The Arizona Wildcats are a 4-seed as everyone expected but their draw is quite a bit different – and a lot more dangerous – than originally anticipated.
The ‘Cats are headed to the South Region, which may not be the best region in terms of overall talent (Kansas, Duke and Michigan State are all in the Midwest, after all) but it is certainly the toughest region to navigate through.
Headed by the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament with four of the top five seeds coming off conference tournament championships, including what could be the three best defenses in all of college basketball, the South should be an unrelenting challenge.
Let’s take a look at what Arizona is up against on their path to a potential Final Four berth.
The heavy hitters
No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers
Coming off many NCAA Tournament disappointments, entering the season unranked and not playing an aesthetically pleasing style of play have led many to disregard Virginia.
That’s not a great idea.
The Cavaliers are the 1-seed in the region and in the tournament overall and it’s well deserved. Virginia skated to a 31-2 record and won a strong ACC by four games with a 17-1 record. They then capped things off by easily winning the ACC Tournament.
Led by the best defensive efficiency any team has had since 2009, Virginia is yet to allow 70 points to any opponent this season. They roll 8-men deep as all of them average more than 15 minutes per game with sophomore guard Kyle Guy leading the way. Guy leads the team in scoring with 14.1 points per game and is one of two Cavaliers to be on the floor more than 30 minutes per game. Their depth took a serious hit today though as the ACC Sixth Man of the Year, De’Andre Hunter will miss the NCAA Tournament with a broken wrist.
The Cavaliers won’t score much — they score just 67.5 points per game and topped 80 only three times this season — but their ability to put a stranglehold on opponents is what got them here, and has made them the favorite to win the National Championship.
Ceiling – National Champions.
Floor – Creighton’s physical defense high-powered offense stuns Virginia in the second round.
No. 2 Cincinnati Bearcats
Because they’re in the American Athletic Conference, people may be surprised by Cincinnati earning a 2-seed, their highest since grabbing a 1-seed in 2002.
But the Bearcats are more than deserving of their 2-seed and your respect.
Cincy ranks just behind Virginia in the South Region, just as they do in defensive efficiency. The Cavaliers are sporting a historically great defense but Cincinnati isn’t far behind. The Bearcats have only allowed more than 75 points twice this season – both losses to highly ranked foes, Xavier and Wichita State.
Speaking of losing, Cincinnati hasn’t done much of that lately. They’ve won seven in a row entering the NCAA Tournament and 23 of their last 25. The Bearcats finished 30-4 and won a top-heavy AAC by two games.
However, much like Virginia, Cincinnati is not an impressive offensive team. They’re a middle of the road shooting team, hitting 45 percent of their shots and 36 percent from deep. Senior forward Gary Clark and junior guard Jacob Evans carry the offense but, even though Clark shoots better than 50 percent, neither provides high volume.
The Bearcats will look to survive off of stifling defense, blocking tons of shots and holding opponents to below 40 percent shooting. It’s a strategy that has worked very well so far.
Ceiling – Defense carries them to Elite Eight showdown.
Floor – Nevada’s shooters get hot in round two and outscore the shooting-challenged Bearcats.
No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers
There’s a trend developing here – another great defensive team.
This is the worst defensive team we’ve discussed thus far but that’s not saying anything bad about the Vols. What they lack in comparison to the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds at the defensive end, they make up for with solid 3-point shooting.
Tennessee hit better than 38 percent from long range and played strong defense throughout the season which led them to gaining marquee victories over Purdue, NC State and Texas A&M plus close losses to Villanova and North Carolina.
While the Vols are currently being judged for their most recent game, a loss in the SEC Championship Game to Kentucky, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Tennessee beat Big Blue twice in the regular season.
Sophomore forward Grant Williams leads the team with 15.3 points per game but the story for Tennessee has been the emergence of junior forward Admiral Schofield over the last couple of weeks. Schofield has put up 20.5 and 7.0 rebounds in the Vols’ last six games, five of which were victories.
This is Rick Barnes’ first trip to the tourney as head coach in Tennessee. He’s been to the Tournament 22 times and has only been able to get to the second weekend six times and has lost in the first or second round in each of his last six tries. This Volunteer team is strong enough to put that streak to a definite end.
Ceiling – Shooting and defense helps them to the Elite Eight.
Floor – 14-seed Wright State likely doesn’t have the goods but 6-seed Miami has the talent and 11-seed Loyola-Chicago has the shooting and defense to catch Tennessee on a bad day and send them home.
No. 5 Kentucky Wildcats
This isn’t a classic Kentucky team. They’ve lost 10 games, including eight in SEC play. There’s no Karl-Anthony Towns, there’s no Anthony Davis.
But behind a freshman class that is putting things together at the perfect time, the Wildcats stormed their way to an SEC Tournament championship and now appear to be a very dangerous 5-seed. John Calipari has been to four Final Fours while in Lexington so he knows what it takes to get a team rolling in March.
Kentucky stands as one of just six teams that rank in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per Ken Pom. People can downplay advanced stats all they want but it’s no coincidence that every national champion since 2002 with only one exception finished the NCAA Tournament in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. That, by itself, means Kentucky’s numbers and recent success can’t just be discarded.
While UK doesn’t have the potential No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA Draft, Kevin Knox is no joke and figures to be a lottery selection. Knox leads the team with 15.6 points per game and pulls down 5.4 rebounds. But it was another freshman that led Big Blue on their SEC Tournament run. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander threw up 21 points, five rebounds, seven assists and two steals per game during the three wins.
If there’s any team lower than a 4-seed that can do damage in this tournament, it’s Kentucky.
Ceiling – The hot streak continues and carries Kentucky to the Final Four.
Floor – Their first round opponent is just as hot, having won their conference tournament and won eight of their last nine. UK is likely missing their top rebounder to start the tournament. Kentucky could walk into a buzzsaw in Davidson.
Games to watch
First Round – No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 12 Davidson (Thursday, Boise, CBS, 4:10 PM PT)
This battle of Wildcats likely leads to another battle of Wildcats as Arizona will play the winner of this one if they get by Buffalo. Kentucky is getting a lot of attention right now and deservedly so but Davidson has four straight wins with three of them coming against NCAA Tournament teams – twice over Rhode Island and once over Saint Bonaventure. Big Blue could roll through this sub-par defensive team like they’re nothing. But don’t expect Davidson to go down without a fight and maybe pull off the 5-12 upset special.
First Round – No. 7 Nevada vs. No. 10 Texas (Friday, Nashville, TBS, 1:30 PM PT)
Deandre Ayton isn’t the only behemoth of a man in this region. Texas Longhorns’ freshman big man Mo Bamba is also expected to be a high pick in this year’s NBA Draft and with very good reason. Bamba has dominated opponents to the tune of 13 points, 10 rebounds and nearly four blocks per game. But this could be his only NCAA Tournament game as the Longhorns play the 10th-best offense in the nation. This will be a clash of styles and both could be a real challenge to Cincinnati in the round of 32.
Arizona’s toughest path to the Final Four
The Wildcats are currently considered nine-point favorites against the Buffalo Bulls on Thursday night. Barring a phenomenal shooting night from Buffalo, Arizona should advance to round two. That’s where things get tricky.
If Kentucky is waiting on the other end, Arizona has their hands full with a faster and better defensive team on Saturday. Arizona is the more talented of the two but Kentucky is the closest team, in terms of talent, to Tucson’s Wildcats in the South Region. The one area that Arizona can really hurt UK is on the boards with Kentucky’s Jarred Vanderbilt most likely out for that one. A strong edge on the glass and inside could propel Arizona into the Sweet Sixteen.
Arizona versus Virginia. This is the one to fear, frankly, if you’re both schools. There aren’t two schools hungrier for a Final Four and there aren’t two coaches eager to get the monkey off their backs than these two. Virginia could be a defensive nightmare for Arizona, like they have been for everyone else this season. Or could Deandre Ayton be the nightmare for the Wahoos? With Virginia suddenly dealing with injury problems, this No. 1 overall seed and best team in the country could be just vulnerable enough for the athletic Wildcats to get by.
If Arizona makes it to the Elite Eight, which will be a terrifyingly tough task, I think 3-seed Tennessee presents a more difficult matchup than 2-seed Cincinnati. The Bearcats have phenomenal interior defense but that’s Arizona’s strong suit on offense. Ayton and Dusan Ristic can score on anyone and take away Cincy’s patented shot blocking. Tennessee, on the other hand, can hurt Arizona’s defense with shooting. With Tennessee’s ability to defend and their offensive skill, they have the all-around game to give the Wildcats fits. Either way though, if Arizona finds themselves this deep into the tournament, they could end up being the favorite against either team despite being a lower seed.
It’s a treacherous path to the Final Four for Arizona and a vicious region to go through. Can they do what several great Arizona teams since 2001 have failed to do every year since? Buckle up, we’re about to find out.