Tomorrow afternoon UConn is going to find out its NCAA tournament fate. As I went over yesterday, seeding is important, but matchups and locations are important -- just ask the various UConn teams that have played a road game in the NCAA tournament. It usually ends poorly.
With that in mind, let's look at the locations and teams UConn might end up playing in next week. Reasonable projections right now have UConn as either a nine or a 10 seed, and it is hard to imagine the Huskies moving more than two spots from that line (i.e. up to a seven or down to a 12), so they're almost certainly going to get paired with a 1 or a 2 seed. As of right now there seems to be pretty universal agreement on the teams that will take those eight spots, even if their exact placement is in dispute. They are (in alphabetical order):
- Michigan St.
- North Carolina
- Ohio St.
Like any game, matchups are important. UConn wins games when it can get out and run and use their athleticism to overpower weaker opponents. That means I think UConn could at least hang with Missouri, a team that likes to get out and run. The Tigers score boatloads of points -- they have the most-efficient offense in the country according to KenPom -- but they're a terribly defensive team (77th). Duke would also be a nice matchup -- mathematically they're the weakest of the top 8 seeds, and like Mizzou they struggle on defense. UConn is more athletic than them, and if Duke is cold from outside, the Huskies would have to like their chances.
On the other hand Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina would be nightmare opponents. All three are extremely well-balanced and have athletes that can match or exceed UConn's depending on the position. No thank you.
Ohio St. and Michigan St. are a little trickier to evaluate. The Buckeyes have loads of skill and when I watched them beat the tar out of Michigan in late January I thought they should be considered favorites to make the title game, if not win it. But they had a so-so February, losing three times (all to ranked teams, but still). I live with an Ohio St. alum who for a time had gotten really down on the team, but in the last week they've looked good, beating Michigan St. on the road and then pounding Perdue yesterday. Don't be shocked if they win the Big Ten tournament and head into the tournament red-hot. Jared Sullinger is also one of two players in the country (Kentucky's Anthony Davis is the other) who can match up easily against Andre Drummond. I want nothing to do with the Buckeyes.
Michigan St. is tough to figure out for a different reason. Freshman guard Branden Dawson had been averaging 8.5 ppg and pulling down 4.5 boards when tore his ACL last week. He's out for the season now and that could mean real trouble for the Spartans. Was he their best player? No, but he was playing 20 minutes a game and that sort of production can be hard to replace on the fly. If the bench doesn't step up to fill in for him they could be vulnerable and as a result I wouldn't hate seeing the Spartans.
How does location match up with this? Well you definitely do not want Kentucky in Louisville. Ohio St. travels insanely well, so I have no doubt their fans will pack Pittsburgh. Columbus isn't exactly close to East Lansing, so playing MSU there wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
The two tricky locations are Greensboro and Omaha since they'll be shared by top teams that are relatively close. Playing Duke in Greensboro isn't ideal, but if 75% of the tickets get bought by North Carolina fans you can bet some Tar Heels will be pulling for the Huskies. The same goes with Missouri and Kansas in Omaha. I suspect that Kansas would travel better, so I'd rather play Missorui, but either way the fans of those schools will cancel each other out, at least in part.
Opening Round Matchup: No. 8 Memphis vs. No. 9 UConn
Second Round Matchup: No. 1 Kentucky in Louisville
This is the absolute worst-case scenario for the Huskies. Not only would they be stuck with Kentucky, but Memphis is a nightmare as well. They lost 8 games and are coming out Conference USA so the committee might keep them low, but the numbers say otherwise. KenPom has them as one of the top-10 teams in the country. This projection is evil and should be burned.
Opening Round Matchup: No. 7 Memphis vs. No. 10 UConn
Second Round Matchup: No. 2 Ohio St. in Pittsburgh
What I said above, but with the marginally less scary Ohio St. being forced to travel 30 minutes out of state. No thank you.
Opening Round Matchup: No. 8 St. Mary's vs. No. 9 UConn
Second Round Matchup: No. 1 North Carolina in Greensboro
I don't hate this, at least not the St. Mary's part. The Gaels are a bad defensive team (No. 103 according to KenPom) and they'd be travelling across the country to play in North Carolina. On the other hand, the Tar Heels would eat UConn for breakfast in the second round.
Opening Round Matchup: No. 7 Gonzaga vs. No. 10 UConn
Second Round matchup: No. 2 Missouri in Omaha
Yes please. St. Mary's beat Gonzaga to grab the WCC crown, but the Bulldogs are a more balanced team. That would make UConn's opening round a little trickier, but playing Missouri in the second round might be UConn's best shot at the Sweet Sixteen.