Something that makes the NCAA Tournament so enjoyable to watch is the sheer fact that the road to the Final Four for all 68 teams in the tournament’s field is filled with challenges and obstacles. No matter if you’re the best team or the worst, in each game, you are bound to get the opposition’s best shot.
Even though the road is easier for some (the top seeds) than others (the 16-seeds), you never know what can happen when you put two teams that are unfamiliar with each other on the same court. That’s why March has brought us so many crazy upsets in the past. Despite the fact that no road to Houston is “easy,” the top seeds in the bracket certainly have a less challenging path than the other 60 teams in the field.
With that being said, we broke down the top eight easiest paths to the Final Four (which belong to the top eight seeds in the tournament) to see which team had the easiest based off of combined RPI rank of their projected opponents — we used RPI to determine the winner of every tournament game, which forced each team to face opponents with the lowest possible RPI rank in each round.
8. Michigan State
Opponents’ Combined RPI rank: 108
Among the top eight seeds in the tournament, the Michigan State Spartans have the hardest potential schedule to get to Houston and the Final Four. That’s because their round of 64 opponent (15-seed Middle Tennessee) in the Midwest region has the lowest RPI rank among the 15-seeds (76). Furthermore, the Spartans potential second-round opponent, Dayton, has a solid RPI rank of 20 (lower than any other seven-seed) and their projected Sweet 16 opponent, Utah, has the second lowest RPI rank among three-seeds in the tournament.
Basically, this means that Michigan State could play the most difficult 15-seed, the most difficult seven-seed, and the second-most difficult three-seed before potentially playing Virginia in the Elite 8. Pretty crazy that the Spartans got this draw despite owning a No. 2 ranking in the AP Poll.
Opponents’ Combined RPI rank: 163
In 2015-16, the Xavier Musketeers had one of their best seasons in program history, winning 27 games and capturing a two-seed in the East region of the Big Dance. Their potential tournament road — by RPI rank — is much easier than the Spartans, but it’s still filled with potential losses. With an RPI rank of 108, Weber State should be a walkover in their opening-round game, but things get much more difficult with a potential game against Wisconsin in round two (ranked No. 40 in RPI, the highest rank among seven-seeds).
Then, in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8, the Musketeers have projected games first against a great West Virginia team (No. 10 in RPI) and then top seed North Carolina (No. 5). With the Musketeers’ difficult road despite such a high seed, it’s clear that the East might be the most difficult region in the entire tournament.
Opponents’ Combined RPI rank: 173
The Sooners were in contention for a one-seed for much of the season, but a few losses down the stretch pushed them back to the two-seed line. With that, they own the third most difficult schedule among the top eight seeds in the tournament. A round of 64 contest against tournament newcomer Cal-State Bakersfield (No. 124 in RPI) shouldn’t be much of a challenge, but things ramp up for Oklahoma following that one.
The round of 32 could bring Oregon State (No. 29 RPI rank) before weekend two would bring potential matches against Texas A&M (No. 18 in RPI) and top seed Oregon (No. 2). They have one of the easier roads in the field, but plenty of games could still trip up Oklahoma as they seek the Final Four — although, dominant senior Buddy Hield gives them a little bit of an extra edge.
Opponents’ Combined RPI rank: 176
The Wildcats were the class of the Big East this season and nearly earned a one-seed, but instead they had to settle for what is actually the easiest Final Four paths among the two-seeds in this year’s tournament. The opener matches the Wildcats against UNC Asheville (with an RPI rank of 139, the highest among 15-seeds).
Things will get much more difficult for Villanova following that game, as the round of 32 could bring Iowa (No. 28 in RPI), the Sweet 16 could bring Miami (No. 8), and then the Elite 8 might bring the Kansas Jayhawks and their No. 1 RPI ranking. So, while the combined RPI rank indicates that Nova has the “easiest” schedule among the two-seeds, when you look at their potential matchups, that’s a tough claim to support.
Opponents’ Combined RPI rank: 217
The Cavaliers earned the one-seed out in the Midwest region, largely thanks to their impressive RPI rank of No. 3. However, their schedule will be anything but a cake walk. After an opening-round game against Hampton (No. 160 in RPI), Virginia could get a solid Texas Tech team (No. 34) — which beat several of the top teams in the Big 12 this season — in round two.
Then, in the Sweet 16, the Cavs would likely get Purdue (who has a lower RPI rank of 14 than four-seed Iowa State in the Midwest) before an Elite 8 match could bring either two-seed Michigan State (RPI rank of 11) or three-seed Utah (RPI rank of nine). Clearly, the selection committee did Virginia no favors by putting them in the region with several tough teams, as they own the most difficult Final Four path among the one-seeds.
Opponents’ Combined RPI rank: 234
The Ducks “flew” out of nowhere (sort of) this season to win the Pac-12 and capture the first one-seed in the history of their program. They’ll play in the West region and take on one of the more difficult roads to the Final Four among any of the top seeds. An opening-round game against 16-seed Southern or Holy Cross (for the sake of this article, we said Southern would advance thanks to their lower RPI rank) shouldn’t provide any difficulties.
However, in their second-round game, the Ducks could get matched up with the most difficult eight-seed in the field, Saint Joseph’s (No. 23 in RPI). If the Ducks advance, they would be projected to get Duke in the Sweet 16 (No. 19) and Oklahoma in the Elite 8 (No. 6 and the second best two-seed according to RPI). If the Ducks want to make it to their first Final Four since 1939, they’ll have to survive a difficult road in the West.
Opponents’ Combined RPI rank: 243
The Jayhawks have the best RPI rank in the country, but that did not grant them the easiest road to the Final Four. Austin Peay (16-seed) and their RPI rank of 188 won’t be a challenge for the top team in the nation in the round of 64. With Kansas likely advancing, RPI would project them to play against eight-seed Colorado, with the second highest RPI rank among eight-seeds.
The Sweet 16 would likely face the Jayhawks off with four-seed Cal (No. 16 in RPI) before the Elite 8 could bring Villanova (No. 4). By those measures, the Jayhawks could get the second easiest eight-seed, the second easiest four-seed, and the most difficult two-seed. Judging by their recent tournament shortcomings, Kansas is unlikely to overlook anybody.
1. North Carolina
Opponents’ Combined RPI rank: 274
North Carolina, the team with the highest RPI rank among one-seeds at No. 5, has the easiest projected road to Houston in the entire NCAA Tournament. In large part, that is thanks to the fact that they will be matched up with 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast — who won their First Four game on Tuesday — in their round of 64 game in the East region, who own are ranked No. 217 in RPI (the second highest rank in the tournament).
After they face off against the Eagles, things will get much tougher for the Tar Heels. The round of 32 projects a matchup against Providence, the nine-seed in the East with an RPI rank at No. 38. Then, in the Sweet 16, UNC could get a difficult contest against Kentucky (No. 12 in RPI).
If they get past the Wildcats, the Tar Heels could face Xavier and their No. 7 RPI in the Elite 8. So, while the combined RPI rank suggests the Tar Heels have the easiest path, after the first weekend they would face the most difficult four-seed and a capable two-seed in Xavier. Therefore, things aren’t as easy as the numbers might indicate.