March Madness: Which 1 Seed Has the Toughest Road to the Final Four?
There's a reason Selection Sunday has captivated audiences for years. It's not just about seeing which bubble teams made the cut, which ones have a play-in game in, or even which teams won't be dancing at all this year.
Everyone wants to see the potential path their favorite team has to the Final Four. And if you're making your own bracket, you want to see the path each 1 seed has to be the champion.
Matchups matter on the floor. Off of it, potential matchups matter just as much for forecasting how bracket scenarios will play out.
So, with that in mind, let's look -- through the lens of our nERD metric (which measures the number of points we'd expect a team to win by against an average one on a neutral court) -- at the journey ahead for each of the four 1 seeds and see who has the toughest path.
4. Illinois Fighting Illini (Midwest Region)
The one place where it the Illini caught a tough break is in the second round. After playing 16 seed Drexel in their opener, Illinois could have a potentially difficult Round-of-32 matchup, as Loyola is our top 8 seed. And while Georgia Tech -- Loyola's first-round foe -- may be the second-worst 9 seed by nERD, they just upended Florida State in the final of the ACC Tournament.
Things get easier from there. If the chalk holds and Illinois takes on 4 seed Oklahoma State or 5 seed Tennessee, they shouldn't have too much trouble. We rate those two teams as fairly pedestrian 4 and 5 seeds. In the Elite Eight, Illinois may see either 2 seed Houston or 3 seed West Virginia. Houston is the worst 2 seed in the field, per nERD.
Other than Loyola, there is another Cinderella-type team to watch in this region -- 10 seed Rutgers. Rutgers and Illinois wouldn't meet until the Elite Eight, so this is likely a moot point, but the Scarlet Knights are a battle-tested team that is capable of going on a run.
Gonzaga is an amazing team and has the best odds (57.49%) of getting to the Final Four, according to our projections. But Illinois has the second-best odds, at 45.30%, aided by a fairly welcoming draw in the Midwest. Outside of the Zags, Illinois is the only other team we give better than a 38.41% chance to get to the Final Four.
3. Michigan Wolverines (East Region)
The other teams in Michigan's East Region have the second-lowest nERD of any quadrant in the bracket. Among all the 1 through 4 seeds, this region's 3 seed (Texas) and 4 seed (Florida State) are among the four worst squads, so the top of the region is pretty soft.
The Wolverines get a play-in team for their first-round game and will see decent opposition between whoever survives from 8 seed LSU and 9 seed St. Bonaventure. Both sit second-best in nERD among their fellow seeds.
While our numbers don't love Florida State, the 'Noles rate out better for KenPom, where they sit 15th overall, compared to 23rd for us. FSU has lost three of their last five games -- including an 80-75 shocker to Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament. The fact that Georgia Tech created so many matchup problems for Florida State may help Michigan's cause.
Then, there is 5 seed Colorado. Though their metrics are good, they barely beat California and USC in the Pac-12 Tournament -- by a combined five points -- before losing to Oregon State in the title bout.
Going by nERD, Alabama is just an okay 2 seed while the aforementioned Longhorns are the worst 3 seed in the field.
One that could pull several surprises in the East is 7 seed Connecticut. They not only have the highest nERD for a 7 seed in this field, but their nERD of 12.56 is better than the nERD of the average 6 seed since 2001.
We have Michigan reaching the Final Four 38.14% of the time, the third-best odds in the field.
2. Baylor Bears (South Region)
Baylor is the top seed in the South region, and they have a pretty rough draw in their half of the region.
After facing Hartford, the 16 seed, in their first game, the Bears will have an interesting Round-of-32 matchup no matter who wins the 8/9 game. North Carolina, the 8 seed, has the potential to surprise, and Wisconsin was underseeded. We have the Badgers as the 11th-best team in the nation while KenPom slots them 10th. As such, despite being a 1 seed, Baylor has just the seventh-best odds in the field -- 64.55%, per our projections -- to make it to the Sweet 16.
Looking toward the Sweet 16, Villanova is our model's worst-rated 5 seed and will be without guard Collin Gillespie, but 4 seed Purdue is the toughest 4 out there. We have Purdue as the 12th-best team in the nation. They managed to get all the way to the Elite Eight two years ago before narrowly falling to eventual champ Virginia. The Boilermakers should be a tough out and would be a stout test for Baylor if they meet up in the Sweet 16.
It doesn't get much easier when looking at potential Elite Eight matchups. Ohio State is a solid 2 seed and almost defeated the Illini in the final of the Big Ten Tournament. Arkansas, the 3 seed, is 17th in the country, per our nERD metric.
Overall, we have Baylor as the worst 1 seed, ranking them fifth, and we give them a 26.18% chance to get to the Final Four, which are the fifth-best odds in the field.
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs (West Region)
Gonzaga is pretty clearly the top team in this field, but the committee didn't do them many favors. Among the 1 through 4 seeds in each region, the 1-4 group with the most combined nERD is in the West, though the Zags' nERD of 20.79 does some of the heavy lifting there.
After their first-round game versus the winner of the play-in bout between Norfolk State and Appalachian State, Gonzaga will come up against either 8 seed Oklahoma or 9 seed Missouri. By KenPom, the Sooners and Tigers are the worst 8 and 9 seeds, respectively, in the Big Dance.
Things will -- or should -- get tougher from there.
Gonzaga will likely come up against a difficult Sweet 16 opponent in either 4 seed Virginia or 5 seed Creighton. Our model is down on the Cavs, ranking them as the field's worst 4 seed, but Virginia's slow pace -- the slowest in the country, according to KenPom -- should make it a low-possession game. The fewer possessions there are, the better chance something flukey occurs. Creighton is the best 5 seed by nERD, as we mentioned above, and they actually rate out better than Virginia.
In the Elite Eight, the Zags could get Iowa, the top 2 seed in the field. Iowa is better than 1 seed Baylor, per nERD, and is roughly equal to 1 seed Michigan. The bottom half of the region also contains Kansas. It's not your usual Jayhawks team -- we slot them 18th -- but it is still Bill Self and a top-tier Kansas program.
It speaks to the excellence of Gonzaga that we still hand them a 57.49% chance of making the Final Four in spite of the difficult draw. They are that good. We see them winning it all 29.6% of the time. The combined title odds for the rest of the 1 seeds is 30.15%. It would be fun to see what the Zags' title odds would be if they got an easier draw.