue. They’re all been somewhat unpredictable, not always at the time of their game but able to come away with a win when they absolutely need to.
Arizona was slated to win the West Regionals back when we made our Final Four predictions, but that was when Villanova was projected to wind up in a different bracket. With both of them projected to wind up in the same bracket, only one of them has a shot at the Final Four. But that doesn’t mean they can’t both make the Elite Eight, and it should be a heck of a match-up if they do. If it ends up being Wildcats against Wildcats, then it might look a lot like a game between Darrun Hilliard and Gabe York. Both teams have both got a lot of good men behind them. ‘Nova might have the better scoring average, but a match between both of these teams in the quarterfinals would still be tough to call.