That’s because Turner Sports knows what you care about. And unless you’re a fan of the half-dozen teams that’ll go into Sunday night unsure whether they’ll hear their name called, you don’t care about an alphabetized list of 68 teams.
So you’ll stay tuned in, because you care about matchups, and regions, and upset possibilities and probabilities. You care about that mouth-watering potential Sweet 16 showdown, but also about that dangerous 8-seed that could stand in its way. You care about roads to the Final Four and landmines along them.
You care about avoiding that 3-seed that plays like a 1; that 5-seed that plays like a 2; that 11-seed that plays like a 5.
Those are the teams that are most intriguing, which is why we’ve put together a list of them. Seven have been split into three categories, because there are three different types of threats: the underseeded contender, the high-upside unknown, and the bubble team that first has to make the tournament before its threat can be confirmed. Without further ado …
THE UNDERSEEDED FINAL FOUR THREATS
Michigan State | Projected seed: 3 | KenPom: 6
Just about every objective metric or subjective test would have you believe that the Spartans are a top-six or -eight team in the country. Led by four fantastic sophomores, they rattled off 12 consecutive wins to close the regular season. They’re talented and balanced – top 25 nationally in 2-point and 3-point field goal percentage, top 10 in adjusted efficiency at both ends. They share the ball better than anybody else.
But the few metrics the selection committee will use are the ones that downplay Sparty’s accomplishments. Its 29-4 record will be weighed down by a weak, four-bid Big Ten and a 2-4 mark against NCAA tournament teams. Those résumé holes will likely bump Michigan State down to a 3-seed. But don’t let them fool you. This is a bona fide national title contender. Twelve or 13 days of rest before its tourney opener will prove beneficial. And a couple of fellow contenders will be cursing under their breath on Sunday when they see the Spartans in their region.
Michigan | Projected seed: 3 | KenPom: 9
You know that team you bookmark weeks before Selection Sunday as a dark horse? And then you spend those weeks desperately hoping the team doesn’t go mainstream, so they can be your bold Final Four pick come mid-March?
That, for a lot of people, was Michigan this year. And unfortunately for those people, the Wolverines did go mainstream. They won the Big Ten Tournament, beating both Michigan State and Purdue along the way, and probably played their way up to a 3-seed. They’ll be a 4 at the very least.
The Maize and Blue, however, still belong on this list. That’s how good they are. That’s how good they’ve been over the past month. They’ve won nine in a row. After riding a top-five offense to the Sweet 16 a year ago, they’ve become an elite defensive team with a legitimate eight-man rotation, experience, and a nightmarish stretch-five matchup in Moritz Wagner.
Gonzaga | Projected seed: 4 | KenPom: 7
It’s amazing what one year – and really what just a few games – can do for a program’s March reputation. For over a decade, a four-loss Gonzaga team headed for a top-four seed would have been viewed with skepticism. It would have been seen as unproven, probably overrated, and perhaps even fraudulent.
In 2018, though, 12 months after Mark Few’s squad reached their first Final Four, four-loss Gonzaga is a consensus top-10 team that won’t be seeded as such.
Its schedule was still light by major-conference standards, and it lost to the one national title-contender it met during the regular season, but the credentials earned last March haven’t expired. Half of the 2016-17 rotation is back. Sophomore Killian Tillie and redshirt freshman Zach Norvell have excelled in prominent roles. Few doesn’t quite have the top-end talent – nor the two 7-footers – that he rode to the title game last year, but he absolutely has a Final Four contender that can hang with any of its power-conference peers.
Kentucky | Projected seed: 5 | KenPom: 23
Kentucky will have more NBA talent than anybody else on its seed line. Whether it’s a No. 4, 5 or 6, you can bank on that. The Wildcats, therefore, would be a threat to any top seed on the tournament’s second weekend if they get through the first unscathed.
But that’s a big “if.” The asterisk here is, if John Calipari’s nine-man mix of eight five-star recruits and one four-star can finally put it together. They hinted at doing so over the latter half of February, and actually won their most difficult game of the season, at West Virginia in January. That said, they’ve been terribly inconsistent, and at times disjointed. You won’t want to see them anywhere near your team’s name on Sunday, but that doesn’t mean they’re not susceptible to a 5-12 upset.
Missouri | Projected seed: 8 | KenPom: 38
The asterisk here is obvious: Missouri is dangerous if Michael Porter Jr. returns at full health, and if he gets up to speed in time for next weekend.
Porter, the nation’s top incoming freshman in the fall, played all of two regular-season minutes this season. He sustained a back injury that required surgery in November. The expectation at the time was that he’d never play for Mizzou again. But the future lottery pick was cleared to play in late February. As of Thursday morning, he hadn’t suited up for a game, but will at the SEC Tournament for his first competitive basketball in four months.
Meanwhile, Missouri has beaten the likes of Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas A&M without the 6-foot-10, do-it-all wing. If the Tigers have Porter back, even at 90 percent – and unless something goes wrong in St. Louis, they will – no top seed will want to deal with them in the second round.
NC State | Projected seed: 10 | KenPom: 41
Which Wolfpack team will come to play? The one that beat Duke at home, North Carolina on the road, and Arizona on a neutral floor? The one that won five of its last six regular-season contests? Or the one that lost to Georgia Tech, Northern Iowa, UNC Greensboro and Boston College?
That’s the issue with highlighting NC State as a potential double-digit seed that could reach the Sweet 16. It could just as easily lay a first-round egg. But Kevin Keatts has the personnel and the coaching acumen to engineer a stunning upset or two.
Notre Dame | Projected seed: Out | KenPom: 28
What a weird season it’s been for the Irish. A preseason Top 25 team, they stumbled in December, then lost ACC preseason player of the year Bonzie Colson to injury for almost two full months. Without the one-of-a-kind forward, they endured a seven-game losing streak, and sit somewhere on the bubble as a result.
With Colson, who returned in late February, many still see Notre Dame as that Top 25 team it was in November. It took No. 1 Virginia to the wire on the final day of the ACC regular season. “They may have won the the league [if not for injuries],” Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams recently said. “They’re one of the better teams in the country [when healthy].”
But Mike Brey’s squad hasn’t actually shown its quality yet. It beat 0-18 Pittsburgh by just three in the first round of the ACC tournament, and had to come back from 21 down after an ugly first half against Virginia Tech. Even with Colson in the lineup, it has as many losses to non-NCAA tournament teams as wins over tourney squads.
Brey’s rotation players, though, have a combined 19 NCAA tournament wins under their belts. The seniors – Colson and Matt Farrell among them – have been to two Elite Eights. If they make the Dance, they’re a No. 5 or 6 seed’s worst nightmare.
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