March Madness – Pick the Path not the Team

Those that handicap March Madness are quick to point out who they like to win it all and why. Of course, having a talented roster is a pre-req. to a National Title. But having the fastest car doesn’t mean you’ll get to your destination the quickest. A Honda will drive from New York to Philadelphia faster than a Ferrari if the Ferrari tries to do it at rush hour.

You see where I’m going. So let’s dispense with the metaphor and delve into which team’s have the clearest path to the Final Four.

Duke Blue Devils

  • Seed: no. 4
  • Region: West

Last year, Coach K’s group beat four overmatched teams (Robert Morris, San Diego State, Utah, and Gonzaga) before handling overachieving Michigan State to reach the title game. Meanwhile, on the other side of the bracket, Wisconsin had heavy lifting to do, knocking off North Carolina and Arizona, and then upsetting top-seed Kentucky in the Final Four. Then Duke beat Wisconsin in the title game.

Luck shines down on the Blue Devils again this year. They are in the easiest bracket in recent memory with over-seeded teams across the board. Duke has two great guards and a Hall of Fame coach. Their possible opponents include up-and-down Texas, the weakest number one seed in Oregon, Texas A&M from the awful SEC, and Oklahoma, which struggled down the stretch. Duke hasn’t been dominant this year and are top-heavy with Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram. But wins over North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, and Louisville indicate they’re good enough to get out of the West.

West Virginia Mountaineers

  • Seed: no. 3
  • Region: East

Many pundits like Oklahoma, but where is the Mountaineer love? WVU beat the Sooners in the Big 12 tournament, and own a win over Kansas, the top seed in the bracket. Bob Huggins’ team also lost twice to KU and Oklahoma, but their path to the Elite Eight is manageable.

The Mountaineers tend to out-tough opponents; they play an uptempo defense that generates a lot of turnovers and dominates the glass. Their first-round foe, Stephen F. Austin, plays the same way, but has smaller and slower players.

The Mountaineers’ potential second-round matchup with the Irish, who lack WVU’s athleticism, looks thoroughly winnable.

The no. 2 team in the West, Xavier, plays tough defense, as well, but are foul prone.

North Carolina, the no. 1 seed, will be a difficult out – they handle the ball well and won’t get flustered by WVU’s pressure – but anything can happen after that first weekend.

Virginia Cavaliers & Michigan State Spartans

  • Seeds: No. 1 and No. 2
  • Region: Midwest

The top two seeds in the Midwest region tower over their opponents. While there could be a shakeup within the bracket, it is hard to envision UVA and the Spartans not playing for a third straight year. (Michigan State ousted the Cavaliers each of the last two seasons.)

Whereas North Carolina will get a test from Indiana or Kentucky in the third round, and Kansas will face a talented Cal or Maryland team, there is no major threat to Virginia or Michigan State prior to the Elite Eight.

Virginia’s defense and solid ball handling should be enough to advance. They’ll need to contend with Purdue’s size in the Sweet 16, but they have the bodies to do so.

Michigan State will also face a talented big or two if they meet Utah or Gonzaga, but the Spartans are far superior on the perimeter. Expect both teams to win three games and then meet for a spot in the Final Four.

(Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)