We are just weeks away from the most exciting event in sports: the NCAA March Madness Tournament. After an abrupt cancellation to last year's edition due to the sudden emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, hoops fans were denied the opportunity to see the sport's finest young players in a 64-team do-or-die battle for glory.
While the likelihood of a #16 seed upset are minuscule, there is plenty of risk for top teams that assume they'll reach the Sweet Sixteen automatically. The history of college basketball is littered with Cinderella stories. While these squads are immortalized forever, the heavy favorites they took down along the way offer up a cautionary tale for some of the assumed Goliaths in this year's tourney. Here are three elite teams at risk of a disappointing elimination in the first two rounds.
*Statistics and rankings as of 2/11 courtesy of Sports Reference CBB
#15 Iowa has plenty of positives on their roster. The team has the third-highest scoring offense in the nation (87.8 PPG), anchored by All-American and potential Naismith Award winner Luka Garza. Their ability to shoot from the inside and outside presents a difficult task for any opponent, and the return of guard C.J. Fredrick should only help. However, a closer look reveals a team that has enough firepower to score points, but an absolute inability to make a stop on the other end of the court.
Sitting at sixth in the Big 10 as of the first week in February, the Hawkeyes have endured a 2-4 slide in their last six games. This stretch of bad play has brought their 134th ranked defensive efficiency into focus. During those losses, the team has fallen to major rivals in Ohio State, Illinois, and Indiana (twice). An inability to guard the perimeter means no lead is ever truly safe, and opens the door for a potential defeat at the hands of a hot-shooting mid-major next month.
Even when the defense manages to step up, the team's over-reliance on Luka Garza can rear its ugly head. In a 67-65 loss to Indiana on February 7th, just four players managed to score more than three points, and the team fell to the Hoosiers by a score of 67-65. A team that plays good interior defense can create havoc for Garza and Iowa, even if the Hawkeyes manages to defend for forty minutes.
It's been rough lately for Shaka Smart's crew, with #13 Texas dropping their last four games against ranked opponents in the Big 12. After garnering consideration for a number one seed early in the season, the Longhorns have stumbled mightily, going from 11-2 to 12-5 in just two weeks.
Part of the problem may be a lack of star power. A well-balanced attack with four different players in double-digits has served Texas well throughout most of the regular season, but the lack of a true 'closer' to take over could haunt them in a tightly contested game down the road. Despite their solid ranking, a roster with tons of hype has looked rather disappointing in recent weeks.
Team statistics point to this being a good but not great team. An average points per game mark at 75.6 (91st) and points allowed at 68.4 (127th) don't necessarily stand out. While not being bad at anything is a solid trait in most title-caliber teams, Texas's point differential of 7.2 isn't even within the top seventy five. The Longhorns are a talented group, but a lack of exceptional play in any area makes it hard to project this team going far as a high seed, especially against some of the tougher offenses and defenses in the tournament.
Staying in the state of Texas, #8 Houston has assembled a formidable roster under the stewardship of head coach Kelvin Sampson, arguably their best roster in three decades. The Cougars have raced off to a 17-2 start and a likely spot as a top-three seed in the tournament. Even more impressive is the team's smothering defense; Houston stifled opponents with an average points allowed per game of 57.3, second best in the nation. A dynamic guard pair in Quentin Grimes and Marcus Sasser keeps the team respectable on offense, while a supporting cast that includes eight other players averaging over ten minutes a game gives Sampson plenty of options off the bench.
With all their regular season success and a point differential that stands at fourth best in the league, it's hard not to like Houston. Still, there are causes for concern. The most notable one is the level of competition. The AAC has been mediocre this year, with no other top-25 teams residing in the conference. The only truly impressive win on the team's resume is a November win over Texas Tech; significant but not enough to ensure the team is ready to dominate in March.
Admittedly, Houston stands a much better chance of making a Final Four run than the two previous entries on our list. However, a February 3rd loss against Eastern Carolina offers up a blueprint on how to beat the Cougs. ECU broke through for 82 points, using a perimeter-shooting attack rather than driving inside against Houston's formidable interior defense. Holding Grimes to just seven points on 2-of-10 shooting, it was difficult for the Cougars to get into a rhythm on offense. An underdog that can force the ball away from Grimes and Sasser could give Houston a major headache, especially considering the relatively lax schedule they've played so far.