The One Seed
Wichita State finished its pre-NCAA Tournament season by going 34-0, leaving the Shockers as the lone undefeated team left in the country and the first to enter the NCAA Tourney undefeated since UNLV in 1990-1991. The knock on the Shockers was their strength of schedule, particularly in conference play, where Wichita State's top opponent was Indiana State, ranked No. 104 by KenPom. For comparison's sake, Texas Tech, which finished ninth of 10 teams in the Big 12, was ranked No. 84. The last time Wichita State played a team ranked above Tech? Way back on December 22nd, when the Shockers took on No. 78 North Carolina Central. Overall, Wichita State played just one opponent ranked in KenPom's top 30.
Why is that important? Because the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee apparently decided that if the Shockers were to make it back to a second consecutive Final Four, they'd have to roll through an absolute wrecking ball of a bracket.
Wichita State only played two teams ranked in KenPom's top 40, Tennessee and St. Louis, with only Tennessee being in the top 30. Both St. Louis and Tennessee are in the Midwest bracket (though Tennessee faces a play-in game). Overall, six of the top 17 teams, per KenPom are in the bracket, and that includes some way underseeded teams that stand in Wichita State's way early. In other words, happy hunting, Shockers.
The Best Team
One of those way underseeded teams? A red-hot Louisville squad, ranked No. 2 by KenPom (WSU is at No. 5). So what did the Cardinals get, a two? Nope. A three? Nyet. No, the defending national champions and winners of 12 of their last 13 received a four. That puts Louisville on a direct collision path with the Shockers, not in the Elite Eight or Final Four, but in the Sweet 16. And Louisville has the talent and the defense to take WSU out for the second consecutive year.
As good as Duke is, they have to be on upset watch against Mercer, a highly experienced team that features one of college basketball's underrated players in 6-foot-4 point guard Langston Hall. But I still like the Dukies to get out of that one, and I think the real danger lies for an overseeded UMass team against the winner of the play-in game between Tennessee and Iowa. Here's the thing: at No. 52, UMass is the 10th best team in the Midwest not involved in a play-in game. Here's the other thing: at No. 13 (Tennessee) and No. 27 (Iowa), both teams that could be the Minutemen's opponent have been markedly better this season. Beware St. Louis as well … the Billikens enter the NCAA Tournament having lost four of their last five. Their lone win in that stretch? UMass. St. Louis will play the winner of N.C. State and Xavier.
Juiciest Opening Round Matchup
All of the above should be great games. And while I think Duke will get past Mercer, that's my pick. Both teams will want to get out and run the floor, and with Hall pitching to a team that shoots almost 39 percent from three, this has the look of a high-scoring, fast-moving matchup that should be pleasing to watch. Can Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood and co. hold off that charge? Kentucky-Kansas State could be a close game, but won't really be pretty.
Juiciest Potential Round of 32 Matchup
If Kentucky does make it through, Wichita State will have to take on a hugely underseeded team in the Round of 32 as well (see what I mean about a tough bracket?). Per KenPom, Kentucky is actually the fifth-best team in the bracket, and a top-20 team nationally. But even beyond the simple ranking numbers, Kentucky presents a major challenge for Wichita State in terms of matchup. Most feel that WSU will be felled by a team that can bully them up front, and in Julius Randle (6-9 250), Alex Poythress (6-8 239), Willie Cauley-Stein (7-0 244) and Dakari Johnson (7-0 265), Kentucky has the rotation to do it. Kentucky also has some jumbo sets that pair Cauley-Stein and Johnson and ones that put Poythress at the three alongside Randle and one of Cauley-Stein or Johnson.
I'm going to go with Louisville here. The Cardinals check all the boxes: they're athletic, have a great defense, can score, have experience and a superstar player in Russ Smith who ranks No. 2 as KenPom's Player of the Year. Will that be enough to make it through? It's tough to tell in such a stacked bracket, but they're as good a pick as any.