It’s as time-honored a March tradition as filling out a bracket.
Once the NCAA tournament pairings are released on Sunday evening, sixty-eight coaches will shower their first-round opponent with enough praise that you would think they had each drawn the ’96 Bulls or the Showtime-era Lakers.
The coaches who draw the four teams listed below may have a tougher time than usual pulling off that act. One of these teams is dealing with a key injury. The others are merely just struggling. Each haven’t played well enough recently to suggest they’re destined for a long stay in the NCAA tournament.
ARIZONA STATE | 20-11, 8-10 | Projected seed: No. 11
When Arizona State began Pac-12 play two months ago, the Sun Devils appeared to be in the midst of a once-in-a-generation season. They owned an undefeated record, a No. 3 ranking in the AP poll and marquee wins over Kansas and Xavier.
It’s easy to forget how high Arizona State climbed because of how far the Sun Devils have since fallen. They crashed out of the Pac-12 tournament on the opening day after finishing below .500 in easily the worst of the six power conferences.
Arizona State is not assured of making the NCAA tournament, but the Sun Devils still have a pretty strong season-long resume compared to other teams on the bubble. They counteract some bad losses in league play with two wins away from home over potential No. 1 seeds and other notable victories against Kansas State, USC, UCLA and Utah.
But even if Arizona State does snatch one of the final at-large bids, don’t expect the Sun Devils to advance beyond the opening round. A lack of size or rim protection inside has enabled Arizona State’s opponents to score with ease in the paint and to gobble up offensive boards. The guard-heavy Sun Devils made up for that with their own scoring brilliance early in the season, but leading scorers Tra Holder and Shannon Evans are both shooting under 39 percent from the field since league play began and top big man Romello White has not been nearly as effective either.
AUBURN | 25-6, 13-5 | Projected seed: No. 3
If you have to encounter a top-four seed during the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, Auburn may be the one you want to draw. The Tigers dropped three of their last five games entering the SEC tournament and are perilously thin in the frontcourt.
Auburn was already without projected starters Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy due to season-long suspensions stemming from the FBI investigation. Then the Tigers lost standout shot blocker Anfernee McLemore to a season-ending injury midway through a February 17 loss to South Carolina.
McLemore’s injury makes Auburn more vulnerable against opponents who can attack the rim off the dribble or pound the offensive glass. An opponent who can slow the pace and take advantage of those weaknesses could give Auburn problems as long as they’re poised enough to handle the Tigers’ trademark defensive pressure.
Auburn’s lethal backcourt of speedy point guard Jared Harper, sharpshooting Bryce Brown and high-scoring Mustapha Heron will be a load for any team to handle, but the Tigers can sometimes be too 3-point reliant and they have no NCAA tournament experience on their roster. Ultimately, there are enough red flags with Auburn to give an underdog hope.
OHIO STATE | 24-8, 15-3 | Projected seed: No. 5
The lingering question after Ohio State’s third loss of the season against Penn State is what the outcome says about the Buckeyes. Are the big, athletic Nittany Lions merely just a nightmare matchup for Ohio State? Or are the Buckeyes enduring some late-season regression after exceeding expectations for months?
Ohio State can take solace that Penn State won’t be loaning noted Buckeyes killer Tony Carr to any No. 11 or 12 seeds, but Chris Holtmann’s team still could be vulnerable to an NCAA tournament upset. Not only does Ohio State play at a methodical pace that tends to favor an underdog, the Buckeyes also don’t sink or attempt many 3-pointers.
Big Ten player of the year Keita Bates-Diop is a tough shot specialist, slashing guard Jae’Sean Tate gets downhill and attacks the rim and center Kaleb Wesson excels with his back to the basket. When an opposing defense clogs the paint, it can be tough for the Buckeyes to space the floor unless C.J. Jackson and Kam Williams shoot well from the perimeter.
Ohio State ended the season with three losses in its final five games and now is in the midst of a 21-day stretch in which it will play only once. An upset-minded 12 seed could do a lot worse than drawing the Buckeyes in the round of 64.
OKLAHOMA | 19-13, 8-10 | Projected seed: No. 10
The most stunning part of Oklahoma’s second-half collapse was the speed at which it happened. In the two months since their Trae Young-fueled ascent to No. 4 in the AP poll, the Sooners have dropped 11 of 15 games and fallen all the way to the bubble.
Oklahoma is likely to receive one of the last available at-large bids because its season-long resume is better than almost every other bubble team. Not only do the Sooners boast marquee victories over Kansas, Wichita State, Texas Tech, USC and TCU, they also have only lost one game against a non-NCAA tournament contender.
But while Oklahoma’s resume is NCAA tournament-caliber, its team for two months has not even been close. Overburdened as a result of Oklahoma’s lack of other shot creators, Young has rocketed back to earth as opponents opponents have face-guarded him or sent double and triple teams at him in an effort to force him to give up the ball. Young’s downtick in efficiency and his teammates’ inability to step up has proven fatal to a Sooners team whose defense has been suspect since the season began.
The team that draws Oklahoma as its opening-round NCAA tournament opponent would be wise to follow the blueprint that Big 12 opponents have used. The Sooners haven’t won a game away from home since late-December. There’s little reason to believe they will again.
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