In the NCAA Tournament, the chances of making a trip to the Final Four has as much to do with one’s seeding as it does its actual quality of play. The SEC Tournament Champions, the Kentucky Wildcats, appear to be playing ball as well as anyone in the country right now. However, the odds of them making a run to the Final Four seems mighty slim. A Kentucky path to the final weekend of the season might require that they beat arguably the best 12 seed in the bracket in Davidson, one of the most talented teams in the field, Arizona, in the second round, the #1 overall seed, Virginia, and then either an experienced, defensive juggernaut in Cincinnati, or a Tennessee team that has already beaten them twice this season. That’s down-right brutal.
The Crimson Tide’s glorious return to the NCAA Tournament certainly won’t be an easy one, either. Alabama will be the 9-seed in what should be a super-competitive East region. Virginia Tech is one of the most balanced teams in the country, and if they are hot from beyond the arc, they are incredibly difficult to beat. If Alabama can advance past the Hokies in what should be one of the best match-ups of the first round, the Tide will have to take on recent basketball Goliath, Villanova. This will be the 4th year in a row Jay Wright’s team has received a top 2-seed. The Wildcats have one of the most explosive offenses in recent memory, ranking 1st in Kenpom’s Adjusted Offense ratings. Led by Player of the Year candidate Jalen Brunson, playing ‘Nova in Pittsburgh may just be the toughest test any team will face in the opening weekend. These ‘Cats are explosive.
There is no question Alabama’s quadrant is a contender for the most dynamic in the field this year. Brunson, Collin Sexton, Mikal Bridges (Villanova), Chris Clarke (Virginia Tech), and Donta Hall would be a heck of a starting five. At the very least, they would, without question, be one of the most fun to watch.
The Rest of the Region
Taking a step back to handicap the rest of the East reveals a region full of all kinds of unique talent and quality. If the incredibly inconsistent 6th-seeded Florida Gators are knocking down their jumpers, Chris Chiozza and company could easily end up making another Elite Eight run for coach Mike White. Of course, they could also just as easily get bounced in the first round by a senior-laden Saint Bonaventure team led by a dynamic pair of guards in Matt Mobley and Jaylen Adams. Speaking of dynamic duos, Arkansas is also present in this region. As we are well aware, their pair of Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon can take over any game. Which they just may have to do against the 10th-seeded Butler Bulldogs, who have made quite a name for themselves in March over the past decade. Kelan Martin is one of the most underrated forwards in the country.
Those are just the 6th, 7th, 10th, and 11th seeded teams in the region, too. 3-seed Texas Tech will be sending their best team ever to the dance this season, led by a suffocating defense that ranks behind only Virginia and Cincinnati and a do-it-all guard in senior stalwart Keenan Evans. 2nd-seeded Purdue could be named national champions when this whole thing concludes in April. The Boilermakers start 4 seniors, including seven-footer and overall beast in the post, Isaac Haas, who is actually from Hokes Bluff (side-note: it would have been nice to have the big fella in crimson and white the last four years). They surround Haas with four pure shooters, which makes them a nightmare to match-up against.
Closer to home, two of the best coaches in college basketball reside in the #4-#5 quadrant. Bob Huggins’ West Virginia Mountaineers are another senior-laden group that is looking to get over the hump and finally make a Final Four run of their own. They ramp up the pressure on defense and press all day long, allowing their long-time star guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles plenty of opportunities to make things happen in transition. Former Alabama coaching target Gregg Marshall is still leading Wichita State to top seeds in the NCAA Tournament. While this version of the Shockers lacks the elite defense of previous iterations, Marshall can still coach as well as anybody in the country, and with scorers like Landry Shamet, Shaquille Morris, and Connor Frankamp at his disposal, it would be rare for them to go down early without much of a fight. The Marshall Thundering Herd and Murray State Racers round out the Tide’s side of the region as the 13th and 12th seeded teams, respectively, and they are both led by two of the most explosive guards in college basketball in Jon Elmore (Marshall) and Jonathan Stark (Murray State), who are both averaging about 20 PPG.
So Who is Final Four Bound?
Murray State and Marshall will make the favored teams work for it, but West Virginia and Wichita State should survive into the weekend. That should be a fantastic match-up, but the senior-laden Mountaineers simply play much tougher defense than the Shockers. If Alabama can make it into the second weekend of the tournament, West Virginia is the most likely team to meet the Tide in Boston, MA. That would be yet another difficult match-up, considering how loose Alabama has been with the basketball at times this season.
On the other side of the East, the winner of Arkansas-Butler should give Purdue hell, but the Boilermakers are simply too loaded to go home in the opening weekend. The 3-6-11-14 quadrant will be very interesting. Stephen F. Austin, the 14-seed, has a history of pulling off first round upsets (VCU in 2014, West Virginia in 2016), and they play an even more exaggerated press than West Virginia does. Texas Tech should survive, but if you are looking for a 14-seed to pull off an upset, this may be the one. Saint Bonaventure should be given a long look as well. They have great guard play, and if Florida happens to be off, the Bonnies could be playing a third game this week after disposing of UCLA last night in the play-in game.
Ultimately, Purdue should come out on top. If Alabama were to make it to the Elite Eight, they’d have to deal with yet another experienced group that can shoot the lights out. Except this team has a pair of massive post players to go with their shooting ability.
Have I mentioned how tough Alabama’s draw is?
This is a loaded region. Alabama’s defense, combined with the thrilling exploits of Collin Sexton, will give them a chance against anybody. But it will certainly be difficult. Nothing else Tide fans can do but...