Sweet 16 power rankings: Who are the new favorites to win the national championship?

The first weekend of the 2017 NCAA tournament is behind us. Two major upsets have shaken up the field. And after UCLA held off Cincinnati late Sunday night, the Sweet 16 is set.

Prior to the tournament, we ranked every national title contender, from 1 to 68, and concluded that there were nine teams that could realistically win it all. A week later, three of those nine teams are gone. But a few other have emerged, and have stated their cases to be added to the list.

So with the landscape of the tournament altered, it’s time to re-rank the remaining teams, from 1 to 16, based on their chances to win a national championship two weeks from Monday:

1. Kansas | Midwest | Thursday vs. No. 4 Purdue

The Jayhawks are the best team in college basketball at the moment, and there can’t be too much argument after they dispatched a very solid Michigan State squad on Sunday. They may very well have two of the top five players remaining in the tournament in Frank Mason and Josh Jackson. They have one of the best coaches in the game — never mind his supposedly shoddy NCAA tournament record, which really isn’t shoddy at all. They’ll have thousands of fans at their back at the Sprint Center in Kansas City for the Sweet 16 and possibly the Elite Eight. Kansas has flaws, but its strengths shroud any weaknesses.

Frank Mason and Kansas have the shortest Vegas odds to win the national championship. (Getty)
Frank Mason and Kansas have the shortest Vegas odds to win the national championship. (Getty)

2. Gonzaga | West | Thursday vs. No. 4 West Virginia

The Zags had an eventful first two rounds. The most interesting aspect might have been the contrasting defensive strategies of their two opponents. South Dakota State packed the paint and more or less conceded jump shots to Gonzaga. The plot worked, to the extent that anything was going to work for the Jackrabbits: Gonzaga shot 30 3-pointers, compared to 33 2-pointers, and made only eight (26.7 percent) of the 3s. Northwestern, on the other hand, played straight up; the Zags attempted only 16 3s, shot twice as many free throws as they did in the first round, and jumped out to a 22-point lead before fading and hanging on. Future opponents may take note, though West Virginia isn’t going to alter its style for anybody.

The most impressive aspect of Gonzaga’s two victories was its defense. It made South Dakota State look like a Division II team on that end of the floor. It made Northwestern look like a low-mid-major for a half before the Wildcats found their shooting strokes and got out in transition a bit. Still, they were held under a point per possession. Gonzaga now ranks No. 1 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, and although there will be more troubling matchups down the line, starting with the Mountaineers, its the Zags’ defense that makes them capable of winning a national championship.

3. North Carolina | South | Friday vs. No. 4 Butler

The Tar Heels desperately need Joel Berry back at (or close to) 100 percent. The senior guard wasn’t right in North Carolina’s tight second-round victory over Arkansas. Hampered by an ankle injury suffered in the first round, he went 2-of-13 from the field against the Razorbacks, and the Tar Heels trudged to 0.97 points per possession.

Other things, such as better shooting from Justin Jackson, would help too, of course. But Berry’s struggles, or Jackson’s shoddy shooting, hint at the broader point: North Carolina, if it doesn’t get anything exceptional in the way of perimeter offense, is a dominant offensive rebounding team that is otherwise fairly ordinary. That was the case Sunday. The Tar Heels salvaged a win by chasing down 18 of their 42 missed shots. They attempted three more field goals and 17 more free throws than Arkansas. That’s why they won. But to win four more in a row, they’re going to have to be extraordinary in more than one facet of the game.

4. Arizona | West | Thursday vs. No. 11 Xavier

Arizona won a 74-possession first-round game and a 62-possession second-round game, an example of its adaptability and ability to cope with different styles. North Dakota ranked 34th nationally in adjusted tempo; St. Mary’s ranked 350th out of 351; Arizona beat each in its own way. It also got the easiest available Sweet 16 matchup against a Xavier team that is in above its head.

5. UCLA | South | Friday vs. No. 2 Kentucky

The Bruins’ first two tournament games painted a pretty clear picture of what they’ve been all season. They were pushed by both Kent State and Cincinnati because of their lax defense — Kent State scored 1.14 points per trip even after falling away late — but sprinted to two impressive victories by imposing their will on the offensive end.

UCLA’s second half against Cincinnati was particularly noteworthy. The Bearcats successfully slowed down the game, and had limited UCLA’s offense in the first half, but after the break, the Bruins got going. They didn’t even need to up the tempo. They scored 49 points on just 30 shots. They shot 50 percent from 3 and 81 percent from 2. They tormented one of the best defenses in the country in halfcourt sets and pulled away to a comfortable 12-point win.

6. Kentucky | South | Friday vs. No. 3 UCLA

Kentucky got next to nothing in transition against Wichita State. Two points. That’s it. Yet the Wildcats did just enough in halfcourt sets and on the defensive end to fend off the Shockers and advance. Fast break points have been a telling number for Kentucky throughout the season, but John Calipari has enough talent on his roster to win slow games too.

Also of note: You know who got more time than any other Kentucky player on Sunday? It wasn’t Malik Monk. It wasn’t De’Aaron Fox. It wasn’t Bam Adebayo. No, it was senior forward Derek Willis, who logged all of his 33 minutes as a stretch-four. Calipari benched the offensively challenged Wenyen Gabriel at the end of February, and inserted Willis into the starting lineup to get another shooter on the floor. Gabriel played seven minutes Sunday, fewer than he had in any previous game. Willis’ 33 were the most he’s played in a non-overtime game this year. In halfcourt slogs, Willis’ shooting is far more valuable than Gabriel’s athleticism, and the senior showed why with two 3-pointers and nine points against Wichita State.

7. West Virginia | West | Thursday vs. No. 1 Gonzaga

The Mountaineers are exactly the type of team that could give Gonzaga trouble. One through five, they’re as quick and agile as any club in college basketball. They won’t just challenge the Zags on the perimeter, they’ll challenge them 30 feet away from the hoop, 47 feet away from the hoop and 90 feet away from the hoop. If Bob Huggins has his way, and especially if he decides to try Nathan Adrian at the five, he could force Mark Few to take Przemek Karnowski out of game. West Virginia poses a unique challenge to everybody it faces, and has the tools to get to the Final Four.

8. Michigan | Midwest | Thursday vs. No. 3 Oregon

Contrary to popular Rick Pitino’s belief, the Wolverines are, in fact, not the Golden State Warriors. But they are scoring 1.23 points per possession over their last seven games, significantly more than the Warriors have ever averaged over a full season. Furthermore, the seven-game stretch has included games against two top-10 defenses and four top-25 defenses. So yeah, Michigan has been pretty good. The Warriors comparison is obviously silly, but the point is that Michigan’s offense has been tearing up college basketball in March. It features five 3-point threats at any given moment, but doesn’t sacrifice size. It’s good enough to carry Michigan to the Final Four.

9. Florida | East | Friday vs. No. 8 Wisconsin

The Gators might have had the best opening weekend of anybody, all things considered. They fended off a talented East Tennessee State team, then absolutely overwhelmed Virginia. The final score, 65-39, was not deceiving at all. The Gators are up to No. 3 in Ken Pomeroy‘s rankings, and are fully acclimatized to life without injured center John Egbunu. They’re the favorite in the East region.

10. Oregon | Midwest | Thursday vs. No. 7 Michigan

Don’t be put off by the scare from Rhode Island. Oregon is coping with the loss of Chris Boucher just fine. It came back to beat a really hot Rams team with an excellent second half, and Tyler Dorsey’s explosion is a great sign. The Ducks also have the defensive personnel to deal with Michigan’s bevy of weapons on Thursday.

11. Purdue | Midwest | Thursday vs. No. 1 Kansas

P.J. Thompson’s late 3 saved Purdue from an offseason full of complaints about how the Boilermakers can’t close out games in the tournament. Instead, the Boilermakers are on to Kansas City, where, even in what more or less amounts to a true goad game, they’re only five-point underdogs to the national title favorite. Caleb Swanigan will be a handful for Kansas.

12. Wisconsin | East | Friday vs. No. 4 Florida

Wisconsin’s late-season slide coincided with a calf injury that dogged Bronson Koenig for much of the latter half of conference play. With Koenig back at or near 100 percent, Wisconsin’s offense is clicking once more. The Badgers always grind out quality possessions, and Ethan Happ is always potent in the paint, but it’s Koenig’s shot-making that has been the difference. He had 28 points in a first-round victory over Virginia Tech, and had 17 points on 11 shots in the upset of Villanova despite sitting out a sizable portion of the second half with four fouls.

13. Baylor | East | Friday vs. No. 7 South Carolina

The Bears could potentially reach the Final Four without playing a team seeded higher than seventh. The misfortune of the No. 1, 2 and 6 seeds in the East has been Baylor’s good fortune. Scott Drew’s team still isn’t anything special, though. Its miniature offensive outburst in its first two NCAA tournament games came against two poor defensive squads. The Bears have to show a bit more to be considered title contenders.

14. Butler | South | Friday vs. No. 1 North Carolina

Butler has been quietly impressive. Not too many casual fans honed in on the Bulldogs’ games against Winthrop or Middle Tennessee, but the Blue Raiders are a good team, and Butler disposed of them without too much of a disturbance. The Bulldog guards locked up Middle Tennessee’s Giddy Potts and shut him out over 35 minutes, a remarkable feat given Potts’ scoring record.

15. South Carolina | East | Friday vs. No. 3 Baylor

After his team shot 71.4 percent in the second half of an upset of Duke, Frank Martin tried to refute the idea that his Gamecocks are a poor offensive unit. All power to him, but he’s wrong. They’ve had a couple breakout games this season, but have had just as many duds. South Carolina can beat Baylor, but chances are it won’t do so playing how it played against Duke; Friday’s game is more likely to resemble a wrestling match than a high-level offensive shootout.

16. Xavier | West | Thursday vs. No. 2 Arizona

Xavier entered the tournament as one of the worst at-large teams in the field. It beat one drastically over-seeded team and one calamitously erratic team. Fair play to the Musketeers for exceeding expectations — it’s not like they haven’t played well; they have — but they’re the weakest team remaining.

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