By Chris Molicki
Last year it was Villanova. Two years ago it was Wichita St. Before that it was Gonzaga. These are teams who held a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, only to not make it out of the first weekend. One would think that No. 1 seeds should be automatic against those 8/9 teams, but players like Ali Farokhmanesh might say otherwise.
In order to protect your bracket from busting, I’ll go over three teams who are potential No. 1 seeds that should give you pause before you automatically pencil them into the Sweet Sixteen. These are teams you may not want to have advancing too deep into the tournament, just in case the dreaded upset happens.
North Carolina: One of the most talented teams in the country, UNC has struggled a lot more than most people thought they would. The emergence of Brice Johnson this season has been a huge plus, and the frontline of Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Justin Jackson is one of the more intimidating groups in the country. But basketball is dominated by guards and right now, the star guard from Chapel Hill is struggling mightily. Marcus Paige has fallen off a cliff this season. Paige has hit the 20-point mark only twice in 2016 (one of those times was against Boston College). He’s shooting 39% from the field and 32% from three. And because he’s struggling, the team itself is struggling. Paige’s bad play on the perimeter is allowing teams to pack the paint and take away the size advantage that North Carolina has.
The only top teams UNC has beaten this year are Maryland (not looking too hot), Duke (extremely thin, especially up front), and Miami. There’s a lot to be nervous about here if you’re trying to talk yourself into the Heels as a national title contender. Bottom line: Paige needs to get going again. He’s a big-time shot maker, and he’ll need to regain his form if UNC wants to go deep into March. Once a shoe-in for the Final Four, I’m going to be very careful before placing Carolina into the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.
Oklahoma: At the beginning of the season, we got the good Oklahoma. The Sooners blazed to a 19-2 record with their only losses coming on the road against Kansas (in three overtimes) and Iowa St. Buddy Hield was an insanely efficient shooter, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard were following suit, and Oklahoma looked like a well-oiled offensive machine. Fast forward to now: The Sooners have gone 5-4 since then, including wins over TCU and Oklahoma St., while also barely surviving Texas and Baylor at home. While Buddy is still being Buddy, he’s cooled off a bit, and the rest of the team has come back down to earth as well. We’ve gotten to see what this team looks like when it’s hitting threes and when it’s not, and the difference between the two is staggering. Oklahoma gets 39.4 % of their points off of threes, according to KenPom. That’s a very significant amount, and the only at-large teams that come close to that are bubble-bound Michigan and Syracuse.
So did OU just go on a hot streak to start the season? It’s hard to tell. Sure, they could heat up again, rip off six wins, and win the national championship with ease. But they could also struggle against an inferior opponent if their shooting goes cold. It’s hard to trust a team that’s overly reliant on the three-point shot, and that’s why I’m worried about Oklahoma’s long-term chances.
Kansas: Kansas?!? How could Kansas beat upset-prone? They’re the best team in the nation right now! Bill Self has won a 12th consecutive Big 12 regular season title, and they’ve navigated the best conference in college basketball. Not so fast. I’m not sure the Big 12 is the best conference in basketball. While there are a lot of quality squads, couldn’t they all just be beating up on each other? Look at the Big 12 in the past two NCAA tournaments. Everyone said they were the best, and yet they had 14 total bids, which culminated in four Sweet Sixteen teams and zero Final Fours. Let’s pump the brakes on the Big 12.
In addition to that, Kansas has had some early tournament exits in recent memory. They couldn’t make it to the Sweet Sixteen the past two years, as well as 2010 (Farokhmanesh), and they missed the Elite Eight in 2013, despite having some very high seeds. Now, I understand the counter argument to all of this: Those Kanas teams are not this one. They also made it to the national championship in 2012 and won it all in 2008. I agree, we can’t base our entire opinion of KU off of history. But when I’m picking my bracket, it’s going to make me a little worried.
If the Jayhawks want to avoid an early upset, they need Wayne Selden to play more consistently. Selden has scored in single digits in six of his last 10 games, and even though this team has talents like Perry Ellis and Frank Mason Jr., they need Selden if they want to truly be taken seriously. Beware of the team that looks like it might be the top overall seed.