It’s now Day 6 of the 2014 NCAA tournament, and the common regular season theme of parity has already made its way into the postseason. Though a total of eight upsets in the Round of 64 is actually a low number in historical terms, the first two true days of the tourney featured a 14-seed shock a 3-seed, 12-seeded teams go 3-1 against 5-seeded teams, and 11-seeds also compile two wins. The madness did not cease as the field narrowed down to 32 squads, as in the first day (Saturday) of the Round of 32 the Dayton Flyers showed early signs of a ‘Cinderella’ status by trumping #3 Syracuse, and #7 UConn used a second-half surge to topple second-seeded Villanova.
Yet as the last pre-Sweet 16 tournament day has arrived, the real stunner of March Madness–the fall of the targeted number-one seeds–may be imminent. Of the previous four years of the tournament, three included #1 seeds faltering to either eight- or nine-seeds. And if these top seeds emerge in the Sweet Sixteen unscathed, there’s still a chance at least one sees its last days very soon, as six #1 seeds have been upset in this round during this four-year span. So with three #1 seeds in action on the final day of the Round of 32, here’s a look at those whose seasons could be in peril.
1 Arizona vs. 8 Gonzaga
The Bulldogs–unlike in last year’s tourney–certainly entered March Madness under the radar, and outlasted Oklahoma State in what felt like an upset in their first game. Gonzaga maintained their fantastic shooting efficiency and rode junior guard Kevin Pangos’s 26-point performance en route to the victory. Thus, if Arizona wishes to extinguish any possibility of a Zags upset, then its defensive focus must be keyed on Pangos, whose play often serves as a microcosm for his team’s as a whole. Pangos averaged a modest 14.5 PPG and shot 42.9% from the field during the regular season, but does numbers dipped to 12.8 and 34.4%, respectively, when the Zags lost. Furthermore, Gonzaga posted a 49.8 FG% in the regular season–fifth best in the country–but in its six losses, that percentage dropped down to 46.1. Arizona should be able to combat and restrain the Bulldogs’ efficiency on offense, as the Wildcats rank third in defensive efficiency, and will have more than enough offensive firepower themselves to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
1 Wichita State vs. 8 Kentucky
Though often erratic and inconsistent, Kentucky possesses loads of NBA-ready talent which could pose a threat to and potentially overwhelm their small-school opponents. Yet going into the matchup, the Shockers unequivocally remain the better team, with more balance and efficiency on both sides of the ball. Furthermore, Wichita State surprisingly matches up well with Kentucky (as a program) in terms of pedigree in recent years. In the last four seasons, the Shockers have won an NIT championship, made a Final Four appearance, and completed an undefeated regular season, a notch down from the Wildcats’ two Final Four berths and one championship in that time period. To sum it up, Wichita State is the more experience-laden and tested team in terms of players (as opposed to Kentucky’s freshman-dominated squad), and does not lose an edge at broader level of comparing programs. So don’t expect the Shockers to get a taste of their own medicine, as they were the last team to knock a #1 seed in the Round of 32, occurring one year ago.
1 Virginia vs. 8 Memphis
Time after time again in the history of the NCAA tournament, a poor showing by a top seed always seems to precede its elimination. And no #1 team appeared more shaky–and for most of the contest on “upset alert”–than the Virginia Cavaliers, who despite completing a surprising sweep of the ACC regular and tournament titles, struggled against sixteenth-seeded Coastal Carolina, eventually needing a 14-point second-half swing to defeat the upset-minded Chanticleers. It will undoubtedly be a clash of styles when Virginia and its slow and methodical ways face off against Memphis and its fast pace on Sunday. Though the Cavaliers’ excellent transition defense (which allows seven points a game) could slow down the Tigers’ top-notch transition game (good for second in the nation with 21.2 PPG), several of UVA’s defeats in the regular season have come to explosive and fast-paced offenses like that of Memphis. And while the Cavs could slow down the Tigers on the defensive side, if they continue their struggles on offense–as their top two scoring options showed signs of weakness in the last game–they will fail to keep pace and will be sent home packing.
Just for the record, and so I don’t appear completely foolish after writing that Kentcuky would not be the first team to knock off a one-seed, I did feel that Wichita State would be the first #1 seed to fall at one point in my thinking process.