NCAA Basketball: Houston at Memphis

The 2023 NCAA Tournament is finally upon us, and debate is raging in the final days leading up to the first-round action over how the bracket shapes up. Ultimately, the twists and turns of the event end up creating unforeseen matchups, and a single upset can open the door for utter chaos in a given region.

But until the ball is tipped, it's impossible to know who is going to get the breaks that will help facilitate a deep run. As things stand ahead of Thursday's action as the first round commences, the best we can do is look at the bracket and see whose path looks the easiest and whose looks most difficult.

In the West Region, for example, a potential Sweet 16 matchup with No. 4 seed UConn looks like it could be tough for No. 1 seed Kansas. But what if No. 13 seed Iona becomes the darling of the Big Dance, knocks off the Huskies and reaches the Sweet 16? The Jayhawks would match up quite favorably against the Gaels, and their path to the Final Four would all of the sudden become easier.

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Never say never. But while we wait for the hypotheticals to play out, here is a look at some of the easiest and toughest potential paths in the 2023 NCAA Tournament as things stand before the chaos.

Easiest paths

(1) Houston

The Cougars are on track to face either Iowa or Auburn in the second round. Neither should inspire fear. The Hawkeyes aren't tough enough to hang with Houston, which rebounds and defends in a ferocious manner. Auburn is a poor 3-point shooting team that is far less talented inside than it was last season when Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler were on the roster. The Tigers' only logical approach against Houston would be to muck the game up with pressure and tempo. That wouldn't bother Houston.

Once the Sweet 16 rolls around, No. 5 seed Miami is a potential opponent, but the Hurricanes are dealing with some uncertainty surrounding the health of Norchad Omier, who is the biggest player in a small starting lineup. While Houston has a health concern of its own entering the NCAA Tournament following the groin injury that AAC Player of the Year Marcus Sasser suffered in the conference tournament, the Cougars are better-positioned to withstand it. A potential Sweet 16 matchup with Indiana would be challenging, but handling Houston's defense would a be a tough task for Hoosiers freshman guard Jalen Hood-Schifino.

(1) Alabama

The No. 2 seed in Alabama's South Region is Arizona, and the Wildcats have proven upset-prone this season. They also aren't nearly as athletic as the Crimson Tide. The No. 3 seed is Baylor, which is 2-4 entering the NCAA Tournament and surprisingly weak defensively. Lastly, No. 4 seed Virginia, suffered three February losses against teams that didn't even reach the Big Dance.

While a second-round matchup with either Maryland or West Virginia could get dicey, there is little else in this region that should frighten Alabama. In fact, it wouldn't be shocking if Bama's Sweet 16 opponent turns out to be No. 12 seed Charleston or No. 13 seed Furman. Both are among the top upset picks in the first round.

(5) Duke

This one is a bit less obvious, at first glance, but Oral Roberts isn't going to surprise the Blue Devils after taking down Ohio State and reaching the Sweet 16 in 2021. The only time ORU played a team with Duke's caliber of athletes this season, it lost 83-45 at Houston on Nov. 14. Then comes a potential matchup against No. 4 seed Tennessee in the second round. 

The Volunteers are just 5-7 over their last 12 games and lost starting point guard Zakai Zeigler for the season during that span. If UT even gets past No. 13 seed Louisiana, it likely won't have the offensive firepower to hang with a Duke team that has won nine straight entering the Big Dance. Finally, a potential Sweet 16 matchup with Purdue would pit the Blue Devils against the bracket's most vulnerable No. 1 seed. If Purdue escapes the first weekend, which is no guarantee, 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey would be challenged by Duke's pair of 7-footers.

Hardest paths

(1) Purdue

  • First round: vs. (16) Fairleigh Dickinson/Texas Southern
  • Second-round possible opponents: (8) Memphis vs. (9) Florida Atlantic winner
  • Sweet 16 possible opponents: (4) Tennessee | (5) Duke | (12) Oral Roberts | (13) Louisiana

The Boilermakers shouldn't have any problem with their first-round opponent, but the second-round game will be a different story. You'll be hard-pressed to find any flaws in No. 9 seed FAU, and No. 8 seed Memphis is exactly the type of team that can send Purdue to an early exit. The Tigers like to force turnovers with intense pressure and have one of the top guards in this tournament in senior leader Kendric Davis. They would be a tough matchup for Purdue's young backcourt.

As for the Sweet 16, a game with Tennessee would almost certainly be a low-scoring brawl decided by one or two possessions. And, as mentioned above, Duke is red-hot entering the tournament and has two 7-footers it can throw at Edey. The Boilermakers have had a great season, but this is a rough draw.

(1) Kansas

After landing one of the easiest paths of the 2022 NCAA Tournament bracket and riding it to a national title, the Jayhawks are facing some karma this time around. Both Arkansas and Illinois are talented enough to beat KU in the second round, though both are wildly inconsistent. Then, in the Sweet 16, the Jayhawks could face UConn. The Huskies are back to playing excellent basketball after spending five weeks in the top five of the AP Top 25 poll earlier this season. 

Projecting opponents beyond the Sweet 16 is a crapshoot, but one of them could be No. 3 seed Gonzaga, which has the experience and talent to beat anyone in the field.

(2) UCLA

  • First round: vs. (15) UNC Asheville
  • Second-round possible opponents: (7) Northwestern vs. (10) Boise State winner
  • Sweet 16 possible opponents: (3) Gonzaga | (6) TCU | (11) Arizona State/Nevada | (14) Grand Canyon

In the bottom half of the West Region featuring No. 1 seed Kansas are the No. 2 seed Bruins. Their first-round game against UNC Asheville is no pushover as the Bulldogs boast one of the game's top unknown talents in 6-10 forward Drew Pember. He can hit 3-pointers, block shots and score from all over the floor. He's also surrounded by quality 3-point shooters.

Up next would be a potential matchup with a Northwestern team that beat Indiana twice and Purdue once this season. From there, it stands to reason that No. 3 seed Gonzaga could actually be favored against the Bruins in a potential Sweet 16 matchup, especially if UCLA starting center Adem Bona is limited or out due to a shoulder injury he suffered in the Pac-12 Tournament. The Bruins are already without star defender Jaylen Clark for the tournament due to injury, and Bona's setback merely adds a layer of complication to a tough draw.