The college basketball season is down to its final three weeks, also the best weeks of the season, when the casual sports fan pays attention to 19- and 20-year-olds on the court. The NCAA Tournament bracket is set. The seeds and locations have been finalized. Which teams have the best chance of getting to the Final Four from their respective regions?
East Region: Duke
This region points to a regional final between Villanova and Duke. Both teams have a relatively uncomplicated path to the final, with Duke getting third-seeded Baylor in the Sweet 16. Baylor has been a .500 team or close to it over the past 12 games. Duke should not be severely challenged before the Elite Eight. Villanova would play Virginia or Florida in the Sweet 16. Virginia is tougher than Baylor, especially since it made the Elite Eight last season and has more of a reputation as being a tough March team. The Wildcats should be able to get past that game, but their road is still tougher than Duke’s. In case there is any ambiguity about the matter, Villanova also has to brace for the possibility of playing Wisconsin in the second round. The Badgers have been a big disappointment, but many experts felt they would be a leading contender for the Final Four. They have a senior-oriented lineup and play very tough defense. They could very realistically draw Villanova into a close, tight game. Duke is the team with the easiest path in the East.
West Region: Arizona
This is a region in which top-seeded Gonzaga could get a challenge in the Sweet 16 from either Notre Dame or West Virginia. This is not a horrible draw for the Bulldogs, but Arizona would play third-seeded Florida State, a team which went undefeated at home but lost a lot of road or neutral-court games this season and was not very consistent. Florida State won a lot of games early in January, its best stretch of the season, but has largely traded wins and losses since then. Arizona and Gonzaga are on a collision course for the regional final, but Gonzaga is much less certain to get there. Arizona has the ideal bracket to make a deep run.
South Region: North Carolina
The Tar Heels could easily be challenged by Butler in the Sweet 16, but in that round of the tournament, the other top seeds in the South will beat each other up. UCLA and Kentucky met in the regular season, so the rematch should be challenging for both teams. UCLA is probably the more skilled team, but Kentucky – which lost to the Bruins in December – will be out for revenge. That’s going to be a very difficult game. North Carolina has the better path by comparison, even though Butler’s tough man-to-man defense will force the Tar Heels to make a lot of sound decisions and disciplined moves on offense.
Midwest Region: Kansas
This is the one misleading case, in the sense that no team in the Midwest Region has a very easy path. Kansas could have to play Big 12 rival Iowa State in the Sweet 16, and that figures to be a shootout which could go either way. The Jayhawks would have the edge, but Iowa State will not have to worry about how to play Kansas. The Cyclones already beat the Jayhawks earlier this season.
The reason why Kansas is still the best answer? Two reasons, actually: First, second-seeded Louisville has to deal with the possibility of facing seventh-seeded Michigan in the second round. Michigan is a hot team with a dominant point guard, Derrick Walton. That will not be easy if it happens. Oregon is seeded third and will not be a walk in the park for the Cardinals.
The other reason Kansas still has a better path than anyone else in this region is that the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight would be in Kansas City. KU will have a crowd advantage and a very short distance to travel.