The NCAA tournament is all about matchups. Regardless of the seed number next to a team’s name, regardless of its regular season record, the winners and losers of Sunday’s draw are based on matchups.
Here’s a look at five teams that were given favorable treatment by the selection committee, and five teams that were handed tall tasks, both in the first round and beyond:
SELECTION SUNDAY WINNERS
North Carolina | Seed: 1 | Region: South
The Tar Heels not only held onto a No. 1 seed, they were gifted a smooth path to the Elite Eight. Neither Seton Hall nor Arkansas poses a significant threat to North Carolina in the second round. Potential Sweet 16 matchups against Butler and Minnesota aren’t all that troubling either. The Tar Heels would overwhelm Butler with their length and athleticism, and would outscore Minnesota with ease. They’ll be heavy favorites over anybody they see between now and the Elite Eight.
Arizona | Seed: 2 | Region: West
The Wildcats missed out on a No. 1 seed, but perhaps that’s for the better. VCU could potentially cause Arizona some problems in the Round of 32, but Saint Mary’s wouldn’t. Most importantly, Arizona drew the weakest 3-seed and the weakest No. 1 seed. Florida State is ripe for an upset in the first or second round, and none of Arizona’s other potential Sweet 16 foes would worry the Wildcats either. Arizona would also be favored over any team it meets in the Elite Eight — and there’s a high likelihood that team isn’t even top-seeded Gonzaga. Plus, ‘Zona gets to stay west, and would have a massive contingent of fans at its back in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in San Jose.
Vanderbilt | Seed: 9 | Region: West
Vanderbilt didn’t exactly get a favorable first-round draw against Northwestern, but the Commodores have a better chance than any other 8- or 9-seed to advance to the Sweet 16. They find themselves in a pod with the most vulnerable of the top seeds, and that vulnerable top seed is especially vulnerable in a matchup with Vanderbilt. Vandy center Luke Kornet won’t be overwhelmed by Przemek Karnowski in the paint, and on the offensive end, he’ll be able to pull Karnowski away from the rim and force him to defend pick-and-pops. The Commodores will be and should be a popular second-round upset pick.
Middle Tennessee State | Seed: 12 | Region: South
A year after their upset of Michigan State as a No. 15 seed, the Conference USA champs got a dream draw. Minnesota really isn’t anything special; it lacks NCAA tournament experience that Middle Tennessee has; and if the Blue Raiders get hot like they did last year, the Golden Gophers won’t be able to keep up. In fact, if Middle Tennessee’s form during its 10-game win streak carries over into the Big Dance, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the No. 12 seed upset Butler in the second round and reach the Sweet 16.
SMU | Seed: 6 | Region: East
A No. 6 seed is harsh on the Mustangs, who haven’t lost in two months. Fortunately, though, the committee presented them with a potential second-round matchup with Baylor, a fairly ordinary No. 3 seed. SMU can match Baylor athletically and physically, and has more offensive talent than the higher-seeded Bears. The Mustangs might even be favored if the two both advance past their first-round foes. A Sweet 16 battle with Duke would be tough, of course, but SMU couldn’t have asked for much more as a No. 6 seed.
SELECTION SUNDAY LOSERS
Kentucky | Seed: 2 | Region: South
Kentucky has won 11 games in a row. The reward? Perhaps the toughest road to the Final Four of any top-four seed. The road could begin in the second round with No. 10 seed Wichita State, and with a bit of déjà vu. Back in 2014, the Shockers were a No. 1 seed, but drew an under-seeded Kentucky team in an epic Round of 32 showdown. This time around, it’s the Wildcats who could face a criminally underseeded Wichita State team in the same round. In fact, if Kentucky wants to make the Final Four, it might have to go through two KenPom top-10 teams, plus a third team, UCLA, that is in the top 10 of most other rankings. A Wichita State-UCLA-North Carolina back-to-back-to-back would be murderous.
Gonzaga | Seed: 1 | Region: West
It takes a specific type of team to beat Gonzaga, and unfortunately for Mark Few and company, the selection committee placed a couple of teams that fit the bill alongside Gonzaga in the upper portion of the West region. As mentioned above, Vanderbilt would pose a lot of problems for the ‘Zags. So would West Virginia in the Sweet 16. The Mountaineers’ athleticism would be disruptive on both ends of the floor, and the quickness of their frontcourt would trouble the Bulldogs. Gonzaga is the second-best team in its region, but there are a lot of land mines on the path to the Final Four.
Louisville | Seed: 2 | Region: Midwest
The 7-10 game opposite Louisville in the bottom half of the Midwest region features two teams that nobody wanted to see on Selection Sunday. Both Michigan and Oklahoma State are top-25-caliber clubs, and the Wolverines, fresh off a Big Ten tournament title, are playing as well as anybody in college basketball. A potential Sweet 16 showdown with Oregon is no easy task for Louisville either. And of course Kansas, in Kansas City, is about as tough as it gets, if both the Cardinals and Jayhawks make it that far.
Virginia | Seed: 5 | Region: East
The Cavaliers couldn’t have hoped for much better than a No. 5 seed after their late-season swoon, but this draw is especially cruel. On paper, Virginia actually matches up decently with UNC-Wilmington, but Wilmington’s offense may very well be matchup-proof; we just don’t know, because the Seahawks haven’t seen a defense like Virginia’s all season. Beyond the first round, though, it gets even tougher for Tony Bennett and the Cavs. They’ve struggled against athletic teams like Florida all season, and might not be able to cope with the Gators’ length on either end of the floor. The prospect of a Sweet 16 rematch with Villanova is far from terrifying, but it’s the road that Virginia must take to get there that is particularly concerning.
Dayton | Seed: 7 | Region: South
The Flyers, a No. 7 seed, are 6.5-point underdogs against 10th-seeded Wichita State. And that is by no means a slight on Dayton; it’s a tribute to Wichita State, which is surely the first team outside the top five to receive a seed (10) lower than its KenPom ranking (8). The Atlantic 10 regular season champs have made a Sweet 16 and Elite Eight run under Archie Miller, but would have to go through Wichita State, Kentucky and possibly UCLA to repeat the feat this year.
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