Before we get going, I have to emphasize to you just how difficult it was to make this list. When I started, Xavier was 14th and Northern Iowa was ninth. I'm basing my rankings on not just two games of tournament play but also what these teams have shown all season; it's a combo platter of how good you play when it matters most and still respecting the body of work. I've also taken into account injuries and which teams played which others to get to the Sweet 16.
1) Kentucky. Beat Wake Forest and East Tennessee State by a combined 59 points. That's the Kentucky we all know and remember. The 'Cats used to do this in the first weekend nearly every year for the better part of a decade. No one's really talking about UK right now because of all the other story lines, but you can believe me: No other team looked as impressive in two games as this one. With Kansas gone, John Calipari's team is the favorite because it has John Wall, the dynamic point guard, and DeMarcus Cousins, fellow lottery pick and more unstoppable in the post than any player left in this field.
2) Syracuse. The Orange, still without Arinze Onuaku (and we don't know if he's going to play this weekend), looked ridiculously efficient sans their big man in the first two games. Everyone's now talking an SU-UK title game (which would be a reset of the 1996 final). That's all fine and dandy, but we can't have amnesia about what, you know, just happened to Kansas on Saturday night. Who's to say Butler can't shoot its way past Syracuse?
Still, SU ran its offense nearly as efficiently as another central-New York team that's getting even more ink -- Cornell. Wes Johnson scored a season-best 31 points against Gonzaga and quickly reminded us just how easily he can take over a game.
3) Ohio State. The Buckeyes flew under the radar, but they're now top dog in the Midwest since Kansas was booted. Evan Turner is on his way to collecting, most likely, every player of the year award given out this season (there are a ridiculous six of them). The Buckeyes are said to lack depth and don't have the bench to make a deep run. Fortunately, everyone left in the Midwest is in the same boat.
4) Duke. Sneaky domination by the Blue Devils on Friday and Sunday. Cal tried to hang but couldn't solve the size (yes, the size of Duke) issue. The good news: Duke avoided a first-weekend exit. The bad: It must reach the Final Four to avoid criticism. If it gets past a wounded Purdue team, it could face Baylor in the regional finals. A virtual home game for the Bears, Duke will receive no sympathy but still be criticized if it can't get out of this weak region. Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer didn't have to carry the team in rounds one or two, but that changes come Friday night.
5) Kansas State. The Wildcats rely on Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente to get it done on the offensive end while the defense tries to cup its hand over the mouth of every opponent. Did you see what K-State did to Brigham Young? The Cougars were mis-seeded as a 7, but Frank Martin's team didn't make it look that way. Jimmer Fredette, who went for 37 in BYU's first round game, was an absolute non-factor thanks to the stifling D of Kansas State. In a weekend of definitive performances, we can't overlook just how good the Wildcats were. And if Pullen continues to hit six or more 3-pointers per game, this team will be a serious-as-a-third-degree-burn threat to win it all.
6) West Virginia. The Mountaineers were able to handle Missouri's press well and didn't need any more game-winning shots from Da'Sean Butler to get this far. Bob Huggins hasn't always been a shoo-in for the second weekend, so it was refreshing to see his talented team not fall short of expectations. Just keep the ball out of Devin Ebanks' hands in the final minute; dude can't make a play to save his team's life.
7) Baylor. The Bears got a scare from Old Dominion in a game most people didn't see because of the Kansas-Northern Iowa drama. If you're still unfamiliar with Baylor, know this: If you took all the teams left in this field and asked them to play a game of football, soccer, baseball, Baylor's squad would be the most successful one. Tons of terrific athletes and a confidence level that's not been existent at this school in years and years. Bears haven't gotten this far in the NCAAs since, oh, 1950.
8) Butler. The story line to follow with this team is that it's based out of Indianapolis. That just so happens to be where the Final Four is. If Butler manages to beat Syracuse -- and it most certainly can -- then the little factoid above will really start to spread. Why Butler makes the top half of our list: dynamic play. This team can hit from outside with ridiculous efficiency but also has crafty big men in future pro Gordon Hayward and solid-but-foul-prone Matt Howard. Syracuse's Onuaku will be needed more against Butler than any other opponent in the field except Kentucky.
9) Xavier. There they are again, those Musketeers. X made the Sweet 16 last year and was in the Elite Eight the year before. What this game has that it's lacked ever since Lionel Chalmers took it to the Elite Eight in 2004 is a playmaking stud that could start for almost any team in the country. That's Jordan Crawford, who hasn't had his level of play go down a millimeter since the tournament began.
10) Cornell. When you watch Cornell is there any doubt this team passes the ball better than all the other teams in the field? It finds those passing lanes and makes it look so efficient while doing so you're almost baffled as to why other teams can't make it look that good. Of course, that passing has helped the Big Red to shoot better than 55 percent from the field in two games. Cornell is scary right now. As was posted on the Dagger Sunday, this team embraced the heavy expectations and played as though it had nothing to lose. The trendy saying going around this morning for the Kentucky game is "brains vs. ballers." If you saw Cornell play, it's more than just brains, folks.
11) Tennessee. Volunteers could be higher, but they haven't had to go against an opponent that is on its level yet. San Diego State was a good team, and I credit coach Bruce Pearl for getting out of that tight squeeze in the first round (something that didn't happen last year). I'm aware UT beat Kansas and Kentucky this season, but I think if you asked Pearl if he'd be satisfied with a Sweet 16 season after all that's gone on this year, he'd say yes.
12) Purdue. Boilermakers have played terrifically and been underdogs, despite their 4-seed, in both of their games. They won't be the favorite again against Duke. A rich man's Northern Iowa is this Purdue team. How ironic that a man known for his defense, Chris Kramer, was the one who made the game-winning layup to beat Texas A&M. This team is NOT better without Robbie Hummel, though, and we suspect that will catch up to them on Friday night.
13) Michigan State. There's Tom Izzo, hanging out in the Sweet 16 yet again. Korie Lucious' vicious shot to send Maryland home was redemption for so many of his turnovers on Sunday. But now that Kalin Lucas is most likely done for the year with an Achilles injury, MSU's just not the same team. Fortunately, Sparty gets to play a team we think is just BARELY below it in the power rankings.
14) Northern Iowa. Who is the Cinderella this year? Cornell? These guys? Saint Mary's, which we have listed below? Ali Farokhmanesh is a name everybody's learned how to spell correctly, and let's all be thankful for that. Just because Northern Iowa knocked off Kansas doesn't mean it's suddenly in the top half of the field of teams left. But this is a team that was ranked during the season and gets points from all over the floor. Can it beat Michigan State? Absolutely. And similar to our thinking a few sentences back, just because we put it below MSU doesn't mean it can't win in a big way come this weekend.
15) Washington. There is no team that is more forgotten right now than the Huskies, who are pulling the Pac-10 weight and reputation with them. If you forgot they were involved in this tournament we will forgive you. A refresher: they defeated No. 6 Marquette in the final seconds and then bowled over No. 3 New Mexico. They are riding a nine-game winning streak and finally showing consistency -- something that eluded them for the first three months of the season.
16) Saint Mary's. Omar Saman. Micky McConnell. Matthew Dellavedova. Clint Steindl. We can't get enough of these names or these characters. Doesn't matter if Saint Mary's beats Baylor or not -- these guys are fun, enjoying the moment and probably the best quotes left in the tournament. And they're good. You think college basketball's talent is down? The Gaels are a good, good team that made stumbling Villanova look like it hadn't practiced in two weeks.
- Northern Iowa