Let’s look in on the eight of the bright candles that made it through two blustery rounds of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. By late Saturday night the flicker will have faded for six teams. Only two will glow and go to San Antonio for The Final Four.
Friday I’ll l’ll preview the eight teams in the Midwest and East regions.
No. 5 KENTUCKY
Next: vs. No. 9 Kansas State Thursday in Atlanta, 8:37 p.m. STL time,
Why they’ll be on the road to San Antonio: The early upsets put the Wildcats in the cushiest, smoothest ride to the Final Four. The Wildcats may be only the 10th best team in this tournament according to the KenPom ratings, but they’re the highest-rated team in Atlanta, and they’re streaking with a 9-1 record in their last 10.
Why they’ll reach the end of the road: The Cats go three-ball crazy too often; when the cold-shooting front moves in it’s trouble … Kentucky is below average overall defensively and don’t rebound as well as they should.
KenPom Final Four Probability: 37.7%
No. 7 NEVADA
Next: No. 11 Loyola-Chicago Thursday in ATL, 6:07 p.m. STL time.
Why they’ll be on the road to San Antonio: Few teams in the nation can match or surpass the Wolf Pack’s excellence on offense. At KenPom they’re No. 6 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, 28th in effective field goal percentage, and turn the ball over less than any team in D1. This is how Nevada was able to erase a 14-point deficit to defeat Texas, then come back from 22 points down to upset No. 2 seed Cincinnati in the second round.
Why they’ll reach the end of the road: Depth. Nevada played only six guys in each of their first two wins of the tournament; this team ranks 314th in the nation in bench minutes. And while the comebacks are awesome the Pack can’t continue to live so dangerously; in their last four games they’ve fallen behind by 12, 34, 14 and 22 … and miraculously won three of the four.
KenPom Final Four Probability: 27.6%
No. 9 KANSAS STATE
Next: No. 5 Kentucky, Thursday in ATL, 8:37 p.m. STL time.
Why they’ll be on the road to San Antonio: The Wildcats are tough on the defensive end, ranking 20th in the KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. They will turn you over; their forced-turnover percentage ranks 24th nationally. And this is one of the better defenders against the three.
Why they’ll reach the end of the road: As Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News pointed out, K-State didn’t beat one team in non-conference play that made the NCAA Tournament. And in the Big 12, the Wildcats went 0-7 against the three best teams that are still alive in the brackets (Kansas, West Virginia and Texas Tech.) They often get bogged down in a sludge-ball offense (No. 303 nationally in adjusted tempo).
KenPom Final Four Probability: 16.4%
No. 11 LOYOLA-CHICAGO
Next: No. 7 Nevada, Thursday in ATL, 6:07 p.m. STL time.
Why they’ll be on the road to San Antonio: Coach Porter Moser has the most bonded team in the tournament; the Ramblers play beautifully cohesive basketball. And they defend, ranking 27th overall in adjusted defensive efficiency at Kenpom, and holding opponents to mediocre shooting percentages from two-point and three range. Loyola is playing Virginia basketball, having allowed 65 points or fewer in their last five games, all wins.
Why they’ll reach the end of the road: Way too many turnovers, and believe it or not 10 percent of the Ramblers’ possessions this season have ended with the opponent stealing the ball; that ranks 311th in the nation. To get to the Final Four, the beloved Ramblers have to score more than they have been, and that’s hard to do when 19 percent of possessions end in turnovers.
KenPom Final Four Probability: 18.2%
No. 3 Michigan
Next: No. 7 Texas A&M, Thursday in Los Angeles, 6:37 p.m. STL time.
Why they’ll be on the road to San Antonio: The Wolverines have the top-ranked defense among the 16 contenders; they were 3rd overall this season in the Kenpom defensive efficiency ratings. Have won 11 consecutive games, even if the 11th was a last-second sling-and-in at the buzzer.
Why they’ll reach the end of the road: Michigan yields too many offensive rebounds, misses too many foul shots, and often struggles offensively when the pace of the game isn’t played at their preferred speed (slower.)
KenPom Final Four Probability: 32.7%
No. 4 Gonzaga
Next: No. 9 Florida State, Thursday in Los Angeles, 9:07 p.m. STL time.
Why they’ll be on the road to San Antonio: Because this program is special; 32 wins in what was supposed to be a “down” season reaffirms that. The Zags rule in the paint, ranking in fourth (Kenpom) nationally in two-point field-goal offense, ninth in two-point defense, 14th in defensive rebounding percentage, 47th in offensive rebounding pct, and 23rd in blocked-shots percentage. And seven of their nine rotation players make more than 60 percent of their two-point shots.
Why they’ll reach the end of the road: Pretty much for the same reason why excellent teams get knocked out … they have a bad game. And this season Gonzaga has flirted with bad losses with too many harrowing, narrow wins over over lesser teams. And the Zags were whomped by 16 points in a loss to Villanova, their only game against an opponent that was awarded a No. 4 seed of better in the NCAAs.
KenPom Final Four Probability: 40.0%
No. 7 Texas A&M
Next: No. 3 Michigan, Thursday in LA, 6:37 p.m. STL time.
Why they’ll be on the road to San Antonio: Size, offensive rebounding and defense (No. 8 KenPom.) The preseason pick to win the SEC, the Aggies jumped out to an 11-1 start (non-conference) getting as high as No. 4 overall in the KenPom ratings but slowly disintegrated until fighting back and save the season. The toughness returned just in time for the Aggies to demolish Providence and No. 2 North Carolina.
Why they’ll reach the end of the road: The defense, while strict overall, has too many lazy spells. Aggies get credit for refusing to capitulate when their season went bad. But we can’t be sure about this team’s identity. The Aggies that were so spectacular in eradicating North Carolina — will they show up at Staples Center? Or will it be the dysfunctional, moody team that went 0-5 to begin SEC play? If Texas A&M is in a fierce mindset, they can beat any team in the nation.
KenPom Final Four Probability: 15.1%
No. 9 FLORIDA STATE
Next: No. 4 Gonzaga, Thursday in LA, 9:07 p.m. STL time,.
Why they’ll be on the road to San Antonio: This is a very deep and athletic team that can wear you down with its physicality. That was the case when the Seminoles ripped No. 1 Xavier’s 12-point lead in the final 10 minutes to deliver a knockout blow.
Why they’ll reach the end of the road: Too many turnovers, too many bricks at the free-throw line, not a sharp 3-point shooting team, not good at defending the 3-point arc, too many blowout losses in the ACC and only one win against a non-conference opponent (Florida) that made this tournament.
KenPom Final Four Probability: 12.2%
My picks, because I’m obligated: Kentucky captures the South, and Gonzaga wins the West.
Most dangerous threats to the expected winners: Nevada in the South, Texas A&M from the West.
Good luck in your bracket do-overs.
Thanks for reading …