Sorting through the Sweet 16

Mar. 26—Before he heads out to Boston to see if Illinois can continue its March run, Illini beat writer Scott Richey

ranks the Sweet 16 teams by their chances for cutting down the nets in Glendale, Ariz., in two weeks:

1. Connecticut

➜ Huskies win it all if ... nothing really changes. UConn is a juggernaut. The reigning champions have run roughshod over nearly every opponent they've faced. Last week's 28-point margin of victory wasn't a first two rounds fluke. That's basically been the Huskies' norm all year.

➜ Huskies lose in the Sweet 16 if ... a San Diego State team searching for redemption after last year's national title game puts together its best performance of the season. That's the only way anyone beats UConn in the next two weeks. It's A-plus game or bust.

2. Purdue➜ Boilermakers win it all if ... Zach Edey continues to be the most dominant player in college basketball. The 7-foot-4, 300-pound center put up 26.5 points, 17.5 rebounds, three blocks and 2.5 assists in just 29 minutes per game in the first two rounds.

➜ Boilermakers lose in the Sweet 16 if ... their supporting cast, which is better than last season with Braden Smith's improvement and Lance Jones' inclusion, falters. Edey is going to win another national player of the year award, but he can't get Purdue a national title on his own.

3. Marquette

➜ Golden Eagles win it all if ... Tyler Kolek wills it so. Marquette's All-American point guard missed six games with an oblique injury (that reportedly made every breath hurt) and returned to average 19.5 points, 11 assists and 5.5 rebounds in two NCAA tournament wins.

➜ Golden Eagles lose in the Sweet 16 if ... the first-half struggles to Western Kentucky that made them look ripe for an upset and narrowly beating Colorado sets them up to falter against whatever the power conference equivalent of a Cinderella is in North Carolina State.

4. Arizona➜ Wildcats win it all if ... they get all of their guards on the same page. Backcourt depth is something Arizona has in vast quantities with Caleb Love's fresh start paying dividends, Pelle Larsson having a career year, Kylan Boswell breaking out as a sophomore and Jaden Bradley and KJ Lewis willing to play a role.

➜ Wildcats lose in the Sweet 16 if ... Clemson big man PJ Hall can get the better of Oumar Ballo. Dayton's DaRon Holmes II did in the second round without the players around him Hall will boast. And Hall is due after just an OK first two rounds.

5. Illinois

➜ Illini win it all if ... Dain Dainja plays a major role. That's the way now officially retired Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot sees it at least. And Dainja just might. Odds are Terrence Shannon Jr. and Marcus Domask will have something to do with it, too.

➜ Illini lose in the Sweet 16 if ... the collision of its unstoppable force offense and Iowa State's immovable object defense goes the wrong way. The only semi-comparable defenses (from a metrics standpoint) Illinois faced this season are Tennessee, Purdue and Marquette, and that accounts for half of the Illini's eight losses.

6. North Carolina

➜ Tar Heels win it all if ... the version of Armando Bacot that showed up in Charlotte in the first two rounds shows up in Los Angeles, too. Bacot still averaged a double-double for a third straight season, but his production did dip this year. Then he averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds in two tournament games.

➜ Tar Heels lose in the Sweet 16 if ... Thursday's matchup with Alabama turns into the Bacot and RJ Davis show alone. That's a good inside-outside duo, but North Carolina won 29 games because of guys like Harrison Ingram and Cormac Ryan in complementary roles.

7. Creighton➜ Bluejays win it all if ... the quartet of Baylor Scheierman, Trey Alexander, Ryan Kalkbrenner and Steven Ashworth continues to be better than the top four other teams can boast. They will have to be. Creighton is those four.

➜ Bluejays lose in the Sweet 16 if ... they can't get their offense going against an elite Tennessee defense. Creighton's nine losses this season mostly have one thing in common. Even with absolute defense-free, back-to-back shootouts against Butler and Providence, the Bluejays averaged 68.5 points in losses this season — 12 points off their season scoring average.

8. Duke

➜ Blue Devils win it all if ... their young players continue to rise to the occasion. Most of the teams left in the NCAA tournament are old. Duke really isn't. Which didn't stop freshman Jared McCain from dropping a 30-point game in the second round.

➜ Blue Devils lose in the Sweet 16 if ... the path to get there — beating Vermont and James Madison — had more to do with reaching the second weekend. There's no other way to look at those matchups than as rather favorable for Jon Scheyer and Co.

9. Houston

➜ Cougars win it all if ... Jamal Shead keeps doing what he did Sunday in helping Houston grind out a 100-95 overtime win against Texas A&M. The All-American guard — the embodiment of a Houston team under Kelvin Sampson — finished with 21 points, 10 assists and five rebounds in 45 minutes against the Aggies.

➜ Cougars lose in the Sweet 16 if ... being perpetually shorthanded catches up to them. Season-ending injuries to Terrance Arceneaux and Joseph Tugler robbed Houston of its depth, and J'Wan Roberts (wrist and shin injuries) and Ramon Walker (just returned after missing a month with a meniscus injury) aren't at full strength.

10. Tennessee

➜ Volunteers win it all if ... the get a fairytale ending for the Dalton Knecht story. Tennessee's All-American guard, who torched the SEC in his only season in the conference, went from junior college to Northern Colorado to becoming D-I star.

➜ Volunteers lose in the Sweet 16 if ... they lose the ability to balance a still stingy defense (a Rick Barnes staple) with an offense actually capable of winning big games. Saturday's 62-58 slog against Texas flirted with that scenario.

11. Iowa State

➜ Cyclones win it all if ... defense really does win championships. Iowa State is either No. 1 or No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency nationally depending on which metric you choose and hasn't given up more than 65 points in a game in more than a month.

➜ Cyclones lose in the Sweet 16 if ... that elite defense also can't come up with an answer to Terrence Shannon Jr. getting out in transition or attacking the basket in the half court. To be fair, no one has the last two weeks, as he's averaged 30.6 points in his past six games.

12. Gonzaga

➜ Bulldogs win it all if ... this team without an All-American or likely first-round draft pick does what more talented Gonzaga teams couldn't. This is not Mark Few's best team. The Bulldogs won neither the WCC regular season or tournament titles. But they've rolled in the NCAA tournament.

➜ Bulldogs lose in the Sweet 16 if ... Thursday's showdown with Purdue is a repeat of their Maui Invite matchup. Gonzaga had no answer for Zach Edey and lost that game by 10.

13. Clemson

➜ Tigers win it all if ... Chase Hunter plays like he did in the first two rounds. The fifth-year guard had a single 20-point game during the regular season and is now coming off two straight, averaging 20.5 points as a 50/44/73 in Clemson's two NCAA tournament wins.

➜ Tigers lose in the Sweet 16 if ... they can't at least channel their inner Larry Nance. While this is Clemson's fifth Sweet 16 appearance, the Tigers haven't gone further than the 1980 Elite Eight behind the future three-time All-Star and NBA slam dunk champion.

14. North Carolina State

➜ Wolfpack win it all if ... whatever magic got the 10th-place team in the ACC to a conference tournament title and then a No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament into the Sweet 16 hasn't run out. Magic epitomized by big man D.J. Burns Jr. putting up 16.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and three assists per game in that run.

➜ Wolfpack lose in the Sweet 16 if ... the reality of their season as a whole comes crashing down around them. Winners of seven straight postseason games, N.C. State lost 10 of 14 to end the regular season.

15. San Diego State

➜ Aztecs win it all if ... they play more like they did Sunday night (a 28-point thrashing of Yale) than they did Friday afternoon (eking out a four-point win against UAB). Either way, Jaedon Ledee has to keep playing like an All-American who's averaging 27.8 points and 9.4 rebounds in the postseason.

➜ Aztecs lose in the Sweet 16 if ... Thursday's rematch with UConn goes like last year's national championship game. San Diego State found itself on the wrong end of a 76-59 Huskies win after giving up 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists to Tristen Newton.

16. Alabama

➜ Crimson Tide win it all if ... Mark Sears and Co. can get their three-pointers to drop. Alabama shot 37 percent from three-point range in six wins in its last 10 games and 25 percent in four losses. Just three teams nationally attempt more threes per game. Making them matters.

➜ Crimson Tide lose in the Sweet 16 if ... their inability to stop anyone becomes a problem. Alabama ranks 355th nationally this season, allowing 80.9 points per game — the worst of any team to make the NCAA tournament.