A 7-seed or higher has reached the Final Four every year since 2013. There’s a good chance it will happen again in 2018.
Here’s a sleeper from each region.
West Region: No. 4 Gonzaga
The Bulldogs were last year’s runner-up and lost three key starters – and that doesn’t even include Zach Collins, a top-10 draft pick. Gonzaga was supposed to slip.
The Zags aren’t quite as good as last season, but Mark Few reloaded. Killian Tillie, clearly overqualified as a fourth big in 2017, has balled; he averaged 24 points on 78 percent from the floor (!) and 93 percent from 3 (!!!) in the WCC tournament. Tillie won’t wow you with athleticism, but he has enough of it, and is a heady defender. He allows the Bulldogs to play five-out on offense without sacrificing a lick of defense.
Gonzaga doesn’t have a glaring weakness. It ranks 12th in offense and 17th in defense. It makes 59 percent of its 2s (fifth in the country) and foes make 43 percent against the Zags (sixth). Johnathan Williams checks every box you’d want in a modern four – he can create his own offense, hit open 3s, protect the rim, and hound guards on ball screens when asked. The Josh Perkins-Silas Melson backcourt duo has been solid, and we haven’t even talked about the most talented dude on the team yet: Rui Hachimura. Hachimura is averaging 11.3 points in just a shade more than 20 minutes per game. He’s the type of combo forward that gives Few lineup versatility, a must in the NCAA tournament.
The bracket also sets up nicely for the Bulldogs. Xavier is the weakest 1-seed. Ohio State would be a tough second round foe, but the Buckeyes have overachieved all year; the Zags are deeper. Michigan is hot, and that could wind up being an Elite Eight matchup. North Carolina and its recent NCAA tournament dominance loom at the bottom of the bracket, but the Tar Heels don’t bring the same “we’re better than you the moment we step off the bus” factor they had the last two years.
Gonzaga has a good shot to get to San Antonio.
Midwest Region: Seton Hall
This one’s a little out there, but remember: nobody would have reasonably picked South Carolina to make the 2017 Final Four and Syracuse to go in 2016. Seton Hall is probably better than its seed suggests, and the road is manageable.
First, why we like the Pirates: experience. Seton Hall starts four seniors, including two studs in Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez. And if they can edge N.C. State in the 8-9 game, the Pirates’ biggest strength is Kansas’ biggest weakness.
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Delgado is averaging 11.6 rebounds. He averages four offensive boards for his career, and Seton Hall collects 34 percent of its misses as a team – a top-30 clip. Kansas, meanwhile, ranks 297th in defensive rebounding rate. Udoka Azubuike should be back for the NCAA tournament, but he might not be 100 percent – another factor in the Hall’s favor. The Jayhawks also have a track record of flaming out of NCAA tournaments early despite earning high seeds.
Of course, Seton Hall needs to string multiple wins together to reach the Final Four. No. 4 Auburn and No. 5 Clemson each lost a significant player due to injury this year; they’re deserving of their seeds but did much of their damage with Anfernee McLemore and Donte Grantham available. Neither will play in the tournament.
The Pirates rank 58th in defense – too low of a number considering the experience and athletes they have. A potential Elite Eight matchup against Duke or Michigan State would be tough, but winnable. Rodriguez is the kind of fearless, late-game shot-maker who’s more valuable when the stakes ramp up.
Seton Hall could easily lose in the first round. But if it can reach the Sweet 16 and gain confidence, the Pirates’ seniors could go deep into the tournament.
East Region: Florida
Can you confidently advance Florida to the Final Four in your bracket? No. The Gators have taken some brutal losses this season, and often laze through games that should be easy wins. But Florida’s apex is on par with the best in the country. If we see that, the Gators are good enough to make the Final Four.
Florida’s defense – maligned early in the season – is up to 25th, and Mike White showed in last year’s tournament that his defensive schemes are clever.
The offense is tantalizing – the Gators can play three really good shooters together (Jalen Hudson, Egor Koulechov and Chris Chiozza) — maybe four, depending on what you think of KeVaughn Allen.
Allen is crucial here, by the way. He looked like he could challenge for the SEC Player of the Year in 2017-18 after last year’s Elite Eight run. But Allen just… hasn’t been good. After shooting 44 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3 as a sophomore, those numbers have dipped to 37 and 34 percent, respectively. Florida was able to earn a 6-seed despite Allen’s rough season – but this is the same guy who torched Wisconsin for 35 points in last year’s Sweet 16. He looked like Malik Monk 2.0 in spurts, and has a reliable backcourt running mate in Chiozza. If that Allen resurfaces and the defense keeps trending upwards, Florida can roll.
The path looks reasonable. Villanova is a strong 1-seed, but Purdue and Texas Tech (2 and 3) aren’t playing their best ball. Don’t be shocked if the Gators make a deep tournament run.
South Region: Kentucky
‘Kentucky’ and ‘dark horse’ may not seem like they should belong in the same sentence, but consider where the Wildcats were on Valentine’s Day: 17-9 overall, 6-7 in the SEC after a loss to Auburn. They’d also (likely) have to plow through Arizona and Virginia to reach the Final Four. More on that soon.
Kentucky has won seven of eight since Feb. 14 and blitzed through the SEC tournament. John Calipari has tinkered with lineups all season but has finally settled on something that works. The biggest change, though, was just giving the ball to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and letting him do stuff. The freshman point guard is averaging 18 points and seven assists over his last seven games. A common (and fair) critique of the Wildcats early on: where’s the blue-chipper? There didn’t seem to be a Monk, De’Aaron Fox or Jamal Murray on the roster.
It took Gilgeous-Alexander a while to fully embrace the alpha role, but he has, and that’s allowed the rest of the Wildcats to fall into place. Kevin Knox is much better when he’s not commanding 100 percent of the defensive attention. Calipari is using two point guard lineups featuring Gilgeous-Alexander and Quade Green – the Wildcats have more shot-creation as a result. Transferring more of Nick Richards’ minutes to Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel was smart. Kentucky reached the national title game in 2014 with a similarly young roster that took a while to blossom.
Now, let’s take a look at the path: it’s hard. Virginia is the best team in the country; Deandre Ayton might not win the Naismith, but if you go off eye test, he’s the best player in the field. Heck, Davidson is a tough 12-seed.
But Calipari thrives in March; his team is talented and has finally discovered its identity. A month ago, Kentucky reaching the Final Four felt like a pipe dream. It’s unlikely now, but totally possible.