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Getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament is the goal for every team, but even the country’s best squads have opponents they are hoping to avoid on Selection Sunday.
We have a good idea who the men’s No. 1 seeds will be. Virginia, Villanova and Kansas appear to be locks for the top line, and then there’s a debate over whether North Carolina or Xavier deserves the final spot.
But all five have serious red flags that the wrong opponent could exploit.
NCAA tournament success always depends on draw. A great team might lose in the second round against a hot foe or a rough matchup. But with a favorable path, even a borderline No. 1 seed can cruise to the Final Four.
Who are the opponents these No. 1 seeds want to avoid?
Let’s look at their strengths and weaknesses to figure that out.
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Biggest Strength: Defense, defense and more defense. The Cavaliers have the most efficient defense in decades. They enter the ACC championship game against North Carolina with an adjusted defensive efficiency of 84.1, which is the lowest in the KenPom era dating back to 2001-02. They contest everything and have even been forcing turnovers at a high rate. In previous years, their steal rate was nothing special, as the pack-line defense was always more about forcing one bad shot and getting the rebound. But this year, they’re averaging 6.9 steals per game.
Biggest Weakness: Virginia doesn’t much crash the offensive glass, but the biggest thing an opponent could exploit is its defensive three-point rate. Because the Wahoos pack it in and protect the paint, the long ball can beat them over the top. Now, it doesn’t happen often, because they do close out on shooters with remarkable speed and consistency. In fact, Virginia ranks sixth in three-point field-goal defense. But it’s lost 50 percent of games in which an opponent makes at least 10 triples.
Nightmare Second-Round Opponent: Among our projected No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, Missouri appears to be the most disastrous potential draw for Virginia. We don’t know what Jordan Barnett’s availability will be after he was arrested for suspicion of driving while intoxicated late Friday night, per Rivals.com’s Gabe DeArmond (h/t the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). But if he’s allowed to play, Barnett, Kassius Robertson and Michael Porter Jr. can make it rain from the perimeter.
Nightmare Sweet 16 Opponent: Considering they lost to West Virginia earlier this season, a Sweet 16 showdown with the Mountaineers would be an undesirable one. In that game, Jevon Carter (23 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists) played out of his mind, but Lamont West and Daxter Miles Jr. also performed admirably. And the Cavaliers had problems with the press, committing 14 turnovers in a 62-possession game.
Nightmare Elite Eight Opponent: Forget about data and weaknesses, the one team Virginia does not want in its region is Michigan State. Not only are the Spartans arguably the best of the No. 2 and 3 seeds, but they also eliminated Virginia from both the 2014 and 2015 NCAA tournaments. It sure would be something if Tom Izzo is once again the reason Tony Bennett remains at zero career Final Four appearances.
Nati Harnik/Associated Press
Biggest Strength: As good as Virginia is on defense, that’s how good Villanova is on offense. The Wildcats have two legitimate National Player of the Year candidates in Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges. They can catch fire from three-point range like no other team, but they’re even more efficient from inside the arc. And they almost never commit turnovers. Opponents just have to hope they’re facing Villanova on an off night.
Biggest Weakness: An over-reliance on the long ball led to Villanova’s second-round demise in three of the last four tournaments. The Wildcats are 22-0 this season when shooting at least 35 percent from three-point range, but they’re 3-3 when shooting 31 percent or worse.
Nightmare Second-Round Opponent: North Carolina State looks like more of a No. 10 seed than a No. 8 or 9, but if the committee likes the Wolfpack more than I do, that could be a terrible draw for Villanova. Not only would it invoke memories of NC State’s win over No. 1 seed Villanova in 2015, but the Wolfpack also have one of the nation’s best three-point defenses. Opponents shoot 31.6 percent against them and only take 32.1 percent of their shots from downtown.
Nightmare Sweet 16 Opponent: Surely there isn’t a team that wants to face Kentucky in the NCAA tournament, but Villanova might dread seeing those Wildcats as a No. 4 or 5 seed more so than any other team on the top line. Kentucky’s opponents shoot just 29.6 percent from three-point range, and the sheer amount of length and athleticism could be an issue for Villanova.
Nightmare Elite Eight Opponent: Sticking with the theme of three-point defense, Villanova will want to avoid Cincinnati in the Elite Eight. The Bearcats rank in the nation’s top 10 in a ridiculous number of defensive categories, including three-point field-goal percentage. Bonus consideration for the Bearcats for having one of the nation’s best offensive rebound percentages, as rebounding is one area where Villanova isn’t that strong in.
Orlin Wagner/Associated Press
Biggest Strength: The Jayhawks don’t quite lead the nation in effective field-goal percentage, but these guys can score in a hurry when they’re feeling it. They have four outstanding three-point shooters who are all more than capable of driving for a bucket, too. But if you focus too much energy on defending the perimeter and leave Udoka Azubuike on an island in man-to-man coverage, that’s an automatic two points for Kansas.
Biggest Weakness: Kansas struggles on the glass and doesn’t have frontcourt depth. Silvio De Sousa fared OK in the Big 12 tournament with Azubuike sidelined with a sprained MCL, but let’s see if he can do anything against a team with an actual frontcourt presence. Kansas State didn’t have star big man Dean Wade (foot) available for the semifinal game, but Makol Mawien shattered his old career high with 29 points against this KU frontcourt.
Nightmare Second-Round Opponent: Missouri would be a brutal draw for Kansas. Not only do these two programs hate each other, but the Tigers also have a pair of big men—Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter—who could cause major problems. Moreover, Missouri has a strong three-point defense.
Nightmare Sweet 16 Opponent: Kansas is hoping to avoid both Arizona and Gonzaga on the No. 4- or 5-seed lines. The former has DeAndre Ayton and Dusan Ristic combining for 31.8 points and 18.4 rebounds per contest. The latter has a trio of potential game-changing big men in Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura. Either team could destroy Kansas in the paint.
Nightmare Elite Eight Opponent: Take your pick, really. Duke, Michigan State and Purdue are all teams in the No. 2- 3-seed range that could eviscerate the Jayhawks frontcourt. Let’s go with Duke as the primary nightmare, though, because it would be a little hilarious watching Svi Mykhailiuk try to guard Marvin Bagley III.
Aaron Doster/Associated Press
Biggest Strength: It’s an unorthodox strength, but one thing Xavier does better than any team is play physical offense while defending without fouling. The Musketeers have made 104 more free throws than their opponents have attempted. In Big East play, they ranked No. 1 in free throws made, free throws attempted, free-throw makes allowed and free-throw attempts allowed.
Biggest Weakness: Because they aren’t physical on defense, Xavier rarely forces turnovers and doesn’t block many shots. The X-Men own the defensive glass, but opponents get a lot of good looks at a possession’s first field-goal attempt.
Nightmare Second-Round Opponent: Xavier would hold its own against most of the No. 8 and 9 seeds, but Virginia Tech is a team in that vicinity that could pull of an upset. The Hokies are awful on the offensive glass, so they literally might not get an offensive rebound in the game. But their field-goal percentages are excellent, and they are another squad that gets to the free-throw line far more often than the opposition.
Nightmare Sweet 16 Opponent: Gonzaga eliminated Xavier in the Elite Eight last year, and the Zags could knock the Musketeers out in the Sweet 16 this time. The Bulldogs are rated several spots higher than Xavier on KenPom.com, and they are lethal on offense. Seven Zags shoot better than 60 percent from inside the arc, and Tillie—22-of-26 (84.6 percent) from three-point range in his last seven games—has become the nation’s most unguardable player.
Nightmare Elite Eight Opponent: We’ll see if the selection committee decides to put them in the same region, but Xavier would hate to run into Cincinnati in the Elite Eight, right? Even though the Musketeers took care of business against the Bearcats earlier in the season, no one wants to face a rival with a Final Four berth on the line.
North Carolina Tar Heels
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Biggest Strength: Per usual, the Tar Heels are fantastic on the offensive glass. It’s weird that they’re this good in that area while frequently playing small ball, but they get a ton of second-chance opportunities that add up over the course of a game.
Biggest Weakness: For a team that primarily plays four guards and one stretch 5, North Carolina’s three-point defense is downright catastrophic. Things have been considerably better in that department in March, but in three consecutive January losses to Virginia Tech, NC State and Clemson, the Tar Heels gave up 42 threes at a 46.7 percent clip.
Nightmare Second-Round Opponent: You may not agree that Oklahoma deserves a No. 8 or 9 seed, but it could win a track-meet game against North Carolina. Everyone knows about Trae Young, but Brady Manek and Christian James are two Sooners who can also catch fire from the perimeter when given the space to do so.
Nightmare Sweet 16 Opponent: Texas Tech isn’t particularly lethal from three-point range, but the Red Raiders do have four certifiable threats in Keenan Evans, Niem Stevenson, Jarrett Culver and Brandone Francis. They also play outstanding defense and are a much more physical opponent than the Tar Heels would be comfortable facing.
Nightmare Elite Eight Opponent: Purdue would be the worst No. 2 or 3 seed for the Tar Heels to draw. Not only are the Boilermakers one of the nation’s best three-point shooting teams, but Vincent Edwards is the perfect foil for Cameron Johnson. Factor in Isaac Haas’ and Matt Haarms’ ability to deny Theo Pinson open looks at the rim, and Purdue could blow out North Carolina.
Kerry Miller covers men’s college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.