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Mar 14, 2022

NCAA Tournament Contenders to Fade

Here are four teams on the short list of title threats that deserve some skepticism for a Final Four run this March. All of these teams have had strong years and are certainly capable of winning several games this March, but there are some flaws for these teams and the paths ahead appear to have steep challenges.

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BAYLOR BEARS

  • Record: 26-6
  • Conference: Big 12
  • Region: East
  • Regional Seed: No. 1
  • Overall Seed: No. 4

The defending national champions will earn some support for a repeat run. The Bears have a great collection of quality wins in and out of the top ranked Big XII. The defensive rating for Baylor this season is rather similar to last season, actually featuring an even stronger 3-point defense than last season without last year’s defensive player of the year Davion Mitchell. Since starting 15-0 Baylor is 11-6 since early January as this team doesn’t have great momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament. The early exit to the Big XII tournament left open the possibility of surrendering a #1 seed but the Bears were still handed a top spot. 

There is a big gap in the offensive numbers for Baylor compared with last season’s championship squad. Baylor was one of the nation’s best 3-point shooting teams last season, but that success rate has fallen nearly seven percent this season to below 35 percent. Baylor remains a below average free throw shooting team and the offense has had far more issues with turnovers this season. 

A big factor for Baylor is also injuries. LJ Cryer has been out for several weeks, while Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua is out of the season. Cryer has hit nearly 47% on 3-point shots this season and even if he returns from his foot injury, he has been on the court minimally since late January. 

Scott Drew erased a shaky tournament track record with last season’s title run but Baylor had not made the Final Four under Drew until last season despite being #3 seed four other times in his tenure. Baylor also lost as a #5 seed in the Round of 64 in 2016 as well. 

While the Round of 64 pairing should not be a problem for Baylor, a North Carolina team that surged late in the season could be waiting in the Round of 32. UCLA also lurks in a potential Sweet 16 pairing, coming off last year’s Final Four run. On the bottom of the East region is Kentucky, another serious NCAA Championship contender.

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DUKE BLUE DEVILS

  • Record: 28-6
  • Conference: ACC
  • Region: West
  • Regional Seed: No. 2
  • Overall Seed: No. 8

A Coach K run to the Final Four will be a popular projection and could leave Duke overvalued in its tournament games. Duke was the class of the ACC but it was a down year for the ACC and the Blue Devils are the only team from the conference with a top tier seed in the field. Duke’s path in the ACC was favorable, playing possible NCAA tournament teams Miami, Notre Dame, and Virginia Tech just once each. 

Duke held on top a #2 seed in the field based on head-to-head wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga but both of those games came in November and the relevance to the current form of those teams isn’t all that significant. Duke’s win over Kentucky was the season opener and the win over Gonzaga came after a three-week run of tune-up games while Gonzaga had played UCLA a few days prior. Duke lost three home games this season and lost to at least two teams that won’t be in the NCAA Tournament (Florida State and Virginia) and since winning the Championship in 2015, Duke has been #4, #2, #2, and #1 and has not returned to the Final Four. 

Duke is also the worst defensive team among the teams in the mix to be #1 or #2 seeds. The Blue Devils had the top defense in the ACC but it was not an elite unit by national standards. Three freshmen play significantly for Duke and this is a group that was the third worst free throw shooting team in the ACC season. Duke also surprisingly had the worst rate of creating turnovers on defense in the ACC season despite a favorable path. 

The relative weakness of the ACC this season also means that Duke has not played a top 15-20 caliber team since those big games in November. In Duke’s successful history the Blue Devils have often garnered a favorable venue draw with an opening round site in North Carolina. Greenville, South Carolina should be a favorable location to start Coach K’s final tournament run. 

Cal-State Fullerton wasn’t the top team in the Big West and will make a cross country trip as Duke should not be at risk in the Round of 64 but things will get more difficult from there. Michigan State has made plenty of postseason runs for Tom Izzo while Davidson is an elite offensive team as the Round of 32 game will be a challenge for the Blue Devils, with Davidson playing close to home as well. Texas and Alabama as the 3/6 teams in the bottom of the West region are also teams that can beat Duke while the Blue Devils ultimately would likely have to go through overall #1 Gonzaga in San Francisco to get to the Final Four.

ARIZONA WILDCATS

  • Record: 31-3
  • Conference: Pac-12
  • Region: South
  • Regional Seed: No. 1
  • Overall Seed: No. 2

Arizona is an incredible story going from not making the NCAA Tournament to being on the 1-line this season. After the departure of Sean Miller, Tommy Lloyd had made a successful leap as a head coach after two decades as a Gonzaga assistant, but this will be his first NCAA Tournament, which is true for all of Arizona’s key players as well. 

Arizona’s schedule had some breaks in it as in going 18-2 they faced Oregon and Washington State just once each while non-conference wins over Michigan, Wichita State, and Illinois fell in stature as the season went on. 

Arizona plays at a fast pace and has incredibly efficient interior scoring numbers, but this isn’t a great outside shooting team and not an exceptional free throw shooting team. Arizona’s front court has incredible size but there are teams in the field that can compete with that height as much of the season numbers for Arizona were built in matchups where Arizona had a staggering post advantage to create favorable looks. More than half of Arizona’s non-conference wins came outside the nation’s top 200 while Arizona has also struggled against the number in neutral site games in recent years. 

The Pac-12 made a lot of noise last March with great tournament results but that has not been the norm in recent years for a conference that has for the most part been disappointing in basketball in recent years. The valuation of the Pac-12 as a whole this year is significantly worse than last year’s final numbers as the depth of the league does not look as impressive, landing only three NCAA Tournament teams after getting five last season.

TCU beat Texas Tech and Kansas late in the season and is a fierce defensive team that has good size as a potential Round of 32 opponent. Illinois and Houston were both dealt difficult Round of 64 games as the 4/5 seeds opposite Arizona and would be capable of playing with Arizona as the half of the South bracket is loaded. Villanova has had plenty of tournament success under Jay Wright as the #2 seed in the South while Tennessee can make a case as the strongest #3 seed after a SEC Tournament championship as Arizona’s region is filled with challenges.  

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

  • Record: 26-7
  • Conference: SEC
  • Region: South
  • Regional Seed: No. 3
  • Overall Seed: No. 10

Rick Barnes has been a very successful regular season coach in his career but since leading Texas to the Final Four in 2003 with an impressive run as a #6 seed, he has not guided a team back to the Final Four in 14 appearances since, including seeded at #4 or better in six of those tournaments. Last year’s team was upset in a 5/12 pairing against Oregon State while Tennessee fell short of expectations with a Sweet 16 exit as a #2 seed in 2019 and a Round of 32 exit as a #3 seed in 2018.

Tennessee did pick up a 77-73 win over Arizona at home in December but that was a game with a big edge in free throws and turnovers. Tennessee won down the stretch against Kentucky, Auburn, and Arkansas, closing the regular season on a 9-1 run but those three big wins were all at home. Before the SEC tournament run Tennessee was just 7-7 S/U in road and neutral site games. 

Tennessee has championship caliber defensive numbers this season, but the offense does not provide quite enough balance to consider the Volunteers a viable championship threat. Despite going 14-4 in the SEC season, Tennessee had the worst 2-point field goal percentage in the SEC at below 45 percent. Being unable to secure high-percentage looks is a recipe to be at-risk for an upset loss as 3-point shooting which Tennessee relies on can be less dependable in unfamiliar neutral settings. 

Losing Olivier Nkamhoua is also a significant loss for Tennessee. The Vols have played well since his injury in early February but it will be a second straight NCAA Tournament for Tennessee without a key post player with John Fulkerson unable to play in the tournament last season with a late season injury. Nkamhoua was one of the team’s most effective interior scorers and a 6’8” forward that shot nearly 45% from 3-point range as he was a very useful role player for the Volunteers even if he only averaged 8.6 points per game. 

Colorado State and Michigan look overseeded as Tennessee should have a favorable path to the Sweet 16. Villanova, Arizona, Illinois, and Houston are all possibly in the path to the Final Four for the Volunteers however and the SEC Tournament championship may wind up as the peak of the season for Tennessee.

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