Ranking the Sweet 16 Teams Using Advanced Analytics
It would be easy to say this was the craziest start to an NCAA Tournament we have ever seen because what just happened is fresh in our minds, but this year's opening weekend has to be high on the list.
We lost a pair of 1 seeds (Xavier and Virginia) in the first weekend for the first time since 2004 -- which included the first ever 16-over-1 upset as top overall seed Cavs lost to UMBC. We have a region (South) that lost its top four seeds before the Sweet 16 for the first time ever. We have another (West) where the 1 and 2 seeds are gone. Cincinnati, a 2 seed, blew a 22-point lead versus Nevada, a 7 seed, and Nevada has now held a lead over their first two opponents for a total of less than two minutes, but they're headed to the Sweet 16. Syracuse, a team that many people thought should not be in the tournament at all, is still alive thanks to wins over TCU and Michigan State. A pair of 13 seeds (Buffalo and Marshall) took down 4 seeds – with Buffalo doing it via a 21-point thrashing of Arizona.
With all that being said, the field that remains is still pretty strong. We have three of the top-four teams, according to our nERD metric, still playing. On top of that, 6 of our top 10, and 10 of our top 16 are still alive. The way the bracket is set up, with the East and Midwest being on the same side, that side looks pretty clean even when compared to a “normal” year.
With a few days to finally catch our breath before the Sweet 16 starts, let’s rank the remaining teams, based on nERD, with the team’s overall ranking in parentheses next to their name.
16. Syracuse Orange (48) - Syracuse continued the streak of First Four teams making it to the Round of 32, and then they knocked of Michigan State to reach this point. The Orange are here despite ranking 317th in the nation in points per game. They're alive because of their 10th-ranked scoring defense and 344th-ranked pace. They have three players averaging at least 14.5 points per game, but nobody else over 6.0, making Cuse very reliant on three players to do the scoring and their D to keep opponents under 60.
15. Loyola (IL) Ramblers (47) - Loyola (IL) has played two of the most intriguing games in the tournament -- knocking off 6 seed Miami (FL) with a last-second three and then taking down 3 seed Tennessee after holding off a late run by the Vols and scoring the eventual game-winning bucket with five seconds left. The Ramblers play a style that is very hard to beat, as evidenced by their 30-5 record. They slow down the game (327th in pace), play great defense (11th in defensive rating), and make their shots (3rd in field goal percentage).
14. Kansas State Wildcats (43) - The trend of defensive-oriented teams continues with Kansas State, who got a bit of a break by getting to face UMBC instead of Virginia in the Round of 32. The Wildcats have been without their leading scorer, Dean Wade, since the end of the regular season, but they hope to have him back for the Sweet 16. K-State has been efficient from two-point land this season -- shooting over 54 percent -- while also being 11th in the nation in steals. Their defense has been strong in the first two games -- holding opponents to an average of 51.0 points and forcing 15.0 turnovers per game.
13. Florida State Seminoles (28) - Florida State made a huge jump up our rankings, and they earned their way here by taking out the West Region’s top seed, Xavier. That win avenged the loss that knocked FSU out of the tournament last year, when they had a much more promising team and were a 3 seed in the tournament. The Noles are very deep again this year, with 10 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game and 9 players who average between 6.6 and 13.0 points per game. Their 81.1 points per game ranks 35th in the nation.
12 Texas A&M Aggies (24) - Several prognosticators believed the Aggies would reach this point, but they took an unlikely path to get here. After reaching as high as fifth in the AP poll during the regular season, Texas A&M started 0-5 in their conference and looked like they would miss the tournament at various points. Fast forward two months, and the Aggies just blew the doors off UNC, the defending national champion and 2 seed in the West. With six players averaging at least nine points per game and an adjusted defensive efficiency ranking of 10th on Kenpom, Texas A&M is making the run many thought they would back in December
11. Nevada Wolf Pack (21) - Nevada has had some of the highest highs and lowest lows of the tournament thus far -- trailing by double digits in the second half of both games only to come back and steal victory from the jaws of defeat. Their improbable wins showed that their offense can score against anybody in the country. In the Round of 32, they erased a 65-43 deficit against Cincinnati, a top-two defensive team in the country by any metric, in less than 11 minutes. Nevada loves to shoot the three, and the Pack does it well, knocking down a shade under 40 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Their unlikely Sweet 16 matchup with Loyola should be fun, and one of them is guaranteed to get a chance to play for a spot in the Final Four.
10. Kentucky Wildcats (16) - What looked like a lost season for Coach Cal and his boys appears like it is headed much further than anyone expected about a month ago. Kentucky was 6-7 in the SEC at that point, but they have run off wins in 9 of their last 10 and now have a favorable path to San Antonio. While they are our 10th-best team remaining, they are our highest-ranked team in a South Region that has been obliterated by upsets. Kentucky shoots a lot of twos and gets to the line a ton -- ranking second in the country in free throw attempts -- and our models give them the third-best odds of any team left (45.4%) to make the Final Four.
9. Clemson Tigers (15) - After learning Clemson’s draw last Sunday, numerous outlets mentioned them as an upset candidate to New Mexico State because of the way the Tigers ended the season and the loss of Donte Grantham in January. After the Tigers dispatched the Aggies and obliterated Auburn in a game where they held a 70-29 lead in the second half, Clemson finds themselves in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997. Clemson has worked their way into the top 10 in Kenpom's adjusted defensive efficiency due in part to their top-20 ranking in opponent shooting percentage.
8. Michigan Wolverines (14) - Michigan’s Jordan Poole had one of the most impactful shots of the weekend -- a buzzer-beating three that changed the Wolverines’ fate from sealed to undetermined. Poole's shot gave Michigan a one-point victory over 6 seed Houston and pushed the Wolverines' winning streak up to 11 games. Michigan’s defense has played a large part in the team having lost only once in the last two months, and the unit is now up to third on KenPom and eighth in points allowed per game (63.1).
7. Texas Tech Red Raiders (13) - In an example of how imbalanced the regions are now, Texas Tech ranks as our worst team left in the East. Tech has been in survival mode over the past month – losing five of seven leading into the tournament as the status of their best player Keenan Evans was in flux. But after the Red Raiders overcame two halftime deficits, they now find themselves in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005, when Bob Knight was leading the program. Similar to many teams on this list, Tech is best known for their defense, ranking 10th in defensive rating and holding teams to under 65 points per game.
6. West Virginia Mountaineers (12) - West Virginia is back in the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years under Bob Huggins. The Mountaineers had one of the best showings of the first weekend, winning their games by an average of 20 points -- albeit against a 12 and a 13 seed. As is tradition with WVU, they rank in the top five nationally in forcing turnovers and are tough to score against when setting up their press – which they were clearly able to do in the first two rounds considering their high scoring outputs of 85 and 94 points.
5. Gonzaga Bulldogs (9) - Gonzaga makes it past the first weekend for the third time in as many years and is looking to pull off what UNC did last year by winning the National Championship the year after they lost in the title game. After avoiding a letdown at the hands of UNC Greensboro in the first round, Gonzaga outlasted Ohio State to march on to the West regional in Los Angeles, where the Zags will have the clear geographical advantage. Gonzaga is one of the more balanced teams in the country -- ranking in the top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per Kenpom.
4. Kansas Jayhawks (7) - Kansas is one of two 1 seeds to make it into the Sweet 16, but they did not look very convincing in either of their games. The Jayhawks knocked off Penn by 16 in round one, but they trailed most of the first half and took a while to make a run and close it out. Then, while Kansas held the lead most of the game against Seton Hall, the Pirates never really went away. This has not been your typical Kansas team to the point that Bill Self said nobody really fears this team. That being said, Kansas is very efficient offensively -- ranking 11th in both field goal percentage and three-point percentage -- and drops over 80 points per game. This gives them a shot to knock off anyone in the country if they are on their game.
3. Purdue Boilermakers (4) - Purdue returns to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year, but they will have to overcome some adversity to continue their run. Senior center Isaac Haas injured his elbow during their first round game and will likely be without him for the remainder of the tournament despite his efforts to play through it. Without Haas, the Boilermakers were able to edge in-state rival Butler to move along to the second weekend -- with Matt Haarms stepping in at center, a guy can only be described as Haas' stunt double. Look it up. While Haas is the second-leading scorer on the team, they lean more heavily on the three-pointer than anything else offensively, so they should be fine to keep scoring. Purdue ranks second in the nation from three, shooting just over 42 percent.
2. Duke Blue Devils (2) - Duke is once again in the title discussion after putting on an impressive display this weekend. The Blue Devils won their games by a decisive 23.5 points per game and looked to have no trouble on their way to the Sweet 16. Currently the most balanced team in America -- the only team to rank in the top 10 in both offense and defensive, per Kenpom -- Duke has their eyes on nothing less than cutting down the nets in San Antonio. Their balanced scoring, lead by Marvin Bagley's 22.0 points per game through the first two tourney games, gives Duke a decisive edge in their region.
1. Villanova Wildcats (1) - Villanova is back in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years, but they are in the toughest region remaining, per our rankings. Three-point shooting was the key for the Wildcats in the first two games as they posted an average margin of victory of 24.5 points, with the 'Cats knocking down 31 threes and shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc across the two contests. But Villanova is not all about shooting the three as they also were third in the nation at two-point percentage (59.5 percent) while leading the country in scoring offense during the regular season. Villanova's balanced lineup gives them as many as six guys who can get hot from the field -- as evidenced by Donte DiVincenzo's 18-point first half and Mikal Bridges' 22-point second half against Alabama.