The NCAA Tournament bracket almost never develops as planned. I think folks forget that sometimes. Because every year I listen to people, just as soon as the bracket is announced, start talking about which teams have easy roads and difficult roads, and I always want to scream, “WE DON’T KNOW ANYBODY’S ROAD!”
One upset can make a presumed hard road simple.
I learned this up close when I was the Memphis beat writer at The Commercial Appeal in 2006. The bracket was released and the top-seeded Tigers’ projected path to the Elite Eight seemed like it would include games against Oral Roberts, Arkansas and Kansas or Pitt. But then Bucknell beat Arkansas in the Round of 64. So Memphis got Bucknell in the Round of 32. Meantime, Bradley beat both Kansas and Pitt. So the Tigers got Bradley in the Sweet 16. And if anybody ever asks what did John Calipari’s first Elite Eight team at Memphis have to do to get to the Elite Eight, make sure your answer is ... beat Oral Roberts, Bucknell and Bradley.
So keep that in mind while discussing paths and roads. One or two upsets can change paths and roads drastically. That said, just for fun, I did look at the possible paths for the four No. 1 seeds under the assumption the regionals will unfold with the higher-seed winning each game. If things go down like that, which 1-seed would have the most issues making the Final Four? Here’s my opinion with the schools’ possible paths ranked from hardest to simplest
MOST DIFFICULT: VILLANOVA
The Wildcats will play either Mount Saint Mary’s or New Orleans in the Round of 64 and would then have possible meetings with Wisconsin, Virginia and Duke. So Villanova’s path to the Final Four could include a game against the preseason Big Ten favorite (Wisconsin), a game against the school ranked seventh at KenPom (Virginia), and a game against Las Vegas’ pick to win the national title. (Duke). To me, this is clearly the most difficult set of potential circumstances. I could see the Wildcats losing in the Round of 32 to Wisconsin or winning the national championship. Out of all the 1-seeds, Villanova seems like it might have to be the sharpest earliest.
NOT QUITE AS DIFFICULT: NORTH CAROLINA
The Tar Heels will play Texas Southern in the Round of 64 and would then have possible meetings with Arkansas, Butler and Kentucky. So UNC’s path to the Final Four could include a game against a team that tied for third in the SEC (Arkansas), a game against a team that’s beaten Villanova twice but also lost to Indiana State (Butler), and a game against the SEC champions (Kentucky). What’s scary here, I think, is that Butler has already topped another 1-seed, Villanova, both at home and on the road. So the Bulldogs are capable. Then there’s that possible Elite Eight showdown with Kentucky, which has already beaten the Tar Heels once on a neutral court. And if Kentucky doesn’t get there, UCLA likely will. So, barring multiple big surprises, North Carolina will have to beat either Kentucky or UCLA to make the Final Four. And Kentucky and UCLA have both been ranked in the top two of the AP poll.
A LITTLE SIMPLER: GONZAGA
The Zags will play South Dakota State in the Round of 64 and would then have possible meetings with Northwestern, West Virginia and Arizona. So Gonzaga’s path to the Final Four could include a game against a school that’s never before been in the NCAA Tournament (Northwestern), a game against a team that’s beaten Kansas, Baylor and Virginia but also lost to Temple and Oklahoma (West Virginia), and a game against a team that shared the Pac-12 regular-season title and won the Pac-12 tournament (Arizona). Undeniably, Arizona is great and a legitimate national title contender. But I’d rather have Gonzaga’s likely Round of 32 game (Northwestern) than Villanova’s (Wisconsin). And I’d rather play an Elite Eight game against a team I’ve already beaten (Gonzaga beat Arizona in December) than an Elite Eight game against a team that’s already beaten me (North Carolina lost to Kentucky in December). So that’s why I prefer Gonzaga’s possible path to North Carolina’s possible path.
THE SIMPLEST: KANSAS
The Jayhawks will play either North Carolina Central or UC Davis in the Round of 64 and would then have possible meetings with Miami, Purdue and Louisville. So Kansas’ path to the Final Four could include a game against the seventh-place ACC team that’s lost three of its past four games (Miami), a game against a team that won the Big Ten but is just 2-2 in its past four games (Purdue), and a game against a team that tied for second in the ACC but is 2-3 in its past five games (Louisville). To be clear, there’s nothing simple about Louisville. And I do love Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan. But I’d much rather have this potential path than any of the others. That’s why I think Kansas is the “safest” pick to get to the Final Four -- although none of the 1-seeds are as safe as, say, Kentucky was in 2015.