March Madness: Ranking the Sweet 16 from Alabama to Princeton
The most notable part of this year’s Sweet 16 might be how many of men’s college basketball’s perennial juggernauts aren’t part of it.
Reigning champ Kansas failed to survive the opening weekend. So did Kentucky, Duke, Baylor and Indiana. Other big brands didn’t even make the field of 68. North Carolina was among the first teams left out. Villanova, Florida and Syracuse weren’t even on the fringes of the bubble. Louisville lost 28 games.
Their absence means the 2023 NCAA tournament will crown a first-time champion if Michigan State, UConn, UCLA or Arkansas doesn’t win. Those are the only four previous champs still in contention. Only Michigan State and UConn have captured a title in the past quarter century.
And yet while there’s more new blood than blue bloods in this year’s Sweet 16, that doesn’t mean the field is unusually wacky. Princeton is the lone double-digit seed to advance to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. Of the four non-power-conference programs joining the Tigers, only Florida Atlantic is another true mid-major.
So get ready for a Sweet 16 that includes many of college basketball’s top teams this season but not so many of its recent champions. Here’s a look at how I’d rank the 16 remaining NCAA tournament teams from most likely to least likely to win the national title:
1. ALABAMA (31-5)
How it got here: Defeated Texas A&M CC (16), Maryland (8)
Up next: San Diego State (5)
BetMGM title odds: +350
Outlook: As underdogs took down other top seeds during the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend, Alabama decisively and efficiently took care of business. The Crimson Tide throttled Texas A&M Corpus Christi by 21 despite Brandon Miller going scoreless and Maryland by 22 despite its high-powered offense starting slowly. The victories were a reminder of Alabama’s scariest trait — its ability to win in numerous ways. The Tide will be a heavy favorite to advance to their program’s first Final Four from a region that has already lost its Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds.
2. HOUSTON (33-3)
How it got here: Defeated Northern Kentucky (16), Auburn (9)
Up next: Miami (5)
BetMGM title odds: +400
Outlook: A big reason that Houston is behind Alabama in these rankings is the strength of the remaining teams in its bracket. Miami is dangerous thanks to its array of tough-shot-making guards. And potentially waiting in the Elite Eight is in-state Texas, a team that is playing as well as anyone in the postseason. The good news for Houston is that Marcus Sasser’s groin injury appears to be healing and that its defense appears up to any challenge. The Cougars held Auburn to four second-half baskets Saturday to erase a 10-point halftime deficit and pull away for a comfortable win.
3. TEXAS (28-8)
How it got here: Defeated Colgate (15), Penn State (10)
Up next: Xavier (3)
BetMGM title odds: +900
Outlook: Interim head coach Rodney Terry keeps making it harder and harder for Texas to award the permanent job to someone else. Since the domestic violence allegation that led to coach Chris Beard’s indefinite suspension and eventual termination, Terry has led the Longhorns to a 21-7 record, a Big 12 tournament title and the program’s first Sweet 16 since 2008. What Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte must decide is how much Terry has to do with the success of the team that Beard built. Terry would be a risky hire given that he reached only one NCAA tournament in eight years as the head coach at Fresno State and UTEP.
4. UCLA (31-5)
How it got here: Defeated UNC Asheville (15), Northwestern (7)
Up next: Gonzaga (3)
BetMGM title odds: +800
Outlook: There’s a reason that UCLA has so far survived the late-season Achilles injury to third leading scorer and elite perimeter stopper Jaylen Clark. That’s Amari Bailey, the heralded freshman who has seized the moment and emerged as an impact player at an ideal time. In three Pac-12 tournament games and two NCAA tournament games, Bailey has displayed terrific playmaking in the open floor, efficient scoring and a knack for finishing at the rim. He has averaged 17 points per game during that span and had six assists in both of UCLA’s victories in Sacramento this past weekend.
5. UCONN (27-8)
How it got here: Defeated Iona (13), Saint Mary’s (5)
Up next: Arkansas (8)
BetMGM title odds: +900
Outlook: Maybe it’s a good omen for UConn that it’s headed West to Las Vegas. Jim Calhoun’s three national championship teams all emerged from that quadrant of the bracket in 1999, 2004 and 2011. The Huskies’ advanced metrics have suggested all season that they’re a bonafide threat to win the title and their performance in Albany this past weekend only validated that. They outclassed Iona and Saint Mary’s behind a combined 52 points and 21 rebounds from big man Adama Sanogo, and dead-eye 3-point shooting from Jordan Hawkins and Tristen Newton.
6. GONZAGA (30-5)
How it got here: Defeated Grand Canyon (14), TCU (6)
Up next: UCLA (2)
BetMGM title odds: +1100
Outlook: Gonzaga’s hard-fought victory over TCU extended one of college basketball’s most remarkable streaks. The Zags are returning to the Sweet 16 for the eighth consecutive year, at least twice as many as any other active streak in the nation. Up next for Gonzaga is its latest high-stakes NCAA tournament matchup with UCLA. In the 2006 Sweet 16, the Bruins famously left Adam Morrison sobbing on the floor after rallying from 17 down in the first half and from a nine-point deficit with just over three minutes to go. Gonzaga has twice since extracted revenge, most notably on a Jalen Suggs half-court buzzer in the 2021 national semifinals.
7. CREIGHTON (23-12)
How it got here: Defeated NC State (11), Baylor (3)
Up next: Princeton (15)
BetMGM title odds: +1000
Outlook: Creighton must be the only Sweet 16 team in a long time that endured a six-game losing streak. The Bluejays didn’t win a single game for nearly a month from late November until just before Christmas, a stretch that coincided with their best player, Ryan Kalkbrenner, suffering from mononucleosis. A lesser team might not have recovered from that, but Creighton steadied itself and battled back. Now the Bluejays are exactly where most people thought they would be when they began the season in the AP top 10: They’re in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years and they’ll be favored to beat Princeton and advance to the program’s first Elite Eight.
8. TENNESSEE (25-10)
How it got here: Defeated Louisiana (13), Duke (5)
Up next: Florida Atlantic (9)
BetMGM title odds: +1400
Outlook: Tennessee’s path to a Final Four goes through “the mud.” That’s the Vols’ term for their tough, bruising style of play, the style that helped them elbow their way past a Duke team that had won 13 of its previous 15 games to emerge as a trendy national title pick. Now Tennessee once again will have to play with the weight of expectations entering a regional semifinal matchup with Florida Atlantic. That has often been difficult for Rick Barnes' teams. Three of his previous four NCAA tournament teams at Tennessee have lost to double-digit seeds.
9. MIAMI (27-7)
How it got here: Defeated Drake (12), Indiana (4)
Up next: Houston (1)
BetMGM title odds: +5000
Outlook: The last time the ACC was shut out of the Sweet 16, “My Sharona” was unavoidable on the radio and “Three’s Company” was the most popular sitcom on TV. Thanks to Miami, that 43-year streak lives on. The Hurricanes responded to a narrow first-round escape against Drake with a superb second-round performance against Indiana. Isaiah Wong and Jordan Miller combined for 46 points and Miami dominated on the offensive glass en route to an 85-69 victory. With NC State and Virginia exiting in the first round and Duke and Pittsburgh failing to survive the round of 32, Miami was the ACC’s last hope. Now the Hurricanes are one win away from a second consecutive Elite Eight.
10. MICHIGAN STATE (21-12)
How it got here: Defeated USC (7), Marquette (2)
Up next: Kansas State (3)
BetMGM title odds: +2500
Outlook: The good news for Michigan State is Tom Izzo struck again in March, taking a team seeded No. 5 or worse to the regional semifinals for the sixth time in his career. The Spartans now have a real shot at a Final Four with Purdue, Marquette, Duke and Kentucky all already eliminated from their region. Here’s the bad news for Michigan State: The campus parking police remain undefeated. Despite dropping 23 points in Sunday’s victory over Marquette, guard Tyson Walker apparently returned to campus to find his car had been towed.
11. KANSAS STATE (25-9)
How it got here: Defeated Montana State (14), Kentucky (6)
Up next: Michigan State (7)
BetMGM title odds: +2500
Outlook: Projected to finish last in the Big 12 in Jerome Tang’s debut season, Kansas State exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. The Wildcats finished two games out of first place in the league, claimed a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and then outlasted Kentucky to advance to the Sweet 16. The high of watching Markquis Nowell erupt for 27 points had Tang spitting straight fire when asked about beating a traditional power like John Calipari’s Wildcats. “All those old dudes that played for Kentucky? They ain’t coming back,” Tang said. “Tradition does not help you if you don’t get out there on the floor and play with some dudes. We had more dudes than they did today.”
12. ARKANSAS (22-13)
How it got here: Defeated Illinois (9), Kansas (1)
Up next: UConn (4)
BetMGM title odds: +3000
Outlook: For months, an Arkansas team with two projected NBA lottery picks and a wealth of complementary talent didn’t play up to its talent level. The Razorbacks finished below the likes of Vanderbilt and Florida in the SEC standings because injuries sidelined several of their key players and, even when healthy, they lacked shooters to space the floor. Arkansas still sank only a total of six 3s in two NCAA tournament games — and Nick Smith Jr. gave them hardly anything either night — but the Razorbacks found a way to advance to a third straight Sweet 16. Now they head to Las Vegas as a live underdog brimming with talent and, at last, confidence.
13. SAN DIEGO STATE (29-6)
How it got here: Defeated College of Charleston (12), Furman (13)
Up next: Alabama (1)
BetMGM title odds: +4000
Outlook: It isn’t San Diego State’s fault the Mountain West can’t seem to shake its reputation as an NCAA tournament underachiever. This is the Aztecs’ third Sweet 16 appearance since 2011 — and they might have a fourth had the pandemic not halted a 30-win season and wiped out the 2020 NCAA tournament. While San Diego State is once again an elite defensive team this season, the question is whether the Aztecs can score efficiently enough to put a scare into Alabama. San Diego State shredded Furman on Saturday afternoon … but Alabama is not Furman.
14. XAVIER (27-9)
How it got here: Defeated Kennesaw State (14), Pittsburgh (11)
Up next: Texas (2)
BetMGM title odds: +3000
Outlook: Exactly a year after he returned to Xavier last March, Sean Miller led the Musketeers back to the Sweet 16. They beat Pittsburgh on Sunday to advance to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 2017. The lone missing link on both Xavier’s and Miller’s résumes is an appearance in the Final Four. Miller has made three Elite Eight runs at Arizona and one at Xavier and fallen short. Xavier has been to the Sweet 16 nine times and to the Elite Eight three times and come up empty. If this is the year that changes for both of them, it would be a surprise. After beating two double-digit seeds this past weekend, Xavier’s draw toughens considerably beginning with Texas.
15. FLORIDA ATLANTIC (33-3)
How it got here: Defeated Memphis (8), Fairleigh Dickinson (16)
Up next: Tennessee (4)
BetMGM title odds: +5000
Outlook: Rather than bore you with Xs-and-Os analysis of Florida Atlantic’s first Sweet 16 run, let’s celebrate Jamie Erdahl’s poise and quick wit:
Johnell Davis “I’ve been trying to prove this sh.. oh!”
Jamie Erdahl “That’s alright we’re on Tru Tv”
— Gifdsports (@gifdsports) March 20, 2023
“We're on truTV, man!" Amazing.
16. PRINCETON (23-8)
How it got here: Defeated Arizona (2), Missouri (7)
Up next: Creighton (6)
BetMGM title odds: +15000
Outlook: A No. 15 seed toppling a No. 2 used to be a once-or-twice-a-decade rarity. Now it’s an annual thing to see one reach the Sweet 16. Princeton became the latest No. 15 seed to punch above its weight class, waylaying Arizona and Missouri in the span of three days. The Tigers are the seventh No. 15 seed to win an NCAA tournament game since 2012 and the third in as many years to advance to the regional semifinals. Why are No. 15 and 16 seeds finding more success than they did in previous years? The youth of elite teams is one reason. The transfer portal spreading talent around is another. Maybe the easiest explanation is the addition of the First Four strengthening the teams on the No. 15 line.