Given the number of teams in play for No. 1 seeds this year, and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s proclivity for the unexpected, 2016’s 68-team field appears as wide open as any of recent memory.
While No. 1 seeds Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon, and Virginia all have excellent chances of heading to this year’s Final Four in Houston, each will face significant challenges along the way and more than likely one or several of the top-seeded squads won’t make the Elite 8, let alone the Final Four.
Thus, when filling out your brackets ahead of Tuesday’s First Four and Wednesday’s first-round matchups, keep in mind and expect a number of upsets in the opening days and even deeper into the tournament.
There are a number of teams who could play the role of this year’s Cinderella, but it’s also important to not to get too upset-pick happy.
Here are predictions for some of the safer picks to rely on that should keep your bracket healthy well into the Sweet 16 and maybe even the Final Four.
Of all the No. 1 seeds, North Carolina may have been handed the most harrowing road to the Final Four. The ACC champions face a gauntlet that includes hot teams like USC, as well as potential contenders like Kentucky and Xavier. However, thanks to Player of the Year candidate Brice Johnson and head coach Roy Williams’ experience in the tournament, the Tar Heels appear to be a safe pick for the Elite 8. Afterwards, though, North Carolina will have a tough quest against a Xavier team that went 6-1 against ranked opponents this year and split its two matchups with tournament contender Villanova.
There’s also the Kentucky Wildcats, arguably the most talented team in the tournament yet again, but also a team that’s struggled from the free throw line and from three all year.
Round of 32: North Carolina, USC, Indiana, Kentucky, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Xavier
Sweet 16: North Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, Xavier
Elite 8: North Carolina, Xavier
Final Four: Xavier
The Virginia Cavaliers were a bit of a surprise pick as a No. 1 seed, but their defense, ranked second in the country with 59.7 points allowed per game, is good enough and strong enough to propel them into the Elite 8. But once they get there, the Michigan State Spartans and head coach Tom Izzo will likely be waiting for a shot at the Final Four.
With the Spartans always a legitimate threat in the tournament, the South Region appears the one most likely not to send a No. 1 seed to the Final Four. There’s also the perennial contenders Gonzaga and Iowa State in this part of the field, and that could make even the Spartans ripe for an upset in the Sweet 16 or before. Still, it’s very hard taking a risk against Izzo.
Round of 32: Virginia, Butler, Purdue, Iowa State, Gonzaga, Utah, Syracuse, Michigan State
Sweet 16: Virginia, Iowa State, Utah, Michigan State
Elite 8: Virginia, Michigan State
Final Four: Michigan State
The Big 12 champion and 30-victory Kansas Jayhawks might be the safest of all the No. 1s. Head coach Bill Self’s team does have semi-tough potential draws against Colorado and maybe even Maryland, but should the Jayhawks advance they don’t really see a major challenge until Villanova in the Elite 8.
Villanova would be a threat if not for several reasons. The Wildcats haven’t advanced beyond the Round of 32 since 2009, and this year they’ve gone 3-4 against ranked opponents and just lost the Big East tourney.
Round of 32: Kansas, Colorado, Maryland, California, Arizona, Miami, Iowa, Villanova
Sweet 16: Kansas, Maryland, Miami, Villanova
Elite 8: Kansas, Villanova
Final Four: Kansas
Riding an eight-game winning streak, which included big wins over ranked Arizona and Utah in the Pac-12 tournament, the Oregon Ducks certainly have excellent momentum heading into the tournament. The Ducks also went 4-0 against ranked opponents this year, which makes them solid picks to at least reach the Sweet 16 and maybe the Elite 8.
Still, Texas A&M and Oklahoma each have a shot of upending Oregon’s hopes. As a team, the Aggies shoot better than 35 percent from three, are No. 31 in the country with 65 points allowed per game, play excellent team ball with 17.1 assists a contest (No. 11 in the country), and they went 4-2 against ranked opponents.
The Sooners couldn’t reach the Big 12 tournament title game, but guard Buddy Hield is maybe the best player and scorer in the country and he alone can help Oklahoma reach the Sweet 16.
Round of 32: Oregon, Cincinnati, Baylor, Duke, Northern Iowa, Texas A&M, VCU, Oklahoma
Sweet 16: Oregon, Baylor, Texas A&M, Oklahoma
Elite 8: Oregon, Texas A&M
Final Four: Texas A&M