Michigan was at least rewarded for its two seed with a couple early winnable games. Wofford doesn't have the look of giant killer and the Texas/Az St. matchup should produce a manageable second round opponent for Michigan. Things get tough in the Sweet Sixteen with Duke most likely waiting to begin the second weekend.
But this is the NCAA Tournament, where there are no easy roads to the Final Four. If Michigan makes it out of the first weekend and past Duke (or whoever beats Duke), the Wolverines could face any number of dangerous teams for the right to go to the Final Four.
Today we are going to take a look at the other half of Michigan's region to see what might stand in the way of Michigan's return trip to the Final Four.
- One Seed: Wichita State (34-0, 18-0 MVC)
If Michigan faces the Shockers in two weeks, the Wolverines will have the opportunity to give Wichita State its first loss of the season. Of course, by that point, 37 teams will have tried and failed to do that this year. The really surprising thing about the Shockers this year is that this isn't a team making a second run with all its original pieces. Three starters are gone from last year's team and Wichita State has only gotten better.
The Shockers are in the top ten in both offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency rankings, and while the Shockers only have a trio of Kenpom top-50 wins (Tenn, BYU, Saint Louis) from early in the season, they have taken care of business convincingly almost every time out, with only six games being closer than 10 points in the final margin.
Outlook against Michigan: This is a hard team to judge based on the level of competition through the regular season, but even so, you don't win 34 games without losing one unless you're a good all around basketball team. Wichita State is definitely that. Fear level: 8/10.
- Four Seed: Louisville (29-5, 15-3 AAC)
Don't look now, but this is the third Final Four team from last year in this bracket. This is a nice little factoid until you consider the following:
- Michigan, which made it to the finals, actually posted a better Big Ten record this season than last and has just one more loss overall than the team had at the same time last year.
- Wichita State, which lost to Louisville in the Final Four, went undefeated this season.
- Louisville is a four seed, despite having an identical record to last year when it entered the tournament. Some things haven't changed, though: everyone is picking UL to win the whole thing.
So, three of last year's Final Four teams are in the same bracket this year, and they all might be as good or better than they were last year. That sounds like a reasonable seeding job by the committee.
As for Louisville this year, things haven't much changed from last year's championship winning squad. Russ Smith is still back and being Russdiculous (he is currently number two in Kenpom's POTY rankings). The defense still forces turnovers at a high rate (this year, TO% forced is second nationally at 25.2%). Remember Luke Hancock, the ying to Spike Albrecht's yang? He is back as well. Louisville is top ten in both the offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency rankings at Kenpom. The good news? Louisville was 4th and 3rd in those categories last year, not 10th and 6th.
Outlook against Michigan: The Wolverines played Louisville well a year ago in the finals and have the offense to keep up again this year. Still, this is the scariest team in the bracket. Fear level: 10/10.
- Five Seed: Saint Louis (26-6, 13-3 A10)
Before a late season losing skid saw Saint Louis drop three games in a row, the Billikens had only lost to Wisconsin and Wichita State by a combined 11 points. With Kenpom top-100 wins against VCU, Dayton, Richmond, George Washington, and Saint Joseph's, the Billikens were looking good.
Of course, losing three out of its last four regular season games, as well as dropping its first game to St. Bonaventure in the A10 Tournament takes a little luster off of Saint Louis.
Outlook against Michigan: The late season slide is a bit worrying, but this is still a team that features five senior starters and plays one of the best three point defenses in college basketball. Fear level: 6/10.
- Eight Seed: Kentucky (24-10, 12-6 SEC)
This version of Kentucky seems like its tournament run is going to play out like a Michael Bay movie. Loud, full of explosions and things you just can't believe, but probably an overall terrible product.
The thing about Kentucky is that this team might be the most talented squad in Michigan's region. It is also the most likely to spectacularly explode in a bad way. It is one of the few teams less experienced than Michigan, but with players like Julius Randall, James Young, and the Harrisons, all Kentucky needs to do is flip the switch and put together a couple weeks of basketball at the level it is capable of playing.
Outlook against Michigan: The odds of Kentucky putting it together at this point are small, but if this team makes it to the Elite Eight it will be truly terrifying. Fear level: 9/10.
Well? Overall, Michigan was saddled with a tough road to the Final Four, but things aren't so bad as Michigan gets to work up in difficulty as it goes. The first weekend shouldn't be a major issue if Michigan continues to play well, and the Sweet Sixteen game against Duke/or other will at least feature a team Michigan is familiar with and matches up well with stylistically.
If you were designing a bracket, putting Louisville, Kentucky, and Wichita State on the other side of the region is exactly how you would draw it up. Michigan has a lot to deal with on paper, but if it makes it to the end of the second weekend, all the noise will be filtered out and it will be one game for a trip to the Final Four.
Those odds aren't so bad when you think about it.