Which NCAA Tournament No. 1 Seed Has Toughest Path to Final Four?
G Fiume/Getty Images. Pictured: Purdue’s Zach Edey.
There’s simply nothing better than having your bracket in hand, awaiting the First Four games to arrive on Tuesday.
One of the biggest talking points you’ll hear before the No. 1 seeds get their tournament runs underway is which top seed will have the most difficult time reaching the Final Four. This topic of conversation will be especially poignant this season as we have had a pretty wide-open regular season.
After taking some time to look at each No. 1 seeds region, I believe there is one team that has a particularly difficult draw when compared to the bracket as a whole.
For me, that team is Purdue.
The Boilermakers finished the year at 29-5 after winning the Big Ten Tournament on Sunday afternoon. Much of their success can be attributed to 7-foot-4 Zach Edey, the frontrunner for the Wooden Award.
However, when looking at the analytics, there’s regression coming for a Purdue team that’s ultra-dependent on Edey on both ends of the floor.
In addition, Purdue’s East Region is filled with a plethora of teams that are playing some of their best basketball at just the right time.
When you look at how Purdue wants to play on both ends of the court, you’ll start to see how Matt Painter’s Boilermakers are primed to be taken down before they even get to Houston.
Offensively, Purdue is one of the slowest teams in college basketball, ranking 334th nationally in average possession length at 19.2 seconds.
This offensive pace is the result of Purdue looking to Edey on the interior on over 32.6% of offensive possessions, the fifth-highest usage rate in all of college basketball.
This methodical post-dependent offense has helped Purdue find success despite a less-than-impressive backcourt. The inexperienced duo of freshman Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer will need to be much more effective in order for Purdue to win six games against teams with uber-talented guard play.
Because of their below-average guard play, the Boilermakers have struggled with pressure on both ends of the court. Offensively, Purdue posted the highest steal percentage in the Big Ten, getting ripped on 10.6% of its offensive possessions. On the defensive end, Purdue struggled to pressure the ball, creating steals on just 7.8% of opponent possessions.
Ultimately, this guard play saw the Boilermakers lose four of their final eight regular-season games before receiving a more than favorable draw in the Big Ten Tournament.
Who Can Beat Purdue?
In addition to the Boilermakers’ own weaknesses, they have plenty of potential opponents capable of exposing their flaws as early as the second round.
Round of 32: Memphis Tigers
Penny Hardaway’s Memphis Tigers have quietly started to trend in the right direction at just the right time. The Tigers have won five of their last six games after taking down Houston in the AAC Tournament Championship on Sunday afternoon.
This level of play has seen Memphis rise to seventh in the country, per Bart Torvik’s rankings based on the last month of play.
In particular, Memphis has an ultra-experienced backcourt that has the Tigers ranked 28th nationally in steal percentage. This ability to create pressure on the defensive end will go a long way in disrupting the Boilers’ half-court sets.
Overall, Memphis ranks 11th nationally in D-I experience at 3.16 years on average. This maturity was on full display when the Tigers took care of business in three straight neutral-site games in the AAC Tournament.
With this deadly combination of defense and experience, there’s no reason Memphis can’t give Purdue a run for its money in the Round of 32.
Sweet 16: Duke Blue Devils
Much like Memphis, Duke has seemingly figured things out right when it matters most. The Blue Devils boast the nation’s sixth-longest active winning streak with their last loss coming to Virginia back on Feb. 11.
This streak has seen Duke rise to No. 8, just behind Memphis in Bart Torvik’s rankings for the last 30 days.
What makes the Blue Devils a particularly intriguing matchup for Purdue is their ability to match Edey’s size in the post with star freshman Kyle Filipowski, who has shown a unique ability to make opposing centers match up with him from the perimeter.
The steal and the jam for Kyle Filipowski 🔥
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 12, 2023
Moving Edey away from the basket could open up a ton of opportunities for a Duke offense that ranks 42nd nationally in Adjusted Efficiency.
In addition, Filipwoski has been a master at drawing fouls, averaging 5.5 fouls drawn per game. If Edey’s time on the floor is limited in any capacity due to foul trouble, you have to like Duke’s chances in this matchup.
Interestingly enough, these two teams met earlier this season in the Phil Knight Legacy Championship Game. Although Purdue ultimately prevailed, 75-56, Duke was able to hang tough in a game that saw Filipowski get in foul trouble of his own.
I expect a much improved Duke team to use this previous meeting to make the necessary adjustments. If Duke can top Tennessee in the Round of 32 and properly utilize Filipowski against Purdue, the Boilermakers will be on upset alert.
Elite Eight: Marquette, Kansas State, Providence, Kentucky
If Purdue somehow makes it to the Elite Eight, it will be rewarded with a potential matchup against any number of teams that have shown they can hang with any team in the country.
Among these teams is Marquette, which is fresh off a Big East Tournament title that stretched its win streak to nine games, the sixth-longest streak in the country.
Shaka Smart’s Golden Eagles are built perfectly for March stylistically, as they rank eighth nationally in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and 18th in Defensive Turnover Percentage.
With this type of offensive firepower and defensive pressure, Marquette could easily outpace a slow and methodical Purdue squad.
After Marquette, we have three teams that have the ability to take down the Golden Eagles and then build on that momentum in a matchup with Purdue.
First is a Kansas State team led by superstar point guard Markquis Nowell. With Nowell and Keyontae Johnson leading the offense, Kansas State ranks 40th nationally in Adjusted Tempo at 70.2 possessions per game.
Behind the back into a no look pass 🤯
Markquis Nowell having fun out there 🔥
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) January 21, 2023
Although they haven’t been playing their best as of late, the Wildcats certainly have the offensive tempo to run anyone out of the gym when things are clicking.
Lastly, whoever can survive the first-round matchup between Providence and Kentucky has a serious chance to make a run to Houston.
For Ed Cooley and Providence, this tournament is an opportunity to return to the form the Friars had in December and January. During this stretch, the Friars won nine games in a row behind an offense that ranked 16th nationally in Adjusted Efficiency.
If the Friars clean things up on the defensive end, they have the ability to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the country.
On the other side, Kentucky has had a roller coaster of a regular season. The Wildcats ended their season by stringing together four wins in a row before losing two of their last three games, both to Vanderbilt.
Interestingly enough, in between these losses to Vanderbilt, the Wildcats defeated Arkansas on its home floor behind a 37-point explosion from Antonio Reeves.
Antonio Reeves walked into the doors of Bud Walton Arena and took care of business. 💼pic.twitter.com/7D9v3EPk3c
— CatsCoverage.com (@Cats_Coverage) March 6, 2023
You can never count out John Calipari to put a March run together when he has a player such as Oscar Tshiebwe. He gives the Wildcats a significant advantage on the glass against nearly any team and would set up a terrific matchup with Edey on the other side.
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