It is March, meaning that ESPN’s bracketology guru, Joe Lunardi, is hard at work trying to predict the field of 68. In his projection, Lunardi has also layed out the four teams which he thinks will have a No.1 seed. I take a look at each below.
-#1 Midwest Region-
As Kentucky chases perfection, it makes sense that the undefeated Wildcats would sit atop Joe Lunardi’s projected No. 1 line in the location-favorable Midwest region.
What the Wildcats have been able to accomplish thus far despite fielding the fifth youngest team in the country has been nothing short of spectacular. They have withstood every opponents’ best shot behind a truly historic defense anchored by three 7 footers. The team’s sustained brilliance has raised the question whether Kentucky is beatable. Indeed they are beatable, but there exists no blueprint to do so as of yet. Much like opposing boxers trying to piece together strategies that have proven to give Floyd Mayweather trouble, the toughest part is actually defeating him. Even when the offense isn’t going, Kentucky is very intimidating on the defensive side, as evidenced by the feat of holding 13 teams to less than 50 points.
A weakness of the Wildcats relative to their No.1 seed counterparts is the team’s three point shooting. As a team, they shoot 34.3% from deep, which places them 173rd in the nation. Villanova (38.9%), Duke (38.7%), and Virginia (36.0%) all shoot the ball fairly well from distance. Kentucky’s inconsistent shooting is often raised when discussing potential pit falls during the tournament, in which the reality of single elimination often results in randomness. That being said, Kentucky has capable shooters, including sharpshooter Devin Booker (shooting 43.6%) who can heat up at any moment. And who can forget the heroics from Aaron Harrison in last years Big Dance? Even when the players miss three pointers or bunnies at the rim, Kentucky is one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the land, averaging 13 a game–good enough for 18th in the nation. So hoping Kentucky misses the majority of the shot is not enough to beat Kentucky–the opponent has to box out. Boxing out has proved to be a difficult task for opposing teams, as Kentucky boasts five players 6’9” and taller (not including the injured Alex Poythress).
Coach John Calipari says he’s dying for the regular season to be over with so he can really see what his team is made of. He’ll get his wish, as the Wildcats will play their final game of the regular season against the Florida Gators who they defeated 68-61 on the road last month.
-#1 East Region-
For a second straight season, Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers have placed themselves in position to secure a No.1 seed in the East region.
The 1-loss Cavaliers march to the beat of their own drum. They don’t play a particularly fancy style of basketball, preferring to grind out wins led by the patented pack-line defense, which attempts to cut off driving lines to the rim. The roster does not boast any heralded recruits, and some fans would rather watch paint dry than see Virginia operate on offense. Much like Kentucky, the blueprint to defeat Virginia is sketchy if not downright non-existent. While fellow projected No. 1 seed Duke defeated Virginia 69-63 in January, the Cavaliers led for most of the second half up until the final minutes of the game. Despite Duke’s zone thwarting the Virginia attack, one could see that the Cavaliers still comfortably moved the ball well– the shots just failed to go down.
For much of the season, Junior forward Justin Anderson (along with Malcolm Brogdon) was a mainstay of the Virginia offense and a first team All-American favorite, shooting a 48.4% from deep and knocking down key shots late in games. Anderson suffered a broken finger on his shooting hand last month, but there is word that he may be back for Saturday’s season finale showdown against Louisville. While Virginia had some close calls, they did not lose even a single game without Anderson, which speaks to the level of excellence at which they play. The question remains, however, whether Anderson will be able to regain his shooting form.
Duke Blue Devils
-#1 South region-
Duke is the second ACC team to be one of Lunardi’s projected No.1 seeds. If they eventually face-off against Virginia in the ACC tournament final, it is very likely that Duke maintains No.1 seed status but in a less-favorable region.
The success of the Blue Devils has caused many to wonder if this is Coach K’s best team in a long, long time. In the past, Coach K has been criticized for his teams’ lack of tournament success when led by a one-and-done freshman(en), such as when they lost to Lehigh in 2012 and Mercer in 2014. This season, Coach K relies even more on freshman than before, as the team’s three best players are all freshman (Okafor, Jones, and Winslow). Nonetheless, you get the feeling that this year is different from those of the past due in large part to the offensive low post dominance of Jahlil Okafor. No one in college basketball has figured out a way to slow the freshman star down, as he’s averaging 18.2 points per game on 66.3% from the field. Not once has Okafor failed to score double digit points and not make his impact felt in some fashion. While teams shift their focus on Okafor with double teams, Duke’s floor spacing presents a dangerous case of pick your poison, as Quinn Cook, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones shoot 40.3%, 39.3%, and 38.3%, respectively from three point range.
Duke’s one potential pit fall is inconsistent defensive play. They give up 65.8 points per game, which ranks 148th in the nation and struggle containing penetration from time to time. Okafor is also known to be somewhat slow-footed when defending in the pick and roll or on rotations. The team as a whole does not block many shots or get a ton of steals, which leaves them to figure things out for most of the shot clock. Mid-season Coach K threw a new wrinkle to stem the defensive struggles of his team–he implemented a zone. It has proven to work more often than not, but because of Duke’s lack of perimeter size and length it isn’t the most intimidating zone out there. Make no mistake about it, Duke, on occasion, has the ability to play lock down defense but lacks the consistency of a great defensive team, which may hurt them in the tournament.
Duke will play its last home game of the regular season tonight against the upset-minded Wake Forest Demon Deacons. On Saturday, it will close out the season on the road against the rival North Carolina Tarheels.
-#1 West Region-
To round out Joe Lunardi’s projected No. 1 teams is the 28-2 Villanova Wildcats, who missed out on a top seed last season.
When it comes to Villanova, there is always the prevailing sentiment that the Wildcats are the best team not being talked about nationally. Some of that is due to the fact that the Big East no longer has a TV deal with ESPN, so despite being a very solid team, Villanova will not get the same national exposure of its counterparts. Two other reasons why Villanova is seldom talked about are 1) they don’t have many well-known 5-star players and 2) they have a tendency to flare out before the third weekend of the tournament in their past four tournament appearances. Nonetheless, this is a new season and a better team than in the past, thanks in part to the improvement of center Daniel Ochefu who is averaging 8.9 points (63.8%) and 8.3 rebounds per game and guard Dylan Ennis who averages 9.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.1 steals per game. Villanova has shown an increasing confidence in dumping the ball down to Ochefu in order to balance out their attack, keeping a healthy diet of three pointers and post touches. Villanova moves the ball extremely well and makes a lot of their threes, ranking in the top tier of college basketball in both categories.
Areas in which Villanova must improve in order to get over the hump is rebounding on both ends, post defense, and offensive balance. The Wildcats are a bad offensive and defensive rebounding team, which makes sense considering the lack of size and the way in which the offense is run. Even though the overall team defense is solid, Ochefu and Pinkston struggle containing bulkier, physical bigs. The key to avoiding elimination, however, is balance on offense. 40% of Villanova’s shots come from the three, which may lead to problems if the shots are not falling. Villanova has shown the willingness to dump the ball down low from time to time when a tough bucket is needed, but we shall see if it continues in the pressure cooker that is the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats will face their final regular season test against the hot Saint John’s Red Storm before heading into conference tournament play. It is imperative for Villanova to not only win the upcoming St. John’s game, but also the Big East tournament if they want to keep their No.1 seed.