The only downside to a dizzying, upset-heavy opening weekend in the NCAA tournament is that it sometimes gives way to a Sweet 16 lacking in quality.
That could be the case this season after No. 1 seeds Virginia and Xavier and fellow title contenders Michigan State, North Carolina, Arizona and Cincinnati all failed to survive the first two rounds.
The result is a Sweet 16 featuring many of college basketball’s perennial titans along with a handful of unexpected interlopers. Here’s a look at how I’d rank the Sweet 16 from most likely to least likely to win the national championship:
1. VILLANOVA (32-4)
How it got here: Defeated Radford (16), Alabama (9)
Up next: West Virginia (5)
Outlook: In a chaotic opening weekend rife with upsets, Villanova was one of the few elite teams who looked the part. The Wildcats dismantled Alabama in the second round thanks to the outside shooting of Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVicenzo and the improvement of a defense that is beginning to look championship-caliber. The remaining challenge for Villanova is more daunting than for some of the other favorites because the East Region is the only one that has not been ravaged by upsets. The Wildcats will have to fight past a formidable West Virginia team before dealing with either second-seeded Purdue or third-seeded Texas Tech.
2. DUKE (28-7)
How it got here: Defeated Iona (15), Rhode Island (7)
Up next: Syracuse (11)
Outlook: No team in college basketball has more talent than Duke, and now the Blue Devils are starting to play like that. They’re improved on defense, lethal from the perimeter and formidable on the offensive glass. Nobody left in the field looks forward to trying to figure out how to defend Wendell Carter on the low block and keep Marvin Bagley from dominating at the rim while not leaving shooters free. Duke struggled to score against Syracuse’s long, active zone in a 60-44 victory last month, but the Blue Devils held the outgunned Orange to .69 points per possession. Expect a similarly slow-paced, ugly game in the rematch Friday night, and expect a similar outcome too.
3. KANSAS (29-7)
How it got here: Defeated Penn (16), Seton Hall (8)
Up next: Clemson (5)
Outlook: The most encouraging aspect of Kansas’ 83-79 victory over Seton Hall was that the Jayhawks found a way to win despite all-American guard Devonte Graham shooting 1-for-7 from the field. Malik Newman continued his late-season surge with 28 points and Udoka Azubuike showed that he was healthy enough to contribute 10 points and 7 rebounds off the bench in 22 minutes. Kansas is the only remaining power-conference champion left in the field, but the Jayhawks don’t have an easy path to San Antonio with resurgent Clemson and possibly Duke standing in their way. They’ll need Newman to continue his tear and Graham to rediscover his shooting stroke to have a shot.
4. KENTUCKY (26-10)
How it got here: Defeated Davidson (12), Buffalo (13)
Up next: Kansas State (9)
Outlook: A favorable path to the Final Four elevates Kentucky a couple spots above where it would land on merit alone. The Wildcats have beaten two double-digit seeds already and they will not face a team seeded lower than seventh until the Final Four with Kansas State (9), Nevada (7) and Loyola-Chicago (11) joining them this week in Atlanta. The reemergence of Hamidou Diallo was the most significant development in Kentucky’s round of 32 rout of Buffalo. He doesn’t need to provide 22 points every game, but if he delivers the same effort on defense and remains a threat off the dribble and in transition, Kentucky becomes much tougher to beat.
5. GONZAGA (32-4)
How it got here: Defeated UNC Greensboro (13), Ohio State (5)
Up next: Florida State (9)
Outlook: It’s a testament to the caliber of program Gonzaga is that the Zags can lose four of their top eight players from last year’s national runner-up team and still win 32 games and return to the Sweet 16. They achieved it thanks to a formidable interior defense and an offense with no fewer than six different players capable of erupting for 15-plus points. The heroes of Gonzaga’s first two NCAA tournament victories were shooting guard Zach Norvell and forward Rui Hachimura. Norvell sank the go-ahead 3-pointer late in the Zags’ opening-round win over UNC Greensboro and then torched Ohio State for 28 points. Hachimura added 25 off the bench against the Buckeyes.
6. MICHIGAN (30-7)
How it got here: Defeated Montana (14), Houston (6)
Up next: Texas A&M (7)
Outlook: Known for its outstanding offense throughout most of John Beilein’s tenure, Michigan have used a different formula to win 30 games this season. The Wolverines have become a team that can rely on its defense to keep it in games until its offense begins to click. Jordan Poole’s game-winning 3-pointer received all the attention Saturday night, but it was Michigan’s defense that gave the Wolverines a chance to beat Houston at the buzzer. They made Rob Gray take 22 shots to get 23 points and held the Cougars to 37.1 percent shooting from the field. Defense will continue to be Michigan’s hallmark this week in Los Angeles, but the Wolverines will need more offense from Moritz Wagner to advance to the Final Four.
7. WEST VIRGINIA (26-10)
How it got here: Defeated Murray State (12), Marshall (13)
Up next: Villanova (1)
Outlook: It might be awhile before Marshall starts needling West Virginia to play annually again. The Mountaineers put a hurting on their in-state neighbors in the second round on Sunday night, using their aggressive perimeter defense to stymie the Herd’s perimeter shooters and relying on Sagaba Konate to alter shots at the rim. The opponents are about to get a lot tougher in a hurry for West Virginia though as top-seeded Villanova is up next. Jevon Carter’s ability to make Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson uncomfortable will be one of the keys to the game, as will Konate’s prowess as a shot blocker.
8. TEXAS A&M (22-12)
How it got here: Defeated Providence (10), North Carolina (2)
Up next: Michigan (3)
Outlook: Bad Texas A&M showed up so frequently during SEC play that it’s easy to forget just how dangerous Good Texas A&M can be. The Aggies provided a reminder with a solid victory over Providence in the opening round and a dominant showing against reigning national champion North Carolina two days later. Texas A&M’s greatest strength is the size, length and skill of its imposing frontcourt, a group headlined by ultra-productive Tyler Davis, shot-blocking NBA prospect Robert Williams and sweet-shooting D.J. Hogg. The concern for Texas A&M is a lack of guard depth and no distributing point guard, but Admon Gilder and TJ Starks have done a respectable job.
9. PURDUE (30-6)
How it got here: Defeated Cal State Fullerton (15), Butler (10)
Up next: Texas Tech (3)
Outlook: The injury to Isaac Haas is a massive blow to a Purdue offense that was so hard to guard at full strength. The 7-footer was the most efficient low-post threat in the country and opponents had to pick their poison between doubling him or not leaving one of the Boilermakers’ array of shooters free. Purdue survived without Haas against Butler thanks to a serviceable performance from backup center Matt Haarms and 11 of 24 shooting from behind the arc. To keep winning, the Boilermakers will need Carsen Edwards and Vince Edwards to initiate offense off the dribble and the outside shots to keep falling.
10. TEXAS TECH (26-9)
How it got here: Defeated Stephen F. Austin (14), Florida (6)
Up next: Purdue (2)
Outlook: What a difference a healthier Keenan Evans makes. Texas Tech entered the NCAA tournament on a 2-5 slide caused in part by a lingering toe injury suffered by Evans. The senior guard has returned to All-American form in the NCAA tournament and is averaging 22.5 points per game in victories over Stephen F. Austin and Florida. Pair Evans with a dynamic, mobile defense that forces turnovers and converts them into transition points, and Texas Tech is a threat to anybody in the East Region. The only concern for the Red Raiders is whether they have enough firepower to win a potential Elite Eight battle with Villanova should that matchup happen.
11. CLEMSON (25-9)
How it got here: Defeated New Mexico State (12), Auburn (4)
Up next: Kansas (1)
Outlook: Having gone six seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance, Brad Brownell entered the year under pressure to snap that streak. Not only has he done it, he also has the Tigers in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997. Clemson made prognosticators look silly for predicting the Tigers would fall victim to an early upset. They outclassed New Mexico State in the first round and demolished Auburn in the second round thanks largely to a stout interior defense and a backcourt that features three guards who can score against anyone.
12. NEVADA (29-7)
How it got here: Defeated Texas (10), Cincinnati (2)
Up next: Loyola-Chicago (11)
Outlook: The comeback kings of the NCAA tournament advanced to the Sweet 16 despite only leading for a total of just over four minutes in their two victories so far. They stormed back from a 13-point deficit to beat Texas in overtime and then erased a 22-point second-half deficit to stun Cincinnati in the second round. Eric Musselman has built Nevada into a Top 25-caliber program by transforming it into a destination for elite transfers. The Wolf Pack boast a never-say-die mentality honed by some memorable comebacks the past two seasons and an elite offense made more dangerous by tough shot making ability of the Martin brothers, Jordan Caroline and Kendall Stephens.
13. FLORIDA STATE (22-11)
How it got here: Defeated Missouri (8), Xavier (1)
Up next: Gonzaga (4)
Outlook: They went 9-9 in the ACC. They lost to Louisville in the opening game of the ACC tournament. They don’t have a single player who averages more than 12.9 points per game. There’s not a lot that stands out about Florida State, and yet here are the Seminoles in the Sweet 16 after victories over Missouri and Xavier this past weekend. The one thing that does jump out about Florida State is its length and athleticism. The Seminoles are tough to score on in the paint, which will make for an interesting strength-on-strength matchup Thursday night against a Gonzaga team that does most of its damage at the rim.
14. LOYOLA-CHICAGO (30-5)
How it got here: Defeated Miami (6), Tennessee (3)
Up next: Nevada (7)
Outlook: All the publicity that Sister Jean has gotten is awesome, but don’t make the mistake of believing Loyola has advanced this far on prayer alone. This is a 30-win team that beat Florida in Gainesville in December, dominated a top 10 league and ousted Miami and Tennessee to advance to the Sweet 16. The hero against Miami was Donte Ingram for his game-winning 3-pointer. Two days later, it was Clayton Custer who beat Tennessee on a jumper that got a friendly bounce. Loyola is disciplined on defense, precise on offense and experienced enough not to be overwhelmed by the moment.
15. SYRACUSE (23-13)
How it got here: Defeated Arizona State (11), TCU (6), Michigan State (3)
Up next: Duke (2)
Outlook: Only three members of Syracuse seven-man rotation could score double figures in an empty gym, yet the Orange are somehow still a tough out in the NCAA tournament. The team that most believed didn’t deserve its NCAA bid has cobbled together three wins thanks to its long, athletic zone defense and just enough offense from Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett and Franklin Howard. This run should end Friday against a vastly more talented Duke team that is better equipped to beat the zone than Michigan State was. Still, a tip of the cap to Jim Boeheim for again taking advantage of an unexpected break for the selection committee and exceeding expectations in March.
16. KANSAS STATE (24-11)
How it got here: Defeated Creighton (8), UMBC (16)
Up next: Kentucky (5)
Outlook: No team has been more predictable than Kansas State this season. The Wildcats finished fourth in the Big 12 and made the semifinals of the league tournament by going 11-2 against teams below them in the standings and 0-7 against the conference’s big three. They were gifted a No. 16 seed in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and still needed a late surge just to survive that. Getting Dean Wade back in time for Thursday’s Kentucky game would improve Kansas State’s chances of one more win, but a title run is out of the question. It has been a good run for Kansas State, but it’s probably over soon.
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