Welcome back to this year’s NCAA Men’s Tournament Hazard Rankings! There are few things harder than evaluating support and determining which teams to pick for an early release, so we’ve done your homework for you. After studying all the teams in the first four starting lines, the historical trends of the teams that match their profile and breaking down the matchups in depth, Sports Illustrated found the five most vulnerable top-ranked teams to choose from in your March Madness bracket.
Yes, college hoops in March are unpredictable. But consider these Danger Rankings a solid starting point for finding teams that might retire early and earn you your office pool in the process.
Providence (#4 seed, Midwest region)
From a purely analytical standpoint, the Brothers are by far the four weakest seeds in this year’s field. In fact, there are six higher-ranked teams than Providence at KenPom that aren’t even competing in this year’s NCAA Tournament. The Brothers have had a remarkable string of success in close games this season, and while they have certainly earned that top-four seed with their quality wins, they look quite vulnerable to a first-weekend exit. .
Providence is the epitome of a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t have a star who picks up games, but rather an excellent collection of plays that do individual things well: Justin Minaya is the defensive specialist, Nate Watson the low scorer, AJ Reeves the three-point shooter, and so on. But Al Durham, closer at the end of the game, are not 100 per cent as they suffer from a sports hernia, and potentially playing two games in three days could be a challenge.
South Dakota State’s first-round game will test the Friars’ defense – the Jackrabbits are one of the most skilled offensive teams in the nation and lead the nation in three-point shooting. But even if Providence survives what should be a tough first-round test, it could be eyeing Big Ten Tournament champion Iowa in a round of 16 matchup. The Hawkeyes are currently playing their best ball of the season and would be a serious hurdle for the Brothers to get to their first Sweet 16 since 1997.
Purdue (#3 seed, Eastern Region)
SI’s Molly Geary wrote this week about “extreme teams,” or teams that rank in the top 10 by adjusted efficiency on one side and outside the top 50 on the other. Purdue qualifies for that title, ranking No. 3 nationally in offense but No. 100 in defense. A fairly notable comparison is last year’s Iowa team, which was pummeled by Oregon in the Round of 16 despite having one of the best offenses in the nation. He conceded 95 points to the No. 7 Ducks. In fact, using T-Rank’s “similar profiles” tool, the top four most comparable teams at Purdue were all voted out in the first weekend despite they all received a top-four seed.
There is no doubt that the Boilermakers are extremely talented. There is perhaps no more gifted player in the country than Jaden Ivey, whose hallmark plays conjure up images of Ja Morant and De’Aaron Fox from their college days. Purdue also has perhaps the most physically imposing duo in college hoops with Zach Edey and Trevion Williams. But at the end of the day, the Boilers simply never turned the corner defensively, and that fact could doom them in this tournament.
First-round opponent Yale is known to have upset before, knocking out Baylor in the 2016 tournament and playing a close game with LSU in 2019. I’m not sure this Bulldogs team has enough talent to pull the first shock, but the enemy of the second round, Texas or Virginia Tech, will put the Boilers on alert.
Auburn (#2 seed, Midwest region)
The divisions between the Tigers’ play at home and away from the friendly confines of Auburn Arena are pretty stark, and they’ve only gotten worse in recent weeks. Since Jan. 25, Auburn has played six games at home and seven games on the road or on neutral grounds. In six home games, the Tigers are 6-0 and have won all six games by double digits. In the seven road/neutral games, Auburn is only 3–4, and the three wins have all been by possession or overtime against teams that have not approached the NCAA Tournament cut line. That wouldn’t bode well for the Tigers’ chances of a deep run in the big dance, even with freshman superstar Jabari Smith and elite rim protector Walker Kessler up front.
Much of Auburn’s struggles away from home can be attributed to volatility at guards Wendell Green Jr. and KD Johnson. In those seven road/neutral games, Green is shooting a meager 29% from the field, and Johnson isn’t much better at 34%. It’s hard to win in March without a good guard game, and it’s hard to know you can count on Green and Johnson away from home right now.
The toss is actually going relatively well for the Tigers, taking on Jacksonville State in a first round game before getting the winner from USC and Miami in the second round. Miami’s elite backcourt could cause the Tigers problems in a potential Round of 16 showdown.
Baylor (#1 seed, Eastern Region)
Of the four top-seeded teams, the Bears have the best chance of an early exit from the tournament. A big reason for this is health: without the injured Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and LJ Cryer, this Baylor club is sorely lacking in depth. As well as being a top-tier rim protector and an effective scorer around the rim, Tchamwa Tchatchoua was one of the team’s emotional leaders and a guy with Final Four experience from racing to the championship ‘last year. Meanwhile, Cryer was the team’s best shooter and a key cog in the Bears’ backcourt, but he’s been sidelined indefinitely with a foot injury. Without those two, Baylor essentially has a six-man rotation with guard Dale Bonner in seventh. Bonner has played more minutes since Cryer went down, but is shooting just 34% from the field and 18% on three on the season.
Among the many things that allowed the Bears to win it all a season ago was their elite guard game. James Akinjo is a much more volatile player than Davion Mitchell or Jared Butler and struggled with inefficiency and turnovers at times in his first season at Waco. With the ball in Akinjo’s hands as much as it has lately may not be the best recipe for success for the Bears in the Big Dance.
Additionally, Baylor has the toughest draw of the No. 1 seeds. A second-round game with North Carolina or Marquette wouldn’t be easy, as both teams have star power and have beaten a header. series in the top two in the regular season. And if the Bears progress from there, their path to the Final Four may require wins over UCLA and Kentucky.
Illinois (seeded No. 4, South Region)
There’s no denying that the Illini earned a brutal draw at last year’s Big Dance when they had to face a formidable team from Loyola Chicago in the second round. This year’s draw may be a little more forgiving, but the road to the Sweet 16 remains quite tricky for Brad Underwood’s side.
First-round opponent Chattanooga is one of the few mid-majors in the nation equipped to deal with the massive size of the Illini. The luxury of having a top-50 rookie in Silvio De Sousa’s center to try and slow down Kofi Cockburn cannot be overstated – few players have Cockburn’s physical gifts, but at 6’9″ and 250 pounds, a sporty gifted De Sousa can at least put up some resistance. The Mocs also have great physical guards like Malachi Smith and Darius Banks, who mesh well with a top team, and Smith is one of the most dynamic players in the game. Sport. , a potential second-round clash with Houston or UAB would be far from child’s play given how athletic and well-trained both clubs are.
The other concern with Illinois is second-year point guard Andre Curbelo. At his best, Curbelo is one of the most dynamic and creative passers in the sport and the type of player who can win you a game or two in March. But Curbelo is also wildly inconsistent, plagued with poor decision-making and turnovers in big moments. It’s just hard to trust Curbelo with the ball in his hands at the end of games at this stage, but without him the team’s depth at guard quickly deteriorates.
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