The Hardest, Easiest Paths for the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 Seeds

The Hardest, Easiest Paths for the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 Seeds article feature image

Photo credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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Here’s the beauty of March Madness and hard-core college basketball fans: Everyone thinks their team got screwed by the committee and their rival got the easiest path of all time. I mean, it’s actually true when it comes to Duke’s ridiculously easy paths over the years, but you get my point. The top teams are close in talent, which means that paths over the next six games (hopefully) mean a lot to title odds.


On that note, let’s look at each region and which team is most set up for success based on the teams around them. To start, let’s use Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) metric and look at which regions are the easiest and hardest.

  • East: Villanova (1), Purdue (2), Texas Tech (3), Wichita State (4)
  • MidwestKansas (1), Duke (2), Michigan State (3), Auburn (4)
  • South: Virginia (1), Cincinnati (2), Tennessee (3), Arizona (4)
  • West: Xavier (1), North Carolina (2), Michigan (3), Gonzaga (4)

Here are the average AdjEM marks for each region’s top-two, -four, and -eight seeds. Two regions certainly seem much more difficult than the other two.

The East and South regions are by far the hardest, per KenPom, although a big part of that is the discrepancy between Villanova and Virginia as No. 1 seeds and Kansas and Xavier as very overseeded teams. Those latter teams rank ninth and 14th in AdjEM, respectively. Xavier would likely be an underdog to the Nos. 2-4 seeds, and fellow Action Network editor P.J. Walsh sent me a cool betting market blurb this morning. At -14, Kansas is the smallest favorite for a No. 1 seed in the round of 64 since 2006 (Memphis was only -10.5 against Oral Roberts). Kansas and Xavier may have the resumes of No. 1 seeds, but their advanced metrics are far less bullish.


That means the Nos. 2-4 seeds in those regions — teams like UNC, Duke, Michigan State and Gonzaga — are set up well for Final Four runs and could challenge the top seeds overall. Here’s the average AdjEM marks for each region’s Nos. 2-4 seeds:

Easiest Path: Villanova (East)

The Wildcats have a tough region overall, but they do have an overrated No. 4 seed (per KenPom) in Wichita State. The Shockers rank just 20th in AdjEM, mostly because of a porous defense. Wichita State ranks fifth nationally in offensive efficiency but just 107th in defensive efficiency and 89th in effective field-goal percentage allowed. The Wildcats own the best offense in the country this year and are outstanding shooting the ball, sitting first with a high 59.7% effective field-goal rate. Further, they never turn the ball over, ranking eighth in that regard. Texas Tech, which ranks third in defensive efficiency and 13th in eFG% allowed, would be a tough test for the Wildcats, but that wouldn’t happen until the Elite Eight.


Looking quickly at the non-Nos. 2-4 seeds, Nova is in a good spot in the second round against either Florida State or an overseeded Alabama squad. Things could be tough against West Virginia, although the Wildcats are set up well against them: The Mountaineers are dangerous with their turnover-prone, blitzing defense, but Nova is one of the best teams at controlling the ball. The Wildcats are a solid bet to make it to San Antonio.

Second-Easiest Path: Virginia (South)

Virginia has an “easy” path according to KenPom because the advanced season-long numbers are not very high on Arizona. The No. 4 seed in the South is playing very well, running through the Pac-12 last week. After dropping back-to-back games in early February against Washington and UCLA, the Wildcats won eight of their next nine. KenPom does not seem to be high on the Pac-12, as no team is ranked in the top 20 of AdjEM, and Arizona sits just 21st, behind teams like Ohio State, Houston, Kentucky and Clemson; all of those teams are seeded lower than No. 4. Zona ranks 15th on offense but only 70th on defense. That said, the Wildcats have rookie phenom DeAndre Ayton, who went for 32 and 14 and 32 and 18 in the Pac-12 semifinal and championship games. He’s a bracket buster.

Even if Arizona proves to be overrated (or properly rated by KenPom), the Cavaliers still have to battle with tough teams in Tennessee and Cincinnati. The Bearcats rank fourth in AdjEM and honestly should’ve been a No. 1 seed. This region is absolutely fascinating, as both Tennessee and Cincy have the same strengths as Virginia. Those teams have three of the top four defenses in the nation. Does that mean they’re just lesser versions of Virginia? Or does it mean they, in a way, neutralize the Cavs’ strengths?

Second-Toughest Path: Xavier (West)

Xavier is clearly the worst No. 1 seed, ranking just 14th in AdjEM. West Virginia, a No. 5 seed, has a superior mark. At least the selection committee didn’t also give Xavier an easy path. In fact, the Musketeers likely got the best No. 4 seed in Gonzaga, which is certainly underseeded, ranking eighth in AdjEM. The Bulldogs could give Xavier a ton of problems, as they sit 10th in the nation with a 57.7% eFG% mark; the Musketeers rank just 132nd this season in eFG% allowed. I doubt they would be favored in this matchup, and certainly not significantly so. And if they advance to face UNC or Michigan, they could be in trouble as well. The Heels rank fourth offensively and protect the ball; the Wolverines rank fifth defensively and protect the ball. Xavier is one of the worst teams at generating turnovers on defense. All three squads would be tough matchups.


Toughest Path: Kansas (Midwest)

I think Xavier actually has a tougher path than Kansas since the Jayhawks, who easily have the toughest Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in Duke and Michigan State, will have to play one of them at most. The Blue Devils have the advanced metrics of a No. 1 seed, and the Spartans likely should’ve been closer to a No. 1 than a No. 3. Kansas is the definition of a boom-or-bust squad. The Jayhawks are incredible shooting the ball, ranking sixth in eFG% and 12th with an outstanding 40.3% 3-point mark. That said, they sit just 335th in offensive foul rate, which suggests they’re purely a jump-shooting team and can’t get free shots from the line. They’ve won a lot of games with their shooting, but they’ve also lost some by going cold. Anecdotally, they would likely be more favored in an NBA-like series instead of a one-and-done format. Things will be really dicey if they have to face Michigan State, which ranks first in the nation with a stellar 42.6% eFG% allowed.

Photo credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports