Welcome back to this year’s men’s NCAA tournament Danger Rankings! There are few things more challenging than sizing up the bracket and figuring out which teams to peg for an early exit, so we did your homework for you. After studying all the teams on the top four seed lines, historical trends about teams that fit their profile and breaking down the matchups in depth, Sports Illustrated has found the five most vulnerable highly seeded teams for you to pick against in your March Madness bracket.
Yes, college hoops in the month of March is unpredictable. But consider these Danger Rankings as a strong jumping-off point to find the teams that could go down early and win you your office pool in the process.
Providence (No. 4 seed, Midwest Region)
From a purely analytical standpoint, the Friars are by far the weakest top-four seed in this year’s field. In fact, there are six teams ranked higher than Providence in KenPom that aren’t even in this year’s NCAA tournament. The Friars have had a remarkable run of success in close games this season, and while they certainly earned that top-four seed with their quality wins, they seem quite vulnerable to a first-weekend exit.
Providence is the epitome of a team where the whole is better than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t have a star who takes over games, but rather an excellent collection of pieces who do individual things well: Justin Minaya is the defensive specialist, Nate Watson the low-post scorer, A.J. Reeves the three-point shooter, etc. But key late-game closer Al Durham isn’t at 100% as he deals with a sports hernia injury, and potentially playing two games in three days could be a challenge.
Opening-round matchup South Dakota State will test the Friars’ defense—the Jackrabbits are one of the nation’s most skilled offensive teams and lead the country in three-point shooting. But even if Providence survives what should be a stiff test in the first round, it could be staring down Big Ten tournament champion Iowa in a round-of-32 matchup. The Hawkeyes are playing their best ball of the season right now and would be a serious hurdle for the Friars to climb to get to their first Sweet 16 since 1997.
Purdue (No. 3 seed, East Region)
SI’s Molly Geary wrote this week about “Extreme Teams,” or teams that rank in the top 10 in adjusted efficiency on one end of the floor and outside the top 50 on the other. Purdue qualifies for that title, coming in at No. 3 nationally on offense but No. 100 on defense. One rather notable comparison is last year’s Iowa team, which got bludgeoned by Oregon in the round of 32 despite having one of the nation’s best offenses. It conceded 95 points to the No. 7 seed Ducks. In fact, using T-Rank’s “similar profiles” tool, the top four most comparable teams to Purdue all were bounced in the first weekend despite all receiving a top-four seed.
There’s no question that the Boilermakers are supremely talented. There may not be a more gifted player in the nation than Jaden Ivey, whose highlight-reel plays conjure images of the likes of Ja Morant and De’Aaron Fox from their times in college. Purdue also has perhaps the most physically imposing frontcourt duo in college hoops with Zach Edey and Trevion Williams. But at the end of the day, the Boilers have just never turned the corner on the defensive end, and that fact could doom them in this tournament.
First-round opponent Yale has been known to pull the upset before, knocking off Baylor in the 2016 tournament and playing a tight game with LSU in ’19. I’m not sure this Bulldogs team has quite enough talent to pull the early shocker, but second-round foe Texas or Virginia Tech will have the Boilers on upset alert.
Auburn (No. 2 seed, Midwest Region)
The splits between the Tigers’ play at home vs. away from the friendly confines of Auburn Arena are rather stark, and they have only gotten worse in the last several weeks. Since Jan. 25, Auburn has played six games at home and seven games on road or neutral courts. In the six home games, the Tigers are 6–0, and they won all six by double figures. In the seven road/neutral games Auburn is just 3–4, and the three wins have all been by one possession or in overtime against teams that didn’t come close to the NCAA tournament cut line. That wouldn’t seem to bode well for the Tigers’ chances of a deep run in the Big Dance, even with the presence of superstar freshman Jabari Smith and elite rim protector Walker Kessler up front.
Much of Auburn’s struggles away from home can be attributed to the volatility of guards Wendell Green Jr. and K.D. Johnson. In those seven road/neutral games, Green is shooting a paltry 29% from the field, and Johnson is not much better at 34%. It’s hard to win in March without good guard play, and it’s hard to know you can count on Green and Johnson away from home right now.
The draw actually sets up relatively well for the Tigers, taking on Jacksonville State in a first-round game before getting the winner of USC and Miami in the second round. Miami’s elite backcourt could cause some problems for the Tigers in a potential round of 32 showdown.
Baylor (No. 1 seed, East Region)
Among the four teams on the top seed line, the Bears have the best chance of an early tournament exit. A big reason for that is health: Without injured Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and LJ Cryer, this Baylor club is severely short on depth. In addition to being a high-level rim protector and efficient scorer around the rim, Tchamwa Tchatchoua was one of the team’s emotional leaders and a guy with Final Four experience from last year’s championship run. Meanwhile, Cryer was the team’s top shooter and a key cog in the Bears’ backcourt but is sidelined indefinitely with a foot injury. Without those two, Baylor has essentially a six-man rotation with guard Dale Bonner as a seventh. Bonner has played more minutes since Cryer went down but shoots just 34% from the field and 18% from three on the season.
Among the many things that allowed the Bears to win it all a season ago was their elite guard play. James Akinjo is far more volatile a player than the likes of Davion Mitchell or Jared Butler and has struggled at times with inefficiency and turnovers in his first season in Waco. The ball being in Akinjo’s hands as much as it has been lately may not be the best recipe for success for the Bears in the Big Dance.
Plus, Baylor has the toughest draw of the No. 1 seeds. A second-round matchup with North Carolina or Marquette wouldn’t be easy, as both teams have star power and have beaten a top-two seed in the regular season. And should the Bears advance from there, their path to the Final Four could require wins over UCLA and Kentucky.
Illinois (No. 4 seed, South Region)
There’s no denying that the Illini got a brutal draw in last year’s Big Dance by having to play a tremendous Loyola Chicago team in the second round. This year’s draw may be slightly more forgiving, but it’s still quite a tricky road to the Sweet 16 for Brad Underwood’s team.
First round opponent Chattanooga is one of the few mid-majors in the country equipped to deal with the Illini’s tremendous size. The luxury of having a top-50 recruit at center in Silvio De Sousa to try to slow down Kofi Cockburn can’t be overstated—few players have the physical gifts of Cockburn, but at 6’9″ and 250 pounds, an athletically gifted De Sousa can at least put up some resistance. The Mocs also have big, physical guards like Malachi Smith and Darius Banks, who match up well with a high-major team, and Smith is one of the more dynamic players in the sport. Plus, a potential second-round matchup with Houston or UAB would be far from a breeze considering how athletic and well-coached both clubs are.
The other concern with Illinois is sophomore point guard Andre Curbelo. At his best, Curbelo is one of the most dynamic and creative passers in the sport and the type of player that can win you a game or two in March. But Curbelo is also extremely inconsistent, struggling with poor decision-making and turnovers in big moments. It’s just hard to trust Curbelo with the ball in his hands late in games at this point, but without him the team’s depth at guard rapidly deteriorates.
More March Madness Coverage:
• SI’s Experts Fill Out Their Tourney Brackets
• Ranking the 2022 Cinderella Candidates
• Men’s Bracket Breakdown: A Region-by-Region Guide