Okay, after our first two articles mapping Auburn’s path to the Final Four, we’ve essentially surmised that the Tigers can do it, and that there’s nobody in this whole tournament that’s unbeatable. Of course, this is a massive jinx, so let’s get that out of the way right now and focus on what would happen if Auburn made it through the first two weekends and ended up playing in the Final Four against the winner of the East Region.
Who would that be?
Well. Look at these percentages. Here’s how likely it is that each seed reaches the Final Four.
1-SEED - 40.9%
2-SEED - 21.2%
3-SEED - 11.4%
4-SEED - 9.8%
5-SEED - 4.5%
6-SEED - 2.3% (Michigan 1992, Kansas 1988, Providence 1987, NC State 1983, Houston 1982, Purdue 1980)
7-SEED - 2.3% (South Carolina 2017, Michigan State 2015, UConn 2014)
8-SEED - 3.8% (Kentucky 2014, Butler 2011, UNC 2000, Wisconsin 2000, Villanova 1985)
9-SEED - 0.8% (Wichita State 2013)
10-SEED - 0.8% (Syracuse 2016)
11-SEED - 2.3% (VCU 2011, George Mason 2006, LSU 1986)
Below the 5-seeds, I listed the individual teams seeded at that line that have reached the Final Four. As you can see, it’s not many at all. As for the 4-seeds, only four have made the Final Four in the last ten years. Of those, only Michigan in 2013 made the championship game. The only 4-seed to win the tournament is Arizona in 1997.
That said, IF Auburn makes the Final Four as the Midwest representative, they’ll probably face one of the top four seeds out of the East. Those are:
4-SEED WICHITA STATE
Hey, aren’t they coached by Gregg Marshall? Wasn’t he supposed to go coach in Tuscaloosa?
In all seriousness, Wichita’s been a great team since Marshall’s gotten his guys in place. They’ve made seven straight tournaments, falling in the Final Four in 2013 before entering the 2014 tournament undefeated, then losing to Kentucky in the Round of 32. Auburn even has a bit of a brush with Marshall’s history, as he was the head coach at Winthrop when the Tigers faced them as the 1-seed in the 1999 NCAA Tournament.
This season was the Shockers’ first as a member of the AAC, and they did alright, splitting games with Cincinnati and Houston in the process, and earning the East Region 4-seed. They’re not nearly as good as they were with Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker in the past, but this is still a team that will score and take care of the ball.
3-SEED TEXAS TECH
Color me skeptical on the Red Raiders. Yes, they were good, and yes, they nearly ended Kansas’ run of 14 straight Big 12 titles. Still, I can’t help but feel that there was something missing from Tech’s arsenal. and they fell apart toward the end of the year, dropping four conference games in a row to allow the Jayhawks to catch up.
Keenan Evans is fantastic, but this is a team that seems to be stymied by the glass ceiling. They can see the prize, but haven’t been able to put it together in a way that definitely earns them a 3-seed. I have a feeling they got the old Big 12 boost when the committee put pen to paper, similar to TCU nabbing a 6-seed.
Here’s a team that I think actually is really good. Auburn battled with the Boilermakers for the nation’s longest winning streak in January, and Purdue eventually held that mark with nineteen straight wins. However, just like everyone else, this team is flawed in some way. They lost three straight to Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin in the final two weeks of the season, but didn’t play really poorly in any of those defeats. They’re clean with the ball, they pound it inside with Isaac Haas, and they’ve got four seniors in the starting lineup.
Last year, Auburn actually met with Purdue, and got drilled 96-71 thanks to 19 three-pointers by the Boilers. Obviously, that wouldn’t happen again, but that was the reason that game ended up being so lopsided.
When I first looked at the bracket, it was hard not to say that Villanova’s the team with the easiest path to the Final Four. I can’t really trust any of the other teams in the East Region to knock off Nova and make a run. There’s a reason for that aside from the relative weaknesses of the other contenders, it’s that the Wildcats are really, really solid.
They lost only four times all year, and only once at home. The only really bad loss is that singular home defeat to St. John’s, but the Johnnies then strung together a couple of upset wins in a row in an unprecedented spurt of glory. Nova won the Big East Tournament with relative ease, winning by 24, 19, and 10 points in three straight days to take the auto-bid out of the conference.
Nova’s the top-scoring team in the country, with six players averaging double-digit points on the year, led by Jalen Brunson’s 19.4 ppg and Mikal Bridges 18.0 ppg. They’re as unbeatable as anyone else on this side of the bracket, and they’ll provide the stiffest test and biggest roadblock to anyone else making the national championship.
So, if Auburn somehow, somehow met these guys in the Final Four, how would they win?
Here’s what helped the other team win in Nova’s four losses —
101-93 L @ Butler: the Bulldogs shot 60% from the floor, hit 15-22 from three, and 14-18 from the foul line, while only allowing Villanova to go to the line for nine shots.
79-75 L vs St. John’s: free throws again — St. John’s went 19-24, while Nova went 11-12 from the foul line.
76-71 L @ Providence: again, Providence shot 22-30 from the foul line and forced 19 turnovers.
89-83 OT L @ Creighton: the Blue Jays hit twelve threes and went 15-20 from the free throw line. See a trend?
If you’re going to beat Villanova, you have to be able to get to the foul line and make free throws. Auburn’s 18th in the country in free throw attempts, NUMBER ONE in free throw makes, and eighth in free throw percentage. Get the Wildcats in foul trouble and keep getting to the line, and you can beat them. That’s the recipe.
Alright, later tonight it’s Auburn and Charleston in the Tigers’ first NCAA Tournament game in fifteen years! Enjoy it and no matter what happens, this series did not jinx the Tigers into becoming a first round upset.