Early in the season Villanova was hyped as a candidate for a #1 seeding in this year's NCAA tournament. After one of the worst Februaries in recent memory, however, many of us were praying for a #3 seed (and worrying that we could drop to a #4 or worse).
Some fans and commentators have speculated that the NCAA may have created this bracket to give Duke the easiest possible ride to the Final Four, and perhaps a national title. Not many people would look at the bracket and claim that the South Region is the most difficult, or even comparatively difficult at all. Don't let that fool you though, it won't be a cakewalk for anyone.
So what's the deal with the South? The region is home to three Big East schools. In addition to Villanova, both Louisville and Notre Dame could potentially make their way to Houston for a mini-Big East Tournament. Beyond that, the other major conference schools challenging Villanova for a spot in the Final Four are 1-seed Duke, 3-seed Baylor, 4-seed Purdue, 5-seed Texas A&M and 8-seed California.
It would be an unlikely upset for the Wildcats to fail to advance to the round of 32. Robert Morris could have just as easily been a 16-seed this year. Not that a 16 seed can't give a higher seed trouble, in 2006 Villanova was given a game by another NEC conference champion in a first round game that the 'Cats ultimately won comfortably.
While Ken Pomeroy's ratings are hardly the only consideration in predicting wins and losses, but since the ratings are designed specifically for that purpose, it makes sense to take a look. The Wildcats are rated 15th in his rankings with the 8th best offense and 62nd best defense. Three teams in the South Region are rated higher: 4-seed Purdue, ranked 13th, 3-seed Baylor, ranked 12th, and 1-seed Duke, ranked first overall.
Purdue, however, can be largely eliminated from this conversation. They haven't been the same team without their star, Robbie Hummel. Purdue would have to get past Duke, and perhaps California, without their best player. A tough task that would require a much better showing than their last game against Minnesota.
There is a good chance, however, that Villanova could be paired with Baylor in the Sweet 16. Baylor lost twice to K-State, at Kansas, at Texas A&M, and at home against Alabama. Two of those teams, Texas A&M (23rd) and Alabama (64th) are rated below Villanova by Pomeroy, though both have higher-rated defensive efficiency (not by much on the part of the Tide, however).
Baylor hasn't seen very many teams that are as effective offensively as Villanova, however. Only two Big 12 teams finished in Pomeroy's top-20 for offensive efficiency. In fact, nobody in the South Region has played opponents with more offensive ability than the Wildcats (who rank 7th overall in opponent offense).
Villanova's other big challenger in the region will be Duke, who they could meet in the Elite Eight (unless the Blue Devils are knocked off earlier). We all remember what happened in that matchup last year, but this year's Duke team includes two freshman (Mason Plumlee and Andre Dawkins) in its rotation. It is also a Duke team that won't be starting Gerald Henderson or Elliot Williams, and one that doesn't have Greg Paulus on it's bench. Has that changed the nature of Coach K's team? We may get a chance to find out.
Villanova is also different this year, however. From the 15th-best defense in the country to #62, the 'Cats have lost some intensity since last year that they will need to find again to get back on top. While Villanova has dropped off on the defensive end this year, Duke has improved its efficiency on both sides of the ball. Nevertheless, Duke is one of the more inconsistent teams (according to Pomeroy, again) in the South bracket (and Baylor one of the least) and that may work to Villanova's advantage.
In short: If your bracket doesn't have Villanova in the Sweet 16, you can expect to drop a few points. The 'Cats have an easy path to get that far, but to win the last four games it is going to take the best effort of the season for Villanova.