St. John's v Connecticut
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In the East Region of the 2024 NCAA Tournament bracket, UConn -- and everyone else, for that matter -- faces a long road to reach the Final Four. Not only does the region include the reigning national champions and No. 1 overall seed Huskies, but each of the top four seeds are coming off major conference tournament titles. 

No. 2 seed Iowa State throttled an elite Houston team in the Big 12 Tournament championship yet somehow ended up as the fourth No. 2 seed in the 68- team bracket. No. 3 seed Illinois hasn't lost to anyone not named Purdue in a month and just won the Big Ten Tournament. No. 4 seed Auburn won the SEC Tournament. The list continues with No. 5 seed San Diego State, which should be feared after reaching last year's national title game. Oh, and No. 8 seed FAU returned most of the key players as well as coach Dusty May from a 2023 Final Four run.

So, it's no surprise that UConn's path is among the hardest listed here for anyone in the 68-team field. Suffice it to say, the "tough path" label applies to everyone in the East Region. But we also identified some easy/tough paths for other top contenders in the 2024 NCAA Tournament bracket. 

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 the action, the best we can do is look at the bracket and see whose path looks the easiest and whose looks most difficult.

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Easiest paths

(1) North Carolina

Assuming North Carolina doesn't become the third No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament history to falter against a No. 16 seed, it will play in a relatively favorable second-round matchup against either Mississippi State or Michigan State. Both teams are prone to offensive lulls, and UNC's improved defense is good enough to keep either potential opponent from going on a game-changing run. The Tar Heels will also have an obvious fan advantage with the game being played in Charlotte, North Carolina.

No. 4 seed Alabama is a potential Sweet 16 opponent, but the Crimson Tide are limping into the NCAA Tournament with four losses in their last six games. Alabama allowed 100 or more points in three of those losses and could get picked off on the first weekend. No. 5 seed Saint Mary's has been playing well but would struggle to match up with UNC's high-level talent. Potential Elite Eight opponents in No. 2 seed Arizona and No. 3 seed Baylor have been wildly erratic this season and aren't among the most-feared teams on their respective seed lines.

(1) Purdue

Purdue's 7-foot-4 star center Zach Edey is well-equipped to negate the impact of Utah State's star center, Great Osobor, in a potential second-round game. The Boilermakers' other potential opponent on Sunday is a TCU squad that hasn't beaten an NCAA Tournament team since Jan. 30.

From there, it's plausible that the Boilermakers would face a double-digit seed in the Sweet 16. If not, it will be either Kansas or Gonzaga. Both are big-name programs, but neither should be feared. KU is hobbled and lacks depth, while Purdue already beat Gonzaga 73-63 on a neutral floor in November. Tennessee or Creighton might await in the Elite Eight, but the Boilermakers already defeated Tennessee on Nov. 21. Creighton could be a tough matchup with 7-foot-1 center Ryan Kalkbrenner. But, on the whole, this is a manageable path to redemption for a Purdue team that lost to No. 16 seed FDU in last year's first round.

(2) Arizona

Arizona opens with a Long Beach State team that made a surprise run through the Big West Tournament after losing its final five regular-season games. Given the Wildcats fell against No. 15 seed Princeton in last year's first round, they should be locked in and have no trouble this time. From there, it'll either be Dayton or Nevada, both of which may struggle to keep up with Arizona's rapid offensive pace.

Baylor could be a challenging foe in the Sweet 16, but the Bears would struggle to hold Arizona below 80 points. The Bears are talented but have been erratic this season because of their defense. Could we get a matchup between Arizona star guard Caleb Love and his former team, North Carolina, in the Elite Eight?

Hardest paths

(1) UConn

  • First round: vs. (16) Stetson
  • Second-round possible opponents: (8) FAU vs. (9) Northwestern winner
  • Sweet 16 possible opponents: (4) Auburn | (5) San Diego State | (12) UAB | (13) Yale 

If anyone is built to handle the rigors of the East Region, it's UConn. The reigning national champions have won 21 of their last 22 games and are the bracket's No. 1 overall seed. But if they are going to become college basketball's first repeat national champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007, the Huskies will have earned it. First-round opponent Stetson shouldn't be too much trouble, but the Hatters are a rare No. 16 seed with a Big 12 road victory on their resume after winning at UCF in November.

Potential second-round opponent FAU returned nearly every key contributor from its 2023 Final Four run and is gearing up for another deep dance. Then, a 2023 national title game rematch could be in store with San Diego State in the Sweet 16. If not the Aztecs, then it would likely be SEC Tournament champion Auburn awaiting the Huskies. Potential Elite Eight opponents include Big 12 Tournament champion Iowa State and Big Ten Tournament champion Illinois. UConn is playing well enough to handle it, but the East Region is no joke.

(1) Houston

If Houston beats Longwood, it will either face a Nebraska team that is likely to have a large traveling party in Memphis full of fans hoping to see the Cornhuskers' first-ever NCAA Tournament victory, or it will play a Texas A&M team with potential far beyond that of a typical No. 9 seed. The Aggies beat Kentucky in the SEC Tournament and have a gritty, rugged and offensively capable group of guards led by veterans Wade Taylor and Tyrece Radford.

A potential Sweet 16 opponent for Houston is a Duke team that is arguably the most talented in college basketball. The Blue Devils would have to up their physicality to hang with Houston, but they are the most dangerous of the No. 4 seeds in this year's NCAA Tournament and not a team that any No. 1 seed wants to see in the Sweet 16.

(2) Marquette

  • First round: vs. (15) Western Kentucky
  • Second-round possible opponents: (7) Florida vs. (10) Boise State/Colorado winner
  • Sweet 16 possible opponents: (3) Kentucky | (6) Texas Tech | (11) NC State | (14) Oakland 

Marquette faces Conference USA Tournament champion Western Kentucky in the first round. C-USA produced a Final Four team last season (FAU), and its 2021 tournament champion (North Texas) beat Purdue in a first-round game as a No. 13 seed. Assuming the Golden Eagles beat the Hilltoppers, they'll face either Florida, Boise State or Colorado. All three are dangerous, especially Florida. The Gators beat Kentucky, Auburn and Alabama (twice) this season and have steadily improved over the course of coach Todd Golden's second season.

A potential Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky isn't something that sounds pleasant, either. The Wildcats are loaded offensively and can keep up with just about anyone, including Marquette. Texas Tech would be a tough out in the regional semifinals as well if the Red Raiders were able to advance.

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